¶ 1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 Dominick LaCapra, in History in Transit, explores the role of the historian in writing about traumatic events, and in particular the historian’s responsibility for working through, in a psychoanalytic sense, the memory of trauma. This “working through,” however, is not conducted in order to put away the memory that “haunts or possesses the self or the community” but rather to allow it to “be remembered with some degree of conscious control and critical perspective that enables survival and, in the best of circumstances, ethical and political agency in the present” (56). The work of the historian in relationship to trauma requires deep empathy, but while that empathy involves, as LaCapra describes it, an affective response, it is not driven by an identification with the self or community that experienced the trauma; it does not call for feeling what the other feels, or for mirroring those feelings. Empathy is for LaCapra “virtual but not vicarious,” requiring the historian to “put him- or herself in the other’s position without taking the other’s place or becoming a substitute or surrogate for the other” (65). Empathy thus becomes a process of working through, an attempt to understand, one that the historian acknowledges will only ever be partially successful, and will never be completed. Empathy is not something we have, not something we feel, but something we must wrestle with, and something we must continue wrestling with with no expectation of ever fully pinning it down.
¶ 2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 1 Understood in this sense, empathy becomes a practice, and one key aspect of practices is that they must be practiced. Practices are regular and routine, but they are also difficult and at moments feel doomed to failure. Exercise falls into this category for many of us; so does meditating; so, for many scholars, does writing. And LaCapra’s sense of empathy is a practice as well. The thing about practices is that we move in and out of them—we do not seek to exercise every moment of the day—but we are never fully done with them, either. We do not get to check the “exercise” box off on our to-do list for all time. They become instead part of the structure of our days, something we return to again and again. Practices are not about perfection but about a continual attempt to perfect. They are ways of being in the world.
¶ 3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 2 Practices involve action, of course, but they are distinct from acts, in that practices are sustained and sustainable. Even more, they are sustaining: they create the conditions under which they can continue. This is not to say that they are easy, of course. I go to the gym every day, I meditate every day, I write (more or less) every day, and yet more often than not I still struggle to get myself out the door, in my chair, focused. But every day that I maintain the practice it becomes that little bit easier, and more compelling, to put that effort forward again the next day.
¶ 4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 2 If we understand empathy, as LaCapra does, as a practice, and consider it along with some related terms like compassion and care, we can begin to sketch the outlines of the notion of generosity I hope to cultivate. Empathy as a practice asks us to return again and again to our attempts to understand the position of the other despite the certainty that this understanding will always be flawed and partial; by sustaining this practice, we can improve that understanding. Similarly, compassion—literally “suffering with,” a quality of mind cultivated in several spiritual traditions—asks us to recognize that all beings suffer (including us) and to focus on opening the self enough to acknowledge that suffering and share the desire that we all may be free from it. And care, held as an ethical principle, asks us to remember the interconnectedness and interdependence of all people, and to make choices about where to place our energies and efforts with that concern—and particularly a concern for the most vulnerable among us—in mind.
¶ 5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 If terms like compassion and care begin to make the generosity I seek sound awfully gendered, that is not accidental. These principles are derived in no small part from feminist ethics and praxis as developed in psychology by Carol Gilligan and in education by Nel Noddings and carried forward into today’s public intellectual landscape by scholars and practitioners including Sarah Blackwood, Lauren Klein, and Bethany Nowviskie. The generosity I propose as a foundation for a renewed relationship between the academy and the broader publics with which we interact asks us to direct our attention to the responsibility that each of us bears toward one another, a responsibility that cannot be absolved through discrete acts but that instead requires our sustained and sustaining attention. This generosity is a shared requirement to look beyond ourselves, our labs, our departments, our campuses, and seek to understand the needs of members of our broader communities, as well as others outside our communities, and even outside our moment in time. But the ties between generosity and care also remind us that such attention may be required very, very locally as well, in our most intimate relationships, and even in our relationships with ourselves. This is how understanding generosity as a practice that is meant to be sustainable helps us avoid the burnout that can result from an overload of generous acts: care for others requires a simultaneous care for the self, precisely so that we can be ready to return our focus to the world around us.
¶ 6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 Lest this mode of generosity I am describing come to seem all warm-fuzzies with little practical application to the scholarly mode of being in the world, I want to turn our attention toward a specific practice through which we might begin to exercise generosity in our work. But first, there’s one crucial thing that needs to be said about generosity and our expectations for it: when a person who has been injured or marginalized asks why she should have to behave generously or empathetically toward someone who has either directly or tacitly permitted that injury or marginalization to occur, she is raising a point that deserves our attention. Remembering the ways that upholding civility as a communal value has too often led to its being used as a weapon with which to silence those with legitimate complaints, we must consider the limitations of the notion of generosity that I am describing, as well as the ways that responsibility for such generosity is and of necessity should be unevenly distributed.
¶ 7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 In the current political and educational environment, those of us in positions of relative authority, who are privileged enough to move through our days without having our most basic sense of belonging questioned, who are fundamentally safe, might best serve the community as a whole if we are willing to exercise our generosity, taking responsibility for engaging with those who disagree with us—not least in order to begin finding those potential allies who actually disagree with us less than they think but feel as if their own positions haven’t been genuinely heard. We need to expect, and permit, these attempts at connection to fail, and yet persist in trying. We need to practice great compassion, both for those with whom we we want to connect and for ourselves in the difficult act of trying to build those connections.
¶ 8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0 Perhaps the most extraordinary example of such compassion and generosity that I’ve come across of late is the research project documented in Arlie Russell Hochschild’s Strangers in Their Own Land. This investigation began with Hochschild’s desire to understand the deepening political divide in the United States, a challenge that led her not to bury herself in conventional academic modes of research (though the book is filled with evidence of that kind of work, too) or to seek out the voices who understand the problem from the same perspective she does, but rather, as she describes it, to try to “scale the empathy wall,” to find out what those on the other side of it think—but even more, to try to understand why they think that way. This required an extended and rather remarkable process of deep listening, of struggling to hear and understand what the members of the Tea Party with whom she met were trying to tell her. Throughout the book, we see her asking herself whether the ideas she’s forming about her interlocutors’ experiences are genuinely derived from the things she’s being told, or whether they’re based in her own assumptions about and interpretations of what she’s being told. She spent countless hours, over the course of several years, listening to their stories and shaping them into a coherent narrative that could explain their worldview—and then, perhaps most importantly, she tested that narrative with them, asking them how well it represented their understanding of and feelings about their lives. In so doing, she may not have persuaded them to change their ways of thinking, but she earned their trust, and created the conditions under which they were willing to hear her.
¶ 9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 2 What surfaces in Strangers in Their Own Land is not just an argument about where the ideas of the far right have come from or how they have gained such purchase in the lives of their adherents, but more importantly an argument about the reasons our forms of cultural understanding (including many of the research methods we bring to that understanding) have failed. Her work demonstrates the possibilities created through a generous engagement with those outside the academic beltway, and the damage that the failure to engage can create. Hochschild’s research highlights the degree to which progressive intellectuals believe they know what’s best for those on the right—evidenced in “what’s the matter with Kansas” syndrome—and fail to see how their arguments leave their subjects feeling belittled, demeaned, and misunderstood. It should come as little surprise that those on the right react to such arguments about their experiences by reflexively rejecting everything that the left might have to offer. The results of Hochschild’s work—both the heartbreaking portraits she presents of people who have come to feel abandoned and disenfranchised, portraits presented without shrinking from or ignoring some of the aspects of their beliefs that we might find appalling, and the evident trust that she builds with them—reveal a rather extraordinary generosity of mind on her part. That generosity, however, is grounded in a deceptively simple practice: listening.
I’m thinking about some of the work on creativity here, as digested for me in Miller & Jurecic’s Habits of the Creative Mind.