Empathy: it’s all good, right?

By Tiana Reid, Senior Editor of SocialBusiness.org

Empathy has been studied seriously since the 1960s as something more than an emotion. It’s an affect, yes, but it has implications for things outside of the personal realm. Social activist and cultural critic bell hooks cultivated an idea of “engaged pedagogy” which centers on the idea of mutual recognization.  “Engaged pedagogy rests on a compassionate premise: to be effective, teachers need to be engaged with students, to nurture not only their classroom performance but their whole well-being: mental, physical, and spiritual,” writes Janet M Lucas in her 2011 dissertation “Not just a feeling anymore: Empathy and the teaching of writing.”

How empathy works in social businesses may be difficult to assess. After all, it goes back to whether or not intentions matter. But empathy has been and continues to be a hot topic online in the social entrepreneurship world. I’d say it’s pretty much a buzz word by now. Intentionally or not, affect and emotion have always held a premier role in social business. Especially when it comes to companies selling products, it takes emotional marketing and/or a “virtuous” feeling on the part of the consumer, to sell a fair trade, environmental, ethical (etc.) product, considering that it’s usually at a higher price.

Empathy: it’s all good, right? Well, maybe not. In “The risks of empathy: Interrogating multiculturalism’s gaze,” which was published in Cultural Studies, Megan Boler argues that “passive empathy… falls far short of assuring any basis for social change, and reinscribes a ‘consumptive’ mode of identification with the other.” Consuming the other (or “eating the other” if we look at this again through a bell hooks lens) is already a huge issue in social business. The so-called exotic is sold, bought and traded through goods manufactured (but sometimes not) in the Majority World.

Last year, Ashoka launched their empathy initiative in which they outlined the following: “Empathy. We don’t hear the term every day, but Ashoka Fellows over the past thirty years have shown time and again that there is no practice more fundamental to the human experience and no skill closer to the heart of what it means to be a changemaker. Its presence–and as profoundly, its absence–can be seen amongst the myriad challenges that populate our daily headlines, whether school bullying, ethnic conflict, crime, or the global preparedness of tomorrow’s workforce.”

But is it really possible to “identify with another person’s feelings” as Mary Gordon’s Cultivating Empathy describes empathy? How could a straight able-bodied white middle-class North American male identify with the feelings of a poor black lesbian from Zimbabwe? But this isn’t about the Oppression Olympics. Rather, if I go back to Boler, it’s about being active in not consuming identities because claiming to empathize is far different than acknowledging someone’s right for self-determination and ownership.

To problematize empathy isn’t to disregard it, but rather, it’s to take a look at how promoting empathy can blind being critical, which is crucial, especially in an industry that purports to care.

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