Jul 18, 2011

false empathy

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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