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

Ann Deslandes

Ann Deslandes is an Australian researcher and writer who lives in Mexico City. Most recently, her words have appeared in Ms. magazine,’s Across Women’s Lives, and Overland. She is a proud member of the MEAA and former activist with the Australian Services Union and National Tertiary Education Union.

More by Ann Deslandes ›

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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  1. This is true, and a very good point, but there’s an issue here, as the author does not propose another solution or means of considering the situation. It’s true that empathy by itself is not going to solve any problems, but there are benefits to developing empathy amongst the privileged.
    I think you’re right that this is a much more complex issue than being able to feel empathy for the persecuted, but this criticism is not constructive to those aid organisations who are trying to find new ways to get their message across to potential donors. That’s the purpose of this, surely, to increase awareness and therefore donations?
    I applaud you for being bold enough to confront people on what may be a fleeting, self-serving empathy, but without proposing a solution or alternative means of engaging, people may be left with only guilt at being empathetic, without a greater understanding of how they can really contribute.
    Thank you for your article.

  2. Without trivializing empathy, it is in that first pang of emotional realization that we gain our first intellectual insight into the wrongness of deeply ingrained and accepted norms, those attitudes and behaviours that we have grown up with and consider to be objectively normal; norms we cannot think beyond until we can feel beyond. So, yes, I think there are people who don’t understand what solitary confinment, poverty, torture, displacement, gender and racial oppression, and so on really do to people because they have not yet felt beyond the normalcy of these deeply ingrained and widely accepted human social phenomena.

  3. A few thoughts on some of the arguments being put here:

    1) Empathy can’t escape the inequality dynamic.

    Disadvantage and privilege exist, though, regardless of whether we feel empathy or not; so, naturally, any empathy we might feel will be emerging from a place of inequality. But that’s a symptom, not a cause; and, as we know, empathy can be a strong motivation to reduce inequality.

    2) Empathy should not be necessary in order for justice to occur.

    This is indeed so, and Peter Singer’s writing is a good example of how such a concept can be approached. But empathy remains an extraordinarily useful ingredient for creating the conditions in which justice can occur.

    Ann asks “do we really not know what happens to someone in solitary confinement or indefinite detention?”. I’m with Npthurne above: if we really did, would there be any point in our government doing everything they can to hide the latter from us?

    Besides, knowledge isn’t enough; it’s merely the first necessary step in the empathetic process. One can know what’s happening on an abstract level and not care; but one can’t recognise oneself in the people there and continue to shrug one’s shoulders without some serious cognitive dissonance. Empathy, of course, is all about reducing that gap.

    3) Oppression often emerges from a state of self-loathing (through, for existence, fear of one’s own vulnerability).

    I think this is absolutely true, but what is self-loathing but a near-fundamental failure of empathy with oneself? To be disgusted by a negative trait because it reminds the subject of a negative trait that they have or are afraid of having is an exercise in misanthropy, not empathy. Is more empathy, both for the self and the other, not the solution here?

    I’m not sure of there being any good reason to think that viewing people as fundamentally different (i.e. incapable of being empathised with) can increase the likelihood of ethical action. At best, it leads to exoticisation, which may confer some transitory benefits but is essentially dehumanising; at worst, it leads to even darker forms of othering such as racism, misogyny and homophobia. A lack of empathy, or empathetic imagination, is surely crucial for all such oppressive phenomena to flourish.

    So, of all the approaches that bring about ethical behaviour, I remain convinced that empathy is the gold standard to aspire to. But I’d be interested in hearing other views on this.

  4. The article raises good points – empathy can be swallowed up by inequality. To me, though, there is something more basic in the wisdom that knowledge of self opens one to knowledge of other. There is a reason why most religions have a variant on “love your neighbour as yourself”. Most people develop a sense of the world and others in relation to self. If you know things are hurtful when done to you, you can begin to conceive them as such when done to others. It is not that empathy replaces justice but that for a functioning concept of justice to develop in the first place you probably need an awareness that other people have rights and feelings – just like you.

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