Can we empathize with those whom we deem “the enemy”?

In this blog entry, Rajini Srikanth, author of Constructing the Enemy, considers how we understand issues of empathy and antipathy using examples from reality and fiction.

Philosophers and psychologists who write about empathy agree that it is a state of mind that combines cognition (knowledge of the particulars of some other person’s circumstances) and affect or feeling (growing out of awareness of that person’s reality). 

I remember when the (first) President George H.W. Bush appointed Justice David Souter to the Supreme Court there were some critics (on the left) who observed that because Judge Souter had lived all his life as a single man he would have no understanding of the pressures of raising a family and the many challenges that the majority of Americans face.  He could not, their implication was, be empathetic to the vast majority of the public.  Nobody actually used the word “empathy” at the time, and Justice Souter went on to show, in his opinions, that he could be quite empathetic to the complicated lives of Americans of all backgrounds and circumstances. 

Creative writers and literary theorists remind us that the exercise of the imagination is a prerequisite for empathy – it is only when one is able to imagine the circumstances and feelings of another that empathy has a chance of emerging.  Richard Wright called this labor of imagination “a kind of significant living.” Describing his efforts at creating Bigger Thomas, the angry disaffected African American protagonist of his 1940 novel Native Son, Wright said, “It was an act of concentration, of trying to hold within one’s center of attention all of that bewildering array of facts which science, politics, experience, memory, and imagination were urging upon me. . . . I was pushing out to new areas of feeling, strange landmarks of emotion, cramping upon foreign soil, compounding new relationships of perceptions, making new and—until that very split second of time!—unheard-of and unfelt effects with words.”

But this very novel shows us that one can be empathetically imaginative without feeling the need to alleviate the distress of the person whose circumstances one cognitively understands. In Wright’s novel, the state’s Attorney General says to Bigger Thomas, ““Maybe you think that I don’t understand. But I do, I know how it feels to walk along the streets like other people, dressed like them, talking like them, and yet excluded for no reason except that you’re black. I know your people.’” His cognitive knowledge of Bigger Thomas’s circumstances is not accompanied by care and concern for Bigger. In fact, Bigger is bewildered at the Attorney General’s attitude: how could he know so much about Bigger and yet be “so bitterly against him.”  And herein is the dark side of empathy – it can become an exploitative means of power and control. It is precisely because of the empathizer’s power over the recipients of empathy (in certain circumstances, as in, say, the CIA’s “empathetic interrogation” of prisoners) that the latter are suspicious of empathy when it is offered. 

Yet empathy is also, paradoxically, about vulnerability. In Morgan Spurlock’s television documentary “Thirty Days as a Muslim,” a Christian man from West Virginia agrees to live for 30 days in Dearborn, Michigan with a Muslim family and to respect all their customs and participate in the everyday activities of their life. When he arrives at the West Virginia airport to leave for Detroit, he is dressed in Muslim attire, and he realizes for the first time what it means to be vulnerable —  the suspicious and hostile stares he receives, the heightened scrutiny he is subjected to at security, these new realities unsettle him and make him feel exposed. As a result of this initial reaction by others to his newly reconstituted body (as a Muslim man), he begins to experience vulnerability and gain the first traces of understanding of what it might mean to live as a Muslim in present-day United States.

It is this vulnerability that accompanies some instances of empathy that leads to its being discredited, particularly by those who feel that there ought to be no place for empathy in the legal system. When President Obama announced in 2009 that his nominee to the Supreme Court would possess the key characteristic of empathy, the criticism from the right was sharp. An empathetic judge would be vulnerable to manipulation by groups with specific ideologies; an empathetic judge would not be able to adhere strictly to the text of the Constitution; an empathetic judge would be an activist judge.

The complexity of empathy as a sentiment (the intertwining of power and vulnerability in those who experience it), its complex reception by those who observe its emergence or are its recipients, and the difficulty of its emergence provide a humanist with an intellectually challenging terrain to explore. But it is not just the intellectual frisson of studying empathy that first drew me to it. Rather, what led me to pursue the study of empathy was a sense that it, of all the sentiments that are critical to the effective functioning of a true democracy (concerned with issues of equity and justice), is perhaps the most crucial to cultivate.  I became interested in exploring empathy when it is least likely to emerge and to understand the motivations of individuals who are courageous enough to open themselves up to the emergence of empathy in these situations. It seemed obvious to me that we are least likely to be empathetic to those whom the state, with the acquiescence of the citizenry, constructs as “the enemy.” 

Consequently, I zeroed in on two historical moments – the internment of 110,000 Japanese Americans following the bombing of Pearl Harbor in December 1941 and the current U.S. global “war on terror” leading to the detention of Muslim men in domestic detention centers and at Guantanamo Bay.  We have apologized formally for the internment of Japanese Americans and made reparations to the surviving internees. Yet, despite our retrospective empathy with regard to the Japanese American internees, we are currently immersed wholly in the “war on terror,” convinced of the righteousness of our approach, and pursuing a problematic strategy of detention and military tribunals, the possibility of preventive detention, and deportation.

In 2004, I began to hear lawyers who were questioning the arbitrary application of executive power, and I became aware of the work of the Center for Constitutional Rights, the New York City-located nerve center for lawyers from the private bar who were offering their services pro bono for the detainees at Guantanamo Bay. In speaking with some of these lawyers, I realized that they were drawn to become involved not from empathy but principally to uphold the U.S. Constitution, but it also became clear to me that through following the letter of the law some other larger emotional and humanistic space of interaction was opening up between the lawyers and the Muslim detainees. In attempting to examine that humanistic space, I turned to what I know best – the work of creative writers. In doing so, I brought into juxtaposition the use of language by lawyers and creative writers as they both consider “the enemy” and how they bring their respective skills into representing this enemy.  Ultimately, I am interested in exploring whether the work of these lawyers and creative writers has any impact on policy decisions, or whether their work is significant only in reminding those whom they represent (legally or creatively) that antipathy is not universal, and in providing some small relief in an otherwise bleak and unrelentingly hostile political and socio-cultural climate.


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