Coming to an Understanding: A Theoretical and Personal Critique of Empathy
Ballew, K. Renwick
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The intention of this essay is to critique the concept of empathy. We will look at what empathy is, why it occurs, and ways in which empathy can do more harm than good. I outline the ways in which acts of empathy have the potential to be unproductive, if not explicitly harmful, to subjects we are attempting to help. This process involves two separate critiques. The first discusses how empathy may not be a perfectly effective means of communicating unshared experiences from one person to another. I explain this concept by discussing the individualistic nature of emotion, differentiating cultural aspects that exist within verbalized language which inhibit translation, and the complicated effects of trauma on memory. The latter argument revolves around the potential for empathy to be counterproductive, and even harmful by enacting violence on to those we are attempting to connect with. This critique looks at the ways in which empathy can lend to the appropriation and commodification of suffering via sadistic and masochistic methods of interpersonal connection. Throughout the paper I use historical and modern examples of how well intentioned attempts at empathy can be incredibly detrimental. These examples act not only to strengthen my critique of empathy, but also work to critique certain methods of allyship and activism.