i dream of being possible

on the problem on empathy

Yesterday @jvinopal had a series of tweets that sort of have been sitting in my brain since she posted them. Here they are:

But to see the world through someone else’s eyes, even for a short while, can really influence how you think about & interact original tweet

with it and with people going forward. I’m aware of things I never would have noticed before. How can we bring that awareness into (+) original tweet

our lives on an ongoing basis? We can’t all live all the experiences of everyone else, but we need to become aware of the world others (+) original tweet

as potentially fundamentally different from our own. How do we cultivate and sustain that awareness? (-) original tweet

I’m not going to really address the topic directly, mainly because I think that the individual differences of people’s socialization, cognitive abilities, and state of mind mean that everyone will likely have to develope personal strategies for nourishing and sustaining their empathy.

The problem of empathy (also disgust) is critical for understanding how people make moral judgements and the ways that these perceptions and judgements feed into systemic oppression.

For many people, race does matter, even if they don’t know it. They feel more empathy when they see white skin pierced than black. This is known as the racial empathy gap. To study it, researchers at the University of Milano-Bicocca showed participants (all of whom were white) video clips of a needle or an eraser touching someone’s skin. They measured participants’ reactions through skin conductance tests—basically whether their hands got sweaty—which reflect activity in the pain matrix of the brain. If we see someone in pain, it triggers the same network in our brains that’s activated when we are hurt. But people do not respond to the pain of others equally. In this experiment, when viewers saw white people receiving a painful stimulus, they responded more dramatically than they did for black people.

The racial empathy gap helps explain disparities in everything from pain management to the criminal justice system. But the problem isn’t just that people disregard the pain of black people. It’s somehow even worse. The problem is that the pain isn’t even felt.source

This is a different kind of empathy gap than Jennifer was talking about1. And there are certainly many other kinds of empathy gaps. Some of types can be directly experienced (as having a temporary mobility disability can demonstrate) but some are impossible (only Asians can ever know what it is like to be Asian).

One possible way to address these gaps in empathy that Jennifer suggested was based on this article about literary fiction which asserts that literary fiction (as oppossed to genre fiction) improves a person’s capacity for empathy. All well and good…2

Except that we instantly get tangled into discussions about what counts a ‘literary’ fiction, the English literary canon, and so on. Being a product of a Canadian education, I’ve read many books in the canon (my brief stint as an English major likewise had me reading many more). And the lack of diversity in this canon is well known. And this lack of diversity applies even in the upper echelons of higher ed:

From what I saw the plurality of students and faculty had been educated exclusively in the tradition of writers like William Gaddis, Francine Prose, or Alice Munro—and not at all in the traditions of Toni Morrison, Cherrie Moraga, Maxine Hong-Kingston, Arundhati Roy, Edwidge Danticat, Alice Walker, or Jamaica Kincaid. In my workshop the default subject position of reading and writing—of Literature with a capital L—was white, straight and male.source

Having recent started listening to Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, it boggles my mind that a novel that exquisitely written isn’t included in the Canon. It is also the first book I’ve picked up in a long time that actually spoke to me on a personal level that I could identify with. Instead I had to read garbage like The Great Gatsby with characters so strange and alien to me, it might as well have been science fiction (don’t even get me started on The Catcher in the Rye).

If memory serves, last year (year before?), long before I had actually met and started interacting with @nnschiller I think I criticized his notion of reading diverse lit for a year on tumblr because of the ways that this project only really makes sense in a world that assumes that whiteness (cisness, abledness, etc.) is the default. It is very strange and foreign to my brain that an avid reader might not have noticed that (by chance, I’m sure) that they’ve mostly been reading white men for their entire lives. When people talk about their love of libraries as a youth, I remember the long hours I spent patiently combing through the stacks for any/all queer literature that I could find, because it was basically impossible to find otherwise.

(Okay, I think I’ve seriously wandered off topic here…)

Anyway, the point I was actually going to make, related to a series of tweets I posted a few days ago, is that one of the best places to start learning about (and developing empathy) the lives of marginalized people is social media of various kinds. There are so many barriers to mainstream media for marginalized peole that relying solely on these traditional media will mean missing out on a great deal of important thinkers/writers.

And one of the big benefits of this is that because of the immediacy and personal nature of this sort of thing, you will often get real life stories. Stories that you can use to develope and sustain your empathy.

Even more importantly, since simply reading a twitter stream or a blog to learn about ‘them’ is kind of creepy, you can actually interact with real, live marginalized people. You can work to build solidarity and community by learning how to engage us on our terms (rather than yours). This work on empathy can be for something greater than self-edification.3

  1. Both are relevant and related to each other, however, if you read the paragraph following this cited one, you’ll see that a different experiment showed that medical professionals (and others) “assume black people feel less pain than white people,” which has obvious implications for Black people who exist at the intersection of disability and race. 

  2. Ugh, super annoyed though at the random dig at autistic people in the last paragraph. As a recent incident in Toronto showed, this expectation that empathy only has to go one way (from autistic people to allistic people) creates a situation where a city councillor can say that a residential treatment house for autistic youth has “ruined the community”7. Many residents of the area were also complaining about the mere existence of autistic youth in their neighbourhood. Can you see the double standard here? Autistic people are expected to develop empathy for everyone else, but very little expectation is placed on allistics to develope empathy for autistics. 

  3. Yes, I could have made a list of people who I’ve personally learned a lot from and who I admire a great deal. However, not all of these people are for a general audience and would welcome me linking their blogs/twitters/tumblrs/etc. And do note: I’ve been careful to not label marginalized people talking about our lives as ‘social justice.’ Some do engage in this sort of thing, but others simply have personal media accounts and we live in a world were existing as a person of colour is an inherently political act. But this is sort of the point I’m making: trying this approach fundamentally means understanding that marginalized people are human and individuals, rather than standing as proxy for our entire group.