A Case for Empathy

I recently read an essay by Namwali Serpell, author of a new and widely acclaimed novel The Old Drift, called The Banality of Empathy. Her main issue: art doesn’t promote empathy. And even if it did, why would that be good?

Serpell asks this because to her empathy means to “be” or “inhabit” or “consume” someone. That’s trouble, for by its nature empathy is therefore selfish. To illustrate, she runs through what I consider poor examples. With those lined up, she then condemns empathy for failing to always and everywhere be all that we hope it can be.

First, she presents Karl Ove Knausgaard as a standard bearer for what empathy in art could and should be. Fair enough, he has strong views on the place for empathy in the relationship between writer and reader. But note that Knausgaard is the person who churned out a six volume autobiography, detailing the secrets of his and others’ lives in minute detail – an interesting experiment to which he was immensely dedicated but which he also committed to at great cost to those around him.

Readers can sum up the results in many ways, but I expect few if any would call it an exercise in empathy. And I wonder if by the end many of them could muster much empathy for him. More likely what they finish with is numbness – something akin to the feeling you might have hearing Knausgaard separately argue the merits of empathy by imaging the childhood of Hitler. Knausgaard is an unsympathetic writer making his case with a psycho and butcher — and yet this is the person Serpell presents as the champion of empathy. It’s not a difficult house of cards to fall.

The essay moves on to consider empathy from an ethical point of view, and here it’s no surprise Serpell cites anti-empathy scholar Paul Bloom: With a simple thought experiment—you pass by a lake where a child is drowning—Bloom shows that emotional empathy is often beside the point for moral action. You don’t have to feel the suffocation, the clutch of a throat gasping for air, to save someone.

No, I say, you don’t have to feel the suffocation to act. Or even attempt to feel it. Empathy is intentional, it isn’t reactive – and so it is not the trait a person would call on to decide to save or to not save. It does not play a central role in this situation.

Serpell goes on: The slippage between emotional empathy and the good in our public discourse also presumes that when we do feel the suffering of others, we are prompted to relieve it. But this is not always true.

I admit I don’t know what the phrase “slippage” means here, but saying that this relationship “presumes” we’re prompted to relieve suffering in others when we feel it raises several problems. First, we don’t presume, or at least we don’t ALL presume such a thing.

Second, we don’t “feel” the suffering of others. More accurately we maybe understand it, appreciate it, imagine it.

Third, if empathizing with the suffering of others does prompt us to relieve it, does it ALWAYS have to have this effect to be worthwhile? Can’t it prompt action just sometimes and still be valuable?

Finally, empathy isn’t ONLY about suffering.

Serpell gives another example of empathy that she doesn’t like: Other times, we empathize with suffering as a kind of amusement that has no bearing on our ethical behavior. A case in point: white American football fans may wince with vicarious pain as they watch black players ram into each other, but that doesn’t mean they care about the state-sanctioned violence to which those players are susceptible when they walk off the field.

Sorry, cringing at an injury is not empathy. It’s a reflex.

Here’s what would be empathic: a player on the opposing football team goes down with a nasty injury. You don’t know him but you never liked him because he’s good and on the other team. Seeing him on the field you are about to jeer and call him something horrid. But for one moment you see the whole situation from his point of view, on the field, in pain, surrounded by an enraged crowd screaming and laughing at you. So instead you stay quiet.

Isn’t that kind of change of heart – and action – valuable, and valuable no matter where you learned it?

From what I can tell that kind of empathy is not valuable to Serpell, both if it comes from fiction and if it comes about inconsistently or less than one hundred percent of the time. So, while I admire her effort and writing and passion for this issue, I have problems with the preceding and the following points in her essay:

  • If witnessing suffering firsthand doesn’t necessarily spark good deeds…
    Necessarily? No, NOT necessarily. Suffering won’t necessarily spark empathy, and empathy won’t necessarily spark good deeds. Why? Among other things because empathy is HARD.
  • The crime, as she see it is this: It (fiction) simulates empathy, so we believe it stimulates it. No, some people believe fiction CAN stimulate empathy. But is it wrong that the presence or absence of that stimulation from fiction, and the degree of stimulation, depends on the quality, the purpose, the theme, and the characters?
  • The empathy model of art can bleed too easily into the relishing of suffering by those who are safe from it.
  • Again, it’s all about suffering. Fine. Who in this world is safe from suffering? Some types of suffering, sure, but is anyone safe from mental or spiritual suffering?
  • It’s a gateway drug to white saviorism, with its familiar blend of propaganda, pornography, and paternalism. It’s an emotional palliative that distracts us from real inequities, on the page and on screen, to say nothing of our actual lives.Yes, empathy can conceivably be all those things. But NO, empathy isn’t NECESSARILY any of them.
  • And it has imposed upon readers and viewers the idea that they can and ought to use art to inhabit others, especially the marginalized. To Serpall this “widespread” adoration of empathy has imposed this narrow concept of art on us all. Really, imposed? No – how about opened the opportunity? And again, the idea that empathy is about inhabiting or subsuming someone else, especially a marginalized person, like that is somehow easier, as though she were prey, is not what empathy is about. Instead is it about observing and thinking from a perspective other than your own.
  • Perhaps worse, it has imposed on makers of art, especially the marginalized, the idea that they can and ought to construct creative vehicles for empathy.Again imposed. Yes, artists can strive to create vehicles for empathy, but ought to? Says who?
  • This grotesque dynamic often makes for dull, pandering artworks. And it in fact perpetuates an assumed imbalance in the world: there are those who suffer, and those who do not and thus have the leisure to be convinced—via novels and films that produce empathy—that the sufferers matter. At this point, Serpall is on repeat mode binding empathy to suffering, but it seems to me that SHE is the one who perpetuates the assumed imbalance she describes. Still, if art is made by one who is suffering, why can’t he or she create art with the goal to make sufferers matter? And even if that isn’t one of the goals, why can’t it happen in the absence of or despite the artist’s intention? Not all (not any) artists can control how their work is perceived or received. What’s more, isn’t creating beauty and understanding of some sort always at the core of all art, intended or not? I think it is.

From here, Serpell moves onto what she considers a superior approach to different perspectives, one described by Hannah Arendt:

She proposed that literature’s special talent for adopting the viewpoints of others was geared not to ethics but to politics:

I form an opinion by considering a given issue from different viewpoints, by making present to my mind the standpoints of those who are absent; that is, I represent them. This process of representation does not blindly adopt the actual views of those who stand somewhere else, and hence look upon the world from a different perspective; this is a question neither of empathy, as though I tried to be or to feel like somebody else, nor of counting noses and joining a majority but of being and thinking in my own identity where actually I am not. The more people’s standpoints I have present in my mind while I am pondering a given issue, and the better I can imagine how I would feel and think if I were in their place, the stronger will be my capacity for representative thinking and the more valid my final conclusions… The very process of opinion formation is determined by those in whose places somebody thinks and uses his own mind, and the only condition for this exertion of the imagination is disinterestedness, the liberation from one’s own private interests.

This may sound a lot like empathy but Arendt insists that it isn’t. Rather than virtually becoming another, she asks you to imagine using your own mind but from their position.

OK, Arendt might insist that’s not empathy, but it is. You can’t virtually become another. But you can be you and see through their eyes. Arendt elaborates: How would I — still as myself — “feel and think if I were in their place”? Note that you might feel and think differently than they (say they) do; the point is to inhabit the position, not the person.

That is EXACTLY what you can — not must — do wearing VR goggles or reading a novel or inspecting a painting. That exactly is empathy.

My argument with Serpell might look like nattering, and the source of the trouble might be semantics or a quibble over the definition of empathy. So the question then is, why bother?

Because I think that empathy offers us an opportunity to bring out the best in our nature, and it therefore offers us hope for better lives and a better world. And I mean first of all in the world immediately around each of us.

Here I must digress a bit. The day I decided to write something about Serpell’s essay I happened to check out rogerebert.com. It had been a while, and though I go to Ebert’s site a lot less since his death, I still visit occasionally. That day happened to be the anniversary of his death and – the empathy project that his wife Chaz started. Who knew? But the message is very clear, and it’s a view I share.

Empathy is a pathway to offering a smile to the people we pass on the street. An opportunity to pause and possibly avoid rushing to judge a colleague. It is an opening to moments of better communication with our parents and children, siblings and spouses.

Then, perhaps, empathy can become a means to overcoming some of our social and political divides, to overcoming some of the worst of our nature. As Christine M. Korsgaard writes in her book on the ethical treatment of animals: On a Kantian conception, what is special about human beings is not that we are the universe’s darlings, whose fate is absolutely more important than the fates of the other creatures who like us experience their own existence. It is exactly the opposite: What is special about us is the empathy that enables us to grasp that other creatures are important to themselves in just the way we are important to ourselves, and the reason that enables us to draw the conclusion that follows: that every animal must be regarded as an end in herself, whose fate matters, and matters absolutely, if anything matters at all.

Korsgaard is arguing for animal rights. But it’s important to remember that we are all animals, and her beautiful logic applies to other creatures and to each of our fellow humans.