A couple of weeks ago I read bits of Sara Ahmed’s Cultural Politics of Emotion. It reactivated all the peeves I have with theory texts, but that’s a reflection for another day. On the other hand I liked these passages:

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(from the article “The Contigency of Pain” but more or less reproduced in the book)

I think I wrote somewhere in a previous post that a politics motivated by compassion is slippery because compassion is fickle, exhaustible. Politics motivated by empathy is also a tricky thing, for its potential disingenuous-ness. Ahmed calls it appropriative. I am reminded of a tiny thought I wrote in a journal I was assigned to keep for a study abroad class in Mumbai, now 3 years old:

I define empathizing as putting oneself in another’s position, picturing their life as your own, to understand their situation and everyday struggles and triumphs. But how can I do that without actually living their lives? It seems delusional to me to think that I could truly empathize with someone otherwise. In fact, it almost seems like an insult to the other party.

That’s not to say empathy is impossible. There are some cases where it is easier to make the jump, but what A was talking about today regarding the residents of Dharavi is not one of them. Sure, I can easily avoid the trap of seeing a Dharavi resident and entering the mindset of the patronizing philanthropist. After all, the people of Dharavi are by no means pitiable—they are just people living and working and falling in/out of love and having fun and overcoming problems, albeit in circumstances unique to their situation. Those truths are not lost on me. But can I, a foreigner with no experience of life in a place remotely like Dharavi, really say that by understanding these general platitudes easily arrived at I understand the specific experience of a Dharavi resident? And if not, how can I claim to empathize? A can empathize because he has lived that life. I cannot, and an attempt to do so is what I would actually call condescension. So I stick with sympathy because it doesn’t require insincerity.

To me then, and perhaps now, sympathy remained a more effective stance, despite the fact that it is a bit of a dirty word in political circles. People thought that sympathy entailed condescension, but I think condescension is more embedded in empathy, in a way that is pernicious because of its subtlety. I still reject the idea of the possibility of truly knowing another person’s pain (or their anything, really), and therefore am wary of this as an organizing principle for action. At most, I think one can share degrees of pain, not entireties; approximations, not understandings. Distance from the personalized versions of other people’s pain doesn’t make one a bad political or a bad person. I can’t feel your pain, not because I am a heartless person, but because I don’t pretend that my vision isn’t blocked by the towering obelisk of unknowability. It depends on what I then do with that unknowability that matters. That is the harder question around which to situate answers as organizing principles, which might be why we simply default to empathy.


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