¶ 1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 Working toward a shared vocabulary is a process that, perhaps needless to say, will inevitably be fraught by misunderstanding. Lisbeth Lipari has argued, however, that misunderstanding functions not solely as an unavoidable barrier to communication but also as a crucial reason for it:
¶ 2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 misunderstanding reminds us, again and again, that our conversational partners are truly “other” than us; that each of us lives at the center of our own world; that we each arrive independently “on the scene” of communication with different histories, traditions, experiences, and perspectives; that the self is not the world; that perfection is impossible; and that, although human language is infinitely generative, there are important aspects of human existence that are, simply, ineffable. In short, misunderstanding opens the doorway to the ethical relation by inspiring (or frustrating) us to listen more closely to others, to inquire more deeply into their differences, and to question our own already well-formed understandings of the world. (26-27)
¶ 3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 Misunderstanding thus has the potential to yank us out of our literally self-centered ways of thinking and encourage new connections with the others with whom we seek to communicate. This ethical relation that Lipari describes is one based in empathy, or the desire to understand the feelings and experiences of others.
¶ 4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 Empathy as so described perhaps lies a bit closer in to the sense with which I use generosity. Empathy is generally understood as that ability to bridge the gap between self and other, that quality of openness that enables greater insight across divides of background or experience. Empathy represents an attitude toward the world that we are encouraged to cultivate—and yet, as Leslie Jamison succinctly notes, “empathy is always perched precariously between gift and invasion” (16). Empathy has the potential to ground a deeply ethical relationship with the world, and has as well the potential to flatten that relationship into something much more troubling.
¶ 5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 So what’s the problem with empathy? First, there are the myriad ways in which the concept has been misunderstood—of course—as somehow just being about a replication of feeling: your story of loss makes me sad; voilà, empathy. Second, there is the ease with which it invites expression through an appropriation of the experiences of others: “I feel your pain.” And third, there is the degree to which the call to empathy has been unevenly distributed, directed as it has been of late all too frequently to those members of our communities who themselves live with a host of exclusions and inequities without any reciprocating attempt to understand their experience. This uneven distribution has led to one of the most bitter divides in the period since the 2016 presidential election, as commentators have repeatedly insisted that urban, liberal voters must find ways to empathize with the working-class whites whose feelings of disenfranchisement and economic anxiety led them to vote overwhelmingly for Donald Trump, while failing at the very same moment to empathize with those voters so commanded, largely people of color whose disenfranchisement has been all too literal and whose very physical safety in our communities is too often in question. If empathy requires a one-sided experience of feeling for those who have put you at risk, it’s the wrong concept.
¶ 6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 1 In this way, Paul Bloom is perhaps correct to argue against empathy. Certainly he’s correct to argue against it if we define it the way he does: “feeling what you believe other people feel” (10). The true experience of empathy, for him, requires that the empathetic person’s emotions mirror those of the person being empathized with; feeling sad when I hear about your experience of loss may be a state of sympathy, but empathy emerges only when I feel that loss just as you do. The necessity of feeling exactly the same things as another person makes empathetic connection, especially with those whose life experiences and personal values may be quite different from our own, all but impossible. With such a definition, it is little wonder that Bloom argues that holding up empathy as a value encourages racism, as we are most able to share the feelings of those who are most like ourselves. Moreover this emotional mirroring creates the inevitability of a kind of emotional colonization: you feel victimized? I feel victimized on your behalf! Given the ways empathy is here limited by definition, it’s not surprising that Bloom decides that we’re “better off without it” (10).
¶ 7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 2 Perhaps even more insidious is the degree to which, as Amanda Hess has noted in the post-election discourse, empathy has been invoked not as a means of developing a deeper connection to others but instead as a means of figuring them out with a frankly self-interested goal in mind: “it often seems to mean understanding their pain just enough to get something out of it—to manipulate political, technological and consumerist outcomes in our own favor.” This is the empathy of the algorithm, and before that, the empathy of the advertising industry: those who want to know how we feel in order to get us to do something. It’s little wonder that empathy might feel a bit tainted, in this context.
¶ 8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0 But if, as Jamison notes above, empathy is always delicately balanced “between gift and invasion,” there remains the gift to be reckoned with. Jamison’s exploration of empathy leads her to argue that its good derives from the work that it requires of us—and that this work is never merely an act of imagination but instead a process of inquiry: “Empathy requires knowing you know nothing. Empathy means acknowledging a horizon of context that extends perpetually beyond what you can see” (16). Empathy is in this rendering inseparable from the curiosity stimulated by imagination, but it requires an acknowledgment that the self must be put aside and a desire to understand not just that which you do not presently know but also that which you recognize that you cannot know. That curiosity, that desire, begins to lead us away from understand empathy as being about feelings, and toward a process that asks much more of us, a process that is much closer to the generosity I am seeking.