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Amy Whitaker: "Empathy and Its Discontents"

An earlier version of this piece was originally presented by the author at State of Emergency: Politics, Aesthetics, Trumpism, a public forum that took place at New York University on December 10, 2016.

by Amy Whitaker

One of the most interesting conversations I had after the election was with a couple I used to babysit for in Alabama. I’ll call them Ben and Jane Thomas. The Thomases were visiting New York the Saturday after Donald Trump was elected president of the United States of America. They invited me to lunch. After family catch-up, we cautiously put a toe in the water of political discussion. Ben had voted for Trump—for economic reasons, he said. (He also distrusted the Clintons; rumors of their villainy circulate in the South with the air of first-hand authority.) Jane did not vote for Trump, but all the women in her Bible study did. “I just couldn’t do it,” she said. “I could not vote for that man.”

After lunch, we walked to where they were staying, turned on a college football game, and kept talking about the election. Jane and I—both diplomatic middle children—tried to find common ground.

I should insert here how I know the Thomases. During a period of grave religious questioning at the age of twelve—in the churchgoing epicenter that is Birmingham, Alabama, but with rational humanist academics for parents—I struck a bargain that I would work in the church nursery looking after babies instead of actually going to the service. One day, the Thomases brought their son—I’ll call him Alex—to the nursery. He was bigger than the other kids but also more frail, and older than technically allowed in the nursery, but no one said anything. The Thomases and my parents lived backyard-to-backyard, and I started babysitting for Alex. That is how I learned his story. He was born three and a half months early, spent the first nine months of his life in the hospital, and had a twin brother who did not survive.

As the football game—and Alabama’s Crimson Tide—rolled on in the background, Jane and I continued our election postmortem. I said to her, “The thing that scares me most about Trump is the Supreme Court. I don’t want a minimum wage worker in the dead middle of Texas to have to drive three days, with parental consent, to get an abortion.”

She turned to me and said, “You know what’s funny is the reason the women in my Bible study voted for him is the exact opposite.”

Then she told me the story of Alex and his brother. Jane said, “I still remember when they showed us a video of him as, like, an eight-celled organism.” I tried to imagine what it could have been like going into the hospital in 1986, at twenty-four weeks, and delivering at twenty-six weeks, having in-vitro fertilization in the 1980s.

Their son Alex is now thirty. They went on to have another child. I babysat for them all through high school, and traveled to the beach with them every summer. I remember seeing a scrapbook they had of Alex and his brother in the hospital. I can still picture these two album pages, one with the smallest diaper I had ever seen, maybe six inches tall, across from photos of babies wearing diapers that went up to their armpits. I still know the name of the child they lost.

This is the frontier of empathy and its discontents. I want people to have clear and unassailable abortion rights. And then if they ever have to contemplate an abortion, I want them to hear Jane’s story. I want them to experience the tear-welling, open-heartedness I felt hearing her tell me, the emotional power and possible persuasion of her story and all its pain and hope and river-deep possibility and love. I want the structure of democracy to be ironclad—of individual choice, of autonomy, of institutional restraint. But once the structure is intact, to be fully inhabited by the human. Democracy is the house. Empathy is the furniture. Once the load-bearing walls are in place, the space comes alive with dignity and respect, kindness and imagination.

Before the United States existed, Adam Smith wrote about these questions of imagining your way into other people’s lives in The Theory of Moral Sentiment. That was the 1752 book he wrote almost twenty-five years before his The Wealth of Nations laid the groundwork for neoliberal economics—of a sort that has begat corporations as citizens and money in politics.

More recently, Paul Bloom, the Yale psychology professor, published a book called Against Empathy, in which he argues for “rational compassion” instead. Bloom says empathy is a flawed moral guide that invites our prejudices since we are more empathetic toward people like us. This entails a kind of detached cost-benefit analysis.

I think empathy is mislaid if it isn’t really a practice of curiosity—of moral imagination. Empathy is radical curiosity.

Arlie Hochschild practiced radical curiosity in the conversations that became the book Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right. The Berkeley sociology professor, perhaps most widely known previously for The Second Shift, championed the idea of “friendly respect” as the foundation for connection. At a time when so many Americans have starkly different sources of information, she engaged in radically open listening. People would tell her things like “I love Rush Limbaugh because he speaks out against femi-nazis and environmental wackos.” When she returned from her interview journeys, she said her old friend Barbara Ehrenreich, author of Nickle and Dimed, had to shake her back to her Berkeley self.

I left that conversation the weekend after the election thinking there should be more people like Jane in politics. (I also saw her once in church announce a pledge drive and even then, at an age when I didn’t understand much about the practical world, saw that she was one of those Southern women could run a multinational corporation if they weren’t busy raising a family.) Jane can also hold opposing viewpoints at the same time. She is a middle child of six—with a sibling on one end who is left of Bernie Sanders and one on the other end to the right of Mike Pence. It’s not that that empathy is more important than the structure. It isn’t. It’s that when the structure is broken or so deeply threatened, empathy and imagination are needed to rebuild it.

Epilogue: On Structure

When Trump’s executive action on immigration first circulated in draft form, I read it in its entirety. I believe that democracy can’t function if an informed generalist can’t read a government document. I was horrified. The action has nothing to do with empathy—or dignity—and everything to do with kicking the load-bearing walls of democracy itself. It isn’t just that the ban is draconian and misguided—embarrassing and heartbreaking and, may I say, un-American. It also grants the government power to make exceptions on a case-by-case basis. As judges have pointed out to Trump, no one is above the law, even those trying to write it.

The structure itself is utterly in play. We are all crash test dummies in the car of democracy, figuring out how solid the frame is. Lawyers and judges are the structural engineers and defenders of the realm. The car going over the cliff is the most immediate thing. But since we are all trapped together inside it, maybe there is space for radical curiosity too, whether we are people who chose the current driver or not.

In that process of talking to each other, we might be surprised by what we have in common. We might learn how wide a swathe of people are moved by the woman on Pantsuit Nation asking if her military fatigues counted as a pantsuit. We might find that many people share a bleeding-heart libertarian view of live-and-let-live but provide a safety net. We might ditch the mish-mash of fiscal and social conservatism and look at the real underlying fissures of race and class, and discover truer conversations about values and community. We might find better ways to manage fear and instead of pretending the past can be recreated, try to build the future.


Amy Whitaker is an assistant professor of Visual Arts Administration at NYU Steinhardt, and author of Art Thinking (Harper Business, 2016).

Image via Mother Jones.