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Sympathy, Empathy, or Justice

Desiape's picture

In thinking about ‘passive empathy,’ I have been wondering about the difference between sympathy and empathy, which has often left me uncertain. Many seem to use the words interchangeably, skewing the lines of both definitions. I believe this is not simply the case for 20 something undergraduates, rather this is an affliction many throughout academia succumb to and/or overlook in the contexts of research.

Empathy as “understanding what others are feeling because you have experienced it yourself or can put yourself in their shoes,” and sympathy as “acknowledging another person's emotional hardships and providing comfort and assurance,” are the definitions that I have come to understand as ‘correct.’ What I find interesting about chapter 7 (The Risks of Empathy) in Megan Boler’s work of Feeling Power: Emotions and Education is how much the idea of ‘passive empathy,’ which Boler condemns, is another version of sympathy. ‘Passive empathy’ allows Boler to critique the broader context of society, when in actuality it is possible that in school, we are taught to sympathize with the material we learn about, rather than empathize.

I have witnessed this idea a lot within the bi-co. In the pursuits of social justice, we read and learn about the moral failings of our society and how much it sucks and why it’s wrong, objectively. The idea of ‘putting yourself in another’s shoes’ is never addressed in our lecture halls. Rather sympathy fills our classrooms and slide shows as we learn of the ‘others’ and their struggle and how much it differs from ‘us’ at our elite intuition. In the long run, neither of these motifs call for action.

Empathy and sympathy does not equate to justice, only understanding and/or acknowledgement. In Boler’s talk of empathy as a call to action I began to wonder whether there is such a thing as ‘passive empathy.’ I agree with Boler’s assertions that understanding and the act of listening should come with responsibility in the idea that the audience “… must attend to the [self] as much as to the other,” (168) and act (or respond) in any way, but I assert that such an idea is not defined within the language we have grown accustomed.

Overall, it seems people often must choose between sympathy, empathy, or justice, none of which are required and/or prerequisites for the others. I could fight for justice, ignorant of the personal plight of those I fight for or for selfish reasons. I could be filled with sympathy for an issue, though go to bed soundly each night. My empathy could move me to join in the struggle of another, appropriating it in a matter that diminishes all of its individual undertones.

While I do agree with the idea that “our habituated numbness is likely to prevent any action,” (157) I also assert that our inappropriate use of language coupled with a skewed understanding of self and a mislabeled, misguided system of education act as a large barrier in the motivation to act.