Popaganda is back! In this episode, we’re going to be talking about an emotion you’ve probably heard a lot about lately: empathy. The way we talk about it, it’s almost like a superpower: it’s like we want to believe that the cure to political divisiveness, racism, and even war lies in the act of imagining exactly how someone else feels. But is empathy really going to save the world?
First, Dr. Carolyn Pedwell, associate professor in Cultural Studies at the University of Kent, explains how different people define “empathy” and use it to achieve various, and sometimes opposing, goals. One of those parties is the virtual reality industry, and tech journalist Rose Eveleth explains the potentials and pitfalls of empathic VR experiences. Then we go into another sort of empathy experience with cartoonist Ben Passmore, whose comic and animated short, “Your Black Friend,” tackles empathy in a different, sharper way. Finally, we talk with scholar and activist Frances Lee (of the Bitch 50!) about how we can practice empathy better: in a way that acknowledges the humanity of other people without making it all about ourselves.
This episode of Popaganda is also our new host’s first with us! Soleil’s excited to jump on board and we hope you’re looking forward to all that she’ll be bringing to the table, too.
- Frances Lee recommends the book, Scenes of Subjection for further reading on racial subjugation during American slavery and its aftermath.
- Read “The Limits of Empathy,” Rose Eveleth’s excellent run-down of empathic VR, and game developer Robert Yang’s analysis of the same.
- You can actually buy the “Your Black Friend” comic and other work by Ben Passmore from Silver Sprocket!
- Thanks to Melov for their cover of New World’s “Blue Monday.”
- Image: Briton Riviere (1840–1920) “Sympathy,” c. 1878. Oil paint on canvas. Support: 451 x 375 mm, frame: 748 x 668 x 123 mm. Tate, Presented by Sir Henry Tate 1897 (N01566). Photo © Tate, CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0 (Unported)
This episode of Popaganda is sponsored by Lewis & Clark College’s 37th Annual Gender Studies Symposium in Portland, Oregon, from March 7–9. inSECURITY will explore subjects including the prison-industrial complex, community justice, intimate violence, global politics, and creative resistance. Don’t miss out on this exciting series of free lectures, workshops, panel discussions, and an art exhibit. We’ll see you on campus!
SOLEIL HO: This episode of Popaganda is sponsored by Lewis & Clark College’s 37th Annual Gender Studies Symposium, titled “Insecurity,” which will take place March 7th, 8th, and 9th in Portland, Oregon. “Insecurity” will explore subjects including the prison-industrial complex, community justice, intimate partner violence, global politics, and creative resistance. Don’t miss out on this exciting series of free lectures, workshops, panel discussions, and an art exhibit. Learn more at www.lclark.edu, or click on the Gender Studies Symposium ad. We’ll see you on campus!
Hi, I’m Soleil Ho, and I’m taking over Popaganda! I can’t wait for you to hear everything that I have planned for the show. Some of you may know me through my work hosting Racist Sandwich, which is a podcast on food and intersectional politics. I’m so excited to host Popaganda! Please stay tuned for upcoming episodes on the wellness industry, life after work and automation, impostor syndrome, and astrology, all seen through a feminist perspective. But now, let’s talk about empathy.
Across politics, the corporate world, the medical establishment, tech, and other worlds, we’ve become obsessed with empathy. We’re pouring so many resources and so much time into finding ways to cultivate it, like some kind of super crop that’ll solve all the world’s ailments. We wanna believe that the cure to political divisiveness, racism, and even war lies in the act of imagining exactly how someone else feels.
[recorded clip of Mark Ruffalo on Sesame Street]
MARK: Aw, that hurts!
MURRAY: Oh, you poor thing!
MARK: Oh, Murray! Murray! It hurts so much.
MURRAY: That hurts! I can imagine exactly how you feel!
MARK: That’s it!!
MURRAY: What? Wha? What’s it?
MARK: That’s it! That’s empathy.
MURRAY: What’s empathy?
MARK: You could imagine exactly how I feel. You could understand just how it felt. That’s empathy.
SOLEIL: But I noticed that the pursuit of empathy has sometimes led to the opposite effect: Claiming empathy can alienate you from the person you wanna understand, or to understand you. In the worst case, it can almost feel like an emotional imposition.
I noticed this at first in conversations that came up in reaction to folks who proclaimed, like for example, right, “I am Trayvon Martin.” The incredulity that just anyone would know how it feels to be stalked and murdered by an authority figure because of the color of their skin.
And even in my own experience as a person raised in America, the trepidation of not knowing how to react when someone tells me something sad or hard. My first instinct is to relate what they’re saying to something I’ve experienced, to show them that I understand. But that increasingly feels like I’m trying to make it into a competition. If you actually can’t imagine how someone might feel, is there something wrong with you? Or alternately, is there something with them?
[recorded clip of Brené Brown speech]
BRENÉ: But one of the things we do sometimes in the face of very difficult conversations is we try to make things better. If I share something with you that’s very difficult, I’d rather you say, “Ooh, I don’t even know what to say right now. I’m just so glad you told me.” Because the truth is, rarely can a response make something better. What makes something better is connection.
SOLEIL: Empathy might be something we value, but I’m not really sure we all know how to wield it well. If we’re really that interested in using it to understand people, especially people who aren’t like us, we should start talking about it.
So, on this episode of Popaganda, I’ll be talking to four folks who I think have thought about empathy a lot. We’ll discuss what it means to practice empathy, both in real life and in the virtual world; why we’re so tempted to cast it as a cure-all for the world’s problems; how over-emphasizing empathy in relationships might actually reinforce existing inequalities; and how we might do a better job of practicing it with each other.
[mellow cover of New Order’s Blue Monday]
♪ How does it feel
To treat me like you do?
When you lay your hands upon me
And told me who you are
I thought I was mistaken
I thought I heard your words
Tell me how do I feel
Tell me now how do I feel? ♪
SOLEIL: First, I wanted to talk to someone who’s built their career on investigating empathy and defining exactly what it is. But it turns out, that’s a lot more challenging than I thought.
CAROLYN: I think I would say that there’s kind of two ways of understanding it in the mainstream, and the first one is this idea of imaginatively being able to put yourself in the shoes of another. I think that’s the one that we’re most familiar with. So, really based on that capacity to imagine what it might feel like to be somebody who’s not you.
And then I would say that the second definition is maybe less about imagination than it is about sensing or feeling, somehow, beyond thought. So, kind of being attuned to the feelings of another in a more sensorial way and not necessarily involving an active process of imagination.
My name is Carolyn Pedwell. I’m Associate Professor in Cultural Studies at the University of Kent in Canterbury UK.
SOLEIL: So, why do you think the definition of empathy is so in flux, across platforms, across thinkers, and contexts?
CAROLYN: Well, I think that one of putting yourself in the other’s shoes is the one that you kind of hear again and again. It’s the most straightforward one, and I think one that most people can kind of relate to in their own lives. But maybe it is in flux, and there’s other definitions because it’s becoming so salient to social and political life, and all sorts of people are trying to use empathy, think of its possibilities, mobilize it for different reasons. And they’re trying to think about what understanding is going to best serve their interests.
SOLEIL: Mmhmm. So, yeah, in your book, Affective Relations: The Transnational Politics of Empathy, you say that empathy has become a Euro-American political obsession.
SOLEIL: Can you explain that?
CAROLYN: I started the book that you mentioned, I guess I started researching it kind of almost 10 years ago now. And I started to notice then that empathy kind of all of the sudden, to me at least, seemed to be everywhere. And everywhere, it was presumed to be a good thing, right? So that it was this idea that wherever there’s suffering, empathy can heal. If there’s a conflict or a grievance, then if we can create more empathic relations, we’ll get to an agreement or some kind of better place. And I was seeing this not only in feminist and anti-racist literature and activism, which have long histories of thinking about empathy and compassion, but also in quite different realms. So, I, in my book, think about how international corporations are actually figuring empathy an act of putting yourself in the shoes of a potential customer or buyer as kind of an affective capacity that’s important to profit accumulation in a capitalist market. Or thinking, for example, of the real turn towards empathy in popular science and neuroscience and some of the work that’s kind of claiming to have found scientific evidence that humans and animals, other animals, are naturally empathic or caring rather than naturally selfish or some sort of other characteristic.
So, I was noticing and mapping all of these quite different sites where empathy was being talked about and called for as a kind of affective solution. But the very differences between these sites led me to want to think more critically about it.
SOLEIL: So, I wanna go back to the thing you said about the corporate takeover of empathy. But first I wanted to ask, why is empathy such a seductive solution to all of these very messy, very disparate problems?
CAROLYN: Yeah. I think that word seductive is really the right one because I think it is like that. And I think it’s maybe because empathy is assumed often to have an almost kind of magical quality.
CAROLYN: The promise of empathy is that when it happens, and if it happens kind of deeply enough, that the person or group of people who feels it will be fundamentally transformed, that they will actually never be the same again, that because of the empathy that they’ve been compelled to feel for somebody in suffering or some sort of situation they might see themselves as implicated in, that their view of the world will be fundamentally changed, as will their behavior in the interests of greater social justice, for example, or some sort of path that’s gonna lead to the amelioration of conflict. So, I think it’s seductive because it’s based on that fantasy, perhaps, in a lot of cases, that if we are just affected deeply enough or in the right way, that everything can change.
And I think linked to that is the seduction of what I would say is the myth that complex social and political relations can be addressed at the level of individual transformation or change. So, sometimes empathy’s seductive because it implies that if we change ourselves and people at the individual level that that’s going to be a way to address much larger problems.
SOLEIL: So, what are the kinds of people and organizations that are using empathy? Take the VR and entertainment industry, for example. Empathic Virtual Reality’s proponents have gone whole hog for the potential of using empathy to save the world. Just put on the headset, see the world from another person’s eyes, and go forth!
ROSE: Yeah, right. VR is, I mean, it’s sort of the trendy tech right now. And it’s not only the trendy tech right now; it’s collided with the sort of trendy psych, pop-psych research, which is empathy. And so, the result is this thing that we’re all going to solve all of the world’s problems by putting on headsets and sort of stepping into another person’s shoes so that we can really understand them, become empathetic towards them, and then therefore, not do anything bad to those people again. Or not lash out or not cause war. I mean, there are people who really go full-on like this is gonna stop war, which is, I think, going pretty far.
SOLEIL: Rose Eveleth, a tech journalist and self-described “futures critic,” has done a lot of research on this increasing interest in using Virtual Reality to cultivate empathy in the viewer and in so doing, make us better world citizens. Her recent article on the topic, The Limits of Empathy, brings up a lot of questions about that narrative, and she wonders how and why we find it so seductive.
ROSE: It’s funny. Phillip K. Dick wrote about these kinds of machines and called them “magical boxes.” And they are. They’re like these magical boxes that people are sort of proposing as a solution to all of the things that we look around right now and see happening in the world are apparently going to be solved by putting headsets on. Which, you know, I have some questions about.
SOLEIL: The most well-known VR empathy experiences highlight scenes like parental abuse from the perspective of a child, daily life in a Jordanian refugee camp, and being a bystander while a woman is drugged and assaulted. It’s not your mom’s lighthearted submarine tour by any means. They’re a window into other people’s trauma. Which begs the question: Who are they for?
ROSE: If you have trauma in your life, whether it’s sort of like specific violent actions or just the low-level microaggression, constant belittling and questioning all the time, and you put these goggles on and you experience some of this stuff, it feels very different, I would guess, than if you have never experienced that stuff. I mean, I did a couple of these experiences for the piece, and there were a couple where I was like, oh wow. I don’t need to experience this! I don’t need to do this again. I know what this is like. I don’t need to have this experience in these goggles. And I think that the idea that people are not coming into this with an empty mind and an empty slate, and that I think so often, the experiences are designed by folks who haven’t’ had a lot of those things happen to them. And so, to them, they sort of imagine the user as kind of a blank canvas. When instead, often people who might experience these things are certainly not blank canvases and come in with whatever baggage and whatever past trauma they might have. And I think that’s kind of one of the scarier parts of this to me, is that you can walk into a situation, put on one of these headsets, and have to relive a situation that is terribly familiar. Whether that’s an acute trauma or just a general feeling of constantly being questioned and undermined.
If we’re talking about listening and empathy, why can’t you just listen to the person who’s telling you that they’ve had these experiences? Why do you need to experience them yourself in order to actually believe that they are true or internalize them? Which is a whole other conversation. But yeah, I think it raises a lot of questions about who is designing these things, and who are they designing them for?
SOLEIL: Right. What is the draw of a tech-based solution to empathy for others when it sounds so easy otherwise? You could also just as easily hold space and listen to someone talk about their experiences, right?
ROSE: Right. And there are some studies that suggest that that’s far more effective. I mean, in fact, there are studies that suggest that in some situations, if you put someone into another person’s shoes, they might come out with more empathy, but they might also come out with a series of worse opinions about those people.
So, there’s a really great study about disability simulations. And these aren’t VR experiences; this is pre-VR. But what they did was they wanted to show people what it was like to be either blind or deaf. So, they would have people wear a blindfold or wear headphones so that you can’t hear things, and they would ask them to do tasks. The idea was to kind of foster empathy among people who maybe were able-bodied or weren’t blind and deaf and those who were. And what they found in the study was that at the end, people did feel more warmly towards folks who were blind, for example, if they did the blindfold test. But they also came out thinking that blind people couldn’t hold regular jobs and were less capable than other people because the simulation is so focused on this sudden removal of a sense, right, if you are someone who sees, and then all of a sudden you can’t see, that 20 minutes that you’re spending doing that is kind of scary and difficult. And it presents this as this is their reality all the time, when in fact, blind people are perfectly capable of doing all of the things, basically, that not-blind people are able to do. And the idea that they don’t need empathy, right? They need you to respect them as fully autonomous human beings. And these simulations actually caused the opposite: They increased empathy, but they also made people think that blind people were essentially incapable of living regular lives. Which is sort of not what you want to come out of these experiences.
SOLEIL: [laughs] No.
ROSE: But it’s just one of the examples of ways that if you make empathy the end-all be-all, you might miss some of the detrimental effects that come out of some of these simulations because you’re asking someone to experience something for a short period of time, and that is sort of framed around a loss or a pain or some sort of trauma as opposed to sort of a more well-rounded idea of what someone’s life actually looks like.
SOLEIL: Mmhmm. It reminds me so much, actually, of the Me Too news cycle where you have all of these women and all of these marginalized people talking about sexual harassment and assault and all of these things, and we’re lifting up their voices in the media and in social media. And I get that, and I think it’s really important. But I think that it almost has this tinge of just tragedy porn to it.
ROSE: Yeah. I think it’s interesting because so much of the Me Too movement seems to sort of be bound up in the quantity, that men are suddenly going, “Oh, wow. All of these women have had these things happen to them.” I mean, the Larry Nassar case, right? 150 people gave witness or gave impact statements. I think it was over 100 girls that were abused. And it shouldn’t be that oh, it needs to be 100 people for this to count, right? It should be just one person. But so much of the conversation seems to be around figuring out ways to convince men, largely, that this is real, and the current situation seems to be in volume of stories, in saying, “Me too,” right? “Me too. Me too. Me too.” Even in the name.
It reminds me of—and I’m sure you’ve seen these stories, and this is pre-Me too—every year or so there would be some story on some web publication about a man who decided to suddenly start playing video games with either a female-presenting avatar or a woman’s name attached and being like, “Wow! People really do treat women differently in games!”
ROSE: And you’d be like, yeah. How many times did you need to hear that from women in order to believe it? But it makes me totally livid every time I see one of those stories because people are like, “Oh, wow. This guy did this thing, this experiment or this thing, and he shows this really happens.” And you’re like, fuck you! You know? You can’t just listen to all of the people that have told you this really happens?
ROSE: I mean, I am waiting for the day—and I don’t think it’s very long from now—where VR is used in things like harassment training and sexual harassment training in the workplace, right? Where it’s if you haven’t already figured out, dudes, that you shouldn’t do these things, let’s put you in the shoes of someone who’s being harassed or who’s being belittled or whatever this is. And this idea that we can use this to kind of correct for some of these non-desirable traits, as a tech person would put it, in behaviors, in largely men. I think that’s not that far away. I’ve heard it pitched already in tech conversations. And that’s the part where I have questions. If you are a person who’s never been harassed before, is it going to be effective to put on goggles and see what that “feels like?” Because you’re not really getting what it feels like, right? You’re getting what it looks like. You’re getting what it sounds like. But if you have never been in a position of not having power, or if you’ve never been coerced at work before, or if you just are a man who has never really been pushed into those situations before, I’m not sure that seeing it happen from a first-person perspective with goggles on is really gonna convey what that feels like and the powerlessness.
And then I sort of predict that that backfires. ‘Cause then you have all these men who are like, “Well, I’ve experienced it, and it’s not that bad. Why didn’t she just walk away? Why didn’t she just do this? I would’ve done this.” And it removes the agency and removes the power of people’s stories and the actually listening part of this whole empathy conversation.
SOLEIL: So much of the “empathy experience” seems to be rooted in the process of making the Other—be they a racial, sexual, or traumatized Other—relatable to you, the viewer. The stories and scenes are constructed to make you feel a certain way. That’s why, for example, two essays about race can come off really differently if one of the authors has lived the experience of being racially marginalized while the other has not.
That’s why I found Your Black Friend, a comic and animated short by the cartoonist Ben Passmore, so compelling. It’s about a particular Black American experience, by a particular Black American, and he’s not just trying to make the experience 100% relatable. He’s trying to make you understand your own complicity.
[recorded clip of Your Black Friend with mellow music in the background]
BEN: [voiceover for cartoon] Your black friend wonders if you know that, unlike you, he has to constantly monitor his speech, affect, and dress relative to his environment. A misreading could mean the difference between being the black friend and being that black guy.
Your black friend wishes you understood why he hates it, hates it, when the barista calls him “baby,” like she’s his Auntie or any other black woman over the age of 50. Your black friend wishes you’d play more than Beyoncé. There are more black performers than Beyoncé, and he’s worried that you do not know that!
Your black friend hates it that you slide into black presentations thoughtlessly. He feels like you’re mocking him with your black-ccent but knows that you are totally unaware of this.
Your black friend feels like a man without a country. Your black friend knows that he’s valued both by black and white people for his close proximity to whiteness but is also totally devalued for it simultaneously. He is lost in this contradiction and held responsible for it.
Your black friend would like to forget all his fears and frustrations around race. [police sirens] But it’s always impossible.
[end recorded clip]
BEN: It’s always really appealed to me when James Baldwin said that there needs to be some sort of linear collaboration between black and white people. We need white people to destroy white supremacy. Ultimately, they’re the ones that are gonna have to do it. And it just seemed weird to me to just give these white people this weird symbolic job to do when I felt like where it really needed to start is that white people just needed to realize, you know, kind of see the world like Neo did at the end of The Matrix. You know what I mean? Where they just start seeing the 1s and 0s of white supremacy. So, yeah, that was really it. I was like, you know, it’s like they don’t really understand it. Why are we giving them these stupid— ‘Cause they want outs. They wanna feel, they just kinda wanna feel absolved a lot of times. But really, I feel like they need to understand first.
SOLEIL: I guess my sort of philosophical question to you because that was sort of the goal of the work, getting people to understand, really, to what extent do you think people can actually—people who aren’t you—to what extent do you think they can actually understand your experience through art?
BEN: Hmm. That’s a really good question. I mean, I’m not white. So, it’s really hard for me to know what the limitations of their perspective about society is, like where the blinders are. I think that there is more possibility for feeling a fraternity through an understanding of emotion than like a deep understanding of numbers and facts. It’s really interesting to me that the Left in general— You know, you’ll go to a hip white party, and they’re talking about school-to-prison pipeline. And at least in New Orleans, everyone’s talking about gentrification and the systemic displacement of black people. But you know, these same types of people wanna touch your hair. These same types of people are doing weird black-ccent things, you know? So, I think there’s this assumption that facts is the thing that will get people motivated to engage in society in a way to sort of dissolve white supremacy. But I don’t actually think that’s true. I think it is possible for people to understand a feeling of alienation because it’s such a— Like, a relationship to feeling alienated within society is such a resonate narrative generally, across all races. So, I actually have more hope that people will be like, “OK. You feel alienated and distant from your identity and your body because of society.” On some level, most people feel that way.
Activists are ultimately trying to take alienation or oppression and to try to figure out systems to mitigate harm done by the State. And for me, that’s not really my goal. For my particular relationship to anarchism is that you take ways that the State and society create oppression and alienation, and you create relationships with each other and systems to sort of enforce the opposite of alienation and oppression that are hopefully systems that also deconstruct those systems. It’s like really affirming conflict over reform. So, I guess when it comes to my politic, I guess I feel more hopeful, like we can be in a room and talk about what feels good and what feels bad, and there can be an intuitive process about how to fight for liberation in that way.
SOLEIL: We use empathy a lot in social movements to attempt to turn the tide of sentiment towards us. Think about, for example, the #BlackLivesMatter movement and the struggles that often ensue over media coverage of police brutality against Black Americans. Oftentimes, the media has a choice of which photo they’ll use of the victim: Depending on what kind of story they wanna tell, they can use a mugshot or something like a picture from a birthday party. Those kinds of choices can either increase or decrease the viewer’s empathy towards the subject. And movements like Black Lives Matter know that that is an important battleground in their fight against systemic racism.
BEN: Yeah. I think it’s definitely one of those things like you’re talking about, empathy verse other things. I think that that’s the thing. White people, I think, really understanding the length and depth and persistence of pain in the face of white supremacy is gonna be the thing, hopefully, that makes them go all in. Because I don’t think that facts are gonna do that. No one’s at the top of the barricade being like, “The comparative literacy rates of black teenagers to white teenagers is unacceptable.” No one’s burning cop cars over that. It’s [laughs] it’s the deep terror in the face of police repression and violence and harassment that gets them to do that.
[mellow music continues, then drifts out]
SOLEIL: To think more about how empathy figures into social movements, I wanted to get a better sense of how it’s seeped into the day-to-day work and relationships within social justice activism. So, I talked to Frances Lee, whose essay on activism and ideological purity tests titled Excommunicate Me from the Church of Social Justice really got me thinking about how the obsession with showing one’s goodness can often take precedence over doing good work. That essay also earned them a spot on the first-ever Bitch 50 list!
FRANCES: So, my name is Frances Lee, and I’m a writer and a scholar and an activist based out of Seattle, Washington. So, I’m getting my Masters in Cultural Studies at the University of Washington-Bothell, and I write essays about activist culture, especially Leftist progressive activist culture.
SOLEIL: Can you talk a little bit about the dynamics that you wrote about in Excommunicate? What did you observe?
FRANCES: Yeah. So, I was really prompted to write that essay because it was something that I had been kind of ruminating on for a couple of years, being in activist communities. And one thing that kinda surprised me as I started doing activism and being around people with anti-oppressive values and liberatory values was that a lot of times, I felt really alone and isolated and also just scared to ask questions about topics I didn’t know about. If I just maybe disagreed with what someone was saying, there was just this kind of culture of fear and of silencing. And the idea that there’s only—no one ever says this, but—there is this idea being propagated that there’s kind of this only one way to be a radical activist. And so, you can see that kind of ideology really expressed in websites like Everyday Feminism. But I don’t wanna demonize that site, but any articles that are like, 10 Ways To Be a Male Ally, or 7 Ways To Not Be Ableist, or things like that that make it seem like there are all these things you have to do to become a certain kind of activist, right? So, it’s a doing, but it’s also like a very outward performance of showing people that you have read these articles, you have been part of these conversations, and you have the latest analysis.
So, the main, I guess, idea in the article was that there’s so much energy being put into becoming a “pure activist” that I’m just worried it’s taking away from actual movement-building, where newcomers don’t feel welcome because they haven’t had all this exposure or education to social justice language and norms. But then also, for people who are already in the movement, it feels it’s just so much work to be doing on top of actually going out and protesting or lobbying for better bills or having a hard conversation with your family member who’s racist or something like that. So, yeah, I just wanna draw attention to the extra energy that I feel is really unnecessary, and it’s more like collateral damage of doing activism in this day and age.
SOLEIL: Yeah, and I’ve seen a lot of the same articles that you’ve seen, I think. One thing that I really noticed was that empathy and doing empathy was on a lot of those lists of how to be a really good ally or how to do the work. Have you noticed that as well?
FRANCES: Yeah, definitely. I would say that empathy—or at least empathy as a tactic—is relied upon heavily to kind of get these notions across of the injustices that are happening. Or like if you’re a white person or someone with privilege, I see a lot of the tactics of sharing really painful stories and stories of suffering to white people or people in power in an effort to really get them to change the way they think and ultimately, change the way they act.
SOLEIL: Do you think, or would you credit that sort of trend that you’ve seen in empathy consumption for, it seems like there’s a prevalence of suffering narratives in left-leaning work. Personal essays, for example, have been panned for this, just people bearing their souls in attempt to get people to understand, for example, the black woman experience, for instance. And you know, I think that a lot of writers who are marginalized often get tapped for those sorts of pieces. So, does that connection have resonance for you? Have you seen that?
FRANCES: Definitely. Yes, I’ve definitely seen that. I mean, I think part of it is, at least for me, I wrote a lot of those things, and that was a lot of my online persona maybe a few years ago when I was first coming into my trans identity and embracing being queer and identifying as a person of color. And it was really leading with those stories of oppression and hurt that it just made me feel empowered. ‘Cause I never really had a chance to understand my experiences in those ways and finally had an audience and a community who really celebrated those stories. And I think that’s so important to the person telling that story, foremost, you know. But I kind of hear what you’re saying of it might be empowering, but it’s also this tactic for getting other people to change, right?
It’s tricky, you know? So, I wrote up some notes about the strategy of displaying suffering and what that kind of do over time to audience members. And I think one of the things it can do is desensitize people to horrible experiences and stories that are happening in the world right now and to people they know and love or people in their communities. There’s this really amazing book that I’m reading right now in one of my classes called Scenes of Subjection by Saidiya Hartman. And in it—so, this is an African American woman scholar—and she talks about the display of the slave’s ravaged body back in slavery and how over time, this display, rather than inciting indignation or even empathy, they prevent viewers, white viewers, white audience members from feeling anything. Because it just becomes so familiar. And so, Hartman talks about, she has this phrase called the “spectacular character of black suffering,” right? So, it’s spectacle. So, I think that if we’re only relying on these narratives of suffering, then we become a spectacle. And then a spectacle is just sort of like this form of entertainment and not just another human in front of you, right?
So, yeah. That’s what I would say is sorta tricky about leading with those stories. And I’m actually working on a new essay. It probably won’t be done in a while, but it’s about rejecting damage-centered narratives about ourselves. So, just always thinking, so, if we’re in a minoritized category, always thinking of ourselves as damaged or oppressed or broken or missing something. And how that, at least for me, that feels like that’s a very huge disservice to the other ways in which we are not those things, and we’re creative and full of joy and wisdom and brilliance and things that are so much more than just the singular story that’s becoming over-familiar of just being like suffering objects.
SOLEIL: I asked Dr. Pedwell for her thoughts on this, too.
CAROLYN: So, in my work, one of the situations I’ve been interested in that links to this is how on the one hand, empathy is kind of widely positioned as universal, right, as something that everybody has or at least has the capacity to develop or to improve. But at the same time, in many narratives of social justice that call for empathy as an affective solution, it tends to be privileged subjects, socially-privileged subjects in terms of race or ethnicity or class position or geographical location that are called on to kind of express empathy or have more of it. It’s so often the socially-privileged subject that is interpolated to feel for somebody who’s positioned as less-privileged or marginalized. And I’ve been interested in what the implications of that might be.
So, if it’s so frequently privileged subjects that are seen as the empathizers or those who are capable of choosing whether or not to extend empathy and compassion, what does that actually give them? Give them an opportunity to kind of test and hone their affective capacities through empathy? But in terms of the ones who are routinely then positioned as simply the objects or potential recipients of empathy, they’re not afforded those same opportunities. Their affective capacities or complexities are really never the object of discussion. They’re only kind of positioned as possible receivers of this kind of compassion or empathetic gesture and therefore, fixed in place, you know? And I think through those types of relations, you often see a reification or a kind of re-solidifying of social and geopolitical hierarchies and relations to power that we’re now very familiar with through empathy, rather than their disruption.
SOLEIL: What’s interesting too is the fact that we exist in culture. And when you think about the media, for instance, and representation, oftentimes in fiction and in non-fiction media, we’re asked—regardless of who we are as subjects—we’re asked to identify with white, middle-upper class, cis, heterosexual people. And so, the burden of empathy does fall on the subaltern and on everyone towards those people.
CAROLYN: Mm, mm.
SOLEIL: But we don’t think of it as empathy in the same way as, for example, like a white teacher in some brown country, right? We separate that in our minds, but those both sort of feel like empathy to me.
CAROLYN: Yeah, I really like that example. I don’t think I’ve actually thought about it in exactly that way, but I think you’re so right about that, is that because the white, middle class, cisgender subject is so often just positioned as the norm, and invisibly as so, or just automatically as so, that all of the different people that are compelled on to kinda put themselves in their shoes are not seen as doing something special or something that requires effort of this thing called empathy. But just reading or watching TV or seeing a film. So, I think it is actually important to pick that out as a potential process of empathy that might involve skill or time or imagination, but also particular or potential forms of violence, you know, repeatedly being called on to empathize with this kind of mainstream or privileged subject.
SOLEIL: So, what are our options, then? How do we align empathy with justice? Or rather, how do we practice that sort of feeling in a way that better serves ourselves and other people? Maybe the answer—or at least one of the answers—lies in a different sort of emotion.
FRANCES: Oh, like I felt something for this person, and I hurt for this person. So, my job is done, you know? And I think that’s so dangerous, and I would rather people to not feel anything and just go do something to fix these structures. Go do something. Like, go call your Senators. Go talk to your family members, right?
Two of my favorite scholars, Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang, they wrote a book called Youth Resistance Research and Theories of Change. So, I think this goes along with our implicit theories of change. Like, what are theories of change in these movements? And by that they, and we, mean just a belief about how a situation can be changed or improved, right? And so, empathy is a huge theory of change, and I feel like it hasn’t been, I mean, it’s definitely been tested, and I think that it needs to be looked at a lot more critically in terms of activism as a theory of change. Do we think it’s effective, and why not? And there’s so many different theories of change, and I also feel like nobody really agrees on any of them in movements, which is why it’s kinda confusing to be in these movements. ‘Cause it’s so decentralized, but it’s also really cool that there’s so many leaders that pop up, and there are just different ways to try to create a more just society, right?
But I think yeah, that empathy is, I just think that we need to not focus so much on empathy as being a theory of change. ‘Cause it’s so incomplete, you know? It doesn’t even involve action; it just involves feeling, which doesn’t really do anything on a larger scale.
SOLEIL: Yeah. Do you see a connection between that, empathy as a theory of change, and the sort of internal work that is so endemic to Protestant Christianity?
FRANCES: Yeah! It’s an interesting aspect. ‘Cause I’m kind of on this kick where I’m just all about doing internal work, you know? But it’s not around empathy. It’s actually around cultivating compassion, which I think is different from empathy ‘cause empathy is kind of this neutral thing. Like, you could feel empathy for someone who’s being really evil, and you could kind of understand where they’re coming from, right? So, I think empathy’s such a neutral thing, but I think compassion is really kind of the virtue, if you will, that I really wanna move more towards and see activist movements focus more on. And with compassion, tied to that is love, right? Really, really finding that part of yourself that feels connected with another person, not just because they’re suffering but because they’re another person that you’re living in society with, right? And wanting them to be well and wanting them to be nourished and spiritually nourished as well, right?
As we’re doing these things, who are we becoming? I think that question is so important to be asking while we do activism or perform activism or what have you. I think that is so important to be attentive to, of our spiritual side and are we becoming more loving people? Or are we becoming small and spiteful and unable to connect with anyone outside of our limited communities?
SOLEIL: This episode of Popaganda is sponsored by Lewis & Clark College’s 37th Annual Gender Studies Symposium, titled “Insecurity,” which will take place March 7th, 8th, and 9th in Portland, Oregon. “Insecurity” will explore subjects including the prison-industrial complex, community justice, intimate partner violence, global politics, and creative resistance. Don’t miss out on this exciting series of free lectures, workshops, panel discussions, and an art exhibit. Learn more at www.lclark.edu, or click on the Gender Studies Symposium ad. We’ll see you on campus!
Thanks to Rose Eveleth, Frances Lee, Ben Passmore, and Dr. Carolyn Pedwell for speaking with us for today’s episode. We’ll post links to their work on our website. Thanks for listening.
Thanks for listening to Popaganda. This episode of Popaganda was produced by Ashley Duchemin. Our jingle is by Mucks & Owen Wuerker. Thanks to Melov for their cover of New Order’s Blue Monday. Additional music was provided by Blue Dot sessions. If you have any thoughts or feelings, praise, feel encouraged to send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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