Article by Bethany Gordon: “…Despite the haunting nature of these details and the different features of this moment, I am worried that empathetic voices lifting up this cause will quiet too soon for lasting change to occur. But it doesn’t have to happen this way. Gaining a better understanding of the empathy we feel in these moments of awareness and advocacy can help us take a more behaviorally sustainable approach.
Empathy is a complex psychological phenomenon, describing eight distinct ways that we respond to one another’s experiences and emotions, but most commonly defined in the dictionary as “the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.” Using this broader definition, scholars and activists have debated how effective empathy is as a tool for behavior change—particularly when it comes to fighting racism. Paul Bloom argues that empathy allows our bias to drive our decision-making, bell hooks states that empathy is not a promising avenue to systemic racial change, and Alisha Gaines analyzes how an overemphasis on racial empathy in a 1944 landmark study, “An American Dilemma,” led to a blindness about the impact of systemic and institutional racial barriers. This more general understanding and application of empathy has not been an effective aid to fighting systemic oppression and has led to a lot of (well-meaning?) blackface.
A more nuanced understanding of empathy—and its related concepts—may help us use it more effectively in the fight against racism. There are two strains of empathy that are relevant to the George Floyd protests and can help us better understand (and possibly change) our response: empathic distress and empathic concern, also known as compassion.
Empathic distress is a type of empathy we feel when we are disturbed by witnessing another’s suffering. Empathic distress is an egocentric response—a reaction that places our own well-being at its center. When we’re motivated to act through empathic distress, our ultimate goal is to alleviate our own suffering. This may mean we take action to help another person, but it could also mean we distract ourselves from their suffering.
Compassion is a type of empathy that is other-oriented. Compassion operates when you feel for another person rather than being distressed by their suffering, thereby making your ultimate goal about fixing the actual problem….(More)’