Urging empathy will not secure Palestinian rights

Ri J. Turner is a rabbinical student at Hebrew College in Boston, MA, as well as a student of Yiddish at the YIVO Institute in New York.
As we inch towards the end of the secular year, I find myself reflecting on the events of the past summer. As things heat up again in Jerusalem, I am sure I am not alone in feeling concerned about the events that took place during Israel’s Operation Protective Edge.
I won’t try to talk right now about the ethics of Operation Protective Edge as a whole. Instead, I want to talk about something much smaller: the way we, the Jewish community and the Jewish press, talked about the Operation, and specifically, the many calls to the Jewish community to feel empathy for the Palestinian victims of the Operation.
This call to empathy is both common and understandable. In fact, it is deeply rooted in Jewish tradition. However, as I read article after article this summer calling the American Jewish community to show empathy for the plight of Palestinians in Gaza, I began to question the premise that a call to empathy is the correct starting place for ethical behavior.
First and foremost, I simply have doubts about the human capacity for empathy, for several reasons. First, religious and political leaders would not have to spend so much effort encouraging people to cultivate empathy if it were not on some level an unnatural, or at least difficult, accomplishment for humans. Second, there are good reasons for the human spirit to limit its capacity for empathy, especially in the modern world: true empathy, the ability to feel the feelings of others, would be utterly incapacitating in the face of the horrendous news that confronts us on a daily basis. And third, in many cases there is little incentive to cultivate empathy for others. We may desire to be moral people, but nevertheless, we may feel that the well-being of vulnerable populations has little to do with us. Or we may feel that we are in competition with those populations for resources, and we may want those resources more than we want an end to human suffering. Obviously, this is the case for many Jews who see Palestinians as dangerous competition for land and political power in Israel.
If humans are not necessarily capable of summoning the ideal level of empathy, then calling for empathy is a pointless exercise. It is not politically strategic, and moreover, it may backfire.
The first, and most serious, flaw in the call to empathy as a path toward more ethical conduct is that it predicates the rights, and often the lives, of vulnerable people on the ability or willingness of people with more power to care about their fate. This is wrong from a human-rights perspective, since human rights should be absolute, rather than selectively enforced according to the whims of those with the power to enforce them. In addition, it underscores and reinstates a power differential between those who are vulnerable and those who are being asked to care about them – consciously or subconsciously, this rhetoric sends the message that the latter group has the ability and the right to decide whether the members of the former group should live or die.
The second flaw in the call to empathy is a function of the role that empathy plays in the mainstream public discourse. In observing the media’s use of the concept of empathy, I have become convinced that talking about empathy is an attempt to disown, deny, and project our collective capacity for human evil. The more we talk about empathy, the more we sense our own lack of it, and the more guilt we feel. In order to deal with that guilt, we have invented a few classes of people whom we imagine to be even more incapable of empathy than we ourselves. We brand them with labels such as “sociopath,” “borderline,” and, in some cases, “autistic.” We need only take a quick look at the media frenzy that has followed any recent act of public violence (such as the Newtown, CT school shooting, the Isla Vista killings earlier this year, or the Virginia Tech shooting in 2007) to uncover debate upon debate about whether mental illness leads to criminality – and the desperate desire to believe that anyone who could do “something like that” must be, in some incomprehensible way, completely different from us. This desire, which is so understandable, also reflects a tragically naive and willful amnesia, since human history reveals unambiguously that the vast majority of humans have the capacity to participate in horrifying violence. When it comes to humans, the willingness to be violent requires no psychological or developmental pathology.
Additionally, the call to empathy has a gendered aspect. In general, we tend to imagine that women have more capacity for empathy than men do, and we praise women for their empathy, whereas we may perceive empathy in men as a sign of weakness. Inversely, a lack of empathy is considered a sign of abnormality in women, but a sign of strength and ambition in men. These gendered stereotypes and pressures lead men and women to react differently to news of violence and war. The call to empathy is much more guilt-inducing and anxiety-provoking for women, who are well aware that if they don’t feel or express empathy for the victims of violence, they will be seen as abnormal, as not “real women”, or even as somehow inhuman. At the same time, women generally have less power and control over the public sphere, so while they are under more pressure to internalize media reports of violence, they are less empowered to create actual change in the world in order to end that violence. This imbalance is unproductive in terms of social change and stressful for individual women. In addition, I suspect that it is also a way for the society at large to live with its own violence (or its failure to intervene in violence): women act as the conscience for the society as a whole, going through the throes of guilt and remorse, while allowing the actual actors (still primarily men) to continue according to plan, without much introspection. In this gendered division of emotional labor, women receive praise for their “compassion,” while men receive praise for being strong and steadfast leaders who are willing to make “hard choices.” The upshot is that, instead of leading to moral reflection and behavior change, the call for empathy can actually function as a gear in a system that allows the society to tolerate its own violent habits.
So what should we do?
I think we should stop appealing to each other to feel empathy. Either we feel it or we don’t. If we don’t, it’s a sign of a much deeper division than one sermon or newspaper editorial can bridge. And if we don’t feel empathy, being told that we should is unlikely to have a positive impact. Rather, it reinforces all of the trends that I have described: the tendency to determine (or to believe that we determine) the fate of a vulnerable population based on public opinion among a generally more privileged population; guilt about our own capacity for indifference (and therefore violence), which we then seek to project onto those in our society whom we have deemed “abnormal”; and the tendency to divorce moral reflection from an actual change in culture or in national conduct.
Instead of empathy, let’s call for human rights. Let’s stop trying to feel the right thing, and focus on trying to do the right thing. That’s what’s going to matter to victims of violence and war, and to those suffering from abuse and neglect in our own cities and neighborhoods.
And let’s remember to ask ourselves whom we are putting at the center of our conversations about human suffering. In most cases, the violence is happening to someone else, but we tend to talk about how we experience it. Paradoxically, our attempts to cultivate empathy for victims of violence keeps the emphasis on ourselves, instead of on those who are suffering. We can’t wait until our community cares enough or until we care enough. Whether or not we care, violence is ongoing, and claims more lives every day.
When we make the shift away from thinking and talking about ourselves, and towards seeking out and listening to voices from the communities that are impacted by violence; when that violence and the loss it entails becomes more real and compelling to us than our own hesitations and indifference – then the border between “us” and “them” becomes irrelevant, and we act instinctively to defend the sanctity of human life.
May we acquire that capacity speedily and in our days.

One thought on “Urging empathy will not secure Palestinian rights

  1. I so appreciate your article and your insight, however I sense despair. I highly encourage you to read a book by Simon Baron-Cohen (Sacha’s cousin), a scientist preoccupied with empathy and what we call “evil”. Though in his book The Science of Evil, he does not elaborate on the inner workings of empathy on a daily basis, it is clear that empathy and even perhaps a “measure for empathy” could further social justice, as opposed to inhibit it. Jesse Prinz from City University of New York on the other hand, argues that “outrage” is a greater motivator to take action for social justice than empathy is. I do agree that outrage can push us to take action, but how can we feel outrage, if we do not have empathy in the first place? More and more research (and activists like Mary Gordon and Roots of Empathy) show us that empathy can be taught and grown. Also as an adjustment to your article, empathy is very directly linked to our success as a species, and has far more implications than you suggest. I really encourage you to go a lot deeper in your research of empathy, as it’s really an incredible force and many people work with it, very successfully. Also, the work of Marshall B Rosenberg and all those involved in creating dialogue need people like us to join in “what works”, as opposed to “what obviously doesn’t”. A non empathic society even for those we consider evil or selfish is clearly not the answer, as we can so obviously attest. The more research I do, the more I think we all need a big individual empathic make over. Even those of us doing our very best for social justice.

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