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Wednesday, December 21, 2011

December 21, 2011: Making My List 3: Empathy, Please

[This week, as Chanukah begins and Christmas and Kwanzaa get ever closer, I’ll be blogging about my AmericanStudies holiday list: my requests (to the AmericanStudies Elves, of course) for five changes I’d love to see in our national narratives and conversations. This is the third in that series.]
AmericanStudies Elves, I’d like to see all Americans work hard at one of the most demanding and most crucial of human skills.
I started writing a paragraph here on why I feel empathy can so fully influence and change our perspectives and narratives, got a profound sense of déjà vu, and realized I was replicating almost verbatim the opening paragraph of this post from nearly a year ago; I would connect those sentiments to the ones at the heart of this tribute post on the need for more genuine and meaningful connection across our country’s and world’s communities and identities. Or my insistence in this post that all arguments about deporting undocumented immigrants feature very prominently the effects of such actions on the families and children of those Americans. Which is to say, no longtime readers of this blog will be surprised by my emphasis on empathy here.
What I do find surprising, and frankly disturbing, is the tendency in our national conversations to treat empathy as something unserious or even weak. For evidence of the former, I would point to the frequent mockery of President Clinton’s use of the phrase “I feel your pain”; for a more recent illustration of the latter, I would note the controversies that surrounded Supreme Court nominee (and now Justice) Elena Kagan’s arguments for empathy as a part of the law and justice. Such narratives seem to indicate an implicit, and at times explicit, belief that empathy might be fine as part of an individual’s emotional intelligence, but it has no business in our political and legal arguments. I couldn’t disagree more; and so, Elves, I propose a national public scholarly campaign for and conversation about the communal value and significance of empathetic connections to our fellow Americans and citizens of the world.
I’m (obviously) a big believer in having shared texts through which to frame such conversations, and fortunately there’s a pretty short literary work that would do perfectly here: Sarah Piatt’s poem “The Palace-Burner” (1873). Piatt’s poem might be about a distant (in every sense) historical event, the Paris Commune of 1871, but it models empathy on at least three still deeply salient levels: in its speaker’s efforts to understand and empathize with the poem’s explicit subject, the titular palace-burning Communist woman (captured in a newspaper picture); in its dialogic, universally understandable setting, a conversation between a mother and her young son in which both are trying as much to empathize with each other as with the pictured woman; and its ultimately individual meaning, as the speaker builds on those earlier empathetic connections and turns her analysis toward her own perspective and identity. Empathy is, to my mind, crucially concerned with all three levels—connecting to seemingly distant others, working to understand those to whom we’re close, and examining our own identities through those lenses—and Piatt’s poem covers them all in 36 amazing lines.
I know that asking all Americans to check out a 140-year-old poem might be pure wishful thinking. But Elves, I’d ask that you empathize with me reasons for doing so, and then give it a shot. Next wish list item tomorrow,
PS. Any works or figures or events that you’d say can help us learn to empathize?
12/21 Memory Day nominee: Hermann Muller, the Nobel Prize-winning geneticist whose work both greatly changed modern science and medicine and publicly pushed back against some of the 20th century’s most odious political theories and leaders.

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