Empathy and The New Mission (decolonizing empathy)

Still reading and writing but wanted to share a draft of a part of where I am and how I am framing some thoughts.

On the surface letting of empathy may seem like a bad thing. To the contrary, to let go of empathy is to allow a new space of meaningful and positive spaces. Rather than trying to feel the pain of others, allow space for critical or deep listening. Do not try to enter the crisis, or be the person. Instead listen, observe, be with. There is nothing special about being with another nor is any suffering exceptional unless the work is done to make it so. The lull of oppression defines colonization but it is invisible as long as some feel it acutely and others less so. Often when people are able to point to the more oppressed, rather than understanding their own suffering, they empathize with those who are allowed no other story. Occasionally they come up with plans to help or speak for these wretched or damned people so that they might have a bit more (but never everything and never equal). And when that fails, there is pointing “at least we are not as bad off as them. They must really deserve it.”

Empathy is already its own failure because it is the embodiment of a colonial sentimentality based on missionary thinking. It is a reimagining of the civilizing mission in an ever increasingly electrically mediated world. Letting go empathy should be central to any decolonial project, especially as we need to work across difference to imagine and create new worlds. Empathy, on the other hand, is the birth, death, and pain of the life of the Other all experienced simultaneously. The turn away from radical activism to radical empathy is an emptying out of direct action in exchange for a return to a European sentimentality that recenters the self as the only space of critical engagement. Further, the Other, unfeeling and unreal as birthed and killed through empathy, is imagined to be incapable of a critical awareness of the self because the Other is too clouded by their own imagined tragic past to through which everything is filtered. Empathy disregards actual interactions with the Other and disables the possibility for a dialogue where the Other can provide a perspective, comparison. This lack of dialogue is a pre-foreclosure of the possibility of mutual recognition.

If the only version of an other person that can be seen is the one that can be imagined and felt inside of themselves, many others will always be invisible, a passing curiosity, or less than human. Feelings are fickle and easily changed when trying to connect to the unrecognizable through avatars of the self. Rather than understanding decolonization as a political project of undoing, I understand it to be a project of what can become. In that sense, letting go of empathy and facing its other side, is a decolonial project. Understanding decolonization as an orientation towards the future complicates empathy as empathy creates a false engagement with the past that concurrently erases the present and denies those who are not part of the existing power structures, those who are only real through empathy, the ability to be part of the future. This is an enforced affective incompleteness for those who exist outside of dominant power structures. Decolonization and time, primarily as informed by Frantz Fanon, are central frameworks for my understanding the other side of empathy. I do not have an answer to how we might replace empathy though. What I do have is a provocation on the temporality bound in colonial ideals of goodness and badness, of missions, and almost humans, where we might imagine what might become if we replace understanding and connection through feeling, or empathy, with mutual recognition, action, and perhaps compassion. Without a compassion based on a radical transcendent self-love, to let go of empathy does not stop the self-alienation and annihilation so central to colonial thinking that is designed to launch people into an existential crisis that requires the Other so that the self can be defined, valued, and grounded in the past and present colonial structure of power and difference.

To be oriented towards the decolonial requires that a thing be grounded present and the future. Decolonial dialectics (Ciccariello-Maher 2017) requires a very specific emptying of the past in order to become a yet-to-be defined new. It requires an acknowledgment that certain people denied their humanity, move through the world as a vast emptiness that takes up space in order for white supremacy and other colonial systems of power and oppression to be maintained. It requires that time is given and not given to certain bodies to define what it means to be whole. Time is essential to maintaining existing power structures as people are taken and kept out of time. The statement, “These people are backwards” refers not to a spatial location of people, but rather, denotes a temporal orientation that implies an aspect or the whole of a person or group has not stayed in time with the dominant mode of progress. Empathy then is an inherently colonial phenomenon as it tries to tie the ontological present to an imagined past through mind or psychic control that feels like embodiment which then defines and creates the future. Even further, empathy allows for the other stay as the invisible other side as the Other’s existence is ignored. The Other’s value and life are imagined into reality by those in power to ensure their continued oppression or exclusion, even as the imagined life in no way corresponds with reality. In empathy, the other is re-Objectified and voiceless to ensure the Other can either be ignored, saved, or condemned not by themselves but those who have the liberty of their imagination becoming reality by birthright. It is important to note that empathy came about in America as psychologists attempted to figure out what to call the psychology of imagination in the early 20th century (Lanzoni 2018). This means that empathy is predicated on the ability to imagine some other thing or just the Other. It in no way is tied to realness, and thus, is the space where a thing is brought into being by the previous experiences, stories, beliefs, and rituals that already exist in a given culture.

Works Cited:

  • Ciccariello-Maher, George. Decolonizing dialectics. Duke University Press, 2017.
  • Fanon, all of it
  • Lanzoni, Susan. Empathy: a Short History. Yale University Press, 2018.

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