From Empathy to Benevolence

Sylvette Babin
Although initially, the word “empathy” (Einfühlung) indicated the aesthetic relationship between a subject and a work of art that allowed the subject to emotionally identify with that work, the term’s current usage, simplified to the extreme, denotes the ability to feel and understand the experience of another. In 2013, Barack Obama declared in a speech that contemporary society suffers from an “empathy deficit,” an assertion that has been taken up many times since. Yet, we have rarely seen so many collective actions being taken against injustice, actions that seem to be motivated by the impetus of empathic solidarity (anti-bullying campaigns, the #MeToo movement, the denouncing of systemic discrimination, the emergence of anti-speciesism, etc.). What is actually happening? In this society mainly fuelled by social media, are we facing a rise in empathy or are we in fact experiencing a disturbing excess of individualism?

The answer probably depends on the causes cham­pioned and especially on our varied empathic biases. In fact, as noble as the intentions of empathic people may be, feeling (and vicariously experiencing) the emotions of another is always done through the filter of our own experience or emotions. Therefore, we more easily develop empathy for what is close to us, for what resembles us. Hence the multiplicity of biases, which raises important ethical questions about our relationships to other people, particularly since understanding the pain of others does not make us more likely to act to improve their lot. In terms of art, especially work with a social purpose, the danger in soliciting empathy from viewers also lies in the fact that the empathic reaction to the subject of the work often occurs at the expense of its context, either because it is ignored or because it is transformed.

All these conclusions have led many intellectuals to question the role, the scope, and sometimes the drifting off course of empathy, and in this regard, the current issue is no exception. The notion of aesthetic empathy, for example, is discussed here in terms of the distancing or alienation effect so central to Bertolt Brecht. This effect allows one to avoid a purely emotive reading of an artwork and break away from the process of identification (with a character or work, but also sometimes with a political or marketing strategy), which all too easily leads to a loss of critical thinking. Furthermore, the notions of domestication and foreignization shed light on the affective translation process caused by empathy. Domestication is tantamount to an appropriation of another’s suffering, as opposed to foreignization, which transforms empathy into an actual altruistic tool by focusing on “the untranslatable as a sign of political resistance” (Page). We can see this idea of the untranslatable in the notion of not knowing, that is the ­ability to be open to the unknown (Dezember), or in the appeal to the right to opacity, which refers to “zones of unknowing irreducible to any attempts at categorization” (Boyadjian). In fact, the categorization of a situation or an individual necessarily leads to a form of judgment and quite possibly, of discrimination — ideas that are discussed in some of the articles here.

With this issue, we wish to determine whether art can contribute to building sensitive bridges between people that are geographically, socially, and culturally distant and whose experiences differ — and from this perspective, whether the embodied perceptions and bodily moorings of empathy could actually sharpen critical thinking rather than curtail it. We are not ­placing empathy on trial, but rather highlighting its pitfalls. Nevertheless, in intellectualizing the flip side of empathy to the extreme, one need not necessarily arrive at an excessive distrust of the actions and works that solicit it. The works discussed in this issue show that it is possible to demonstrate empathy while also being aware of the challenges.
Various studies have shown that empathy is a source of pleasure and that it contributes to the appreciation of a work of art. We might consider that it also motivates an attentive listening to the other and that it instills a real willingness to respond in an ethical manner. In this sense, empathy could be, in some way, a step on the path towards an active form of benevolence and altruism.

Translated from the French by Oana Avasilichioaei

This article also appears in the issue 95 - Empathy

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