584: Weekly Position Paper #4: Problematizing Empathy

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, “There was nothing about me I wanted them to understand” (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 “Good Thing” 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 “flattening” differences — 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 “truly understand” 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 “world […] overexposed, on the surface” (28). Alexander writes of his students who read about queer characters and erase their queerness in order to identify with them — what Alexander calls a “flattening” 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 “[c]onstant vigilance” about her class privilege and her thoughts so that she can continue to identify with those less fortunate (60). She tells us that “I would always have to reexamine where I stand” (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 “sites of empathy” (for my lack of a better term) that lead toward identity with and solidarity rather than flattening of difference or pity?

This entry was posted in Empathy, English 584 Rhetoric Writing and Identity (Fall 2008), Ethics, Identity and Identification. Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to 584: Weekly Position Paper #4: Problematizing Empathy

  1. Nels says:

    This book really got me thinking about empathy a few years ago. Different field, but if you are interested, it’s thought-provoking. And you’re right about the flattening of difference.


  2. Dennis says:

    Nicely done. Good question.

  3. Michael says:

    Thanks, Nels and Dennis. I’ll check out that book!

  4. Bill says:

    Great post. This is an issue I’ve been thinking about A LOT lately. Amy Shuman’s ‘Other People’s Stories’ is a great book for thinking through the ethics of empathy. She’s a folklorist and draws on many, many kinds of stories and experiences and also many, many kinds of differences. Very useful.

    Closer to composition studies, see Matthew Newcomb’s piece from JAC in 2007 and Kristie Fleckenstein’s response to him in the subsequent issue. They talk about ways for empathy to accomplish some of the work of materiality.

    But I like your take on things–the idea that turning the lens on oneself might be more productive. Smart stuff

  5. Michael says:

    Thanks, Bill! I’ll definitely check these out!

  6. ML Sugie says:

    Briefly: Empathy and sympathy seem to be important components of moral reasoning in that they may provide important evidence and data for us to act on, i.e. we shouldn’t commit rape because we can empathize (be “in feeling”) with survivors of rape, and those are not feelings we ought to have.

    I think most people don’t fully empathize, or as you say don’t empathize except to roll a “moral check” against a particular action. We just place ourselves – minds and all – in a particular situation, roll our 20-sided empathy dice, and see if we come up with the same feeling or emotion. If not, we “can’t empathize” with someone’s particular response or belief in something. I don’t think most of us ever exert the effort to actually get to the place where we could be “in feeling” with someone, as that would require knowing so much more about someone’s life and the particulars about a situation than I think we have energy for.

    Or empathy is used in the banal sense, i.e. “I feel what you feel, but I don’t care and will not act on that understanding.” Perhaps empathy is simply misused, mislabeled, and misapplied in most cases – like any component of moral reasoning that is used independently.

    See the SEP articles on empathy and moral reasoning.

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