The word empathy has found its way into common lexicon and has established itself as having many semiotic functions. It is a lexical symbol that conveys affection, understanding, caring, a spirit of communality. But, above all else, the semiotic function that empathy now fulfils is that of an alibi. It is truly important to understand the function of empathy in our current socio-politico-cultural and business practices and understand how it is, essentially, another bourgeois construction suppress the guilt of oppressing the proletariat class. It is even more important for those of us on the radical left to understand this paradox so that we do not fall prey to its allure and thereafter destroy our unity and communal integrity.
In order to fully understand this line of thought, let us rely on an etymological analysis and a quick study of the linguistic application of the word. In ancient Greece “ἐμπἀθεια” (empatheia) was used in many literary works to signify physical emotion and passion. It is a conjugation of the suffix “ἐν-” (in) and an ambiguous emotional state “πἀθος” that can only be loosely translated as “feeling”. This was later adapted by Robert Vischer (a philosopher who was greatly admired by the likes of Freud) as the German word “Einfühling” to explain an idea of “feeling into” something or someone. English litterateurs later translated this to formulate the word empathy. Interestingly, in Modern Greek, the word “ἐμπἀθεια” has now come to mean malevolence, prejudice and similar psycho-emotional states (1).
So, what does empathy mean today? Most dictionaries and institutions (specifically, business schools and design schools) define empathy as “the ability to understand and share the feelings of another”. More colloquially, we hear the idea of “being able to step into someone else’s shoes”. Interestingly, the “another” and the “someone else” in both of these definitions have progressively come to mean people who are in a state of suffering or who may be more disadvantaged (2) than ourselves. This definition and its application is the first apparent disillusionment that we can seek to understand.
We can simply state the fundamental truth that the aspiration of empathy is impossible. The aspiration of developing an ability to understand the feelings of someone else, let alone share in those feelings, is absolutely impossible. In order to illustrate this, one would typically demonstrate that I (in rhetoric) cannot completely internalise the feelings, emotional states and physical struggles of a person experiencing homelessness. While that is a true example, let us approach it from another perspective. Jeff Bezos is currently the richest man in the world with a net worth of USD 175.3 billion. Not for a second of my life can I expect to fathom the luxury, extravagance, liberty and unique sufferings that he experiences on any given day. Not once do we even aspire to do this. Miraculously, we understand the futility of trying to adopt Jeff Bezos’ vantage point on life. We are more willing to adopt the perspective of the person experiencing homelessness despite its equal estrangement from our own situations as Jeff Bezos’ life. This clearly proves that behind the act of empathising is an intent. This intent allows us to decide the futility of triggering empatico towards Jeff Bezos and the faux virtue of empathy towards a person experiencing homelessness. Before we delve into the nature of this intent that informs our empathetic response, let us discuss the reason for the impossibility of empathy.
One of the many inherent traits of existence is that of selfishness. It is an obligation to our own existence that causes us to hold our “self” as a unit above all else. This is not limited to the human species alone. Rather, it is a shared trait that is embedded in the very nature of being. We see it manifest itself more basely in ideas such as the survival of the fittest, the hierarchy of needs as such (3). We notice it more prevalently in our response to threatening situations. Our immediate instinct in most situations is to protect and preserve ourselves and we are bound to do whatever it is that fulfills these two goals and for as long as we can help it. This inherent self-consumed nature drives our interaction with all other beings resulting in an incessant tussle for power (4). This tussle for power, ever since the dawn of organised and agrarian societies and more so with the advent of the industrial revolution, has been exemplified by the bourgeois capitalist. We see three overwhelming traits of the bourgeoisie that can be traced back to an amplified self-consumed-ness. I render thoughts on the relation of each of these three traits and our inherent selfishness below.
- Greed: Actively seeking out more for oneself without any consideration for the requirements of others is, in some sense, the definitive identifier of the capitalist. It is simple to understand that greed is fuelled by one seeing themselves and the fulfillment of their desires as the central goal of existence. The capitalist makes things worse by enforcing this goal on everyone else around them. They demand that everyone participate whole-heartedly in the edification of their self while often promising a partial edification to others.
- Control: In order to realise their goal of fulfilling their own desires, the capitalist realised that they must be able to control the flux of resources. This is the only way that they are able to give more to themselves and, by consequence, lesser to others. This need for control however, is not limited to the flux of resources in society. It extends to control of others’ identities, others’ emotional valence and progressively to the control of others’ conception of the self.
- Hierarchy: The establishment of a hierarchy serves two purposes. Firstly, it places the capitalist at the apex making them the dictant of everything. They take on the role of God over the lowly proteleriats as we toil for their glory. The second instrumental use of hierarchy is to rationalise the capitalist’s control and greed. The capitalist who is first greedy and uses control to fuel their greediness is able to point to the hierarchy to explain their control rather than point to the true genesis of this control — their greed. Hierarchy is also the ultimate establishment of the self. It is the structural proclamation of the fact that the capitalist is above all else.
This inherent self-centric outlook, that is prevalent in everyone but more easily discernible in the capitalist by virtue of the three traits described above, makes it impossible for us to adopt the psycho-emotional and physical space of anyone else. The self is such an overbearing presence in everything and we have discovered far too many ways to rationalise the self. Identity, self-respect, self-integrity, image are all lexical and socio-political tools that help us defer this sense of self and tie it together with the concept of “human nature” (5).
Now, we are mistaken if we believe that we are all oblivious of this infiltration of self into every aspect of life. We are consciously aware of it and this can be proved logically. As exhibited before, we are constantly applying our discretion to the way in which we respond to various situations. By way of example of our discretion, we choose to “empathise” with one kind of person (the more disadvantaged than ourselves) and think it absolutely futile to empathise with someone else (one who is more advantaged than ourselves) (6). The ability to apply this discretion is a clear indication that our responses are driven by an intent. This intent helps us navigate and rationalise our responses. More often than not, this intent is the fulfillment of the self. If we were to claim that we were oblivious of the self and its role in everything we do, we are denying knowledge of this intent which would imply that we responded to everything with no discretion and hence no rationale. Either that is the absolute truth and what we celebrate as the primary cornerstone of humanity i.e; the ability to rationalise our choices is a lie, or we are turning a blind eye on the fact that we are aware of our self indulgent response to existence. Intuition and keen observation of our own interactions with other beings will tell us that the latter is more true.
With our concealed awareness of our self-indulgence comes an overbearing emotion of guilt. The fuel for the guilt is most often the suffering that we see around us. Others’ suffering makes us aware that it is because of our self-indulgence that others suffer. More often even this thought occurs in a self-indulgent manner as “I feel guilty because my life is comfortable because of this person’s suffering.” We have gotten so good at concealing our awareness of this self-indulgence that even the guilt surfaces rarely, in the moments when we are able to break free from the shackles of the self. Guilt is a helpful sentiment depending on how we respond to it. If our response is an inspection of the self and our fascist impulses, the guilt has definitely proven beneficial. More often we see the guilt transmute to weak sympathy (7). Guilt is a superficial wound to the self and ego. Some of us are capable of continuing on the path of self-indulgence and ignore guilt when it makes an appearance. Others put a band-aid over it so as to forget about it. These band-aids are our simpatico and are in turn manifested as religious benevolence or the guilt of a person who makes a social media post when a black person is shot unreasonably. And here, empathy is just another of these tools that help us actively erase the guilt that we feel. Empathy is more effective as a tool in these scenarios because it is, by definition, more active. But ultimately it is still subservient to the intent of self-indulgence. Religious benevolence is practiced more often for one’s own salvation than actually helping someone else. A person who posts a black screen with the hashtag “#blackouttuesday” probably does so to feel a sense of social responsibility and approval from their social circles than they do out of genuine care for the integrity of the life of a black person (8). Similarly, a person who claims to be empathetic is essentially admitting to a more active sympathy that serves as rationale for the things they are about to do. More simply, the way greed is the intent of our need for control, guilt is the intent that fuels our empathetic response to social situations.
Once again, the capitalist has exploited the relationship between guilt and empathetic response to indulge the self. The practice of design and consequently that of business has been an epicentre of this exploitation in recent times. Capitalising on the hardship of another in order to proliferate one’s image as well as one’s business interests — that is the trade of the design practice today. Empathy is the rationalising alibi for the business decisions that augment the capitalist’s self.
By way of synthesis, let us ask a question that began this discussion and inspection of empathy: What is empathy today? It is clear that empathy is truly a device of the bourgeoisie that rationalises their self-indulgent and exploitative actions. However, the bourgeois exploitation of this term has gifted us the present of its inspection and one can see, with great lucidity, that “empathy” is paradoxical in its intent, object and enactment. The alleged intent is to adopt the perspective of another while the real intent is to ameliorate guilt. The enactment is to develop an ability that is contrary to our natural selfish condition. The object that is birthed out of this necessity to heal guilt and resist our self-indulgence results in an uncomfortable enigma that seems other-centric but can never be more onanistic in its outlook. The superficial other-centeredness of empathetic response is especially alluring to us on the radical left. Our inherent goals (selfish or otherwise) are most fundamentally (despite the numerous strains) communality and egalitarianism. Empathy is a perfect solution to manifesting our vision like it is for people formulating a practice of social impact, civic development or cultural reform. We must be weary of the paradoxical nature of empathy as described in this essay, lest we fall prey to its allure and eventually descend into the spiral of indulging not others but ourselves. In the true fashion of the transmutation of the word in Modern Greek, empathy is now a social alibi that justifies our prejudices, our malevolence and our indulgence while simultaneously erasing our guilt.
- Most of this information was sourced from the Wikipedia page for “empathy”, Aristotle’s “On Poetics” and readings of the poetry and theatrical works of the likes of Sophocles and Sappho
- The necessity for the comparative “more disadvantaged” is worth noting. Irrespective of our admittance, we are all constantly disadvantaged in one way or another. To some of us, this disadvantage is more evident and easier to accept because of a fundamental lack while to others the disadvantage may be a more deep set and pathological condition that is not immediately apparent. It is only the awareness of one’s own suffering that presents the illusion of our or others’ advantage or disadvantage. More is said on this matter later in this essay
- The Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is a pyramidal framework that suggests that our priorities in life are most fundamentally related to survival first and progressively the edification of the mind. It is most surely an outdated theory that is still quoted usefully very often
- In Anti-Oedipus, Felix Guattari and Gille Deleuze refer to this fundamental need for power, generically, as a fascistic impulse. While the perfect expression, I refrain from reusing this term in order to avoid the readers’ defense proclaiming their non-fascism
- In the existentialist and absurdist traditions of Sartre, Camus, Kierkegaard and others, I vehemently oppose the proposal of a human nature that defines a universal sensibility of being human. Human nature is another heuristic that conveniently rationalises our responses to certain stimuli
- On the rare occasion that this thought does occur, we refer to them as “lofty dreams” and not as empathy
- This idea of guilt was introduced to me while watching an interview of James Baldwin on the Dick Cavett Show. His observations of subconscious guilt are profound and very helpful to understand the true pathology of our reactions to the awareness of self-indulgent attitudes
- These statements are strong proclamations. They seek to provoke inspection of one’s own actions and responses. They are not intended to say that all people are selfish. They intend to challenge people who claim great authenticity of their actions because they then claim that they have achieved, if even for a moment, a total erasure of the self.