Risks of Empathy (Megan Boler)

Empathy has been the buzz for a while. I already wrote about it once on this blog. It’s a word on a lot of people’s lips. Sympathy has been relegated to being an almost derogatory thing that people who are jerks do. Really they need to step up and be EMpathetic. Empathy is big in education, too. Social emotional learning is the trend, empathy is one of the “non-cognitive skills” students supposedly need to be taught. But it’s not just a recent interest, it turns out.

I didn’t know it went back to John Dewey. I learn so much reading, in this case, Megan Boler’s Feeling Power. In 1938, Louise Rosenblatt wrote, “if our imaginations functioned actively, nowhere in the world would there be a child who was starving. Our vicarious suffering would force us to do something to alleviate it” (in Boler, 1999, p. 156). If only students were more empathetic, we would live in a kinder, gentler, less divided country. I’m not rejecting this line of reasoning. I find at least a little inner peace when I consider the perspectives of others when they make decisions I’m not crazy about.

But maybe if I get outside my own head, it doesn’t matter if someone “learns” empathy, or, as Rosenblatt said, develops a powerful enough imagination that they can identify completely with the suffering of another person…or thing, I would add. Like a forest, duh! Boler (1999) points out that all this imagining acts as a substitute for action. Empathy doesn’t put the rubber to the road. I remember The Grapes of Wrath, for example. “Wow, the Dust Bowl sucked,” was likely my 16-year-old reaction. I didn’t start volunteering to do Meals on Wheels.

Boler sees her role as a professor “not merely to teach critical thinking, but to teach a critical thinking that seeks to transform consciousness in such a way that a Holocaust could never happen again” (p. 157). Classroom-based empathy is risky for the very reason that students feel empathy (or pity) and move right along down the line. They take no action that would use empathy to make the world a better place (or prevent it from getting worse). She writes about teaching MAUS, which is a graphic novel about the Holocaust (basically). One of the main problems Boler notes is that the readers rarely if ever make a kind of personal connection to the oppressor. Her students never once said anything like, oh, I’m just like that Nazi who tortured that character. So she needed something more than students empathizing with the oppressed.

The answer is what she calls testimonial reading, which “involves empathy, but requires the reader’s responsibility” (p. 158). “Ideally, testimonial reading inspires an empathetic response that motivates action” (p. 158). She wants this act of testimony to build understanding of power relations. The first power relation she wants illuminated is that if you’re reading about an atrocity, you’re likely in a relative position of power compared to the person who you’re reading about. With that in mind, she wants readers (students) to recognize that they are “implicated in the social forces that create the climate of obstacles the other must confront” (p. 159). That is to say, she wants students to see themselves as potential oppressors that need to make changes in the world using whatever power they have.

All this leads to a chapter titled, A Pedagogy of Discomfort. Indeed! I have been saying for quite a few years that fiction “works.” Fiction can allow entre into a topic or subject that people would normally ignore and/or reject outright if presented in factual terms. I think fiction (as a genre in television or print), like art, can bring up topics that might be seen as overly political, get people to engage with them, and potentially change hearts and minds. This is a step-by-step kind of approach to social change.

So it’s tough for me to hear from Boler that my idea that “fiction works” is cozy, Kumbaya malarkey. But she’s at least partially right. I can say, it’s just my style to bring people along through fiction, empathy, or whatever. I want people to get immersed into an experience they enter voluntarily, to potentially be caught off guard and develop insight into the ways they need to change. I don’t want people to outright throw a wall up when I say they need to become a different person than they are in order to be an effective teacher.

But I have colleagues who are more on the Boler side of teaching who say, CATCH UP, it’s 2021! Get with it. No kid gloves. No messing. Demands will be placed on you. Deal with the discomfort, because there ain’t no boot on your neck, no bullet in your chest. Flip the fiction on its head: you can’t get it through fiction. Boler talks about how her students were outright offended when another professor suggested they needed to study the Holocaust until it became unimaginable. This was upsetting to them because they were busy congratulating themselves on their empathy skills: “I UNDERSTAND the Holocaust!” But the professor is right/was right/will be right again.

The United States did not annihilate 6 million Jews. But pick some other poison from our history: nearly annihilating and removing hundreds of tribes of Indigenous Peoples, enslaving millions of Africans and their descendants, spreading a self-annihilation-focused brand of capitalism around the world. And the legacies of acts taken in our name and with our consent continue to put many of us in a position of empathizer. I can read, with detachment or concern, about poverty in Nicaragua, Detroit, or Knox County, Tennessee. I’ve got that privilege. So how will I teach? What will I teach? Can I transform consciousness such that super-small-scale Holocausts can be prevented when my students enter their own classrooms?

While I try to figure this all out (haha), I’ll be foraging for some lower-hanging fruit by continuing to have students engage in critical self-reflection, practice anti-racism, and consider human-earth relations.

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