Thinking through solidarity organizing, with an eye to how we can better live the change, as well as how we often slip in to colonial patterns when working together across distance and difference.
Jul 18, 2011
In the fabulous article
Richard Delgado, “Rodrigo’s Eleventh Chronicle: Empathy and False Empathy,” California Law Review 84 (1996): 61.
(in a fictional conversation) Delgado describes false empathy this way:
"You've heard of Gramsci's concept of false consciousness?"29 "Of course," I said, a little sharply. (These impudent young pups sometimes think us old-timers haven't read anything!) "Gramsci coined the term to mean the kind of identification with the aggressor that a subjugated people can easily develop. They internalize the perspectives, values, and points of view of the very people who conquer and oppress them, thus becoming unconscious agents in their own subordination."30 "And so false consciousness is a danger for blacks, at least if we aren't careful.31 But have you ever wondered, Professor, if there is anything comparable for whites?"
"Comparable to false consciousness, you mean?" I wasn't sure what Rodrigo was driving at. "I think there is, and it's empathy. Or rather, what I call false empa- thy, in which a white believes he or she is identifying with a person of color, but in fact is doing so only in a slight, superficial way." "It is a kind of parallel," I said. "But I think I could use an example or two." "Sure," Rodrigo replied. "Consider the early Settlement House move- ment.32 The upper-class ladies who worked there professed to be highly concerned over the plight of the immigrants who lived in the houses. But their sympathies did not extend to learning their languages or ways. Instead, they taught them personal hygiene, housekeeping, English-how to be American.33 Lawyers make this mistake, too, even public interest ones. Maybe especially public interest ones."
"Someone who is in the grip of false empathy has a shallow identification with the other," I added. "He or she walks on the surface, uses the wrong metaphors and comparisons.47 It's a little bit like false piety, like those folks who go to church on Sunday but don't allow themselves to be seized by real religion." "The most unsympathetic thing you can do is to think you have empathy with those of a radically different background. You can easily end up hurting them."
the article goes on - it's an easy and fascinating read. If you're interested and don't have academic access let me know and I can send it your way. (photo is of the "empathy belly" - another 'let me play you for a day and then I'll know your reality' exercise)
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Interesting ideas. But I think the analogy between false consciousness and false empathy is somewhat off the mark, at least as described here. The false consciousness, similar to Stockholm syndrome, is where the person actually takes on a perspective contrary to their own interests. The examples given of supposedly "false" empathy are perhaps more accurately termed "shallow" empathy or "imprecise" empathy or "partial" empathy or something like that. And it seems to me that it may lead to well-intentioned actions that are misguided and off the mark but perhaps only inefficient, vaguely helpful, and probably somewhat annoying, but not necessarily counterproductive. The Settlement Houses may be a good example of thise. For something to be really "false" empathy you would then be inclined to look for the opposite to arrive at "true" empathy.
As for simulation exercises, I think the goal is usually to raise awareness of an issue or problem to stimulate the participants to have open minds to listen and learn. I don't think they are usually thought of as the full lesson. Empathy isn't a body of knowledge to be taught--it's a stance, an attitude, a way of being and relating in the world, a skill.
I was drawn to the “false empathy” heading because it is something I encounter frequently in my work with people with disabilities (PWD) among family, community, and professionals. Able-bodied, able-brained people often look at PWD and say, “Oh, it would be horrible to be like that! I would kill myself!” Or they may see PWD with impressive (and sometimes even not so impressive) accomplishments and say, “How heroic!” Such reactions often do appropriate the narrative and impose roles on those with disabilities, further limiting them. There are many reasons for these false empathies, but among the prominent reasons people may have the inaccurate horror reaction because they aren’t familiar with the adaptations that PWD learn to make and the meanings they find in their lives. Also, and this is a particularly subtle one, they may not appreciate that certain brain disabilities produce a reduced self-awareness, particularly for one’s disabilities and limitations. This diminished self-awareness is not a psychological defense mechanism like political “false consciousness” but an organic diminished (self-) consciousness. It cushions the impact and the “horror” of some brain disabilities. The “horrors!” false empathy is routinely reflected in the ubiquitous usage of “She ‘suffers’ from X disease/disability.” (Do you ‘suffer’ from dental cavities? Only if not treated. ‘Suffers’ is a presumption about the experience that diminishes the humanity of the PWD.)
The “heroic” reaction is the darling of the right. They may hold up such people as examples of what those with disabilities are supposed to do (so that we don’t have to be bothered with providing services and support). PWD are generally a politically oppressed class, but there are occasionally those who gain some small privilege from their status, and the right loves to single them out, as well, sometimes as welfare queens or other system users, sometimes a reverse discrimination or unreasonable disability accommodations.
This brings me to the connections between false consciousness and false empathy. False empathy may arise, in part, from empathy with those with false consciousness. “Some of my best friends are . . .” Well, those ‘best friends’ may well be the “good Negros” who identify with the oppressor. It’s easy to push this line of reasoning too far, however, into a “pure doctrine” cult that only those with true consciousness with full awareness of their oppression can be trusted, and attempting empathy with anyone else will only result in false empathy, hence we can ignore everyone who doesn’t toe our particular political line, no matter which side of privilege they fall on.
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