Radical Empathy and Collective Power

Empathy itself is just feeling another person's experience. It is a precursor to understanding. It is a precursor to friendship, it is a precursor to reconciliation.

Transcribed from the 19 May 2018 episode of This is Hell! Radio (Chicago) and printed with permission. Edited for space and readability. Listen to the whole interview:

The whole notion of projecting yourself into another person’s experience is a particularly Western, masculine notion of empathy. Nel Noddings defines empathy as receptivity. I like that definition, where it’s a mutual receptivity. Another definition I like is empathy as an interruption of power—which is a really radical idea, and very different from the way we tend to think about it.

Chuck Mertz: Extreme empathy can be a revolutionary force, challenging the current power structures’ very foundation. Or it can become commodified and turned into a “skill.” Here to reveal to us the power of empathy and how we can be empathic with even the worst dictators by realizing there’s a tyrant in all of us: urban, poverty, and labor issues writer Cris Beam is author of I Feel You: The Surprising Power of Extreme Empathy.

Welcome to This is Hell!, Cris.

Cris Beam: Hi, good morning, thanks for having me.

CM: It’s great to have you on the show.

Let’s start with a really obvious question. What do you mean by empathy? Is it simply sharing and understanding the feelings of other people? Or is it more?

CB: Once I started getting into the research, I realized that, pre-theory, we think it’s standing in another person’s shoes. But even that takes some unpacking. Because you think, “How would this feel for me to experience what you’re experiencing?” or “How would it feel for you to experience what you’re experiencing?” Each of those imaginative leaps is sort of complicated. There are troubles with both of them. With A, I’m not really imagining you. With B, I’m projecting into you, and colonizing you or swallowing up your agency.

So there are troubles with each of those “standing in the other person’s shoes.” There’s a person named Nel Noddings who says that the whole notion of projecting yourself into another person’s experience is a particularly Western, masculine notion of empathy. She defines empathy as just receptivity. I like that definition, where it’s a mutual receptivity. Another definition I like is empathy as an interruption of power—which is a really radical idea, and very different from the way we tend to think about it.

There are a lot of definitions, depending on who you’re talking to and what context you’re using it in.

CM: You mentioned the interruption of power. What do you mean by empathy being an interruption of power?

CB: That is really fascinating. I found out about it in South Africa. I’ve got an intellectual academic crush on someone named Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela, who was on the original Truth and Reconciliation Commission there. She was the only psychoanalyst on the original TRC. I asked her if I could come out and study with her. She runs an institute for second-generation trauma out there and thinks a lot about empathy.

At this university that she works at, students had done a completely awful, heinous, racist crime. And rather than just punishing the students (as we would do in the States), they brought the students that had committed the crime back into the school and said, “We are all implicated in this crime. We are the people that created these students, so therefore we are implicated too. So we welcome them back, and what we’re going to do is create an institute for reconciliation in the place where this crime was committed.”

That’s what they talk about when they talk about empathy as an interruption of power. They’re interrupting the power that these students who committed this crime, for example, once held—by showing them empathy.

CM: How much, then, is empathy a realization of the collective responsibility for whatever affront has been caused?

CB: That’s exactly what it is. That’s one definition of it. So it’s less of a patronizing “I see you and I feel your pain,” and more of a “Where do we stand collectively in this circle?”

CM: How easily does empathy become a kind of sympathy that leads to pity, even condescension? You mention this kind of displacing of ideas—how easily can empathy turn from being understanding others’ feelings to judging those perceived feelings?

CB: It’s very slippery. These terms are very gray and amorphous. Sympathy technically is different than empathy and you’re right to make the distinction. Sympathy has an element of action to it; sympathy does have connotations of pity, and it takes the next step, which is rather than just feeling someone else’s experience, it has an element of taking action to alleviate that suffering. Whereas empathy is merely experiencing another person’s experience. Empathy can slip very quickly into sympathy, because it is sort of a precursor to it. And the terms are all slippery.

I see that in the court system. All of my books end up looking at criminal justice systems. One of the court systems I looked at quite closely here in New York is the human trafficking intervention court, which is a prostitution court. What’s really interesting here is that now, anybody who is arrested for prostitution is sent to what they call “empathy court.” They’re still arrested, they’re still interfacing with the police; it’s still considered a crime to do sex work. But once they’re brought to the court they’re no longer given a fine or time in jail. They are given goods and services: they are given counseling; they are mandated to GED classes; they are mandated to immigration services—that kind of thing. It’s modeled very closely on the drug intervention court or the domestic violence court, those kinds of things—these other so-called empathy courts.

I’m afraid this ’empathic’ software is going to become very common, and we’re going to start to feel like our world is very curated for us, and we’re going to get comfortable with that, and start to lose some of our more humane, human interactions. I worry about that.

Back to your question about empathy versus sympathy: this is interesting because on the surface it looks good. It looks like we’re having empathy for these people. But then it slips into sympathy. They’re called ‘human trafficking intervention courts,’ and the idea is to intervene in trafficking. But not all people who are arrested for prostitution are being trafficked. Not all people want to be intervened with. Some people who are doing sex work want to be doing sex work and feel like this is their profession, and don’t want to be messed with. Some people are being trafficked; some people are kids and should be helped. But to paint everyone with a broad brush and say everyone who’s doing this should be getting out of the life is where it slips into that patronizing territory that we’re talking about.

CM: I want to get into your writing on the justice system in just a second. But you talk about this idea of empathy being a moral inclination—or is it a skill to be learned? Many in the market-driven corporate world are trying to make empathy a skill to be learned.

You write, “Justice is about moving empathy into action. Outside of the corporate sphere there is a pro-social element to the idea of empathy, an antecedent to getting along, to good citizenship, or to justice.”

So what happens to justice when empathy becomes something we do as a skill instead of something that is a moral inclination?

CB: It’s a really good question. Is empathy a skill or is it a moral inclination? We’re seeing that split primarily in schools. It’s a big split. There’s something called social and emotional learning, which is a curricular developmental area that all schools are involved in. There’s reading, writing, arithmetic—and then there’s social and emotional learning. Thousands upon thousands of schools are teaching empathy as part of their curriculum now—part of this is a push from a 49-state mandate to decrease bullying. One of the ways that they are thinking of doing that is to teach empathy.

But part of it is also a corporate push. It’s really interesting. Corporations now are pushing the school in subtle and not-so-subtle ways to teach empathy, because they think they need empathic workers. And there have been a number of articles that have come out, from Forbes to Harvard Business Review, that have really been pushing the schools to teach empathy as a skill set that they need to enter the workforce.

Corporations see empathy a little bit different than they way you or I might see empathy. When you go online and you shop for dog food and then a dog article pops up in your news feed—you and I might see that as surveillance, but they see that as empathy. And it’s a little bit deeper than the bastardization of a term. Empathy has shifted to mean something else. In our online experience we begin to feel really “empathized” with. It’s a way that empathy has shifted to mean that we’re being watched all the time and we expect our online experience, which is more and more of the way we spend our days, to feel like we are being curated to all the time. Corporations are calling that empathy, and they want students to learn that skill. They call it a skill.

I question whether empathy itself is a skill set. Is it something that can be numeratized and graded and figured out as a lesson plan? Or is it something that should be modeled? Is it something that should be done for goodness’ sake? I argue that it should be the latter. We keep doing these studies that show that over the last thirty or so years since we’ve been doing them, students are becoming less and less empathic. So it’s not working to be doing empathy-as-skill. We need to be modeling it as a value.

CM: You write, “Billions of us already unwillingly supply or numbly ignore the personal data we give away for free: our location, our friends, our likes, our private messages. As we wear straps on our wrists that count our steps and glasses on our faces that track where we look, and as these devices remit data back to the corporations that made them, so they can sell us even better straps and glasses to guide us to sites with ever more personalized products, we may even like it. Surveillance, as it’s normalized, can feel like devotion.”

Is that the empathy that corporate empathy gives us? And how much is that kind of empathy replacing our need for human empathy? Is it becoming a substitute, or is it rejuvenating our sense of humane empathy?

CB: It’s really hard to tell. And that’s what I wanted to question in this book. I want us to pay attention to it. People on the left sort of numbly say, “Yeah! Empathy is really great, teach it to our kids. Empathy is really wonderful!” There’s been a push for all things empathy. Especially before this last election, there was a real surge. Just as I was writing this book there was a lot of talk about empathy. I wondered if it was the corporate culture that we’re swimming in—and I wanted us to pay attention to that, to think, wait a minute, are we doing it because we’re being force-fed this empathic experience? Or is it because it is really a good thing? Are we being manipulated into believing that we’re being empathized with, so therefore we want empathy? Or are we actually becoming more empathic? I wanted to take that apart.

So I don’t know exactly where we are culturally, where the needle is landing. But I think it’s somewhere really complicated right now. I want people to pay attention to the fact that their online experience especially may be pushing them to blindly ask for empathy. I want them to take that apart a little bit.

CM: How much does consumerism, and the corporate empathy that goes along with it, advocate for a system where we displace human empathy into inanimate objects?

CB: There are cars now that promise to be “empathic” cars, that read our signals, that read the heat on our hands and change the colors of the dashboard to make our experience more comfortable for us, that read our temperature and change the music for us. Last year there were more than a hundred patents for facial recognition software, for when we’re online and just reading things, or looking at things on our screens, that will pick up our minute facial expressions through our video camera, and feed us back something that we supposedly want, or that we might want.

I worry that this might become a replacement for real human empathy, in subtle ways that we don’t notice. It could become commonplace, where first it feels sort of shocking and like surveillance, and then it feels very common. I’m afraid this facial recognition software is going to become very common, and we’re going to start to feel like our world is very curated for us, and we’re going to get comfortable with that, and start to lose some of our more humane, human interactions. I worry about that.

If we look at culture as a top-down phenomenon, it looks like we’re becoming less empathic, culturally. But if we look at it from the bottom-up perspective, it looks like we might be becoming more empathic.

CM: Is this the market working correctly, for the best of all of us, by giving profit-based incentives to the morally right thing to do? Or is this the corporate exploitation of empathy? What’s wrong with a good thing becoming profitable? What’s wrong with giving a profit incentive to doing the morally right thing? And why hasn’t the market done that already?

CB: It’s tricky. It’s not that it’s morally reprehensible, it’s that we’re calling it empathy, and we’re pushing for empathy in this way to be taught in our schools en masse. And we’re letting the onus of that responsibility go to teachers who have curricular designs that are grade-based, and we’re not necessarily thinking, How do I really care about people? How do I show my empathy, my kind, giving, caring empathy for another person in humane, naturalistic ways? How do I do that? We’re not thinking that through, and that’s what I worry about.

It’s not that the corporations are necessarily evil. They’re doing what they’ve always done, which is trying to make profit. And they’ve shifted from the mass-market commercial to individual targeting. The way they’re going to do that is through this “empathic” brand-building. As they do that, I just want all of us to be a little bit wary and not get comfortable with it as a replacement for real empathy.

CM: You write, “Every generation, a phrase enters the American consciousness and interrupts collective action, like a boulder changing the course of a stream. In the sixties, the phrase was civil rights. In the eighties, it was self-esteem. Now our word is empathy.”

Now, that’s great news, because I think we can all use more empathy for each other, but when it comes to civil rights—while advances were made, they were never fully realized. And the greed of the Me Generation, when self-esteem was the phrase, can’t really be seen as a victory either. So what does it mean for empathy to be the phrase of this generation? Will it ever be fully realized? Or is it going to blow up in our face?

CB: It’s hard to tell right now. It’s interesting to watch what’s happening when we have a president who has to carry around note cards to remind him to act empathic. If we look at culture as a top-down phenomenon, it looks like we’re becoming less empathic, culturally. But if we look at it from the bottom-up perspective, it looks like we might be becoming more empathic. Look at the Parkland students; look at some of the cultural stuff that’s going on in other areas; it seems like there’s hope. It’s hard to get a big-picture meta-perspective on this, as far as whether it’s going to blow up in our face.

In the research I did, I found a number of places that were practicing and deploying empathy in really interesting and hopeful ways.

CM: You write, “Recently Hillary Clinton appeared on CNN imploring white people to ‘put themselves in the shoes’ of black families. The chief of the Los Angeles police department called for recent police academy graduates to ‘conjure more empathy,’ and a team of developers at the University of Southern California just built a virtual reality video game for people to experience life at war in Aleppo, Syria, replete with bombs and refugee centers, precisely to generate more empathy for the Syrians surviving it. Empathy is certainly in the room, but it isn’t—as some claim—the house we now live in. Have we entered, despite all the violence, the empathic era?”

I would think it’s not despite all the violence, but perhaps because of all the violence. If the empathic era is happening, is it to some degree attributable to the permanent war on terror? Is the empathic era we’re heading toward—if not within—the result of relentless, ongoing wars everywhere? Did that spark the new era of empathy?

CB: I’m not sure, but I don’t think so. We go through cycles. Empathy—the word is just a hundred years old, and it comes from the German Einfühlung, which means ‘feeling into.’ It was originally an aesthetic concept. It was a hundred years ago, and it was in response to egoist philosophies at the time. In other words, every hundred years or so we go through these cycles, where we swing into a fascination with things like empathy. Two hundred years ago we called it sympathy, with Smith and Hume. But they were talking essentially about empathy, and they were responding to the egoist Hobbes and Rousseau “savage man” philosophies of the day. Then we came to a hundred years ago and we had the German concept of Einfühlung, and then we swung back again with the last hundred years with Nietzsche and the superhuman and all of that, and now we’re swinging back into a sort of empathic place.

It’s not so much that we’re reacting to wars and trauma—which have always been going on—but that we swing between these poles, culturally, that say man is really selfish and then, no, man is really connected and empathic and understanding, and then we swing back again and say man is really selfish, and so on.

If we take the big picture, that’s more what’s going on.

CM: You write about mirror neurons, and how we are essentially wired to be empathic. How much criticism do you get about that kind of concept? People don’t want to think that they are in some way being mechanically driven by their brain instead of being determined by the empathy within their soul, their spirit, their consciousness.

How much blowback is there to the idea of mirror neurons because it seems to take human agency out of the process of empathy?

We continually need to expand our circle and expand our exposure, so that we are always being challenged to understand and have the kinds of people who feel reflective to us be as broad as can be.

CB: In the early nineties a man named [Giacomo] Rizzolatti discovered in monkeys that these motor neurons fire when a monkey witnesses another monkey doing something—say, reaching for an apple, rather than just reaching for the apple himself. They were dubbed ’empathy neurons,’ because finally we thought we had a way to explain empathy neurologically: action neurons fire in the brain when you’re not performing any action yourself.

But mirror neurons have been largely debunked. For one thing, they haven’t been perceived in humans because we can’t stick the little probes into human brains (the experiments are not very empathic towards the monkeys). Also, we can’t say for sure that we know what these neurons are doing. We know that they are firing, but we don’t know that they’re actually performing some kind of empathic action.

What was interesting about the mirror neuron discovery was the avalanche that it caused. Basically everyone leaped onto it and said, “This is it! We’ve discovered the neurological basis for empathy!” And then there were studies on empathy and anger, empathy and music, empathy and business, empathy and restaurateurism! People went nuts. And even though it’s been largely refuted, we still want to hold on to something that says we have a neurological basis for empathy. It’s been very interesting to watch that.

We look for places in the brain that perform empathy. It’s hard to say, “Here’s the discrete chunk of neural real estate that is empathy.” It’s not like we can do that. There’s a person named Kent Kiehl who scans the brains of criminal psychopaths, and he’s looked at the places where there’s atrophy in the brain. So we could maybe make a link and say these are the areas, this is where empathy may be because it isn’t happening in these people. But it’s still very hard for us to say definitively where it’s happening.

CM: You write how doctor Marco Iacoboni, who directs the lab at the UCLA brain mapping center, “thinks the mirroring process is very simple: babies do it right out of the womb when they copy tongue movements and other facial expressions. More complex imitation is built on this mirroring, learning can be built on that. Humans imitate one another unconsciously, automatically—though some do it more than others. There are now studies that show the more often a person imitates, the more empathic she’ll be in social situations. This could indicate mirror neurons are a starting line.”

You then quote Iacoboni saying, “It tells us that, in fact ,the way we get into the minds of others is by simulating or imitating or re-enacting what they do.”

But we can only imitate the people with whom we have contact. So do we have any less empathy for those we cannot imitate? To what extent do you think that as inequality grows, so does a lack of empathy? Because with class and income mobility decreasing, it’s becoming harder and harder to be in someone else’s shoes.

CB: That’s an interesting question. There have been studies that have shown that we have less empathy for people who are a few towns over, for example, or who look different from us. They’ve done all kinds of studies around juries and jury selection with this. The less someone is accessible to you, imaginatively, the less you tend to react favorably in terms of sentencing the person. So what you’re suggesting makes a lot of sense.

Can we only mirror them if they are recognizable to us? If we can actually see them and see ourselves in them? We continually need to expand our circle and expand our exposure, so that we are always being challenged to understand and have the kinds of people who feel reflective to us be as broad as can be.

CM: What do you mean by empathy being a moral art? And how does empathy as a moral art differ from it being a skill?

CB: A moral art sounds kind of like an oxymoron. But it’s an art in that it’s ineffable. It’s something you have to feel your way into. But it’s moral in that you do it for goodness’ sake. You do it to be decent. You do it for decency and for rightness, because it’s the right thing to do. But it’s also an art because you apply it dexterously and with care and attention, the way that you do any art, where you respond moment by moment—as opposed to a skill, which is something that you learn once and can apply the same way every time.

CM: Can there be such thing as too much empathy?

CB: I think so. I think there are people who are highly sensitive—HSPs. They feel so much that they can’t react. They can’t take the next step. Usually empathy is a precursor to something else. Empathy itself is just feeling another person’s experience. It is a precursor to understanding. It is a precursor to friendship, it is a precursor to reconciliation. If you have too much empathy and you’re just blown over by feeling, you’re not going to get that next step.

CM: You write, “At the beginning of this project, I thought that self-empathy was self-indulgent. But I see now that it’s the in-breath that allows the out-breath to occur.”

What do you mean by self-empathy? Why is it so important?

CB: When I started this book, I really felt like the idea of self-empathy was really selfish. I didn’t like it. I was squirmy about it. I didn’t want to think about it. Then I had some personal crises happen, and I realized that my tools—just work hard, nose to the grindstone—were not serving me anymore. And I had to tune in and be thoughtful and kind to myself, and listen to what I needed, and respond to that.

I was suddenly alone after many years of being partnered, and I had to take care of myself, and didn’t know how to do that. And the only way to do that was through a kind of self-empathy, a kind of standing outside of myself and looking in and learning how to be empathic. I had to learn it. It was very new, and very surprising, and I realized that it’s important, and it actually made me more empathic toward other people, the way I learned to be empathic toward myself.

CM: I have a great deal of self-loathing. I think this is a way to combat that. You write, “I went inward and outward at once. When as a people we have moved more inward toward love, we also gaze outward toward a future for that love to take seed. When we have empathy for the enemy outside, we can fold it back to the littlest tyrant within us all. This is, after all, my hope.”

This reminded me of the idea that in order to fight racism you have to admit to the racist tendencies that you have yourself. Can we only empathize when we realize and admit to being—to some degree—tyrants? Can we only empathize with the most evil of tyrants when we are also willing to have an understanding of our own worst feelings that we may embrace?

CB: I think so. I think you’re absolutely right. That’s the way that we empathize—that’s the self-empathy part—is by having an understanding, a kindness towards our worst feelings inside. And that self-loathing that you mentioned: so many of us are self-loathers. We walk around with that. And having a generosity of spirit towards that allows us to have a generosity of spirit towards others. It’s really the only way that we can bridge some gaps. It’s the only way.

CM: Cris, thanks so much for being on This is Hell! this week.

CB: Thanks, take care.

Featured image: Aleppo, Syria, 2016

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