Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Analogy by Empathy and Its Limits

Hal Pepinsky,, “peacemaking” at
July 3, 2013

                This is the third post in a series on epistemology, or in today’s academic language, social science research methodology.  It follows posts on “ordination addiction” and on how “analogy works, linearity doesn’t.”  Here I discuss the ground on which analogies I apply to social relations rely: empathy.
                Empathy is a feeling attached to what others do.  I empathize when I what others strikes a chord with what I have felt, so that I recognize in myself that I have reacted not as I wish others to have acted, but as they have reacted.  It is irrelevant whether their situation and mine that it reminds me of are comparable as in “seriousness.”  If I empathize with survivors whose relatives and friends have been killed in drone strikes without warning or explanation, I may resonate with my feelings toward someone or group that has blamed me, I feel, unfairly, even if in retrospect it seems to have been such a small matter.  The point may simply be that I was angry and wanted the actor(s) not to get away without payback.  And if the wrong is more than personal—an insult or harm to my family—the feeling becomes a unifying force, a source of strength and solidarity in the face of the threat that s/he/they may do it again if not stopped by retaliation.  Essentially, the only analogy I need to draw upon is the feeling that s/he/they shouldn’t get away with it without having to pay for it.  If I am honest with myself and have lived long enough, it may be remarkable how deeply I have been offended by an “objectively” trivial act.  The value of the assumption that I can expect “them” to feel and react as they have is that I need not be surprised when “they” react to what has been done to them, as I already know I have reacted myself.
                At this stage of self-awareness, there is no difference between sympathy and empathy.  I can show sympathy by joining the cause, as representatives of US and Russian and Qatari governments are now doing in choosing which fighters to arm and support in Syria.  As I see it, empathy goes one step further, asking whether they get what they want by acting on their feelings as they do.  If not, the empathic question becomes: How have I or others had those feelings of anger, fear and pain assuaged rather than aggravated by the various ways I or they have responded?  Which among the many responses to having been offended I and others have tried have dissolved rather than aggravating social differences, separation, distrust, fear, anger?  At this point, experience (also known as “the empirical data”) may indicate that anything I or others do to try to set things right may only deepen resentment among the parties, extending resentment to us for interfering.  Empathy that extends to considering the consequences of one’s well-intended intervention may lead one to recognize that doing nothing except being willing to listen when  spoken to is the only way to take offended people’s interests to heart.  Empathically, I confess that what I claim most fundamentally separates making of peace rather than aggravation of antagonism and separation in my relations—letting peacemaking happen to me rather than making peace happen—is the social thing I find myself particularly unsuccessful in doing.  When I or others I encounter are stuck in our relations, I keep on trying others to wake up and see problems as I do.  This very blog of mine is an attempt to make others see the light my way, and I carry on despite angry calls on me to stop pestering people with my “ranting” (as one honest reader put it, no doubt speaking for many others).  I rationalize to myself that the violence I inflame is offset enough for me by voices telling me I validate their own politically and socially marginalized voices.  A certain level of honesty with myself recognizes just how improbable it is that the fruits of my actions will outweigh the resentment they cause, let alone reduce human suffering in any larger social scene.
                Empathy does allow me to appreciate that when others come to me for understanding and validation, especially when they include antagonists, as among parties who give informed consent to mediation, a special gift, a special opportunity for me to make peace is at hand.  The same goes for when someone who feels misunderstood or unappreciated feels validated by a response that shows I have somehow, in some way however small, have felt as they do and so feel understood, reassured that they are no crazier than I am, “validated” rather than judged.  One of the miracles of experiencing empathy is that those feelings become mutual.   Moments of empathy become the social truths I live by.  Love and peace--hal

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