Empath in the Wild: Free to feel
In U.S. politics, the call for tolerating differences between people — based on class, race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation or most any other identity — has been assigned to the realm of liberalism, generally speaking. But when liberals have called for a wider definition of “hate speech,” people have accused them of intolerance. This idea of “tolerance” is connected to the idea of empathy. Liberals call for empathizing with marginalized groups — and therefore tolerating them — but when it comes to conservatives they make no such calls to action.
In the media, this issue of liberal (in)tolerance of conservatives isn’t new, but I believe the intensity of the problem has been underemphasized. The conflict between the call for more empathy and tolerance toward others, on the one hand, and the call for more restricted speech, on the other hand, exists on a philosophical level — it has to do with beauty and justice, two values that are most important to society.
Empathy has, from the beginning, been tied to the realm of aesthetics, the field of philosophy concerned with the appreciation of art, beauty and good taste. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the term first appears in English in the work of Vernon Lee and Clementina Anstruther-Thomson, two prominent late-19th-century scholar-artists who lived together openly as lovers, friends and co-authors. In their most prominent book, “Beauty and Ugliness: And Other Studies in Psychological Aesthetics,” they define empathy as an "aesthetic sympathetic feeling."
The emergence of empathy in the English lexicon during the early 1900s, in Western Europe, coincides with the rise of modernity and the first artworks famous for their ugliness. A great example is Marcel Duchamp's statue “Fountain” (1917), which is literally a urinal signed with a pseudonym.
The viewer of a work of art can empathize with the artwork and find it beautiful — or empathize with a work of art and find it ugly. Theodor Lipps, one of the most famous scholars on empathy, calls the former “positive empathy” and the latter “negative empathy.”
While I can empathize with a work of art and find it ugly beautiful (or however else a work of art could be described), I argue that the work of empathizing is in itself beautiful. What do I mean by beautiful? Well, I don't really know. It's almost impossible to define as a word, as described in its really long entry in the Stanford Encyclopedia. I like to define the beautiful as something that "makes sense," or speaks to some truth. Whether the thing the empathizer is trying to feel into is beautiful or ugly, the empathizer is still making sense of something.
But I can only empathize with someone if that person expresses him or herself outwardly. Once I can empathize with someone else’s emotions, I can determine whether those emotions are ugly or beautiful. Prominent art critic Arthur Danto claims an ugly work of art can still be artistically right, in that the work’s ugliness allows it to successfully convey the artist’s intended message. In the context of human emotion, I could empathize with someone and determine whether their ugly or beautiful emotions are valid.
Take, for example, the white supremacists and neo-Nazis who protested this August in Charlottesville, Va. I can empathize with these people’s emotions. By this, I mean I can understand what it feels like to be angry or feel disenfranchised. I, by no means, am endorsing or condoning their actions, but the principles of empathy allow me to understand their emotions according to how they’re expressed. Simultaneously, I can reach my own conclusion that their intentions and actions are morally wrong and are an impediment to the furthering of equality and justice in this country.
I can empathize in the same way with Dana Greene, who last week knelt in the Diag for nearly 24 hours in protest of anti-Black racism, going through the same emotional and moral process. To make myself clear, I want to emphasize that the actions on the part of white supremacist and neo-Nazi protesters are in no way equivalent to Greene’s — the former incited violence and advocated hate, and the latter advocated for justice and peace. The process of empathizing allows me to recognize Greene’s emotions as valid because of the life experiences that led to them, and then reach my own conclusion that his actions and intentions are morally justifiable and align with my own vision of furthering equality.
If empathy is in itself beautiful and beauty furthers justice in the world (as I postulated in my first column), then I could say empathizing is a morally right thing to do. But in order to empathize, I must have someone to empathize with, which requires free expression.
Here, we reach the entanglement of empathy, beauty, justice and the right to free speech. Empathy requires individuals to express themselves, whether in the form of creating works of art, writing op-eds, protesting or engaging in other expressive activities. And empathy also requires people to receive the emotions of others, putting it at odds with calls for safe spaces, specifically on college campuses. When individual expression fits a given definition of “hate speech,” that expression becomes morally indefensible, unjust, etc.
The liberal call for more empathy seems to be at odds with calls for restrictions on hate speech and more safe spaces. What kind of expression is defensible? And who can be expected to “receive” the emotions of others? If we restrict certain forms of expression, are we limiting our ability to empathize with others?
To me, the answer is yes. I suppose the greater question is: What’s more just — allowing individuals to continue writing anti-Islam messages on the Diag, or restricting that kind of expression and approaching the problem of, in this case, Islamophobia, from a different angle — say, through more inclusive messages and greater cultural awareness being taught in public schools? While, logically speaking, restricting expression limits empathetic possibilities, it may be a necessary compromise to achieve a more just society.