Calls for, and experiments in, empathy are appearing, frequently and urgently, in the midst of such human catastrophes as the abuse of refugees and other migrants, the destruction of Syria, and the rise of Trump and other far-right figures. If only, this empathy logic goes, we could muster up the courage, imagination and fellow feeling to ‘walk a mile in the shoes’ of those different to us (usually those with less power and privilege, those being misunderstood and persecuted). Perhaps then there would be less division – less of the dangerous scapegoating and hatred that forms the basis of war, conflict and abuse.
In May this year, for example, Amnesty International launched a video that went viral, depicting a simple ‘empathy experiment’. They put refugees from Syria and Somalia opposite people from Belgium, Italy, Poland and the UK and invited them to look into each other’s eyes for four minutes, uninterrupted. Take four minutes to look into the eyes of another, the video suggested, and you really see them as human and complex, which builds the intimacy needed to reduce oppression. At the Melbourne International Film Festival this year, programmers dealt into the growing popularity of Virtual Reality as a tool for building empathy, inviting punters to experience solitary confinement in an American prison, incarceration in a British immigration detention centre, and speaking back to racism as an African Australian.
These are all scenarios that are currently the subject of exceptional oppression: the treatment of refugees in Europe, the cruelty of North American prisons, the abuse of immigration detention, the sanctioned racism that is part and parcel of both.
At the root of such attempts to build greater empathy for less oppression is a theory of recognition – that is, that we humans oppress each other because we can’t see ourselves in the other, and vice versa. Thus, if we could see something of ourselves in the other – a common vulnerability, a shared desire, an understandable need (say, to protect our children, to belong to a community, to practice a belief system) – the borders keeping us apart in hatred might melt, and the punishments for deviance with them.
It’s a compelling theory, and one which drives the work of many to build worlds where horrors like mass internment and genocide stop happening. In Australia, GetUp! is currently running a campaign to show the Australian public the human faces and stories of the people our country imprisons and tortures in offshore detention on Manus Island. As an exercise in humanising people who have been marked (and thus dismissed) in public discourse as ‘illegals’ and ‘boat people’, it is working, at least on GetUp’s own metrics. That is, it may compel more Australians to demand that the camps be closed and its prisoners be permitted to live in the Australian community.
But acts of empathy that rely on recognition are tenuous because of profoundly unequal dynamics, such as those between refugee and citizen, or white person and person of colour. As long as empathy can be taken away at any time by the dominant partner, these acts can’t escape their founding inequality. Indeed, as solidarity theorist Sara Koopman points out, why should we need to know what it feels like to be another person before we can recognise their claim for justice? Before we can stop killing and torturing them, because of who they are? Do we really not know what happens to someone in solitary confinement or indefinite detention?
Feminist philosopher Kelly Oliver cautions against recognition as a basis for solidarity simply because one might recognise their own vulnerability in another. ‘It is the fear and denial of our own vulnerability that causes us to hate and exploit the vulnerability of others,’ Oliver warns. When one recognises the vulnerability of another, they find themselves implicated, prompting rejection to avoid responsibility. In this frame, perhaps the experiments which seek to build empathy would do better if they aimed to emphasise difference, to build discomfort, and to make peace with one’s own vulnerability.
‘Walk a mile in my shoes’ has been the rallying cry for many efforts at increasing empathy. The world’s first Museum of Empathy, which opened last year in London, will even ‘fit you with a pair of shoes belonging to someone from a completely different walk of life to your own’, before you ‘step outside and literally walk a mile in their shoes while being immersed in an audio narrative of their life’.
But the failures of human solidarity indicate that we have so much more than a mile to walk. Calls for empathy seem to stop solidarity at that point on the road where, to paraphrase a satirical twist on that maxim, the oppressor is a mile away and has stolen the others’ shoes.
Image: ‘Japanese shoes’ / flickr