The Monsters That Remind Us: Empathy, Civil Society, and the English Major

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As the sister to two older brothers, I grew up watching a lot of monster movies. My brothers especially loved the old Godzilla films. And when Godzilla 2000 came out, of course my family packed up and went to see one of the first showings. Never mind that I was four years old. Godzilla 2000 has to be one of my earliest childhood memories, which consists largely of closing my eyes in the embrace of my mom and dad. I still have weird dreams about jellyfish aliens; sometimes I swear I can hear the echoing of Godzilla’s roar in the distance. It wasn’t until I watched monster movies later that I came to realize that they have valuable lessons to teach us, even aside from how to hide from three-headed dragons and radioactive moths.

Weird as it sounds, I think that empathy is one of the lessons here. And I don’t just mean for all of the parents who had to comfort frightened children in movie theaters across America.

There are, of course, a myriad of definitions, as well as subcategories, as to what empathy means. It originally came into English from the Greek empatheia, meaning “to feel into.” Aesthetic theorists first used the term to describe “the ability to perceive the subjective experience of another person. The term was later used in psychology by E.B. Titchener, who said that empathy stems from one’s own physical imitation of the pain that another person feels. Empathy, then, is deeper than sympathy in that allows us to feel—or at least attempt to feel—the pain of another person. In a helpful and concise definition, autism researcher Simon Baron-Cohen defines empathy as “the drive to identify another person’s emotions and thoughts, and to respond to them with an appropriate emotion.” So this practice is two-fold: identifying the processes of the Other, and then responding appropriately.

Stephen G. Post and Ann Jurecic add extra layers to this concept of empathy. Post, first of all, calls empathy a “force” that is on a sort of spectrum. The feeling of empathy is well and good, but this is a weaker manifestation of the force. For empathy to be “strong,” it must motivate us to do something. Inherent to this strong empathy is the “reliable affirmation of the other [that] requires a conceptual act of valuation—that all human lives have equal worth.” Empathy requires the acknowledgment that my life has the same worth as yours. And when I affirm this, I am even more motivated to “identify another person’s emotions and thoughts, and to respond to them with an appropriate emotion,” as Baron-Cohen says.

Empathy is not always welcome or even helpful. Jurecic writes, “Empathy is not salvation; it’s not certainty or knowledge; it blurs the boundaries in ways that can be both generative and destructive. In the end, empathy is a practice, a process that extends in time. To make it work takes both effort and humility.” Jurecic’s definition of empathy as a practice aligns so far with what the other writers have said. And because empathy depends so much on imagination, it is indeed far from certainty. However, her talk of it as destructive comes from a misapplication of the practice. Sometimes the exercise of empathy causes us to misimagine the Other, to project our own thoughts and emotions onto him instead of accepting him on his own terms. We imagine that we fully understand people when we empathize, when really the process of empathy must be far more open-ended than that: a practice that must be ongoing.

If empathy is an ongoing process that seeks to imagine the thoughts and emotions of the Other and to respond well, then the applications of empathy to civil discourse are hopefully apparent. On a personal level, some have written that degree of empathy corresponds to moral action. Goleman writes on the research of Martin Hoffman, “who argues that the roots of morality are to be found in empathy, since it is empathizing with the potential victims—someone in pain, dangers, or deprivation, say—and so sharing their distress that moves people to act to help them. Beyond this immediate link between empathy and altruism in personal encounter, Hoffman proposes that the same capacity for empathy . . . for putting oneself in another’s place, leads people to follow certain moral principles.”

Hoffman’s research demonstrated a correlation between a person’s capacity for empathy and her support for moral principles like aid for the poor. Studies have not concluded that empathy always motivates people to act morally, but they do highlight empathy’s importance in living in a civil society. Acting morally, yet empathetically, better helps us to extend that hospitality in our thoughts, speaking, and listening. As former president Barack Obama once said, “I view that quality of empathy, of understanding and identifying with people’s hopes and struggles, as an essential ingredient for arriving at just decision and outcomes.”

On a more societal level, Jeremy Rifkin writes on the “empathic civilization.” (And you can watch a really cool video explaining his thoughts here.) In his work, he speaks on the primary human drive to belong, which he calls an “empathic drive.” He says that empathy is grounded in our shared morality and our flaws. For Rifkin, “When we talk about building an empathic civilization, we’re not just talking about utopia. We’re talking about the ability of human beings to show solidarity not only with each other, but with our fellow creatures who have a one and only life on this little planet.” And when we are able to show that solidary, Rifkin argues, then we are able to truly have civilization.

To illustrate his point, he uses perspectives on human evolution: we first saw ourselves as part of one tribe, then as part of one religion, then as part of one nation state. Humans typically show empathy in order to relate to each other on these levels, showing solidarity as they associate with one another in terms of blood ties, religious affiliation, and national identity. So, Rifkin asks, why can’t we extend our empathy beyond this? Why can’t we see ourselves as part of one race sharing one biosphere? Surely if such empathy extended this far, we would stop seeing ourselves in terms of our differences. If we began discussions with the acknowledgement of our common humanity, then civil discourse could flourish. Disagreements would undoubtedly arise, as surely as they do between family members, but such strong empathy would still allow us to work together civilly for the common good.

Of course, despite some of our perhaps natural tendencies, empathy doesn’t always come easily. In fact, sometimes it is downright discouraged by the culture we find ourselves in. We are tempted to continue to define ourselves by our merely religious, ethnic, or national ties. During World War II, for example, both Japanese and American cultures encouraged the dehumanization of their respective enemies, largely to make it less difficult to kill one another during wartime. Donald Shriver writes, “In its systematic erosion of tendencies to empathize, racism is a peculiarly vicious enemy of forgiveness in politics or justice in any human relation.” Through this negative example, Shriver directly links empathy with forgiveness and justice. Racism, which refuses to extend empathy past a limited idea of “our own kind,” undermines the ability to practice forgiveness and justice well. And interestingly, the U.S. has never apologized for dropping atomic bombs on Japan, and Japan has never apologized for bombing Pearl Harbor.

Now that we have a working, nuanced definition of empathy—that is, an ongoing process by which we identify and respond actively to another’s thoughts and feelings, a practice fundamentally associated with hospitality, forgiveness, justice, and civil discourse—well, what’s a lowly undergraduate English major to do? How can my discipline help cultivate empathy, as well as civil discourse?

Critics, academics, and writers have often associated reading, especially that of fiction, with empathic readers. Margaret Nussbaum, in a defense of the liberal arts education, writes on a particular type of empathy that she calls “narrative imagination,” or “the ability to think what it might be like to be in the shoes of someone different from oneself.” Reading narratives causes us to see from someone else’s point of view, even feeling what they feel. If we read well, we empathize with the protagonist and other characters. As in Jeremy Rifkin’s idea of extending our empathy to the world, some attribute “to storytelling the extension of the ‘moral circle’ to include ‘other clans, other tribes, and other races.’ . . . [B]y allowing our projection ‘into the lives of people of different times and places and races, in a way that wouldn’t spontaneously occur,’ fiction can change our perspectives,” writes Suzanne Keen.

While there are no significant studies to show that reading does actually increase empathy, the possibility exists for us to cultivate an at least “weak” empathy. Even if this practice does not result in action, by reading, we have at least begun the ongoing process of empathy.

Aside from the potential to cultivate empathy, English as a discipline requires writing. A lot of writing. Looking back at my own trajectory in my time as an undergrad, I know that writing has helped me to create orderly thoughts, connections, and arguments. Not only do I see it in myself, but I am also able to better analyze the arguments and connections of others. Admittedly, I don’t always do that well—hopefully this presentation doesn’t represent that fact—but the rhetorical skills that an English major has fostered an extra concern for words and the arguments that they can represent.

Empathy, the English major, and civil discourse all seem to work well on paper. Empathy oozes from the cracks of what it means to study the language and literature of the Other. And empathy binds itself up with the other virtues in forming a foundation for civil discourse. But instead of simply focusing on the higher philosophies and musings, Finding Civil Discourse has taught me the value of particulars and exemplars. So for this project, I sat down with Dr. Alan Noble, professor of English, longtime editor-in-chief of the magazine Christ and Pop Culture, and recent founding member of Public Faith with Michael Wear. He describes the latter as an organization that’s attempting to reenvision evangelical participation in politics. Instead of the angry, “culture war” rhetoric often employed by the right, Public Faith seeks to promote pluralism and bipartisanism while remaining steadfast on key issues. Dr. Noble wishes to offer an evangelical perspective on political issues, but winsomely. The website publishes key stances in language that invites agreement, with the goal to remain neighborly toward people who do not always agree. We can think more creatively about living together with the Other by engaging in empathic language rather than the sensationalized, enflamed accounts we often stumble across in the media.

Public Faith has released statements on topics like criminal justice, perspectives helped by empathy. However, Dr. Noble says that the real work of empathy is two-fold: we must advocate for the oppressed without abstracting them, and we must seek to understand those with whom we argue. Advocating while abstracting can hurt communities when we do not stop to consider how they might be hurt by certain policies. A civil society pursues the common good, which can only be achieved when we consider the Other. For those who do not see things in the same way, we must empathize in order to communicate well. Dr. Noble has stressed that we don’t necessarily need to win people over to our side through arguments, but we ought to help them understand that it is possible to live as neighbors, and work together in pursuit of the common good. By maintaining a stalwart online presence, Public Faith serves as a practical example of civil discourse and empathy.

Empathy is an ongoing process by which we identify and respond actively to another’s thoughts and feelings. It is a practice fundamentally associated with hospitality, forgiveness, justice, and civil discourse. And I say, “practice,” because in order to contribute fully to civil discourse, it must continually be put into action, extending to the whole human race. Studying English may be the starting point for cultivating empathy, but organizations like Public Faith show empathy in practice among a culture of uncivil language and thoughts.

When I look back to that fateful viewing of Godzilla 2000 as a kid, I see a terrifying monster, formidable foes, and unthinkable destruction. But I also see the potential for humanity to recognize each other as humans, to work together despite religious or ethnic ties, to put differences aside for a greater good. While I don’t think that a monster will rise up out of the sea, I do think that the monsters of the present day can unite, not divide, us, if we are properly empathetic.

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