Empathy: a neutral force for potential good

Vera Veldhuizen is a third-year PhD at the Centre for Research in Children’s Literature at Cambridge, researching empathy, ethics, and justice in children’s war literature. Her current coping mechanisms are cooking and baking, cats, rowing, and hard-earned scoops.

“Empathy” has become a buzzword, both in academia and in politics. As highlighted by Barack Obama’s empathy-deficit-speech in 2006, empathy is seen by many policy makers and educators as both highly important, and lacking in modern society. This way, empathy is framed as a virtue, an inherently good trait which if possessed allows someone to be more ethical and just in their every day interactions and lives. This makes a lot of sense in many ways; how would it be possible to act ethically, or even to have a moral framework, if we do not care about the people affected? Especially in cognitive poetics empathy stands firmly at the centre of most scholarship; without engaging emotionally and empathically with the characters they will remain inkblots on the page, merely textual constructs whose actions are inconsequential. Yet because we care about them, their actions and the consequences thereof, as well as the underlying ideology of the narrative become a part of our world too, allowing us to enhance our own moral frameworks.


Image Credit: Google Images https://blog.growthhackers.com/the-complete-guide-to-building-a-framework-for-customer-empathy-ca4407f928f

Yet empathy is not universally seen as a force for good; critics such as Paul Bloom strongly argue against this “empathy as virtue ethics” view, claiming that empathy is inherently egocentric and ultimately the cause for inequality and immorality. The reason Bloom feels this way is because it is sort of true; from a very young age (somewhere between 4-6, although some researchers claim even babies display this behaviour) we favour ingroups versus outgroups. These group divisions can theoretically be based on anything and everything; age, gender, race, class, etc. We can belong to multiple ingroups, and different aspects of our multifaceted identities become more or less important in group identification depending on the context. A strongly emphasised ingroup empathy does come with lesser emotional engagement with the outgroup (although not necessarily with cruelty; multiple studies have shown that normally the reaction to the outgroup is more apathetic than anything more sinister), which, as Bloom states, is not great and potentially harmful for a great many people, as history and current affairs blatantly show us.

The problem here lies on both sides: it is absolutely silly to declare empathy as an evil or even just bad thing, as it is a cognitive affective skill which often happens simply as a reflex. It is equally silly, albeit more optimistic, to view empathy as the One Thing that will save humanity from itself. As with most things, the truth lies somewhere in the middle. Ingroup and outgroup empathy is an undeniable element of human existence, and is necessary for societies to function; yet is it also dangerous in the role it plays in racism, sexism, classism etc. However, a complete lack of empathy, as seen in psychopaths and narcissists, complicates societal living because of the incredible difficulty it creates for ethical behaviour; if I cannot imagine how you feel, or that you have any feelings at all, I cannot decide proper behaviour beyond what would benefit me alone. A sad and simple example of this type of behaviour is seen in our treatment of livestock and other animals.


Image Credit: Google images empathy-and-literature

Literature is interesting for this. As I mentioned above, empathy is necessary, to a very large extent, for us to be able to engage with a narrative. It’s not just that, however; as many studies have demonstrated at this point, literature has the potential to train our empathic skills. Additionally, it has the potential to engage us with difficult empathy; to challenge us to cross our ingroup versus outgroup binaries. In my research this stands front and centre, as a lot of modern children’s war literature purposefully sets up these binaries to then humanise and promote empathy for both sides. Especially in the case of depictions of minorities this difficult empathy is important, as this is where we can counteract what Paul Bloom, and other critics in his school of thought, are so scared about. As argued at length by Anna Savoie, especially young readers are able to engage empathically with outgroup members (as we will always have something in common with a character); a trait which allows them to train their empathic skills as well as their ethical behaviour. Reading about and engaging empathically with people who we may normally class as our outgroup may instil the knowledge that actually, this person is not so different after all, and I actually really felt with them and for them as they went through their story.


Image Credit: Google Images – Leigh Wells https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/a_feeling_for_fiction

This kind of engagement is what leads to the optimistic view that narrative empathy can change the world. The textual world, after all, is a classroom in its own right; a special place of imaginative play where the reader may experiment with emotions and situations freely. And through this, maybe, just maybe, they will become better people.

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