Carolyn Pedwell on empathy, accuracy and transnational politics

pedwell-carolyn‘Empathy, accuracy and transnational politics’

by Carolyn Pedwell, University of Kent

Empathy, it would seem, has become a Euro-American political obsession.  Within contemporary liberal political imaginaries – from Obama’s political rhetoric, to international development discourse, to particular strands of feminist and anti-racist theory and praxis – empathy has been conceptualised as an affective capacity or technique via which ‘we’ can come to know the cultural ‘other’.  Through transporting one into the affective world of another, it is argued, empathic perspective-taking can promote cross-cultural dialogue and understanding that leads to political action in the interests of transnational social justice.

Yet for empathy to do its important cross-cultural and transnational work, these discourses suggest, it must be accurate.  A key imperative in this respect is that genuine empathy involves understanding ‘the other’ accurately from the perspective and context of the other, rather than projecting one’s own perspective and context.  As such, liberal (and neoliberal) discourses maintain, ‘we’ must become skilled in reading others’ culturally specific mental and emotional states, as well as the intricacies of their social predicaments.  (There are, as ever, critical questions to ask concerning who ‘we’ and ‘the other’ are within ubiquitous calls for transnational empathy as affective panacea).

While these discourses speak to the affective norms, values and investments of late liberalism they are also linked to longer political histories of emotion.  Indeed, since the eighteenth-century philosophy of David Hume and Adam Smith, empathy has ‘been seen as important in relation to our capacity to gain a grasp of the content of other people’s minds and to predict and explain what they will think, feel and do’ (italics mine, Coplan and Goldie, 2011: ix).  Empathy has also been framed as vital ‘in relation to our capacity to respond to others ethically – enabling us not only to gain a grasp of others’ suffering, but also to respond in an ethically appropriate way’ (ix).

In a broad brush stroke then, we could say that the assumption of liberal theories of empathy for over two hundred years has been that greater affective knowledge and understanding of ‘the other’ can lead to more ethical political action – and indeed, perhaps even that, the deeper and more accurate ‘our’ knowledge of ‘others’ is, the more likely we are to treat them with respect and in the interest of social justice.

Long-standing work on empathy in psychology has also invested significant importance in its accuracy.  As Amy Coplan and Peter Goldie point out, although Freud’s framework for the therapeutic relationship foregrounded the importance of rationality and detachment on the part of the analyst, in Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego he figured empathy as ‘that which plays the largest part in our understanding of what is inherently foreign to our ego in other people’ (1922/1949: 77 cited in Coplan and Goldie, 2011: xviii).  In this vein, Carl Rogers, one of the founders of humanistic psychology, figured empathy as a vital therapeutic tool for ‘entering the private world of the other and becoming thoroughly at home in it’ (Rogers, 1975: 4).

There has also been a recent rise in more positivist psychological research concerned specifically with defining and measuring ‘empathetic accuracy’, which the social psychologist William Ickes associates with ‘the ability to accurately infer the specific content of another person’s thoughts and feelings’ (Ickes, 1997: 3; see also Stueber 2008; Ickes, 2011).  It should be noted, however, that this research stands at some odds with more critical analysis within psychoanalysis, which offers a much more ambivalent view of empathy, and affective relations more generally.

While some theorists suggest that ‘accurate’ empathy can be achieved by way of imaginative reconstruction of another’s emotional state without ‘the observer’ needing to experience ‘the same’ feelings as that person, other scholars maintain that empathy requires the presence of identical emotions.

The philosopher Amy Coplan, for example, argues that genuine empathy necessitates that ‘an observer’s affective states are qualitatively identical to a target’s, though they may vary in degree’ (2011: 6), and that this ‘affective matching’ must arise via ‘other-oriented perspective-taking’ (7).  By contrast, ‘congruent and reactive emotions’ (i.e. becoming angry in the face of another’s mistreatment or suffering) ‘do not qualify as empathetic’ in Coplan’s account ‘because they are not sufficiently accurate representations of a target’s situated psychological states’ (italics mine, 7).  As she notes, affective responses to ‘targets’ that are not other-oriented, but rather guided by assumptions of similarity, are problematic because they produce ‘false consensus effects’ and ‘commonly lead to prediction errors regarding others’ mental states and behavior’ (italics mine, 11).

Notwithstanding their (often significant) differences, these political, philosophical and psychological perspectives on empathy coalesce on the notion that in order for empathy to work, for it to generate genuine understanding and play a positive social role – indeed in order for empathy to in fact be empathy – it must lead an observer to an accurate understanding of another’s emotional state.  Importantly, accuracy is defined here as emotional equivalence, whether this is achieved through imaginative reconstruction or spontaneous fellow feeling.

Maintaining a link between empathy and accuracy may seem important in order to distinguish empathy from other emotions (i.e. pity or anger) and affective processes (i.e. projection or ‘dumping’).  If our assessment of another’s emotional state differs markedly from how that individual experiences it herself, and/or if we simply project our own affective view of the world on another, then surely this would not be empathy, but rather something else – potentially even affective violence, appropriation or silencing?  From this perspective, it could be argued that accuracy is necessary both to define empathy as a concept and to enable its ethical potential.

However, critical theorists of emotion and affect have long queried how possible it is to enter another’s mental and emotional world, whether we can ever know with any certainty whether we have managed to do this, and (given the problematic nature of emotional self-reporting), whether empathy is really something that can be meaningfully accessed or measured.  Feminist and postcolonial scholars, in particular, have stressed the need to address the power relations empathy inevitably entails and to query the political and ethical issues involved in seeking to enter ‘the private world of the other’ (see, for example, Bartky, 1996; Spelman, 1997; Ahmed, 2004, 2010; Hemmings, 2011).  My own work highlights the importance of accounting for how emotion and affect emerge and circulate within (rather than outside of) transnational structures of feeling – an imperative that compels us to attend to the importance of social and geo-political positionality and translation in practices of empathy (Pedwell, 2012a, b; 2013, 2014).

As such, there are many critical vantage points from which we might complicate any necessary and unproblematic link between empathy and accuracy.  Here, I am particularly interested in teasing out the messier implications of two key claims made by those who argue for a link between ‘empathic accuracy’ and social justice: Firstly, the assumption that more accurate affective knowledge of the so-called other leads to more ethical action on the part of ‘privileged’ subjects and, secondly, the idea that empathic accuracy can (and should) be defined by the presence of equivalent emotions.

The first claim expresses the long-articulated liberal desire to explain social and geo-political conflict and inequity as the outcome of deficient cross-cultural understanding (rather than say pervading structures and practices of neocolonial and neoliberal governmentality), and thus to invest in the promise of empathy as affective remedy.  This turn away from political and economic structures and towards an individualist politics of feeling has arisen in a context in which we are told repeatedly that there is no alternative to global capitalism, the neo-imperialist ‘war machine’, and their social and geo-political cleavages (Chow, 2006; Berlant 2008, 2011).

What liberal ethics of empathy often fail to address, however, is how, within this context, increasing ‘our capacity to grasp the content of other people’s minds and to predict and explain what they will think, feel and do’ (Coplan and Goldie, 2011: ix) may be more likely to enable and perpetuate the inequity and violence of neoliberalism and neocolonialism than it is to resist or transform these realities.  In other words, most liberal injunctions for greater affective knowledge avoid confronting how a positivist rhetoric linking empathy, accuracy and prediction can become fully complicit with the interconnected logics of Western imperialism, capitalist accumulation and war.

In this vein, it is suggestive that philosophical and psychological discussions regarding the relations between empathy, accuracy and prediction frequently refer to the person(s) being empathised with in a given context as ‘the target’, and hence frame empathy as a process of targeting (see, for example, Coplan, 2011).  As feminist and postcolonial scholars have argued, however, to target ‘other’ cultures is often to fix them, spatially, temporally and affectively.

Elizabeth Povinelli’s analysis of the disciplining of ‘culture’ enacted by liberal forms of governmentality in the wake of anti-colonialism is salient in this respect (2011: 25).  Liberal and neoliberal narratives of cross-cultural and transnational empathy, I want to argue, often participate in what Povinelli refers to as a neutralising politics of cultural recognition, whereby to care for ‘the other’ is to identify with ‘their’ culture, while ensuring that neocolonial and neoliberal modes of governmentality remain unimpeded.  As her analysis suggests, the neocolonial targeting of ‘other’ cultures for care or empathy not only functions to construct particular cultural groups as backwards and inferior in relation to their ‘Western’ or ‘Northern’ counterparts, it also inserts ‘cultures’ into differential geo-political temporalities and tenses through which ‘the unequal distribution of life and death, of hope and harm and of endurance and exhaustion’ is both enabled and legitimated (3).

Relatedly, Rey Chow offers an incisive analysis of how acts of gaining ‘knowledge of the other’ framed as modes of caring and ethical engagement have long functioned as geo-political technologies of control, violence and war.  In the age of bombing, Chow argues, the world has been transformed into a target and to ‘conceive the world as a target is to conceive it as an object to be destroyed’ (2006: 31).  Indeed, war depends on ‘the production of maximal visibility and illumination’ of the other as target ‘for the purpose of maximal destruction’ (31). As such, Chow claims, activities focused on increasing ‘Western’ knowledge and understanding of ‘other cultures’ can be seen as ‘fully inscribed in the politics and ideologies of war’ (40–1).

From these perspectives, it becomes clear that understandings of empathy as an affective mode of entering the minds and worlds of ‘others’ cannot be conceived as existing outside geo-political histories and relations.  When empathy, employed by those occupying positions of political and social privilege within transnational hierarchies of power, becomes a technology of access to cultural others which, with increasing accuracy, can produce increasing powers of prediction, it is susceptible to functioning primarily as a technique of discipline, regulation and even annihilation.

The second key claim I want to address contends that empathy requires accuracy, whereby accuracy is defined as emotional equivalence.  What are the critical transnational implications of this assumption that, in order to be accurate, empathy must be ‘other-oriented’ and, in turn, that it requires that one subject discern or feel ‘qualitatively identical’ feelings in/to another?

Questions immediately arise regarding whether any two (differently culturally, socially and psychically located) subjects can ever feel ‘the same’ feelings, and indeed whether emotions or affects, in their often ephemeral and fleeting quality, lend themselves at all to the positivist registers of ‘accuracy’, ‘measurement’ and ‘equivalence’.  Such concerns seem particularly pressing from a transnational perspective in which feelings are understood as produced through historically and contextually situated affective discourses, norms and practices conditioned by geo-political connectivities and power relations (Ahmed, 2004, 2011; Gunew, 2009).

It is telling, in this respect, that some of the psychological and philosophical accounts of empathy outlined above rely on a ‘basic emotions paradigm’ which assumes that ‘some emotional types do exist cross-culturally’ – namely ‘fear, anger, sadness, joy and disgust’– and that therefore ‘representations of those types can be either accurate or inaccurate’ (italics mine, Coplan, 2011: 7).  It is also interesting, and I would argue troubling, that understandings of ‘accurate, other-oriented empathy’ in such accounts appear to define it as a mode of affective perspective-taking that ‘objectively’ strips itself of contaminating traces of location/positionality.  For Coplan, for instance, it is only other-oriented empathy that enables us to ‘suppress our self-perspective and thus quarantine our preferences, values and beliefs’ (2011: 15).  What these perspectives leave out is attention to the politics of translation, to how emotions are constructed, communicated and felt differently in different cultural and geo-political contexts and by differently situated subjects, though never in fixed or deterministic ways.

Furthermore, and crucially, feelings can only be conceptualised as ‘identical’ or ‘equivalent’ if we consider emotions to be a property owned by (and encapsulated within the boundaries of) individual subjects.  When we think instead in terms of affective relations that connect, link and mutually constitute subjects and objects both within and across geo-political boundaries, notions of emotional accuracy and equivalence lose traction.  Indeed, the question of empathy becomes less ‘how do we know whether we recognise or feel “the same” feeling as another’?, and more ‘what is the affective and political quality of the relation that binds us to, and opens us to being affected by, another – and to a range of entities that may be human or non-human, animate or inanimate, material and conceptual’?

Moving away from conceptualisations of empathy concerned primarily with accuracy, equivalence and prediction, my work has been interested in thinking through the possibilities of empathy and/as translation. What does it mean to understand empathy not as emotional equivalence (i.e. either by spontaneous fellow feeling or imaginatively conjuring an ‘accurate’ sense of the emotional or psychic state of another), but instead as a complex and ongoing set of translational processes involving conflict, negotiation and imagination?  What might emerge from a giving up of the empathic desire for cultural mastery or psychic transparency and a giving in to being affected by that which is experienced as ‘foreign’ in the midst of transnational flows, relations and power structures?



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Ahmed, S. (2010) The Promise of Happiness (London and Durham: Duke UP).

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Pedwell, C. (2012a) ‘Economies of Empathy: Obama, Neoliberalism and Social Justice’, Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, 30(2): 280–97.

Pedwell, C. (2012b) ‘Affective (Self)-Transformations: Empathy, Neoliberalism and International Development’, Feminist Theory, 13(2): 163–79.

Pedwell, C. (2013) ‘Affect at the Margins: Alternative Empathies’, in A Small Place, Emotion, Space and Society, 8:18–26.

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Carolyn Pedwell is Senior Lecturer in Cultural Studies/Cultural Sociology at the University of Kent. She is the author of Affective Relations: The Transnational Politics of Empathy. Thinking Gender in Transnational Times (Palgrave Macmillan, 2014) and Feminism, Culture and Embodied Practice: The Rhetorics of Comparison.Transformations: Thinking Through Feminism (Routledge, 2012)

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