Reflecting Allowed

Maha Bali’s blog about education

Two Hits, One Day: Against Empathy & Intercultural framing

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Reading Time: 7 minutes

For some reason, I ended up reading two articles today that argue against two things I hold dear: empathy and Intercultural learning. Strangely, it’s only 8.30am and I’m partway through both of them (even reading a poem by McLuhan in between and a blogpost by Mike Caulfield … I’m a non-linear reader of even short articles, apparently) and I’m agreeing with them, though not particularly seeing the extremity of their points, if that makes sense?

Against Empathy – Paul Bloom

It’s important to note the article I’m reading is not the entirety of his work; he has a book, too. But I don’t know if I’m gonna invest in the book. I already have ideas of “beyond empathy” that are about participation – i.e. not letting our empathy guide us to support others but letting those others participate fully in decisions about how we should help them. I also recently wrote about the dangers of the Charitable Gaze.

Anyway, so Paul Bloom is focusing mainly on emotional not cognitive empathy, and he argues that

compassionate helping is good for you and for others. But empathetic distress is destructive of the individual in the long run.

He also mentions the work of Simon Baron-Cohen (I don’t think I’d heard of him – probably because although empathy interests me v much, I never had time to research it properly) who provides different levels of empathy . He argues, and I think he’s right (Bloom, not Baron-Cohen) that being too empathetic can be an extreme in the way selfishness is an extreme. I know this because I fall sometimes towards that extreme and it’s disturbing to continually absor other people’s emotions or distress. I think, for the most part, it doesn’t paralyze me or make me a less helpful person (will give examples in a minute) but it drives me nuts to empathize with two perspectives at once who are at odds with each other. It’s difficult rationally but it’s really devastating emotionally, Bloom says “experiencing others’ pain is exhausting and leads to burnout”. I think that’s where I was at during DigPed in Fredericksburg and it was difficult for me emotionally. It’s also what makes me tolerate people treating me certain ways because I “understand what they’re going through” and somewhat silly sounding statements like that. Bloom says

Strong inclination toward empathy comes with costs. Individuals scoring high in unmitigated communion report asymmetrical relationships, where they support others but don’t get support themselves. They also are more prone to suffer depression and anxiety.

 Two quick examples of where extreme empathy is clearly bad, and that are NOT me. When my dad passed away, one of my cousins cried and wailed so badly everyone was patting her and taking care of her. She’s more than 10 years my senior. I was pregnant when my dad passed and I was completely calm and did not cry until 2 days later alone with my husband in our bedroom. The problem with my cousin’s empathy (she wasn’t even close to my dad, she’s my cousin from my mom’s side who grew up in another place and lives far away) is that her empathy was harmful for the people closer to the situation. When people should have been focused on ME, she took all the attention. And while I seem to just naturally be calm and dry-eyed during extreme situations, I cry easily at movies and such. 

A similar (kinda funny story) happened at home yesterday. My husband turned off the lights by mistake while I was handling a sharp object and I hurt myself. When I yelled for him to turn the lights on and showed a drop of blood, we heard our kid crying really badly so we rushed to her, worried she had hurt herself, too. Turns out she was crying because I was hurt. I had to explain to her that this wasn’t a helpful way to respond to other people’s pain (if my injury had been more serious, she would have just delayed my treatment of it, to bad results for me).

Anyway. Back to Bloom. He also makes a point that I agree with and have mentioned before, that empathy is biased. We empathize more with people who look like us (or are closer to us in some cultural sense or other), and those who look attractive. He also emphasizes that empathy for individuals we know or who are in front of us may eclipse larger issues happening far away…and he’s right. I’m not sure, really, what can or should be done about this, because it seems to me natural (if not socially just) but also problematic to go with the rationality he is bringing because what if we support those far away but they don’t support those close to enough, reciprocally, when the time comes? I don’t know, really. 

Anyway. The article gets better (in term of breadth of other sources it mentions) and while I will quote this next section, I find myself wondering how much of our emotional empathy is within our control (I feel like I can control my empathetic pain in order to support others and assume my cousin did not do that when my dad died – but was it a matter of choice?) and how emotional detachment may distort our priorities. But here’s the quote 

Charles Goodman notes the distinction in Buddhists texts between “sentimental compassion,” which corresponds to empathy, and “great compassion,” which involves love for others without empathetic attachment or distress. Sentimental compassion is to be avoided, as it “exhausts the bodhisattva.” Goodman defends great compassion, which is more distanced and reserved and can be sustained indefinitely.


Bloom cites another author called Jamison (I think she used to act like a patient for medical student exams) who writes that “Empathy is always perched precariously between gift and invasion.” wow. Interesting. I didn’t see that one coming.

Next up in the article is an interesting twist. A psychologist called Hare who has a standard test for psychopathic tendencies (which is probably the extreme opposite of empathetic). Reading on, it becomes interesting to note that actually psychopaths are often good at cognitive empathy, reading others’ minds, but lack emotional empathy. Then again, psychopaths tend to lack emotions of all kinds, so not empathy only. In the end, Bloom concludes and uses other research to show empathy or lack thereof isn’t a predictor of whether someone would be a criminal psychopath or an aggressive person. Another example following all this is studies of people on the autism spectrum: their (seeming) lack of empathy does not (usually) result in them being criminal or aggressive people. (I found this a weird example, kind of offensive to people on the autism spectrum, but maybe he just means to isolate lack of empathy from other human characteristics). 

Near the end of the article, the author calls studies on empathy weak because they depend on self-report. While I understand individuals have distorted views of themselves and their motives (and can lie), there really is no reason to believe any external measure is more accurate! But maybe he’s a postpositivist and I can’t argue with him if that’s his standpoint. 

His overall moral conclusion (sounds good, if a little didactic) is this:

Being a good person likely is more related to distanced feelings of compassion and kindness, along with intelligence, self-control, and a sense of justice. Being a bad person has more to do with a lack of regard for others and an inability to control one’s appetites.

And he contrasts anger with empathy, and the importance of channeling it sometimes, that anger isn’t always a bad thing (he gives the example of Martin Luther King Jr) but too much of it, irrationally used, is dangerous. And he argues empathy is similar.

I’d say this guy’s argument is rationally quite solid, but I have 3 questions 

  1. Is he dismissing emotionality in general and advancing rationality, and is he suggesting that kindness and compassion can stem from a cognitive and emotionally distanced space? If so, it feels very white Western male centric and does not resonate with me (as much as I myself tend to be stoic when I’m in the midst of personally distressing situations like a loved ones death or pain) 
  2. Is he assuming empathetic response, particularly the emotional kind, can be controlled? And what kind of relationship does he suggest exists between cognitive and emotional empathy? Don’t they feed off one another sometimes?
  3. Can I use it in my class? if so, there are articles responding to him and I should have also articles about empathy separate from it so we can see multiple perspectives and students have time for introspection. I’d say Lina Mounzer’s article shows extreme empathy without discussing empathy per se. Students found it much more powerful than BBC Syrian Refugees game (though perhaps we should explore the site furher), for example, but did either of those spur anyone to action? Did we change our attitudes? 

I’m gonna go back to previous blogposts of mine about empathy and decide what to do. Such as this class activity idea building on narrative games and inspired by an Audrey Watters article and a TEE Talk… and this on empathetic distance and empathy as luxury this one on empathic feeling, thinking and praxis and there’s even more than I remember. I would not want students to read my own so it doesn’t seem like I’m biasing them, so maybe they can read the original sources I’m referring to. I’ll see how much of this will be possible this semester. And it kind of does relate to the second part of this blogpost… 

Intercultural vs Postcultural

Simon Ensor sent this article, in response to yday’s blogpost inviting people to #FlipIntercultural

I agree with some of the premises of the article. I don’t know if it means I have a Postcultural view of intercultural or if I’m doing it all wrong (I know I tend to have a postmodern take on many things without necessarily seeing that there is something wrong with the thing itself). 

I tweeted in response, and I’m just copying the text I wrote there into this blogpost (haven’t finished the article yet):

Article has a v specific context (people in Nordic countries of other ethnic origins)… I do agree that “which differences are the most important in a communication process remain an open empirical question.” and is itself contextual. But intercultural learning in a context of all same nationality is diff from international.

Strangely, I introduce students to Intersectionality and hybridity before we ever mention intercultural learning and never saw a disconnect. I think Intersectionality and hybridity define culture in more fuzzy ways, but it’s still culture. E.g. culture incorporates gender.

So while each person may have their own personality (not covered by any larger cultural grouping), being an “engineer” or “female” or “black” or “Muslim” all work together to form a culture where we share parts w some others and some not, to an extent.

And like… Muslim women of Arab origin will have some stuff in common that differentiates them from Muslim men of Arab origin, and Christian women of Arab origin, and Muslim Women of non-Arab origin. But which dimension is most prominent in a specific context differs.

End tweets.

Now looking back to the article…

I agree to this:

I do not claim that culture/ethnicity is never the main reason for misunderstandings in politics, love or inefficient communication, but I do argue that 1) culture/ethnicity is to be seen as interwoven with other social categories, 2) culture/ethnicity is to be seen in relation to a specific context, and 3) which differences are the most important in a communication process remain an open empirical question.

I just never thought that recognizing hybridity and intersectionality was different from intercultural – I thought it was just a different way of conceptualizing culture….

Now the article highlights two dominant approaches to intercultural communication: functionalistic and constructivist. This is new to me. I have a chapter on intercultural learning in my PhD and never came across this framing, but probably because I was focused on intercultural learning rather than communication? 

I’ll have to come back to this in a separate blogpost because I don’t have time to finish reading now!

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