A long-overdue thought on a certain trend in the way we talk about anime.
I’m sick of hearing people say certain anime are about “empathy.” It has nothing to do with the shows themselves, and everything to do with the way the word is used—or, as I see it, misused. Let’s rewind for a moment.
I’m coming up on four years of writing anime criticism and following other people’s writing about anime, and as short a time as that is in the overall lifespan of the anime criticism community, it’s long enough that I’ve had a chance to notice certain patterns. In the last few years, we’ve seen a fair few changes in the way anime writing is getting distributed. The solo editorial-heavy aniblog is a species on the decline, with many writers getting snapped up in the expansion of paid anime criticism on sites like Crunchyroll and Anime News Network. Within the last year, we’ve also seen the rise of niche Patreon-funded group blogs, and, of course, there’s the ever-growing specter of YouTube-based video criticism.
These shifts in content delivery have, as might be expected, had an impact on the content itself (in ways both good and bad). But it doesn’t stop there, with a variety of intra-fandom forces—like the increase in interest in the production side of anime production and the ballooning simulcast industry shifting the focus even more towards currently airing titles—exerting their own influences on the content of anime criticism.
But perhaps one of the easiest to miss forces at work is the way the current political climate has influenced the way we talk about anime. Particularly in the relatively close-knit blogging/writing community (where I daresay almost all of us know each other – YouTube being a different story mostly despite some cross over), I’ve seen politics come to take an undeniably substantial share of people’s attention. And with that being so, it’s no surprise that the language that gets used in this arena ends up crossing over into anime criticism.
Clear parallels in specific shows (like Gatchaman Crowds) aside, I think the biggest piece of linguistic appropriation from – let’s be honest – leftist political discourse has been the use of the word “empathy.”
Empathy: the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner; also: the capacity for this
We all know what empathy means, but as it has become more and more a part of the anime criticism (and, really, the wider media criticism) landscape, my frustration with the way people use this word, which I think is really important, has grown.
To try and sum it up quickly, my impression is that “empathy” has been reduced to yet another trite buzzword, a positive shortcut for saying something is “good.” To say an anime episode “is about empathy” or a movie is “is empathetic” says nothing. Empathy has gone the way of “relatable,” except that when someone says (in earnest) that something in a piece of media is relatable you might actually learn something about them. Tell me you think an anime “empathizes with its characters” and I know nothing except that maybe that the show treated its characters well or that you found it easy to like them. But that’s not what empathy is.
But let’s go back to the definition for a second. Empathy is, first and foremost and most importantly, an action. It is, secondarily, the capacity for engaging in that same action.
In short, empathy is not something you watch people do on a screen or read about in an article, from the comfort of distance. To talk about empathy in the realm of media criticism is playing at the real thing, interacting with a fiction that might demand something but will never demand everything. And that’s not what empathy is. It is something you do in the immediate. Empathy is messy, hard, and discomforting. To reach out to someone with empathy means that you set aside yourself, your perspectives, your preferences—and you make them the focus. It is fundamentally an action in which you detach from your own self and take on someone else instead—and out of which you respond to them.
Think about that for a second. That’s amazing. To get down in the mud of someone else’s life—to make your existence, for a short time, about theirs?—that’s amazing. Of course, it’s not always as grand in practice as all that. Indeed, sometimes empathy is exceedingly simple and mundane. But even so, it’s amazing.
And the fact that empathy is such an incredible thing is why I cannot stand the way it has been cheapened to just another tool in our clinking bag of anime criticism approaches. Empathy is more than that, and I just can’t—. I can’t anymore. I can’t just silently accept it being reduced to a talking point or, heaven forbid, an ideological weapon. I can’t say I agree that we anime critics in our safe havens of practicing our trade on cartoons should be able to haphazardly talk about empathy in such a shallow way, in a way that makes it a Thing to Mention and calls for no actual action.
I mean, sure, maybe you can do a little bit of this, learn a little bit, and find yourself more able to empathize from encountering diverse characters in the media you watch, but empathizing with an anime character is a poor excuse for actually empathizing with a real, actual human being. Like your co-worker whose politics you disagree with. Like the lady at the checkout in the grocery store who was rude to you. Like your friend who is getting on your nerves because they’re so obnoxiously distressed after a divorce.
So, knowing that this is merely my perception of how anime criticism talks about empathy, I suppose what I want to say is: As a community, we’re in need of some serious reflection about how we use this word. The way we talk about “empathy” right now does a disservice to the true nature of the action. It is too devoid of concrete action, too comfortable, too easy. And empathy is far too precious for that. If we really mean it when we say “empathy is important,” we need to find an empathy that is difficult. Not for the difficulty’s sake, but for the sake of doing something real.
That’s where I’m at right now, but it’s my hope this post can serve as a discussion-starter. What do you readers think about the way empathy gets talked about within the context of media criticism? What have been your experiences with talking about empathy in relation to specific anime? And, even if I’m completely off-base and things are actually okay right now, what can we do to be better?
27 thoughts on “What Are We Talking About When We Talk About “Empathy” in Media Criticism?”
“Empathy is messy, hard, and discomforting. To reach out to someone with empathy means that you set aside yourself, your perspectives, your preferences—and you make them the focus. It is fundamentally an action in which you detach from your own self and take on someone else instead—and out of which you respond to them.”
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Well at least I got a couple sentences of this post right!
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Pfftt the whole post is lovely! That part is just extra lovely and very quote worthy from you
I feel like the idea of empathy in media criticism might be a little bit misplaced. Granted, I think empathizing and attempting to understand a work’s characters and story might help broaden one’s appreciation for it. I think it can be even more interesting when you take it one step further and move out into attempting to empathize with the mindset of the person who created the work. Even though doing all of those things might be hard, I definitely agree that it isn’t as difficult as doing it with a living, breathing person, and almost certainly isn’t as edifying.
That might be the reason I think finding out why someone relates to something is way more interesting. Ideally, it gives us the opportunity to step into the mind of another person and gain an understanding of them. Relating to that shared experience of a work of art might be able to convey something about a person that they can’t accurately convey on their own. I know that’s been true for me before. Which is to say, I think in the realm of criticism relating to a work is a far more interesting form of empathy than trying to relate to the characters or the creator.
I also agree that the way you describe the word “empathy” being used in criticism tends to be in a very non-committal form, and I think it’s symptomatic of a bigger problem culturally. We tend to talk about a lot of lofty ideals without actually being willing to put in the legwork and endure the difficulty of achieving them. I think it’s one of the reasons politics are so dysfunctional right now, and it’s definitely a huge problem in other realms too. It’s an easy thing to do, but I’d like to hope we can all do better, and I’d definitely agree that empathy is something important enough to do better for.
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I love your point here that fiction can become a locus for empathy between people discussing it. In talking about what someone relates to in a show, you may actually begin to empathize with them in a very real sense. “I’m glad you’ve found community in art,” as a certain Twitter friend of mine might say.
While reading your line “an anime ’empathizes with its characters'”, I thought “that sounds exactly like something I would write!” So I quickly searched through my blog posts, and…it turns out the word I tend to use is “sympathy”.
I don’t know if there’s a consensus in the distinction between “sympathy” and “empathy”, but at least according to what the lecturers in my field have taught, empathy is understanding how a person’s circumstances lead to their emotions and actions, without actually feeling those emotions yourself (as would be the case of sympathy).
I don’t know how much difference this distinction makes, considering that words tend to mutate on the internet. But when I write “the show sympathizes with this character”, or “this character’s conflict is portrayed sympathetically”, I mean exactly that: it appears that the creators sympathized with the characters’ circumstances or conflicts, and portrayed them accordingly, sometimes in ways that some viewers may find relatable. What I leave unsaid is that I enjoy such portrayals.
Anyways, this post made me reflect on my use of words in writing. And for that I am thankful.
PS I feel like I might not have addressed your point about diluting the meaning of “empathy”
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There’s no consistency in how psychologists use the term. There’s a common distinction between “cognitive empathy” (what you describe) and “emotional empathy” (which is feeling what others feel). But not everyone necessarily divides the field like this. “Sympathy” was and still is commonly used for “emotional empathy”, though in common parlance there seems to be a hint of “being favourably disposed to the target” added that empathy doesn’t necessarily share.
Another common distinction in psychology is between “empathy” and “compassion”, and there’s a tendency to muddle the field in common parlance. For example, there’s a common preconception that empathy leads to compession. But especially if you’re talking about emotional empathy, empathy can get you to avoid people and close yourself off, because constantly feeling other people’s distress inside is extremely exhausting. Too much empathy might exhaust you and make you a misanthrop instead of a compassionate human being. “Leave me alone with your baggage,” would – in common parlance – often draw the accusation of being not empathetic enough, when in reality it could be a reaction to having too much of it. Lack of compassion can be a self-defence mechanism against a surplus of empathy towards surrounding pain.
(This, incidently, is why I’m not happy with definitions that say that “empathy” is an action. It’s a mental state [either cognitive or emotional], and it can be very taxing. Talking about it in terms of an action and sanctioning its presence positively and its absence negatively can systematically drive empathetic people into depression. “Empathy” is a basic aspect of the human psyche, and different people have different amounts of it – some have too little, others have too much. I have high levels of empathy [especially in face-to-face situations]: I’m good at helping people identifying a problem, or lending a sympathetic ear. I suck at re-assuring them or calming them down (I’m more likely to let myself get worked up by them). I’m even worse at asserting myself. Getting my way is pointless, because I almost always feel the other person’s not getting their way keenly enough that it spoils my fun, so it’s better to just let them have their way; that way, at least one person is having fun. I often wish I could tone down my empathy; I’d be easier to get along with. [For what it’s worth, people have told me that I’m easier to get along with when I’m extremely tired; that’s when – in general – I’m not very receptive to any sort of emotional state – which makes me a lot calmer.])
As for applying the term to shows? Well, talking about KyoAni, I definitely feel that Koe no Katachi is a more empathetic show than Chuunibyou, which I feel is more patronising. But just asserting that wouldn’t make for good criticism. I’d have to go through the show and explain through analysis of sample scenes what I mean, or there’s no way this would mean anything to anyone who doesn’t share my impression in the first place. So, yeah, I sort of agree that a blanket assertion is useless, but I don’t think the term “empathy” is useless in criticism per se. I didn’t notice anything amiss in the current use of the term, but then I have an auto-filter for terms that spread from the social sciences into daily life. My pet peeve would be “significant other”, whose common meaning is completely different from the professional one – although the common meaning is also very well defined, so that this doesn’t cause confusion.
Loosely speaking, in an art form which has stylistic habits (say, panty shots) that invite objectivisation rather than empathising, it’s certainly meaningful to say a show is “empathetic” towards its characters, just to place it loosely on the map. But as I said above, if this remains the sole descriptor, and if the show isn’t further described, I agree that the term is useless.
Thanks for lending your expertise here.
Anyways, hopefully I don’t give offense here. You can read my other comment to Inksquid below this one if you like for some more information on where I’m coming from, but a big influence in my way of thinking is that I’ve been working with an organization founded and run by a clinical psychologist. And as I mentioned to Inksquid, we’re in the business of training people to be able to provide good care to other who are going through a difficult time. The kind of emotion-paralleling-emotion you’re describing as “high levels of empathy” is what we’d call “overidentification,” i.e. losing your sense of self when relating to another. Perhaps you’re familiar with this term already or have a different perspective on it—again, I certainly don’t mean to give offense.
But I do acknowledge your point that highly empathetic people who struggle to manage their empathy may not see empathy as an inherently good thing, per se. That’s a very good point, and I appreciate you offering your own experience as an example. As always, your comments remain a joy to read.
Don’t worry, I’m not offended. “Overidentification” is a term I haven’t heard. My core compotetence is actually sociology, and not psychology. But since a lot of the terms relevant to (some theoretical conceptions of) sociology originate in psychology, sociologists need to know that field, too, though generally social psychology and general psychological theory are more relevant than clinical psychology (but there’s significant overlap anyway).
Reading your other replies now. 🙂
Sympathy is fair game, imo. You’re off the hook! 😛 I have no issues with the way people use that word.
Dawnstorm’s comment does a nice job of summarizing some of the differences between “sympathy” and “empathy,” but to share a little bit of my bias that’s underwritten this piece, I work for a non-profit that assists various organizations in training lay people (i.e. not counselors) to listen and care for people going through difficult times in life. And being able to effectively empathize with people is a key skill that we emphasize. In other words, in my line of work empathy is inherently practical. That is why I say it is something to “do.” Some people may do it more naturally than others, but because it is ultimately a behavior, it is also ultimately a choice. That’s where I’m coming from, at least.
Anyways, I’m glad the post had enough juice to provide an opportunity for reflection! That’s a great compliment for a piece I was unsure about even publishing.
I think being able to empathize with the characters in any given show is generally a “good” thing. Our capability to understand each other is an important part of what makes us human, and when you can’t find it within yourself to empathize with a certain character, on any level, that typically means the character was written inhumanly. Whether “inhuman” is equivalent to “poor” or “bad”, in terms of storytelling at least, is a different philosophical debate. Perhaps we need to expand our horizons, which I think is a noble goal for a storyteller, but in doing so a writer must find the way to make a concept or emotion that was initially foreign resonate with an audience based on what they already understand to be true.
Certainly it is good! Although I would be hesitant to attribute an inability to empathize with a character always to the character writing. In empathy is an action, the responsibility for doing that action lies with the audience member. And, of course, the work itself can facilitate this well or not, but there are very, very, very well-written works of art out there that people think are utter shite—and it’s because of the audience, not the work itself.
Writers who can facilitate empathy, particularly with unsympathetic characters, are amazing folk, in my estimation.
Ah yes, perhaps sometimes it does say more about the viewer than the writer when there is an inability to empathize. We all live by our own principles, some of which can foolishly restrict us from seeing other points of view. That being said, an artist doesn’t choose their audience, and so I believe the audience isn’t solely to blame for whether a work resonates. Of course, reaching everyone seems only possible in a dream, so in a realistic sense it is mostly on viewer.
I’m sorry if this isn’t particularly well worded or structured, but I am in the middle of writing my last essays for Uni and so am probably a bit worded out.
But I think it’s fair to make it clear the two kinds of empathies I believe you’re talking about here?
The first sort of empathy, is the empathy we ascribe to a particular work. I believe this is the empathy you are being most critical of here? That when we declare, for instance, that Scum’s Wish or A Silent Voice has empathy for it’s characters, yes we are probably making a claim along the lines of “work X does not frame those characters in a certain way. Instead it frames those characters, and their actions, in some manner that we would often try to apply to humans/people rather than fictional characters”.
But even my attempt here to characterise that account has it’s problems. I don’t believe we, as an audience, ever genuinely believe that a character ‘acts’, in a strict sense. If we don’t ever believe that than simply because we can give an account for a character’s actions, doesn’t mean it ultimately doesn’t boil down to “they were written that way”. So to that extent, I believe you are correct. Using empathy as shorthand for X, Y, or Z, in media is, in most instances, probably quite reductive and inaccurate.
But, to question that, why is it reductive in that instance, but not reductive in the instance where we say “person X is empathetic.” or “has empathy”. Unless my understanding of fiction is severely lacking, which is a big possibility, we experience fiction as-if it had an author. Of course, fiction has authors, but the actual author of a piece and the as-if or ‘implied’ author is really the author we experience. One informs the other, and I do not want to deny that importance of the actual author. But it isn’t like we don’t talk about the implied author with other traits we typically reserve for actual people.
However, the second kind of empathy, to put oneself in the shoes of another, I don’t think that is missing from how we interact with media. It may simply be a ‘play’. By empathising with a fictional character there is no way you can ‘go wrong’. Whilst with a real person the concept of them you are empathising with may not actually apply to anything in the world. But even if that is the case, that the empathy we use in fiction is simply a ‘pretend’ version of the empathy we use in reality, I don’t think it’s ‘cheap’.
Empathy, be it for fiction or for reality, is a skill, more specifically we would probably also like to call it a moral skill. People can be better or worse at empathising, in particular circumstance or in general. I’d also hazard that, with exception, we would also like to say empathy is a good skill to have. That to be good at empathising with others is a good thing. If we accept that, then maybe we can read “fiction X has empathy for character Y” in a much weirder way. That the empathy we are ascribing to a work isn’t saying that action you are looking for is present and active in the work, but maybe, that work or that character functions well for that ‘pretend empathy’.
When that is the case and when that isn’t the case, is understandably, always going to be controversial. But I think that’s fine, in the same way that most fictions moral stances are also going to be controversial. Perhaps pretend empathy is only really useful as an entertaining tool, I appreciate it would be suspect to say empathising with fiction is good because it helps us empathise with real people, but talking about said tool still has value?
This went on a tad longer than I hoped it would. But I hope at least this babble, has some value and also serves as a evidence towards your essay being interesting and thought-provoking. I also hope I haven’t misrepresented you in any respect here =S
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As I said to Illegenes below, I did fail to adequately contextualize my comments on empathizing with fictional characters. Frankly, I don’t think I would call that “pretend empathy.” As you say, because fiction can help us to empathize with real people, this “pretend empathy” has value. But the value is in the application outside the realm of media. More expansion on that idea in my response to Illegenes.
As for talking about that tool, though… it can have value, probably. But my hope for this article was that it would help people to reflect on how they talk about empathy. Misrepresent (intentionally or not) the nature and purpose of a tool long enough when talking about it, and people will forget what it is and how it ought to be used.
You ponderings on empathy with regards to the author, or implied author, are fascinating. That’s not an angle I’d considered before reading these comments.
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Phew. I haven’t written a reply in wordpress in so long, I almost forgot how to do it….^^;
I think many people have already commented on what I’ve wanted to say, but I guess I’ll approach it from my perspective; I think I have a little difficulty (perhaps it just has to do with the sphere I associate with in the aniblog world) comprehending the possibility of a show empathizing with its characters, rather than displaying sympathy or portraying them in a sympathetic light. As you mentioned, empathy is an action, not a passive lens; it is thus extremely hard to find a show to empathize with its internal features than to have a show that discusses empathy through its characters, subject matter, and thematic content. The distinction is small but critical nonetheless. So for me personally, shows never empathize with their characters; they approach the topic of empathy through their characters. That topic is a bond between you, the audience, and the story the show tells. Whether that is empathetic or not is up to you, of course. If we look at it in this perspective, many shows discuss empathy, and I don’t think there’s anything wrong in wanting to convey or discuss that, especially if that show managed to reach out to you as an individual and impact you in some way.
“but empathizing with an anime character is a poor excuse for actually empathizing with a real, actual human being. Like your co-worker whose politics you disagree with. Like the lady at the checkout in the grocery store who was rude to you. Like your friend who is getting on your nerves because they’re so obnoxiously distressed after a divorce.”
I personally disagree. I think any emotional resonance to be found – whether it be a work of fiction, or a real person – is critical. It reveals things about yourself, about your own perceptions of the world, and fosters the importance of empathy, period. It is important to recognize that works of fiction are never in a social vacuum – they are created by real living people, are represented by some of their own personal experiences, and are a medium meant to connect with another human being. Invalidating a person’s emotional response – especially if they have gone through something similar in their life – feels disrespectful and harmful. It stilts understanding, and fosters ignorance; without connecting to fiction, we can miss out on learning so much about others (and ourselves) in a way we could not have in real life. I would almost argue that art, in any medium or form, exists for the necessity of empathy, but that’s my own opinion ^^;
TLDR, I’ve never seen people say a show is empathetic, and if they do say things like this, especially as a replacement for “I liked this show because it resonated w/me” then that’s definitely misplaced usage. But I have seen people say they’ve empathized with characters in a show, and to me, that’s a wonderful thing. I have seen people talk about the importance of empathy in a show. That’s also great.
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Yes, I agree. Describing a show as “empathetic” is certainly a misuse of the word, and while you may not have seen it, I have! So you’ll have to trust me on that. ^_^ Shows that discuss empathy are another matter, as you say, but I do think that because empathy is such a buzzword nowadays that it gets misused often—i.e. “this show is about empathy” when really it’s about something else, perhaps akin to empathy in someway, perhaps not. For the reasons I describe in the post, I think this is a very bad pattern, and even outside of long-form criticism, it’s something that crops up quite off on social media since that’s where many people go to discuss things.
As for empathizing with fictional characters… I admit I may have overstated my case, if only in tone. Really, I don’t mean to devalue practicing empathy with fictional characters. I’ve, of course, had this very experience myself & have always valued it. I’ve even written before on how media has opened up new perspectives for me through its characters. That’s a special thing, and I truly don’t want to say that it’s not.
However, what I did mean to do is to put things into perspective. And my issue is less with empathy-for-fiction on its own than it is with empathy-for-fiction-in-isolation. That is to say, if I empathize with fictional character all day but am unable to do so with the real, living people I encounter, I have not learned anything and I don’t really know how to empathize—I’m only playing at a safe, comfortable imitation of it. I do like your argument we can engage in empathy with creators through their creators, although I’m somewhat suspicious of the efficacy of this.
And I think you’re actually pointing towards the same point I am here when you say that “without connecting to fiction, we can miss out on learning so much about others (and ourselves) in a way we could not have in real life,” although I probably would have phrased it more like “connecting to fiction is one way we can learn much about others and ourselves.” But again the proof is in the pudding—without that external application, it’s not empathy. Simply having an emotional reaction to fiction is not empathy. It’s nice and can be a special thing in its own context, but it’s not empathy. I think that is one thing that is being confused with empathy because of the way the word gets overused, and because I feel strongly about this, I used strong wording.
So yes, thank you very much for taking the time to respond. I really do honestly love talking with you and getting to hear your perspective on things, so, truly. Thank you.
Thank you for writing this article.
My belief is that the empathy you are addressing is a meme found in criticism and discussion, not actual empathy. Meme as in how an idea mutates through communication and transfer like selfish genes. The content value of the theme can either gain or lose something through its evolution in order to survive in the future.
Today, empathy has a strange “leftist” taste to it as you mention in Gatchaman Crowds. Even as a progressive, I find that is disconcerting when most art are conservative by nature. Rarely has anime critiqued capitalism in its full capacity — I can only think of Kaiji which shows the world as a gambler-eat-gambler world — so I suspect people like to dress up the shows they are watching as “progressive”. It doesn’t matter if the anime you are watching has some suspect social norms you may disagree with; bending the themes of it to fit the narrative you desire is more than enough for the discourse.
In a world marked by identity politics and fandoms/niches, that is a dangerous idea. But that’s another story for another time.
Instead, we have to look at its agent — the word itself — and why it can foster so many meanings to the point it can be seen as meaningless. The comments written before here are debating how you define empathy and how you should empathize with characters. Since definitions and explanations are already disagreed upon, we should examine something else. What “is” empathy?
Is it a meme? A meaningless concept that people can use to make things sound nicer than they are? A loaded term that has particularly strong connotations?
My answer is: it’s all three.
Maybe it’d be easier to bring up my point about empathy if I speak generally about concepts and how we discuss themes. Love, justice, sex, family, empathy — all of these are the big ideas we like to think about whenever we engage with something. Everyone has good and bad experiences with them, but it is a bit peculiar to say everyone has the same response to it. If we see a concept like empathy or family be so “universal”, it loses the individual touch so to speak and becomes nothing more but a meme. That is the concern.
And yet, we keep using these “blank bullets” because they are symbolically powerful. How can anyone not have any strong feelings toward justice? Similarly, sex can bring up huge debates that not even an encyclopedia all about sex can cover. They are frameworks, the borders that focus the discussion onto something.
Empathy is one such framework. When someone says, “This work talks about empathy,” they can mean a million other things. One can mean the “messy, hard, and discomforting” idea you have provided. Another can talk about tolerating flaws and appreciating strengths. My personal view of empathy is that it is an action people are trained to learn to understand others and nobody is born with it — sort of like a social construct. You can disagree with me as you can with others. But they are “empathy”. They may all sound familiar and similar, but the nuances are different.
It is only a problem when one view of empathy has dominated the framework and people realize their understandings of the framework don’t at all match. Square pegs don’t fit in round holes, even if they are potentially made of the same material. And when that domineering opinion takes hold, people feel understandably threatened. So that brings us this post and the other concerns that go with it.
Words, concepts, and even memes are defined by us and our surroundings. We want to be precise with our wording. Yet, the word “empathy” brings up so many assumptions that aren’t in check. Do we all believe empathy is important in media? Can people also wonder if it exists? There’s even literature that argues against it (https://www.amazon.com/Against-Empathy-Case-Rational-Compassion/dp/0062339338). Whatever one feels about the subject, one cannot have the same opinion on the subject as others. Just vague ideas floating in the framework that may or may not be relevant. So what should we do?
As the adage goes, “There are no steadfast rules in life.” It is an unoriginal sentiment, but it’s far more interesting if we apply to how we think about frameworks as muddled as empathy. Nobody defines the rules of how we should look at empathy. Rather, empathy as a conceptual framework is defined by our actions and words. It is our responsibility as people who talk to define empathy in the way we want it to be. Everyone is different, so they’ll have different views of what it is.
In my case, I can describe empathy as something learned from education. I learn to be in other people’s shoes. It is a reaction I can have if I find myself thinking about other people’s plights or difficulties. However, I don’t think it is necessary to have most of the time. I prefer being polite and minding my manners. If someone trips over, I help them up not out of empathy that it could have hurt for me too but because I think it’s the only responsible thing to do. I am sure others will disagree and say that my hypothetical actions are empathetic to some degree, but I don’t view it as empathy in how I define it.
And that’s fine. People can have their own “meanings” of empathy if they can define it properly and stick with its internal consistency. Then, we can compare each other’s versions of empathy. We won’t get a universal definition that fits all for empathy, but it is better to understand — or shall we say, empathize with? — others’ views on it. This “public space” is where the word “empathy” takes hold.
The problem only arises when people are taking the framework for granted as if we all understand each other. That’s impossible. To use Wittgenstein’s analogy from Philosophical Investigations (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x86hLtOkou8), you and I can’t understand each other’s beetle because we have them in our own separate boxes. But you and I know what a beetle is — and what empathy is — because of how we use the word is used in our surroundings. There is no need to open each other’s boxes to show what our beetles are. Sure, we may be interested in them and disagree on certain nuances what a beetle looks like; however, we are all using it in the rules we socially agree with. No one orders a beetle in McDonalds, but it makes sense to look for a beetle in the grass. If we flagrantly use the word for everything we see with disregard for the public eye or the rules — one beetle-in-the-box dominating all other beetle-in-the-boxes — that’s where the confusion happens.
Beetles-in-boxes, blank bullets, memes, and empathy all have a place in the vocabulary but can change drastically through context and usage. Just how we use it to make them mean something is evidence enough that we can mean differently with the same word. If we can be a bit more clearer and aware of how we use the word “empathy”, then we can understand a little more of what others are saying. Frameworks are maintained by other people.
Just be aware of how people look at empathy differently and take that into account. We all “share” empathy, but that doesn’t mean we all can empathize with each other’s definitions.
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You’ve extrapolated on empathy-as-progressive-media-culture-meme far better than I could. Thank you.
As I’ve said to others in the comments here, my background with empathy is an inherently practical one, which is how I come by my particular definition. And because of that, I actually would likely agree with you that empathy is more a learned behavior than an instinct, although as with any skill some may be more talented at it than others. And from that comes my own discomfort with the dominant “empathy framework” we’re encountering.
It’s interesting to read your description of your own view empathy because even just in the comments from others here it’s obvious that the way you think of it, based on who you are, is quite different from the way they conceive of it based on their experiences. In other words, it’s a fascinating case study in the exact phenomenon you’re describing.
And I think that case study perhaps ties in nicely with your final point, that it’s good if we can be more clear and aware of how we use “empathy” so that mutual understanding can develop, if only a little. But given how empathy is trending towards becoming just one more memetic, often ideologically weaponized word, the space for that is disappearing. And so yes, even though my specific discomfort with this comes because my definition of empathy is not the same as the meme, I would certainly be comforted at least a little by people making more effort to not just use this word willy-nilly and instead think about what they’re saying.
Yeah, I read the other responses and it’s pretty clear that we’re all talking about different kinds of empathies. When in theory it could be fascinating to debate all the nuances the word might have, it’s exhausting to see that only one definition dominates in practice.
As people invest more of themselves into media — not a particularly bad thing — it is still important to have a clear head and realize that the world isn’t just about you. It’s about others and how you interact with them matters as much as your own worldview. It just so happens that empathy is easy to use because it’s such a nice word to say.
I’m a lazy person by nature and will use shortcuts in ways that will obfuscate meaning. I’m sure others do the same too. Shortcuts like the word “empathy” are too easy. If anything, people should be “graded” how they have to “show their work” instead of giving the final answer like in a math test. That’s very much the only solution to this silly problem.
Media criticism is becoming increasingly involved with politics and thusly weaponized. To use “empathy” in language is to take a moral position, which is perceived to be, and is in fact, a glorified power play. The spread of use, which I agree is being used interchangably with words like “relatable” or “sympathetic”, boils down to the realization that people don’t really mean what they say. That’s partly because they’ve been conditioned to overuse the word. Like a true believer or ideology practitioner, reciting their verses so as to not fall out of line.
Yes, and politicizing something that ought to be universal, like empathy, is a nasty, horrid little thing, I think. Weaponizing something that ought to be used to reach out to other people, thus making it a tool for division… that is a very twisted thing, even if not done out of ill intent.
i think the way you described empathy is spot on to what i think of when i hear the word empathy. there’s a video that’s stuck with me that described it as climbing down into the hole to be with someone and to share in their feelings, to be together with them in what they feel or what they’re going through, and i think that’s reflected in your definition.
but, i also think there’s a difference between empathetic feelings and actions. the “vicariously experiencing the feelings of others” part is something that from my experience is a feeling, and then there’s acting on those feelings by “climbing down into the hole”. and it differs for everyone of course but for me, the first is super natural to me while the second is not. i’m like, RIDICULOUSLY emotional and empathetic and that has a lot of positives and negatives but basically: it’s normal (though not guaranteed) for me to see someone hurting IRL or in media and to go beyond just sympathizing with them (“wow that sounds really tough i hope they’re ok”) and into placing myself in their feelings and wanting to care for them, wanting to offer compassion. and i don’t always know how to do that or know how to express that and that can be really hard and tiring and it basically forces me to disconnect from people if i wanna rest, which sucks a lot for someone like me.
there’s two points of response i’d make to what you wrote. the first is that i do agree that we’ve made empathy a buzzword; even i’m guilty of this looking through some of my past tweets. it’s not that it can’t be used to describe something, but empathy is something really powerful, really important, and really, really hard to act out in real life. there’s a sense of “this is a word that should carry a lot of weight and right now it’s not really doing that” with empathy as a descriptive word and i think that is important to recognize and then reevaluate how we view media to accommodate that.
but the second is that i think it’s ok to recognize empathy in media and also feel it w/ regards to a character. it’s the distinction between the feeling of empathy and the action of empathy, and while it’s the latter that has such powerful meaning the former is important too. i mean from my own experience, i look at how Maka continually fighting to reach out and understand Crona in Soul Eater radically shifted how I viewed anime. I think about how Madoka Magica continues to be such an intense, emotional, perhaps even spiritual watch for me; every time i’ve viewed it there’s something new that moves me on a core level, every time there’s been a different character whose feelings i’ve been aware of or sensitive too or vicariously experienced. is anime or other media a full substitute for real life? of course not, but those feelings are something still important and precious and worth talking about, even if we choose to be more cautious and deliberate in the way we talk about them. indeed, those feelings are probably why i ended up falling so in love with anime and by that mark they’re also the very reason i’m even here writing this response.
so: i understand, and i’m with you on a large portion of what you’ve shared, but i can’t quite say i agree without also properly acknowledging my own personal experiences with empathy
Ah, yeah, I’m familiar with the hole analogy. I think it’s a fairly good one, if also one that runs the risk of conflating empathy with being so immersed in someone else’s feelings that you’re unable to separate them from your own. At that point, you’re both stuck in the mud together. There’s more about my thoughts on this in my comments to Inksquid and Dawnstorm above, but I think “being stuck in the mud with someone” goes beyond empathy and actual becomes something different entirely. Being able to set boundaries is important!
And I think we’re in agreement here with your first and second response points. To the second specifically, Soul Eater is fantastic, particularly with the Crona stuff you mention. Maka goes into his circle in the sand, into his inability to connect with anyone, embraces and experiences his feelings—and then pulls him out. Soul Eater makes the subject of empathy very literal and tangible at times, and I think that’s awesome.
It’s not a substitute for real life, we agree on that. It’s still important; we agree on that as well. As I’ve said to others, my overly aggressive wording probably obscured my actual point, which was really suppose to be that we’ve got to keep that in mind.
I try to go at the effect from the other side, as these are chras that we empathise with. A clue for me to this approach was an academic study of Yuri readers in Japan, many who described much of their genre as Iyashi, (soothing/ healing) – a description not usually associated with romantic / libidinized works.
The “empathy” is always vicarious. A nasty cynical person would do the “second tear” quote.
(shameless plug: search Iyashi at my mess if you want some TLDR)
As for critical tools and methods with a “leftist” taste; the minute the charas/ story gets the slightest bit of “libidinization, you’re chin-deep in it. Blame Western prudishness and the lack of alternative theoretical approaches. Who could do a Leviticus-based, or Objectivist-based or Rawls-derived grind on…
Although I saw some really fine Nietzsche deployed on Nier lately, was tasty, where was it? (Hmmmm??)
Empathy sounds a lot more serious than THE FEELS, THE FEELS !!!
Thanks for the essay!
Well, I would say that if people mean “THE FEELS, THE FEELS” they ought to say that and leave empathy the heck alone haha. Or just get better words. But perhaps that’s ungenerous of me. ^_^”
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