Earlier this week I argued that Khizir Khan (in response to Donald Trump) has brought “empathy” into public discourse. As I have said several times here already, I am glad to see this. One of our readers, John Mulholland, the founder of the “Redemption of Reason” initiative at the University of Chicago, brought to my attention a powerful lecture on this subject by philosopher Nicholas Wolterstorff.
You can watch it here:
Wolterstorff argues that empathy requires an imaginative encounter with others. It demands a level of “proximity” to people who are different or who are suffering injustice or pain or some other emotion. But if one cannot cultivate empathy through human proximity to the “other,” then literature (he uses Uncle Tom’s Cabin as an example here), drama, or film can cultivate this essential virtue. As I argued in Why Study History?, the study of the past through primary sources can also produce this kind of empathy.
Wolterstorff speaks about empathy in deeply moral terms and connects it with the larger purpose of justice. He seems to suggest that our empathy should be primarily focused on the oppressed or the suffering. But as a historian I think empathy (as in “walking in one’s shoes”) must be applied to any person–oppressed,oppressor, or just an ordinary life–that we encounter in the past. If history is going to educate (lead us “outward”) then empathy cannot be separated from our efforts to understand all of the human actors we study. We need to make sense of them as products of their own worlds, not ours.
Wolterstorff seems to agree with David Brooks when he says “the person who lacks the capacity for empathy is a sociopath.” He thinks that most people are capable of empathy, but their capacity for empathy is somehow “blocked” by what he describes as “hardened hearts.”
According to Wolterstroff, empathy is “blocked” in several ways:
- People with “hardened hearts” have learned to dehumanize others and are thus incapable of empathizing with them.
- People with “hardened hearts” often suggest that the plight of victims is of their own making (i.e. the poor are lazy, etc…) and they thus don’t deserve empathy.
- People with “hardened hearts” have embraced a “visionary ideal” that they are working for some “great good” that can only be achieved by looking past the suffering or humanity of others. (“Make America Great Again?”)
- People with “hardened hearts” feel loyal to one’s own people and do not need to empathize with others because others are threats to their community.
- People with “hardened hearts” are often afraid that showing empathy to others will lead to the acknowledgment of one’s own complicity in the plight of others, which, in turn, would require a drastic change of life that most people can’t handle.
Watch the entire video to see how Wolterstorff connects empathy to justice.