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From my High Horse, I Empathize with Thee (Web Event #3)

Owl's picture

Image Taken from:

As an American raised reader of cultural literature, I often find myself empathizing when engaging with cultural distinctions. Empathy, according to the Webster-Merriam dictionary, is “the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner”. In Doris Sommer’s “Proceed with Caution, when Engaged by Minority Writing in the Americas”, she discusses how it is that “readers bent on understanding... press particularist writing to surrender cultural differences for the sake of universal meaning” (p 9). She argues that readers who empathize, “miss opportunities for genuine dialogue with texts and with citizens in public arenas, because presumptuous habits of reading cannot prepare us to listen” (p11) It is easy to see how “presumptuous habits” of reading by which readers claim to “know the Other well enough to speak for him or her”, can be problematic (p11).

Not only does the reader, in empathizing with cultural writings, assume to know the ins and outs of one’s culture without having had first-hand experience, but the reader also views cultural distinctions from a superior position thereby projecting his or her opinions and beliefs onto another and both neglecting and silencing what cultural relativists suggest to be a culture-specific way of being. Furthermore, as Sommers also writes we reduce both the reader and the writer to redundancy if we assume that the limits that the writer incorporates are non-existent. The latter is especially so, when it comes to cultural distinctions that are made about social problems, such as, teenage pregnancy and marriage, gender inequality, and similarly hegemonic masculinity. We assume that teen pregnancy and marriage, and gender inequality are “bad” because that is what we are taught to believe in American culture.

As American readers we often “mistake a privileged center for the universe” and not only impose our notions of ethics onto other cultures, but also stigmatize ways of being that have become identities. This is not to say that if a women were living in an abusive environment, that it would be relative to her culture, but rather to say that “differences safeguards particularist identities against seamless assimilation” (p13). In other words, it is not to say that what is “right” or “wrong”  in American culture isn’t necessarily true in other cultures, but rather that it’s mere existence has both a different history of implementation and takes a different form in it’s implementation, and that in order to fully understand it in its entirety we must be open to it. If not, we expose that culture and the writer to a form of assimilation that strips them away of their identities and permit ourselves to act as saviors to their dismay, whereby we continuously sustain hierarchical relations between ourselves and others.

In her memoir, Rigoberta Menchu talks about the way that she was raised and how much of her lifestyle was based on machismo; that is the patriarchal gender relations in Latino communities in which femininity is inferior to masculinity. Machismo, very much similar to Connell’s hegemonic masculinity, functioned differently in her community. For her community, it was seen as a way of cultivating culture and expanding lineage than anything else.When discussing birth ceremonies, Menchu states: “When a male child is born, there are special celebrations, not because he’s male but because of all the hard work and responsibility he’ll have as a man. It’s not to say that machismo doesn’t exist among our people, but it doesn’t present a problem for the community because it’s so much part of our way of life...this doesn’t mean that girls aren’t valued. Their work is hard too and there are other things that are due to them as mothers. Girls are valued because they are part of the earth, which gives us maize, beans, plants, and everything we live on” (p14). Nonetheless, Menchu does acknowledge that machismo does exist, and that many a times people pray for more boys than girls. Thus, machismo, although negatively portrayed by American culture, maintains a different function in the Quiche culture. Therefore, what is considered ethically moral in one country or population may not be universal, but if it is, it may not necessarily play the same role in society.

Negating the multitude of differences in our understandings of cultural differences lends itself to the creation of hierarchical relations that bind us as readers to pre-conceived notions of particular subgroups and hinder us from fully understanding cultural literature and its purpose. As Sommer’s writes, we to learn  to “respect distance and explore the socially enabling possibilities of acknowledging our own limits” (p13).



Owl's picture


Looking over my paper, I do in fact believe that I am describing a return to silence and a publicly sanctioned one at that. In my first paper, as you mention, I discuss how it is that I was able to move from  private silence to public voice by which I came to realize that sharing my experiences with others with similar experiences could potentially help them understand they were not alone. But, looking at my first paper in relation to this paper, I see how it is that my reasoning for sharing my experiences, very much like the way I read cultural literature, could potentially be yet another door I offer up as an escape from having to deal with one's life as is. My need to empathize with cultural distinctions, I think in a way, allows me to sympathize with the Other and consequently to diminish the distinctiveness in the Other's experiences. It is difficult to tie an emotional response to this return to silence, because it feels like a constant battle of morals. American conceptions of what is right and wrong feed my need to empathize and sympathize simultaneously while at the same time my own cultural conceptions of what is right and wrong fuel my need to resist empathy.

As far as  the purpose of machismo in the Quiche Culture, my argument is that is serves a purpose whether pathological or not. Judgement only clouds our understanding of that purpose. Furthermore, I also argue that judgement, as Menchu also mentions, can only occur when looked at from the outside in. What I mean to say by the latter is that judgement not only coulds our views of cutlural distinctions, but perpetuates a long history of american superiorty. 

I think I only really scratched the surface of what you are asking, but I would like to continue further discussion. Thank you for your comments. 

Anne Dalke's picture

not either/or, but both/and

So what I hear you moving toward is a much more nuanced position, no longer either/or, but both/and: returning to a (now sanctioned) silence, both empathizing and resisting empahty, both pathological and about complexity!

Anne Dalke's picture

On fully understanding?

You've already written one very powerful paper about how being "conflicted within" led you to be silent "without"
and a second one explaining in more detail how you were able to shift from private silence to public voice, as you got an education and built a support system for yourself.

I'm reading this web paper in the context of those two earlier ones, as the third in a sequence in which you give testimony, now, to the sort of education you are getting, an education you describe here as embracing Sommer's call for respectful distance, for acknowledging your own limits as a reader of culturally distinct texts. So my first question is whether you are describing a return to silence, now a publicly sanctioned one? And my second question is how that feels….?

You do a nice job of summarizing Sommer's  argument, touching on the "pre-conceived notions" and "presumptuous habits of reading" that "cannot prepare us to listen,” on our inclination to "project" our beliefs onto others, "both neglecting and silencing" culturally-specific ways of being; and you gesture towards a range of dangers --redundancy, assimilation, salvation, and sustained hierarchal relations--that can arise from such reading practices.

There are two places in here where I find myself confused and wanting more. The first is the single example you give of "being open" to cultural distinction: Latino machismo, which you present as resembling the sort of "hegemonic masculinity" described by Connell (who's Connell? need some works citing here…), but as also serving an important function in Quiche culture. I'd like to understand this better: I get it that machismo serves a purpose, but it still seems pathological to me! Are you arguing here for a kind of cultural relativism that doesn't pass judgment on practices in which one is not a participant? (There is a long history of this debate in feminist studies, as you well know…)

The second spot where I'd like some clarification has to do with your own particular "empathetic" reading practices. You open the paper by saying that you "often find yourself empathizing when engaging with cultural distinctions." You never qualify that description, although Sommer's work is an explicit critique of such practices. You end the paper by twice mentioning the possibility of "fully understanding" cultural differences and culturally distinct literatures; this phrasing  echoes your earlier definition of empathy as the capacity to understand without "fully," explicitly communicating. Such practices don't seem to me to accord with Sommer's call for us to acknowledge our own limits. Do they….?