We’re Going to Need More Than Empathy
We Have to Get Radical with the Idea of the Other
There seems to be no shortage of enemies we’re supposed to fear these days. Terrorists pretending to be refugees, illegals crossing the border to commit crimes, radical Islamic extremists, environmental regulators, scientists, journalists—our leaders have constructed enemies to justify their troubling policies. It is essential, then, to raise critical questions about how we are asked to see each other, about whom we are asked to fear and why. What allows one life to be “visible in its precariousness and its need for shelter” and what keeps us from seeing other lives in that way? Judith Butler asks in Precarious Life. The critique of violence, she insists, must begin with a critique of seeing.
Empathy—the ability to understand and share the feelings of another—is often assumed to be a critical foundation for ethical action. Empathy depends on perceived likeness, a sense of sameness; I treat you justly because I recognize you as fundamentally like me. But here’s the rub: Most of us don’t have a problem behaving ethically towards those we can see as “like us.” We do, however, struggle to behave ethically toward those we see as fundamentally different, as other.
Identifying sameness in “others” drives many justice movements. The thinking goes something like this: we should stop catching dolphins in our fishing nets because we’ve learned they’re at least as smart as humans, or we should stop torturing the pigs we kill for meat because it turns out that pigs, like humans, have emotions, or we should stop killing elephants for their ivory tusks because elephants, like humans, have the ability to remember. But if it’s only discovered likeness that creates the possibility for ethical behavior, what happens when likeness can’t be found? What will inspire the protection of a bumble bee? Or a forest? Or a terrorist?
What if instead of sameness it were otherness that was the foundation for ethical action? What if being confronted by someone utterly different from you—someone you are opposed to, confused by, scared of, someone you can’t understand—was the urgent signal that there was a life in need of your protection?
After most of his family was killed in the Holocaust, the philosopher Emmanuel Levinas dedicated himself to developing an ethical system that would make another genocide impossible. He based it on what he called irreducible alterity, radical otherness, which cannot be understood or contained, which once lost can never be recovered. From the face of every human being shines what makes her unique, irreplaceable, unlike any other person who has ever lived, Levinas argued. And it is exactly this otherness that must be protected, at all costs, even at the cost of losing your own life, because, for Levinas, that otherness is God.
Instead of locating transcendence in some faraway divine realm, Levinas located it right here—in this world, in humanity itself, in a neighbor, in an enemy. Recognizing transcendence in you forces me to admit you exceed my understanding of you. The concepts we impose on each other always leave something out. There are parts of you that resist being captured by words or images or definitions, parts that cannot be named or known or comprehended. The challenge is to learn to live with, and protect, what we can’t understand.
For the theorist Judith Butler, the ethical surfaces not when we think we know the most about each other, but when we have the courage to recognize the limits of what we know. Like Levinas, she proposes an ethical system based on difference, on relationships with others unlike you. We are bound by what differentiates us as unique and irreplaceable and by our responsibility to others we don’t understand. As Butler writes, “Your story is never my story.” What’s required is staying in relationship even when we can find no common ground. Especially when we can find no common ground.
After teaching at an art school for several years, I began to understand how visual systems of oppression are, how much discrimination depends on sight. Labeling someone as either like you or not like you, as friend or enemy, hangs on perception, and perception is warped by the lenses through which we’ve been trained to look at the world. To commit violence against another being, I first have to see that being as “other,” as less than, not grievable. This is why “enemies” must first be dehumanized by employing language and images that render them subhuman, uncivilized, dangerous. Designating someone as “other” is a constructive process. Otherness is made, not found. It is learned, imagined, and imposed.
In the aftermath of the 2016 election, I’ve been forced to admit a thirst for violence in myself that I would rather pretend doesn’t exist. I’m afraid. I don’t trust my leaders. I worry we’re destroying the planet. I wake up in a sweat in the middle of the night terrified of nuclear war. Everywhere I look I see more racism, more sexism, more oppression of all kinds acted out on the bodies of the most vulnerable. Again, Levinas is useful here. He was under no illusions about the damage human beings do to one another. He knew better than most of us that we’re capable of terrible violence, and, what’s more, he recognized a capacity for violence in himself, too. When you encounter another person, he argued, you are first confronted by the revelation that you could kill her. That you might even want to kill her. But the other is confronted by the same revelation: she could kill you, she might even want to. Each of us has the capacity for violence, and each of us is vulnerable to the violence of the other person. For Levinas, the challenge is to move from that first awareness—I could kill you—to a command: Thou shall not kill. Even when you are afraid.
I know there are those who will say I am being naïve. You want me to see a terrorist as divine? To see a racist as in need of my protection? Yes, I do. In this climate of fear and oppression, something more radical than empathy is needed. The faith that deep down “they” are like “us” won’t get us where we need to go. Because what if they’re not like us at all? What then?
I don’t think empathy is up to the task of repairing the world. I don’t trust myself to identify with those I fear the most. But I do see difference everywhere. I do see otherness. What if we were to let confrontation with otherness, with difference, give us pause? What if encountering someone I don’t understand raised questions about my limited view, about the lenses through which I’ve been trained to see the world, about the agendas driving how difference is demonized? There is otherness that is constructed by those in power to warrant how those so-called others will be treated, but there is also a kind of otherness inherent to each of us, a part of every person—and every tree, animal, rock—that is resistant, free, unknowable, mysterious, divine. What if instead of signaling the presence of an enemy, otherness signaled the presence of God?