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The role of empathy in action

abby rose's picture

While reading Boler's chapter on empathy, I was reminded of a conversation that I had in one of my classes last semester. My class discussed the notion that in order to truly empathize with another, you must experience a similar emotion to their own. The example we toyed with was marignalized identities. One of my classmates explained that she always felt for the struggles of African Americans in the United States, but never really "got it" until she started outwardly identifying as a dyke (sic) and becoming an outspoken activist for the LGBTQ community. Immediately, we talked about how flawed this line of thinking is. You shouldn't have to experience another's plight in order to understand why it's wrong, you should be able to understand it's injustice just by the nature of the situation. Additionally, the struggles of one person cannot be paralleled to the struggles of another. The experiences of African Americans in the U.S. is starkly different from that of the LGBTQ community. Also, so many issues would never be understood or accessed through empathy if this were the case: it would be nearly impossible for me, as a white person, to empathize through shared experience what it is like to face systematic racism every single day.

However, we also acknowleged the fact that sharing a similar experience DOES in fact affect how you think about a situation and can definitely make it resonate more. So I wonder, how do we create this feeling of deeper empathy through accessing similar emotions? Does it have a place in the classroom?  I don't think it's very effective and cannot be instilled in a majority of peoples, but it can be a powerful tool. What about justice? How do we encourage students/others to recognize injustice objectively when the issues may never affect them? The drive to "do right" is not inherent in most people, it is something that is learned.