The Impossibility of Empathy

Amanda Gorman is an extremely accomplished poet. She was the first person to be named National Youth Poet Laureate. She published her first book of poetry at the age of 17, and in 2021, she delivered one of her poems at the inauguration of President Biden. At a time when serious poets don’t generally become household names, Gorman stands out. She is talented. She is young. She is a woman. She is black. Like all artists, the particulars of her background and identity are not incidental to her art. No, they inform and shape her art in ways that make it hard to properly interpret her art without a recognition of her background.

And in the stupid times we live in, this has of course become a controversy.

A Dutch author named Marieke Lucas Rijneveld was commissioned to translate her work. The fact that Rijneveld is a quite accomplished author who was chosen with Gorman’s blessing didn’t shield him from the offense of being both white and male. Activists, like the moral busybodies that C.S. Lewis warned us about, predictably expressed their deep concern. Activist Janice Deul breathlessly exclaimed, “An incomprehensible choice, in my opinion and that of many others who expressed their pain, frustration, anger, and disappointment via social media.” Ah yes. The heckler’s veto of social media. “Some people online are very angry” will be the epitaph of our civilization. She explained her outrage thusly: “Nothing to detriment of Rijnveld’s qualities, but why not choose a writer who — just like Gorman — is a spoken word artist, young, female, and unapologetically Black?” The uproar caused Rijneveld to apologize (apparently for being a talented, but sadly, white person) and withdraw from the project.

It is understandable if you don’t know or even care about this story. There are much bigger things going on that demand our attention. I’m writing about it because of what stories like this have come to symbolize – a society where empathy has become impossible.

Empathy Deficit

Sherry Turkle is an MIT psychologist who has written a great deal on what technology is doing to our social interactions. In her excellent book Alone Together she talks about a 2010 study of over fourteen thousand college students over the past thirty years. What they found is that young people have reported a dramatic decline in interest in other people. She concludes, “Todays’ college students are, for example, far less likely to say that it is valuable to try to put oneself in the place of others or to try to understand their feelings.” The authors of the study linked the decline of empathy to online gaming and social media. The authors of this study associate students’ lack of empathy with the availability of online games and social networking. Online interactions create flattened experiences which making learning empathy more difficult. One of the key ways we learn empathy over time is from picking up subtle, nonverbal feedback in our interactions. This feedback simply can’t be duplicated within online ideological bubbles. Of course the nature of social media interactions also encourages two habits that destroy any chance to develop empathy: quick, emphatic reactions and performative narcissism – both of which are oriented towards gaining applause (in the form of likes or retweets) and not understanding.

It seems obvious that Turkle is right. We do indeed have a growing empathy deficit in our culture. One analysis of U.S. citizens found that the average American today is less empathic than 75% of Americans thirty years ago. There’s no better evidence of this fact than corporations attempting to commodify our unmet desire for empathy. Here’s Lexus using empathy to sell you a 75 thousand dollar luxury sedan.

It’s good of Lexus to challenge me with a message about empathy because if there’s anything that I have a hard time empathizing with it is spending more than my annual salary on a car. I have little doubt that Turkle is also correct in laying some of the blame on technology for this empathy deficit, but Amanda Gorman’s story and even this Lexus commercial make me suspect that there are other forces working against the cultivation of empathy.

Empathy and Acting

Something about the Gorman episode reminded me of a small section in Plato’s Republic that I read not too long ago.* In this section, Plato is describing the guardians of his idealized republic. These guardians were to represent the very best of the people. They were the picture of virtue dedicated completely to the well being of the city. Think of something like Captain America. Because of this, Plato believed that these guardians should avoid acting and imitation. He says, “If they imitate at all, they should imitate from youth upward only those characters which are suitable to their profession—the courageous, temperate, holy, free, and the like; but they should not depict or be skillful at imitating any kind of illiberality or baseness, lest from imitation they should come to be what they imitate.” Imitating someone else was damaging to the purpose of a guardian and should be avoided.

Plato’s mistake (if I can be that bold) is similar to the mistake made by the postmodern activist. Neither Plato nor the postmodern adequately believe in humanity. For Plato, humanity was a source of ugliness, imperfection, and baseness. The guardian avoids acting and imitation because it distracts him away from the virtuous ideal. The postmodern similarly has rejected humanity but for different reasons. The postmodern is cynical about those things common to all human beings that unite us together in kinship and mutual understanding. The postmodern creates an island of each individual. Only I know what it is to be me; and only you know what it is to be you. Plato rejected humanity because of its flaws. The postmodern has rejected humanity as an Enlightenment myth. Plato advised the avoidance of imitation because of debasement. The postmodern advises the avoidance of imitation because of “appropriation.” The person who imitates another is making a harmful assumption that she can adequately understand what it means to live in another person’s world. Acting is colonizing (to use a common buzzword) another person’s identity.

Embracing Humanity

Returning to the case of Amanda Gorman. I’ve done enough translation work in my time that I know that translation is much more than simply transferring words from one language to another. The best translators learn the art of inhabiting the thought world of the source material in order to fully bring those ideas into a different language. Because of this, translation is very intimate and even “appropriating.” Translation is not terribly different from acting in this regard, so it’s only natural that the postmodern activist will have a problem with translation.** The only person capable of really understanding Amanda Gorman’s poetry is a young, African-American woman who is also preferably from the same type of community. Taken to its logical extreme, the only person appropriate to translate Amanda Gorman’s poetry is someone identical to Amanda Gorman. Because humanity doesn’t exist, there is no way for one person to understand another well enough to represent their thoughts and their words. Ultimately the postmodern undermines the entire purpose of literature. If there is no way of understanding each other, then there is no reason to attempt communication. We are each an island cut off from each other.

Novelist Alain Mabanckou expressed this concern in the LA Times: “One simply cannot fight against exclusion by reinventing new ways of marginalizing people for this would ultimately lead to a situation whereby one could only understand or speak for people who are assumed to be like us.” He continued, “When the only way of looking at the world is through the lens of identity politics, then we have moved into a space that is contrary to what literature is about. Literature is destined to liberate us, to change the way in which we see the world and to transport readers on previously uncharted adventures, to delineate the contours of a world in which fear gradually recedes into the background and the ‘other’ is invited into our hearts.”

“Inviting others into our hearts” is the language of empathy. Every act of communication is ultimately an act of translation. We can’t communicate with each other without appropriating one another’s thoughts to some degree. And without this ability to converse and communicate, empathy will remain elusive. Empathy requires the steadfast belief and even hope in humanity. It requires the belief that there is something that unites us together. Even though we are different from each other, we hope that we can understand each other. Empathy requires hope that a white male and a black female actually can understand each other on deep human levels. They can even learn to speak a common language. This is why identity politics works against our efforts to really understand each other well. It has made understanding outside of our immediate “tribe” impossible. Identity politics rejects humanity and therefore rejects empathy. Instead of understanding, we are left with tribalistic warfare and hostility. The only way to reclaim empathy is to reclaim humanity from the skeptics and the cynics.

*Tara Ragsdale just rolled her eyes and stopped reading.

**There have been similar controversies in recent years about writers of fiction. Can a white author accurately or ethically write black characters? Can a male author accurately or ethically write female characters?

One thought on “The Impossibility of Empathy

  1. Another interesting read. I believe that a lot of this behavior is the growth of tribalism within society. Tribes draw boundaries around themselves and seek to alienate any person or interpretation that doesn’t come from within. I too think social media is responsible for this tendency. In any case, while it’s nice to find fellowship with others, it would behoove us to listen and to empathize with others outside of our tribe. We don’t have the obligation to agree, but perhaps we do to understand.

    Liked by 1 person

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