Empathy Can Lead to Sympathy

WhitneyI really like Christopher Bonner‘s post at the blog of the African American Intellectual History Society.

It is appropriately titled “The Bonds of History.”

Here is a taste:

In recent years, Whitney Plantation has been transformed into a site for the memory of African enslavement in American and Atlantic history. The New Yorker recently produced a video that combines images of the stunning Louisiana landscape with commentary from Dr. Ibrahima Seck, Director of Research at the plantation. Both Dr. Seck and theNew Yorker note that preserving this site of bound labor and diasporic life is not “designed to make people feel guilt or to make people feel shame.” What then is such a site designed to make people feel?…

In telling “the story of slavery,” organizers of Whitney Plantation offer some similar points about the value of that story. Dr. Seck notes the aim of the museum is to preserve not only the memory, but also the existence of the enslaved, to “tell their story, [to] bring them back to life.” He is also invested in using the site to promote social justice: through the history of slavery presented at the plantation, we might understand and address contemporary problems. There’s something appealing in this idea that history, particularly the history of slavery, can have tangible political results. It seems to me to be tied to a hope that history might reach a kind of conclusion, a desire to produce a finished product, or a hope that the past has an end. In pulling away from the idea that the Whitney Plantation should evoke feelings of guilt or shame, Dr. Seck acknowledges that history does evoke feelings, which tend not to have conclusions or tangible ends.

And so, again, what are those feelings, or what should they be? I recently had a conversation in class about Cape Coast Castle as a site of memory. My students connected that site to ongoing debates about historical memory surrounding Yale’s Calhoun College, South Carolina’s State House, the Jefferson Davis Statue at University of Texas, and Byrd Stadium at University of Maryland. As we talked, I told my students that I want them to know the past in its complexity and that memorials rarely encourage that. But I wasn’t sure how to convey to them the challenge of our feeling things about the past, and I didn’t know for sure how I might, or whether I should, try to mold those feelings. Thinking about Whitney Plantation and the work of my fellow bloggers has helped me move toward answers to those questions. I don’t want students to feel guilt or shame because I think those emotions can obscure a sense of historical contingency and can discourage the project of understanding how and why the past happened the way that it did. But I do want students to feel sadness and disgust as we talk about lost opportunities, lost lives, and historical horrors. I want them to feel anger at injustice. I want them to feel empowerment through stories of struggle and progress. I want them to feel excitement and happiness with the opportunities history gives us, as limited as they are, to grasp what is still such a broad array of human experience. And ultimately, I’d like students to recognize and understand that we are all connected to the past, and I’d like them to feel something of that connection.

Bonner is wrestling with some of the same things I tried to deal with in Why Study History?: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past.  In that book I distinguished between “empathy” and “sympathy.”  Good historical thinking requires empathy.  In order to fully understand the past, we must learn to see the world from the perspective of the people we encounter when we enter it.  Empathy cultivates understanding, a skill desperately needed in our democratic society.

Sometimes an engagement with the past can be an emotional exercise.  The past can inspire people, but it can also instigate hate.  As Bonner writes, it stirs the emotions.

I think sympathy has a place in the doing of history, but only before one learns to empathize, or walk in the shores of a particular historical actor.  How can you sympathize with a person in the past if you do not first understand her or his story in all its complexity?  In other words, it seems to me that empathy, in may cases (but not every case) can lead sympathy and activism. But sympathy is not where we begin.