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Empathy and vulnerability in the digital age

The cyber-world collapses the distance between the spectator and the scene of brutality, but does this encourage voyeurism or solidarity?

Credit: Flickr/Marina Shemesh. Some rights reserved.

While the technological advances of the 21st century have brought us unparalleled ways to connect with each-other through social media, they may also be producing a greater sense of isolation. We are drawn towards feelings of loneliness as we navigate an increasingly digitized world, even though the vulnerability of human life is on full display: from cell phone recordings of the murders of Americans of colour to videos from those who are documenting their precarious existence in the rubble of Aleppo; from the Facebook livestream of the torture of a Chicago teen with special needs earlier this month to the video-recording of the infamous ‘Coffin Assault,’ in which two South African farmers forced a man into a coffin while threatening to toss a snake inside and set it ablaze.

Not only do we have more real-time glimpses into the horrors of human savagery, but we also feel an increased intimacy to the victim’s vulnerability. These developments could, in theory, promote greater empathy and more empathic action, but responses to such horrors more often take the form of voyeurism, victim-blaming, shock, momentary outrage and pity, none of which are sufficient motivators for the kinds of activism that are required.

The crafting of empathic responses is necessary in building and sustaining meaningful political resolve, but empathy requires both patience and hard work. The active creation of empathy supports communities as they hone in and focus on long-term structural challenges while sustaining the difficult emotional work of collective and personal introspection. Identifying with the needs and perspectives of others allows for openness and learning, as well as the incorporation of new approaches and ways of thinking. These are crucial tools in building new social movements, alliances and coalitions.

But where empathy is demanding, these other responses to suffering on the internet are easy. Take voyeurism, the easiest response of all. The victim’s pain, suffering and humiliation are transformed from the visceral to the spectacle. By extension, the victim is transformed from a living, breathing and feeling human-being deserving of dignity into an object of entertainment. The dangers of this response aren’t new, though the technology may be. They echo the workings, public nature and souvenir-hunting of lynching in the United States, which necessitated an intimate proximity between the victim, perpetrator and spectator—forming “boundaries of fear and loathing within and between communities.”

It’s in this context that social media are extremely important. The cyber-world collapses the distance between the spectator and the scene of brutality, increasing both the power and position of the observer and the vulnerability and disempowerment of the victim. Any agency gained from such interactions is futile unless it is converted into empathy and on to action in which others are seen and treated as full and equal human beings.

Victim-blaming operates in much the same way as voyeurism, except that it also attempts to reinforce the perceived normative power of the accusers and perpetrators, a form of power that’s legitimatized by the victim-blamer through their relationship to the victim. This power imbalance is justified by the delusion that the victim deserves the treatment they receive as a result of their actions or beliefs: they become collateral damage in the quest for a greater good, a sentiment reflected in a comment on the Coffin Assault video that claims that “[t]his is the culmination of years of people killing farmers in South Africa and taking over their land.”

Shock is another, malleable response to such horrors. Naomi Klein has written extensively about the ways in which neoliberal institutions utilize collective shock in their efforts to increase their power to transform society. But momentary shock can also be used to heighten empathic action if exposure to human vulnerability is crafted in effective ways. This requires building communities of social and political practice in which shock, empathy and collective action are continuously connected. HandsUp United’s Books and Breakfast program provides a good illustration of what this means in practice. Over the sharing of meals and literature, a politics of solidarity and responsibility can be formed.

On the surface, the next reaction to horrific events witnessed on social media—momentary outrage—has more merit, because it lends itself to some level of identification with suffering. However, the empathic nature of this response is often limited by the sheer immediacy of digitized interaction. The duration of an event’s discomfort and thought-provocation is cut short by the new and intense stimulation that is brought directly to our cell-phones, tablets, laptops and digital watches. In the process, our outrage at injustice is often too fleeting to allow for any meaningful reflection or the organization of considered responses.

However, the pragmatism of centrist politics demands that leaders follow the logic of momentary outrage in their actions. Promises to rectify injustice are rarely followed by long-term or structural changes. This leaves space for reactionary politicians to tap into genuine pain that has not been translated into action. In this context, such reactionary figures come across as truth-tellers even if their arguments are devoid of factuality. For example, the Danger and Play website claimed that the perpetrators of the torture of the Chicago teen with special needs came from the #BlackLivesMatter movement and reflected their values. These claims were proven to be nonsense, and the alleged perpetrators have rightly been charged with hate crimes on the grounds of ability.

Pity may be the most damaging of all responses. At worst it is used condescendingly in projects of social stratification, utilizing a victim’s distress to essentialize and stabilize their vulnerability while empowering the observer. At best it is misguided, robbing the victim of their experience and transferring pity onto someone else and the group they represent. One only need look at the comment section of the right-wing Breitbart News website to witness human vulnerability transformed into pity for the sake of power—for example, the oft-repeated line that  “[i]t’s time to stop pretending that white people are the problem.” Pity also manifests itself as a passive recognition of suffering, an acquiescence to current conditions that prevents any meaningful action. Personal feelings of helplessness and temporary political solutions like humanitarian aid without any structural changes both reflect and reinforce the power of pity.

The increased proximity to suffering that’s offered by social media provides a mirror of our own vulnerability, and thus humanity. Undoubtedly, this can be frightening, but instead of running away from this experience we should embrace it. We must refrain from shielding ourselves from the suffering of others because doing so limits our capacity for empathy, action and inspiration. To be human is to be vulnerable. We are all prey to unpredictability; tomorrow is not promised today.

Meaningful action and empathic construction require hard work—intellectually, emotionally and practically. Such labours demand strength, and they cannot be completed alone. Technology can interfere with these labours but it can also support them, if we can find ways of binding together our fractured sense of self and community instead of allowing social media and the internet to splinter us. To do this, we must find ways of recombining the real and virtual elements of how we respond to suffering, and shift our sense of time and distance. We must challenge the instantaneous nature of social media that disable meaningful reflection while actively expanding our sense of togetherness, for we are stronger in unity than in isolation. 

About the author

Richard Raber is a Canadian-born activist and Master’s degree candidate at the European Inter-University Centre for Human Rights and Democratisation. His current research centers around social memory in contemporary South Africa. He can be found on Twitter @RaberRichard.


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