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Culture of Empathy Builder:  Carolyn Pedwell

 

Carolyn Pedwell & Edwin Rutsch: Dialogs on How to Build a Culture of Empathy

Carolyn Pedwell is a Lecturer in Media and Cultural Studies, School of Arts and Cultures, Newcastle University in the UK. Author Feminism, Culture and Embodied Practice: The Rhetorics of Comparison.


Forthcoming Book: Affective Relations: The Transnational Politics of Empathy. 

How to build a culture of empathy?  Realizing that 'empathy' is not one thing and that it may not always be positive. A critical approach to thinking through the politics of empathy needs to consider the ways in which empathy may produced, mobilized and be felt differently across different times, spaces and contexts. It also needs to take into account the risks and contradictions of practices of empathetic engagement, as well as their more productive possibilities.   Rather than thinking about empathy as a discrete or singular emotion, I'd recommend that we think more critically about the ways in which it is linked with other emotions, such as power, shame, etc

 

 

 

 

(Video Transcriptions: If you would like to take empathic action and create a transcription of this video, check the volunteers page.  The transcriptions will make it easier for other viewers to quickly see the content of this video.)

 


Dr Carolyn Pedwell - Affective Relations: The Transnational Politics of Empathy

 

 

 

MAY 22, 2012 - The Academic Feminist Goes Global: A Conversation with Carolyn Pedwell
 In this month’s column, our travels in academic feminism take us to the UK for a conversation with Carolyn Pedwell, a Lecturer in Media and Cultural Studies at Newcastle University. The conversation explores how a transnational approach to feminist theory can uncover erasures of women’s experiences, and asks what happens when the current culture of commodification puts a price on everything – including empathy.

Your most recent work is on empathy and international development.  Can you briefly outline the main premise of this work? This work is part of a book I’m writing, Affective Relations: The Transnational Politics of Empathy (Palgrave, forthcoming), that examines the potentialities and risks of figuring empathy as a tool for transnational social justice.  The idea for the book started from an observation that ‘empathy’ today seems to be everywhere – and is everywhere presumed to be ‘good’. While President Obama has called on Americans to address the nation’s ‘empathy deficit’ for those who are struggling, both inside and outside the nation, feminist and anti-racist theorists have long argued that engagement based on empathy is integral to fostering social justice and solidarity transnationally.

Yet precisely because empathys so widely and unquestioningly viewed as positive, critical analysis of its limits and problems in the context of transnational power relations tends to be avoided or deferred. As a result, the most pressing questions tend less to be ‘what is empathy?’, ‘what does it do?’ or ‘what are its risks?’, but rather the more automatic refrain of ‘how can we cultivate it?’ Through close readings of a range of ‘affective texts’, from Obama’s political memoirs and speeches, to postcolonial literary works, to best-selling business books, I argue that, although empathy can generate transformative social connections, it can also (re)produce dominant gendered, racialised, sexualised and classed hierarchies and exclusions on a global scale.


In international development professional and training literatures, for example, the language of empathy signals a concern with ‘participatory’ practices of development, yet at the intersection of neoliberalism and postcoloniality, empathy may function less to produce a transformative way of relating to others then it does to enhance the moral and affective skills of development professionals – skills that have market value in a neoliberal economy in which even emotions, it seems, can now be bought and sold. Against visions of empathy shaped by neoliberal political will, my project considers the possibilities of a more open-facing ‘empathy of becoming’ that emerges from the affective dynamics of transnational encounters.

 

 


Gloria Steinem says Empathy is the most Revolutionary Emotion
 

 

 

Forthcoming Book: Affective Relations: The Transnational Politics of Empathy

 Empathy is today framed as affective panacea to a wide range of social ills internationally. While President Obama has called on Americans to address the nation’s ‘empathy deficit’ and feel for those who are struggling, both inside and outside the nation (2006: 67-8), feminist and anti-racist theorists have long argued that ‘engagement based on empathy’ is integral to fostering ‘social justice’ and ‘solidarity’ transnationally (Alexander and Mohanty,1997: xlii). Affective Relations explores the power dynamics underlying the contemporary affective injunction to ‘be empathetic’ and their complex transnational implications. Through close reading of a range of popular and scholarly ‘affective texts’ - including Obama’s political memoirs and speeches, postcolonial literary and cultural works, best-selling business books, international development literatures, popular science writing and feminist, anti-racist and queer theory - it employs a critical feminist perspective to investigate the possibilities, risks and contradictions of figuring empathy as a tool for engendering transnational social justice.  Although empathy may enable transformative political connections, the book argues, it can also reconstitute gendered, racialised, sexualised and classed hierarchies on a global scale.  As such, a critical approach to thinking through the transnational politics of empathy needs to account for its ineven effects - the particular social and geo-political exclusions and inequalities it can uphold.

 

Opening up ways of thinking empathetic politics that take us beyond universalist calls to ‘put oneself in the other’s shoes’, the book examines empathy’s dynamic relationship to processes of location, translation and imagination. This involves exploring the ways that emotions are radically shaped by relations of history, power and violence in the context of postcoloniality, globalisation and neoliberalism, and fleshing out the potentialities and limitations of ‘affective translation’ across cultural, geo-political and temporal contexts.  Moving away from liberal and neoliberal narratives which invest empathetic perspective-taking with a near magical power to bridge all differences and heal all wounds, the book explores how imaginative empathies might offer new and transformative ways of thinking (and feeling) the links between emotion, affect and social change in a transnational frame.  It aims to contribute to an affective theory and politics which do not view emotions instrumentally as sources of, or solutions to, complex social, political and economic problems, but rather examine diverse and shifting relations of feeling for what they might tell us about the affective workings of power, and the emergent possibilities for radical political solidarities, transnationally.

 

 

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 ideas for building a culture of empathy


1. Realizing that 'empathy' is not one thing and that it may not always be positive. A critical approach to thinking through the politics of empathy needs to consider the ways in which empathy may produced, mobilized and felt differently across different times, spaces and contexts. It also needs to take into account the risks and contradictions of practices of empathetic engagement, as well as their more productive possibilities.

2. Rather than thinking about empathy as a discrete or singular emotion, I'd recommend that we think more critically about the ways in which it is linked with other emotions, such as

  • (Power)

  • (criticism)

  • anger

  • shame

  • fear

  • hope

Instead of posting 'empathy' as necessarily 'positive' or 'good' against other emotions (such as anger or shame) as 'negative' or 'bad', we should avoid such good/bad emotion binaries by acknowledging that emotions are ambivalent (rather than pure), and that, in particular circumstances, it might be the mutual presence and interaction of multiple emotions (e.g. empathy, anger and shame) that causes produce self and or social transformation to occur. As such, I ultimately argue for thinking about the implications of 'affective relations' rather than focusing only empathy per se.


3. Thinking more imaginatively about empathy (and linked emotions). Empathy is usually defined in the mainstream as the act of 'putting oneself in the other's shoes'. But what if empathy is not just about imagining oneself as or in the position of another person, but something that moves beyond the human subject (i.e. affectively sensing and imagining social and political possibilities beyond that status quo, beyond what we already think we know is 'true' or 'inevitable'). So, I'm arguing for a radical re-linking of empathy and imagination that might help us to think - and feel - social world in which existing lines of privilege are radically re-assembled rather than simply reproduced.