The Selfish Side Of Empathy

In her new essay collection The Empathy Exams, Leslie Jamison explores the various ways people connect. In an interview, she discusses how empathy functions on the Internet, describing what she learned from her students while teaching a writing course during the Boston Marathon bombing:

A couple of their essays ended up focusing on what is the role of social media in response to a tragedy, and a lot of interesting issues came up. There was clearly something that rubbed them the wrong way about the sort of outpouring of empathy that comes up on the Internet. Like, one guy had all this beef with the phrase, “Our thoughts and prayers go out,” or something that felt like it was really hollow and trite and what did it mean that it was so easy to offer and that there was no work behind it? And this other girl was taking issue with people who would do things like post photos on Instagram for email listings they’d gotten for charitable donations. Stuff like that.

I feel like when we critique hollow displays of empathy on the Internet, what we’re critiquing is usually some aspect of empathy that is much more deeply entrenched but just made visible.

For example, we’re critiquing the way that whenever we feel empathy, we also feel proud of ourselves. So it starts to feel a little bit dirty or polluted. And so be it, I think there’s something valid in that, if you are thinking about how your empathy makes you look, to the exclusion of actually empathizing or acting on your impulse, that’s misguided and ultimately not that useful. … I like to think there’s something about the mass support that could be comforting, but again the danger is if a tweet becomes a substitute if you live in Boston and instead of donating blood you’re just tweeting about your feelings.

In another interview, Jamison turns to the perils of empathy:

I’m interested in everything that might be flawed or messy about empathy — how imagining other lives can constitute a kind of tyranny, or artificially absolve our sense of guilt or responsibility; how feeling empathy can make us feel we’ve done something good when we actually haven’t. Zizek talks about how “feeling good” has become a kind of commodity we purchase for ourselves when we buy socially responsible products; there’s some version of this inoculation logic — or danger — that’s possible with empathy as well: we start to like the feeling of feeling bad for others; it can make us feel good about ourselves. So there’s a lot of danger attached to empathy: it might be self-serving or self-absorbed; it might lead our moral reasoning astray, or supplant moral reasoning entirely. (See this fantastic piece by Paul Bloom in The New Yorker.)

But do I want to defend it, despite acknowledging this mess? More like: I want to defend it by acknowledging this mess. Saying: Yes. Of course. But yet. Anyway.