Anthropology report is running a round-up piece on empathy in anthropology and its centrality to our discipline. It’s a timely subject, given the recent edited volume on the topic. In this post I wanted to point out another article having to do with empathy, in this case an oldie-but-goodie: Robert Lowie’s “Empathy, or, Seeing From Within” which appeared in a massive festschrift for Paul Radin that appeared back in the day. Check it out — it’s a classic.
It’s a great piece which puts empathy, not ‘cultural relativism’ (whatever that is) at the center of our endeavors. My favorite part of the piece is central section where Lowie suggests that even Nazis are deserving of empathy. It’s an extraordinary statement, especially coming from a German Jew. I don’t want to automatically assume that everything Lowie said is right because he is old and important — there is a lot unattractive about Lowie — but this idea that anthropologists should be able to see things even from a Nazi’s point of view has always struck with me.
This impulse for empathy sits uneasily with anthropology’s other moral intuition: activist denunciation of power in the name of a leftist populism. Frankly, a lot of work done in this vein is carried out in an emotional tone that is very far from empathy indeed.
I think this is one of the reasons why I personally have never had much use for an activist framing for my own work. This often surprises people, since I work on such a sexily political topic: huge mining company crushes indigenous people. But in fact most of my work is about how this simple framing doesn’t capture the facts on the ground, even if it does tell a simple story of the sort we like to hear.
For me, a commitment to social justice is part and parcel of empathy. As in: if you have the later you think people deserve the former. I study all aspects of mining, from the boardroom to the ball mill to the communities living sandwiched between waste dumps. And to be honest, I have empathy with everyone in all parts of that chain. This doesn’t mean that I agree with them, but I feel that if Lowie can be empathetic of a Nazi, surely I can put myself in the shoes of a mining executive.
I teach courses in political anthropology that are focused around particular topics such as the 2008 Financial Crisis and Great Environmental Disasters Of The Global Oil Industry. Reading these topics with my class has taught me that students don’t need to be cultivate a critical attitude. Reality, as they say, has a well-known liberal bias. All you have to do to be outraged is possess some baseline socialization into American culture. My experience in these courses is that empathy, rather than denunciation, leads to moral certainty. There is no better way to be sure that your moral intuitions are correct than to really, really try to see it from the point of view of someone else. When you do this and still think they are a total asshole, then you can have faith that your moral intuitions are correct.
It’s for this reason that I’ve always preferred empathy to anger-driven activism — not because the first is apolitical, but because the second is a shortcut to a judgment that is too important to be rushed. Even a Nazi deserves empathy — even if in the end we do not agree with them.