Newcomb: “Totalized Compassion” (2007) and responses

In “Totalized Compassion: The (Im)Possibilities for Acting out of Compassion in the Rhetoric of Hannah Arendt” (2007), Matthew J. Newcomb works with Hannah Arendt’s dismissal of compassion, “call[ing instead] for a more critical form of compassion” (107). He does so by outlining Arendt’s critiques of compassion (it eliminates necessary space between individuals, a space necessary in the public sphere; it can lead to silence rather than action or speech; and when it is a motivation, it fails to be thoughtful [109-114]); discussing the possible uses of compassion, such as creating memories to bring to political arenas and leading toward imagination that can work alongside others (117-118); and arguing for a “critical compassion” that isn’t totalizing or overwhelming, doesn’t lead to silence, and may even come after action (120-121)—a “[c]ompassion filled with imagination or creativity—an act or composition that (even joyfully) breaks beyond the restrictions of need and necessity” (131).

In her response to Newcomb’s article, “The Tragic Limits of Compassionate Politics” (2007), Patricia Roberts-Miller takes up Arendt’s critique of compassion that Newcomb addresses least: compassion as self-love. Compassion depends on identifying with others, often because we see them as victims (693). However, deciding whether one is a victim is often a matter of interpretation (693-694). She agrees with Arendt that we should not frame discussions on who is the victim we should feel compassionate for (694). Compassion can be self-love, as in the case of slave owners who felt compassion for their slaves, but did nothing to end slavery: “we love the role we are playing. Inferiors who invite our compassion do not necessarily call us to think critically about how we might be responsible for the situation; they invite us to think nobly of ourselves through saving them” (698). She adds to Newcomb that not only should compassion be critical, but “especially self-critical” (699, emphasis original).

In her response to Newcomb, “Once Again with Feeling: Empathy in Deliberative Discourse” (2007), Kristie S. Fleckenstein seeks to add to Newcomb’s rich discussion by offering Martha C. Nussbaum’s understanding that empathy includes an interplay of emotions and rationality, unlike Arendt’s understanding of compassion as a reaction without rationality. Nussbaum argues that empathy involves judgment: “assessments of the seriousness of suffering, the fault of the suffering, and the possibility of sharing a similar suffering” (Fleckenstein 704-705). Fleckenstein uses three examples of empathy to show how it can be useful and necessary in deliberative discourse: Ralph K. White’s realistic empathy, Min-Zhan Lu’s critical affirmation, and Todd DeStigter’s critical empathy.

These three essays were very helpful to read as I think through empathy and deliberating across differences. In an email conversation with a friend, she noted that the terms sympathy, pity, compassion, and empathy are easily confused and not very distinct. Fleckenstein makes a similar note, stating that they “are slippery terms made even more slippery as usage shifts within and between disciplines” (715 n1). I agree with Fleckenstein’s (and Nussbaum’s) assessment that emotions like empathy are not devoid of rationality. Rationality and emotion are two different things, but are so intertwined that they can’t be separated. Roberts-Miller’s essay also got me thinking about empathy or compassion as always a problem of fact interpretation (which links back to Nussbaum’s emphasis on judgment).

I have a lot more reading I want to do.

Fleckenstein, Kristie S. “Once Again with Feeling: Empathy in Deliberative Discourse.” JAC 27.3-4 (2007): 701-716.

Newcomb, Matthew J. “Totalized Compassion: The (Im)Possibilities for Acting out of Compassion in the Rhetoric of Hannah Arendt.” JAC 27.1-2 (2007): 105-133.

Roberts-Miller, Patricia. “The Tragic Limits of Compassionate Politics.” JAC 27.3-4 (2007): 692-700.

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