Empathy: Making Sense of a Concept

In the preface, I defined feminist empathy as the ability to feel oneself into the experience of a woman in unwarranted suffering. Empathy is not the same as pity. It is not sympathy. It transcends both. The OED defines empathy as “the power of projecting one’s personality (and so fully comprehending) the object of contemplation.” Mencius is best known for giving Confucianism its most profound philosophical grounding. He says: “no man is devoid of a heart sensitive to the suffering of others. Suppose a man were, all of a sudden, to see a young child on the verge of falling into a well. He would certainly be moved to compassion.”85 Adam Smith argues that we are fundamentally interested in the fortunes of others; we identify with others by “conceiving what we ourselves should feel in that like situation.” This identification requires a conscious effort of imagination. In some measure, we become “the same person with him, and thence form some idea of his sensations, and even feel something which, though weaker in degree, is not altogether unlike them.”86 Smith recognizes the impossibility of feeling exactly what others feel; he therefore stresses the situation that provokes those feelings. Martha Nussbaum acknowledges the same condition in her definition of empathy as the “imaginative reconstruction of the experience of the sufferer. ” Empathy “involves a participatory enactment of the situation of the sufferer, but always combined with the awareness that one is not oneself the sufferer.”87

Frans De Waal states that empathy is an instinct that humans have in common with the primates.88 He traces the contemporary use of empathy to Theodor Lipps (1851-1914), a German psychologist.89 Lipps notes that we experience suspense when watching a high-wire artist “because we vicariously enter his body and thus share his experience. We’re on the rope with him.”90 Lipps describes this interaction as Einfuhlung (a feeling into). He further offers empatheia, em (into), and pathos (feeling), “experiencing strong affection or passion” with the other.91 Therefore empathy is a sentiment that compels one to enter into the feelings of other, different selves.

Simon Baron-Cohen argues that “empathy occurs when we suspend our single-minded focus of attention, and instead adopt a double-minded focus of attention.”92 The single-minded focus of attention considers other people as objects, perhaps to be used for our benefit. Baron- Cohen further argues that:

Being able to empathize means being able to understand accurately the other person’s position, to identify with “where they are at”.... Empathy makes the other person feel valued, enabling them to feel their thoughts and feeling have been heard, acknowledged and respected.93

Suzanne Keen argues that “empathy, a vicarious, spontaneous sharing of affect, can be provoked by witnessing another’s emotional state, by hearing about another’s condition, or even by reading.”94 She provides a succinct differentiation between empathy and sympathy. The empathetic person says: “I feel what you feel. I feel your pain.,” whereas in sympathy one says “I feel supportive about your feelings. I feel pity for your pain.”95 Empathy is superior to pity and sympathy in the sense that in it, the empathizer and the empathized are seen as equal. The only difference is that one experiences discomfort and the other feels it vicariously. Unlike in pity, there is no feeling of condescension.

Empathy is not an uncontested concept. Keen points out that some feminists and postcolonial critics dismiss empathy as relying on the notion of universal human emotions. For them, empathy “becomes yet another example of the Western imagination’s imposition of its own values on cultures and peoples that it scarcely knows, but presumes to ‘feel with,’ in cultural imperialism of the emotions.”96 There is a palpable concern that empathy might lead to paternalism. But this critique assumes that Western imperialism is concerned with the humanity of the oppressed or exploited peoples of the world. The opposite is indeed the case. As Abdul JanMohamed97 and Albert Memmi98 have maintained, imperialism actually seeks to negate the humanity of the oppressed, and it does so by deploying what JanMohamed has called the Manichaean allegory. Indeed, were the colonialists or imperialists to exercise empathy, their project of domination would fall apart because they would have switched perspectives with the exploited people of their colonies. The critique also assumes that the colonized have no capacity or no need for empathy among themselves. Empathy is not passive, and it does not seek to shape the life of the other. The only way to appreciate the importance of empathy is to imagine a world without it, a world in which a great deal of personal interaction is controlled by cold logic and adherence to abstract ideologies.

I am drawn to the concept of empathy because it is the most basic and profound form of relation between individuals. It functions without regard to culture or ideology except, of course, where it has been systematically blocked by upbringing and indoctrination. Nazi Germany, apartheid South Africa, and the Jim Crow American South are the most obvious examples. De Waal argues that:

We sometimes deliberately shut the portal, such as when we suppress identification with a declared enemy group. We do so by removing their individuality, defining them as an anonymous mass of unpleasant, inferior specimen of a different taxonomic group.99

Where empathy is not blocked by indoctrination, it brings people back to the most basic form of bodily identification with others regardless of race, sex, age, religious beliefs, and other forms of group identifications. Colonialism, imperialism, and other forms of exploitation and oppression close the portals of empathy by maintaining narratives that dehumanize different groups. The importance of empathy in cultural, political, and legal institutions cannot be overemphasized. It often means the difference between saving a drowning person and leaving him to die. James D. Johnson et al. have argued that the absence of racial empathy can lead to problems in the American judicial system; it impacts everything from jury selection to verdicts. Thus justice is not always blind.100 Sophie Trawalter et al. contend that racial bias can also impact doctors’ relation to their patients. One study has shown that some medical professionals assume that black people feel less pain than white people. Therefore white people are more likely to receive treatment for pain while black people are left to languish.101

What is said of racial relations in America applies to relations between the sexes in Africa. Different ideologies that are packaged in seemingly harmless terms such as culture, tradition, heritage, et cetera, can block people’s empathy towards others. Thus a man who has multiple wives or who simply dismisses his first wife because she did not bear him a son can easily explain away his action as merely fulfilling the dictates of his culture. In this regard, therefore, adhering to cultural heritage or even to nationbuilding as categories for interpreting the African woman’s experience is flawed. My conception of feminist empathy undercuts the effects of ideologies by centering on women’s subjectivities.102

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