The Impossibility of Empathy

Empathy could be defined as ‘the ability to identify with the feelings of the other’. More broadly, it could also be ‘the ability to understand and share the feelings of the other.’ The former is a more specific claim where the reflective person is in commune with the sufferer and is able to step inside her shoes with a metaphysical unison. My claim is that empathy, in its more precise meaning, is an impossible virtue. Perhaps, the alternate penumbral conception is, then, our best hope. This need not necessarily be an evil conclusion, but it does challenge some self-deception. I shall summarize my two arguments for this proposition below.

1. Can we actually claim to know ourselves with any degree of security? If one takes an existentialist line, knowing oneself is an ongoing organic process. This is dialogic inasmuch as one identifies oneself in relation with others and at the same time conceptualizes the other from her own judgment. It is an interpretive process where one tries to ‘fit’ one’s self in the historical unfolding of the ‘being’ as a cultural, moral and contextual phenomenon as well as traversing the realms of perception, reflection, negation and assimilation in engaging with one’s people, place, pariah and paradise. None of this is a solid category and all of them stake an elusive truth. This is also not to suggest that we are like blobs of nebula. We do arrive at some self-conceptualization, howsoever malleable it be. There is a point of departure in our journey, howsoever ephemeral it be. And even if it is chaotic we do find ourselves at some point whether in limbo or outside it, howsoever, permeable the boundary be. Yet, this is a deeply personal process (one could here say that this is contradictory since ‘personal’ would pre-suppose ‘person’, at the same time, I believe ‘private’ and ‘individualist’ would be further off-radar.) It is a life-sapping endeavour. Most of us either ignore it completely or push it to the farthest point in oblivion. That being so, it is impossible for us to ever ‘know’ anyone. These points of departures and transitions are important reference points in our quest for finding ourselves and these points vary across people and any similarity is at best a co-incidence. Thus even if we assume that we do come to find, know and define ourselves with reasonable security, it is impossible and, on occasions, invasive on our part to do the same for others. When knowing someone is improbable, it is presumptuous to suggest that identifying with the other is possible.

2. The next aspect is about ‘feeling’. ‘Feeling’ also is a function of self and the same argument, pari passu could be rehearsed here. Nonetheless, one could also adopt a different line of reasoning. Besides the fact that a tragedy strikes its primary victim differently than its secondary witness (primary victim being its immediate recipient and secondary victim gets affected by it in a mediated manner mediated by a third person or situational asymmetry), it strikes even the primary victims differently (this needs to be read with the argument made above regarding ‘knowing’ one’s self). Has not already the massacre killing about a dozen journalists and cartoon-makers in Paris and that which killed about 2000 people in Nigeria marking it the deadliest in recent times affected us differently? Not everyone in Paris and Nigeria has been scarred in the same manner, we aren’t sure if we have even been properly slapped here, let alone bruised. One could add several layers of complications here drawing on the concentric circles of personal relations, but I hope the point has been driven home.

What is being argued above is not an advocacy for insensitivity but about uncovering the limits of our sharing. It is not suggested, even remotely, that we should stop being concerned about calamities that ravish the lives of people. It is only a proposal for us to be fair not only to ourselves but also to those for whom our prayers and sympathies are directed. Lastly, we ought to be empathetic at least in the penumbral sense, because sentience is an important attribute that makes us a community of people. Our conversations and quest for finding our selves would be muffled and snapped without it.




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