Savage Minds welcomes guest blogger LINDSAY A BELL
In the last few weeks, social work scholar turned pop-psychology web superstar Brené Brown came out with a short animated video summarizing much of her writing on empathy. It opens by drawing a distinction between empathy and sympathy. According to Brown, empathy fuels connection while sympathy drives disconnection. For those of you who are expert in the area of the anthropology of emotions, I am guessing it would be fairly easy to come up with cross-cultural scenarios that put this pop-psych in its place (and please do!). That sympathy has become the bad guy in US self-help genres isn’t all that surprising. In psychology and analytic philosophy, empathy and sympathy are part of a larger cohort referred to as “other regarding emotions”. Debating the appropriateness of the other regarding emotions—from pity to compassion to sympathy to empathy—lends itself to prescriptive ways of being the world. This short video presumes that we can know what will feel good to others. In this case empathy feels good, and sympathy feels bad.
In the video, Brown lists four qualities of empathy
1. Perspective taking, recognizing that someone else’s perspective is their truth
2. Staying out of judgment
3. Recognizing emotion in other people and then communicating that
4. Feeling with people
The empathy list above implies concepts of the self, society and personhood that we may not like. Yet, these list items do seem to be part of the anthropological tool kit. As people who excel in perspective taking, I wonder what anthropology might make of a growing interest in empathy? Anthropology seems to me to be great place to think through empathy’s merits and limits.
In the worlds of counselling, education and social work, empathy is experiencing a mini boom. Brown’s video is only a snippet of the empathy industrial complex. Ok, that is gratuitous use of ‘industrial complex’, but hear me out. A good philosopher/friend of mine recently took a job with a non-profit that purports to bring lessons in empathy to schoolchildren across Canada and increasingly around the world. The program rests on the premise that developing empathy is a universal human trait, which reduces conflict. Indeed, the program is typically promoted in terms of its self-identified power as a “universal preventative intervention.” However, it gained international attention when, following the London riots, Cameron’s Tory government responded by stating that rioting was a result of a “lack of empathy”. He quickly moved to introduce a pilot version of the empathy curriculum in the city’s “troubled” neighbourhoods.
I will share my own thoughts and struggles with empathy in a subsequent post. To start, I will say that I sometimes wonder if the current ontological questions are meant to unshackle us from the empathy anchor. Anthropology is other-regarding. Its emotional state is far less clear. Is anthropology with or without empathy?