On Empathy

Earlier this week I got a chance to talk to a close family friend about, among other things, the shortsightedness inherent in viewpoints like Gene Marks’ “If I Was a Poor Black Kid”. I heard about the article and decided to talk about here, 1) because the first rule of the internet is to not feed the troll and 2) because as Cord Jefferson points out, the grammar of the headline is almost as offensive as the column itself.

However, as farmers know, bullshit can create fertile ground for good things to grow.And great things grew from that manure of an article in the form of responses by writers I follow and respect. One being Cord Jefferson at Good and the other being, Ta-Nehisi Coates at the Atlantic Monthly.

In his article, Coates introduces a concept that is so complex in its simplicity it blew me away; muscular empathy:

…instead of declaration (“I would do…”), one would be forced into a question (“Why wouldn’t I?”). This basic extension of empathy is one of the great barriers in understanding race in this country. I do not mean a soft, flattering, hand-holding empathy. I mean a muscular empathy rooted in curiosity. If you really want to understand slaves, slave masters, poor black kids, poor white kids, rich people of colors, whoever, it is essential that you first come to grips with the disturbing facts of your own mediocrity. The first rule is this–You are not extraordinary. It’s all fine and good to declare that you would have freed your slaves. But it’s much more interesting to assume that you wouldn’t and then ask “Why?”

This is not an impossible task. But often we find that we have something invested in not asking “Why?” The fact that we — and I mean all of us, black and white — are, in our bones, no better than slave masters is chilling. The upshot of all my black nationalist study was terrifying — give us the guns and boats and we would do the same thing. There is nothing particularly noble about black skin. And to our present business it is equally chilling to understand that the obstacles facing poor black kids can’t be surmounted by an advice column.

The complex simplicity of this approach is that it really is not a new one. We already do this with fictional characters. When one reads a book, watches a TV show or movie (at least a well written one) one never says, “I would never do that! So it’s not right.” No, instead, when a throughly developed character goes against our own morals and values, our response is, “Oh yes, I can see why that character would make that choice based on his or her life experience.” In those cases we have the context and therefore understanding. Muscular empathy then is understanding that there is context where we see none.

Go read the whole column. Seriously, do it. I’m not really one for New Year’s Resolutions, but the idealist that lives inside the cynic in me believes that if we all aimed to be muscularly empathic to the people who make up the world around us, this might just turn out to be a better place to be.

[The Atlantic]

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