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Unlearning Empathy Politics

By David E. Lewis, Contributing Opinion Writer
​​David E. Lewis ’24 lives in Quincy House. His column “Unlearning Everything” appears on alternate Thursdays.

I’m deeply concerned about the troubling rise of empathy politics amongst liberals and progressives on social media and on Harvard’s campus. We’re living in an era where YouTubers with millions of subscribers like Shane Dawson brag about being empaths and companies like Jubilee start entire empathy campaigns. They create video series rehabilitating notorious racists and invite trans people and members of other marginalized groups to debate their existence — all in empathy’s name.

This trend takes on its own unique shape at Harvard. Amongst Harvard students, empathy merch and posts on Instagram stories abound, stating or implying that if we only felt more empathy for each other, we could solve the world’s problems and amend political cleavages.

But what if I told you that the empathy hoodies students sport as they walk past houseless people in the Square is actually contributing to their dehumanization.

The empathy advocates have placed the cart before the horse. Our society leaves billions of people across the globe without basic human needs such as shelter, health care, nutrition, and clean water because it was built by white supremacist, capitalist imperialists that devalue the lives of everyone except rich white men and prioritize profit above all else.

To be clear, I do not write against the concept of empathy itself, but rather its centering as a necessary, critical, or sufficient component to helping people or to making the world a better place. I believe that this centering of empathy is shallow, counterproductive, and deliberately milquetoast. In fact, it actively serves the interests of those who wish to uphold systems of oppression.

The belief that feeling other people’s emotions is a critical or necessary step in helping them is toxic because it implies that you need to experience someone else’s pain to help them. Yet this is not necessary, as simply valuing other people’s lives should be enough to convince you to listen and help.

This selfish idea has disastrous consequences for oppressed people as they become reduced to helpless victims. We see this manifest through the spread of increasingly graphic trauma porn (such as starving children and dying refugees) that exploits vulnerability to garner donations.

Ironically, empathy activism actually furthers the devaluation of poor and oppressed people because it transforms them into spectacles of victimhood and suffering. It also promotes white saviorism as it views privileged people and their capacity for kindness and generosity as the main agents of change in society, even though these people often directly and materially benefit from the oppression they are supposed to end.

Even the assumption that emphasizing is always possible poses a problem. Some people's experiences are just so far removed from your own that it is simply impossible to imagine or understand them. How can a cis person walk in the shoes of a trans person? How can a white person understand what it means to navigate the world in a Black body? While they can start by consuming the writings and art of marginalized people based on their lived experiences, privileged people who attempt to empathize with others face incredible difficulty. After all, they have grown up with a racist, sexist, and classist media that has asked them to empathize primarily or exclusively with cishet white men while portraying marginalized peoples as laughing stocks, dangerous or subhuman. Thus, most attempts at empathizing amount only to selfish projection.

Empathy advocates also seem to forget that not all people feel empathy, or at least not to the same extent. Empathy advocacy is often ableist because it implies that feeling other people’s emotions is necessary. This idea contributes to the stigma that neurodivergent and sociopathic people are dangerous and immoral. It is also misguided because becoming enmeshed in other people’s emotions can sometimes make it difficult to provide the support and care they need. Thus, empathy is not even always desirable.

In fact, empathy is often weaponized against oppressed people as they are asked to show compassion and understanding for the individuals who perpetuate their oppression. Privileged liberals often call for conversations where oppressed people’s basic human rights are debated, and ask that afterward oppressed people remain civil, agree to disagree, and sing kumbaya with those who just argued against their right to exist. Refusing to pick a side in situations of injustice and instead focusing on empathy and civility is in fact not empathetic, but a cruel and insipid cowardice.

As a community, we must unlearn the prioritization of empathy and instead, learn to center a deep appreciation for marginalized people and their autonomy. All political projects should start from this point, centering the most oppressed among us as the greatest agents of change because they understand the systems of oppression that enshackle them. After all, they are the only people who truly know what it feels like to deal with them.

Of course, there is a space for empathy in activism and liberation movements, but it can never come before a fundamental appreciation, value, and concern for the lives of marginalized people.

​​David E. Lewis ’24 lives in Quincy House. His column “Unlearning Everything” appears on alternate Thursdays.

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