Empathy as Resistance is a discussion group that met during 2017 to focus on themes that are common within our process-based projects. During Pixelache Festival 2017 we held a special edition meeting, in a format of discussions, workshops and a community meal, open to all. The aim was to reflect on the questions raised during the discussions this year, and view them within the context of our practices.
Here is a taster of our discussion. For our meetings we had been preparing questions that relate to the subjects of empathy as resistance. Some of these questions developed deeper, and some left open-ended.
Self & Other
Q: Self & self -representation: Empathy is rooted in the idea that there is me and there is other. From your own empathy experience, do you have memories or experiences where yourself is not so framed, and where you experience the sense of empathy. What kind of situation is it?
A: My experience, having done some physical exercise that are meant to expand the sense of self, it is the come back from the trip state that has always been interesting, how much that expanded state affects the normal life after. Although of course there are also moments where that happens by itself, where we don’t need any experiences, yet how is it triggered? Maybe with a close friend, with a person who you trust, you can feel that you are heard, you are seen, you share.. Intimacy? Maybe this is one moment where you can forget that the other person is “the other”, maybe they become “significant other”?
A: I’m thinking about the difference between otherness and difference. Difference is the basic condition of everything, and then otherness comes after.
A: I don’t think that you can become the same, or that the role of empathy is to erase those distinctions. There is an integrity of two entities related. Empathy is what passes between them, but they are still distinguishable. An edge of empathy is when you become confuse which is you and which is outside of you. Could there be “you and not you” which is not an unhealthy influence? Empathy takes so much energy. I wonder if there is another way, no to fall into this trap of co-dependency. With plants for example - you keep each other alive. Are the relationships that you are having, are they you? Are they creating self? For example, parasites can make you act in a certain way, they can change colour of a fish so the predator catches that fish.
A: For empathy to exists, does there need to be a certain degree of otherness, so you can say “I empathise with this person”? If, following for example a dictionary definition of empathy, one empathises - she is able to feel how the other person is feeling. So then does the other need to be removed enough, for the act of empathy to exists and to make sense? If they are too close to you, is there a need for empathy, does this term have weight? On the other hand, can one empathise with a virus or with a parasite, or is it too far removed? Is empathy a special effort you make for someone totally other, yet they are close enough that you understand what you are going through.
A: I think the problem in empathy often is that people think that they can know how the other is feeling. I mean at least I don’t think that I have the right to say that I feel what you are feeling, that I can be the one who defines the ability to empathise. The defining needs to come from the person who is being empathised with.
But if we think about empathy as energy that moves between, then you can feel something and they can feel something, and it doesn’t need to be the same. Even if for example I feel sadness and you feel sadness, it can be manifested differently in these different host bodies, but there is some kind of relationship between those.
Q: Care - thinking within the area of whom one takes care. How to take care? Who takes care? Who are being taken care of and who are not being taken care of. And how taking care of those who are not deemed worth to be taken care of in the society, it can be a form of resistance. Bodies that are privileged and are taken care of from birth, and those that are not. What is the distinction between care and empathy? If you care for something you are embedded in that area. While empathy is often seen as something that you would take and understand the experience of the other. First comes the care, caring for someone, and then the actions come. If empathy is not material or tangible and is just felt, then it can also occur without a material of tangible proof.
A: What’s the difference between compassion and empathy? When thinking about other bodies that are oppressed in a different way than my body is oppressed, I have to be careful not to appropriate those experiences. And to think with them but not to think that I can understand their experiences - which is often seen as the definition of empathy - an understanding of how the other is feeling.
Compassion is more like a state or a condition and that informs how a person relates to the world, and for the receiving end it doesn’t really matter, whereas empathy exists in the space in between two bodies. Yet I do think there are people who are in enlighten state of empathy, and that is the state that moves in the world. So in care you are more invested, and empathy is more of a state. Empathy can be felt towards a being you don’t care so much about, but you can still be empathetic.
Who deserves empathy?
Q: Is empathy a privilege? It seems to be a good thing to do or to have. Can you control if you empathise with someone? Does it put you in a privileged position? Does it make you superior & put you in a position of authority? It is a word that defines an ability. Is any ability a privilege?
A: Then do the bodies who are oppressed know more about the society’s structures? Is empathy an ability or is it something else? Does it come with a life experience? Is it useful to quantify (experience) as more or less? It is very seductive how hierarchy sneaks in. Not to say that things are equal and horisontal in the world, but for example our capacity for empathy is inherent, and one can still train to be more or less empathetic. Trauma rather than experience gives you the information to become either more numb and disconnected out of coping, but also to be empathetic.
A: It is the tradition of diagnosis, that decided so much how the society is organised.
The process of bringing the knowledge from the invisible, the need to bring, not to be silent. It is a process of elevating. Starting a project together with people who arrive by boat from Morocco, I have been questioning my position, and I needed to find a connection, and one morning feeding strawberries to my son, I realised that this was the way we were connected. What is the connection? I am constantly part of it.
A: Who deserves empathy? What position are we in if we empathised with bad people? Does it make me a good person? For example the institution of prison divides, and we become a part of the machine. By empathising with the perpetrator we become part of the machine. So then should we empathise with the prison guards then as well? If we empathise with the inmates, their victims, what about the guards? The feeling of empathy does not mean that we agree with what people we empathise with do. Is empty something that we feel is not towards what the person and their deeds, but about specific experiences?
A: It’s worth mentioning here the diagram of triangle of victim-perpetrator-rescuer. If we fall into one of these, we do not take any responsibility, even if we move around and the roles change, the situation, the system stays the same. Does everyone needs to be empathetic towards everyone? Does the victim need to be empathetic towards perpetrator? And if so, then towards what part of the perpetrator and the perpetrator’s doings? Or is it the conditions from where the perpetrator did the doings? You need to travel across the doing and go to the conditions of the oppression.
How does a victim become a victim? How can we resist the urge to flip the power structure, for example when the slave becomes the master. Of course a victim needs to be a victim to legally challenge the oppressor so the situation changes. Needs a proof that you are victimised. How this social justice structure can be thought differently. Can we do something different and not reinforce this system?
Photographs: Garden of Others