In Where We Stand: Class Matters, bell hooks describes various times in her life when she does not want to be understood, or moments when empathy does not do enough. While not a central focus of her book, these are themes that weave their way into various sections. For example, after the privileged women at her college destroyed her dorm room, they attempt to apologize and want to talk it through, but for hooks, â€œThere was nothing about me I wanted them to understandâ€ (28). She comes right out and says that empathy is limiting, because you can feel sorry for the poor and do nothing; solidarity, instead, is necessary (130). She also discusses poor people’s empathy for the rich, concerned that fantasies about being rich (a form of empathy, I believe) often leave poor people unable to act for social change (127).
I would like to advance an argument that, counter to commonsense, argues that empathy is not necessarily the â€œGood Thingâ€ in deliberating across difference we often extol it to be. After reading Where We Stand, as well as Jonathan Alexander’s post on the CCCC blog, I have begun to be concerned that empathy, our ability to put ourselves in another’s position, might also be a way of â€œflatteningâ€ differences â€” of only identifying with what is similar and occluding attention to difference. The women who trashed hooks’s room, it appears to me, did not want to â€œtruly understandâ€ hooks either. I believe that, at some level, they empathized with hooks, but only inasmuch as they could reduce her to being like them, living in a â€œworld […] overexposed, on the surfaceâ€ (28). Alexander writes of his students who read about queer characters and erase their queerness in order to identify with them â€” what Alexander calls a â€œflatteningâ€ of difference.
It seems to me that, rather than stressing empathy when holding discourse across differences, we should be stressing that self-critique is important. hooks writes about her â€œ[c]onstant vigilanceâ€ about her class privilege and her thoughts so that she can continue to identify with those less fortunate (60). She tells us that â€œI would always have to reexamine where I standâ€ (37). hooks’s statements here are also in line with Harding’s standpoint theory, which does not ask the oppressed to empathize with others, but rather to examine where they stand within systems. I wonder if, instead of asking those with privilege to empathize with the poor, which can lead to erased differences or mere pity, we should ask them to engage in examinations of where they stand. This also seems in line with Slovaj Zizek’s claims that, rather than attempting to understand the Other, we should be interrogating our own fantasies about the Other and our own positions within the symbolic order. Here I don’t mean to dismiss empathy as an option; I certainly believe it has a vital role in working toward ending oppression. What I wonder, though, is:
How can we work towards â€œsites of empathyâ€ (for my lack of a better term) that lead toward identity with and solidarity rather than flattening of difference or pity?