One of the first news stories about the June 12th Orlando shooting that I read focused on the mother of a young man trapped inside Pulse nightclub, and the text messages that she had exchanged with her son. When I first read the story, the fate of the young man was not yet known, although his text messages had ceased by 3am, and his mother was quoted as having a “bad feeling” about the outcome. That day, as the names of the victims trickled out, I followed the news intently, hoping that somehow this young man’s name would not appear on the list of the deceased. But it did.
Like so many others across the country and the world in the wake of the Orlando massacre, I experienced an intense form of empathy for the victims and their families, made possible in part by increasingly timely and intimate forms of news gathering in the digital age. I read the news from a position of safety and security, but still felt that empty pit in my stomach, still had to stop in my tracks as the young man’s name came across my constantly updating Twitter feed. Millions of others felt something similar. But what becomes of all this empathy?
Empathy has increasingly come to be seen as an important component of efforts at social justice across a host of different contexts. For instance, writing on the current refugee crisis, Britney Summit Gill suggested that “if Westerners don’t care about the stability of the Middle East or the refugee crisis, we need to close the empathy gap and make the peoples of other regions of the world more familiar, more relatable.” This same “empathy gap” has also been used to describe the relatively low level of public attention paid to the recent terror attack in Istanbul, compared with the dramatic outpouring of emotion in the West devoted to last year’s attacks in Paris. And some argue that new technologies like virtual reality can cause us to “instinctively feel a surge of empathy for those whose experiences we are immersed in.” The assumption in these and other cases appears to be that an increase in empathy for the suffering of distant others can lead to improved outcomes for suffering people down the line. Indeed, we might be more focused on ending Western military adventurism if we viewed all people as equally worthy of our attention and protection. As Summit Gil laudably put it, “the least we can do is try.”
But this view may misunderstand what empathy really is, and its many limitations. As philosopher Jesse Prinz explained, “empathy is partial; we feel greater empathy for those who are similar to ourselves,” and numerous studies have born this out. For example, one psychological experiment found that whites who strongly identified with their own racial group biased their charitable giving against black disaster victims. Another confirmed that even on a sensory level, people experience more empathy for the physical pain of those with the same skin color. Race is, of course, a social construct, not some kind of natural or inherent barrier between peoples. But as long as some people continue to imagine that phenotypical differences are markers of significant distinctions between themselves and others, then we can expect empathy to have trouble crossing racial and other boundaries.
These are the perils of relying on what is essentially an imaginary relationship between some distant unfortunate and oneself. Psychologist Lauren Wispé argued that because it refers to “the attempt of one self-aware self to understand the subjective experiences of another self” empathy doesn’t necessarily involve “awareness of another’s plight as something to be alleviated.” Sociologist Candace Clark has suggested that empathy is simply the first step in a process that can lead to a desire to help, but can also lead to indifference or even disgust towards the other. My own textual analysis of an anti-Occupy Wall Street blog has shown that people can quite easily imagine the suffering of others as manageable or surmountable. The larger point here is that these things are not failures of empathy—this is how empathy works. We can’t truly know another’s pain, and in that gap between one’s own subjective experience and the pain of another, there is room for all sorts of biases, misunderstandings, and even enmity.
This makes the focus on empathy a somewhat poor choice for social justice movements. If we assume that empathy can and ought to be distributed equally, or that a more just society is predicated on a more empathetic public sphere, we are likely to be disappointed. This is true even as social networking sites, viral videos, and mobile devices put us in such intense and intimate contact with the suffering of others. After all, these things can expose the brutality of police violence against people of color, but just as easily rally support for those same police.
Of course, I believe that empathy is a virtue. I try to be as empathetic as I can toward those close to me as well as those very distant or different from me. And I hope that my friends and family are similarly empathetic. Nonetheless, I am troubled by the politics of empathy, which privilege short-sighted resolutions that salve emotions but often do little to fix underlying problems. The shape of the gun control debate in the wake of the Orlando shooting revealed as much.
As has become customary after such tragedies, calls for federal gun control legislation once again rang out after Orlando. This time they inspired, at the very least, some significant acts of political theater. Just four days after the Orlando massacre, Senator Chris Murphy engaged in a 15-hour filibuster in the Senate to demand a gun control vote. A week later, Congressional Democrats staged a sit-in on the floor of the House, also demanding the passage of new legislation, in a move that was heavily tweeted and streamed via the Periscope app. These displays felt good, they showed us politicians who were just as fatigued and frustrated and frightened as we were, and who were moved enough to disrupt the normal way of doing things.
Perhaps these ultimately fruitless maneuvers were the first steps in a broader movement. But in the rush to demonstrate empathy for the victims and their families, to salve the public’s enflamed emotional state, the bills put forward to address America’s gun problem were terrible. The so-called “no fly no buy” legislation would merely graft gun control onto a federal “no fly” list that, as Alex Pareene wrote, has been “a civil rights disaster by every conceivable standard. It is secret, it disproportionately affects Arab-Americans, it is error-prone, there is no due process or effective recourse for people placed on the list, and it constantly and relentlessly expands.” So even as these proposed laws played off our extreme empathy for the victims of gun violence in Orlando and elsewhere, they required us to avoid empathizing with all of those who have been secretly and often unfairly denied basic rights in the name of the war on terror. This is sadly reminiscent of the way that Americans’ empathy for the thousands of innocent victims of the September 11 attacks blinded them to the suffering that we soon unleashed on hundreds of thousands of other innocent victims in Afghanistan and Iraq. In this way empathy can actually impede social justice.
We ought to remind ourselves, then, that justice doesn’t actually require empathy. It doesn’t rely on everyone developing a deeply felt understanding of what others are going through, and won’t necessarily be derailed by misunderstandings of this. There are likely many people who will never be empathetic toward disaster victims, or only do so in the most cursory and personally unchallenging ways. A safer and more just world will not be delivered through viral videos or Facebook posts. It requires hard work. It does require a movement that keeps going in the in-between times, when no new gun massacres are confronting us on television or on Twitter. It requires paying attention to the day-to-day handgun violence that results in less-spectacular but equally senseless losses. It depends on a movement of people who will keep the issue of gun control at the forefront of public consciousness once our mass-mediated empathy for the victims of gun violence has begun to fade. Many are already doing this. Many more are clearly needed. But if we truly want a safer and less violent future for this country, we can’t assume that the public’s mass-mediated empathy is going to make it happen on its own, or push legislators in the right direction. Instead, we need to keep working on ways to transform our empathy into action now, and in the months and years to come.
Timothy Recuber is a Visiting Assistant Professor of Communication at Hamilton College. His book, Consuming Catastrophe: Mass Culture in America’s Decade of Disaster, is out Fall 2016 from Temple University Press. He tweets from @timr100,
Image credit: Francois Bester