Implicit Empathy

January 21, 2018

As part of the NGV Triennial in Melbourne, Australia, I selected a number of artists as part of the ‘Virtual’ strand. Each is represented by a work or set of works, and a text, which includes written essays and one video lecture. You can see them all here.

One of the selected essays deals with something I’ve been fascinated with for some time: the connection between images and empathy. This is Robert Yang’s If you walk in someone else’s shoes, then you’ve taken their shoes, an exegesis on the long history of empathy generation through new, and primarily visual, technologies, and particularly on the supposed power of VR, the latest technology to assume that mantle. You should go and read it.

The elision of VR and empathy was given a boost, as Yang notes, by Chris Milk, the filmmaker responsible for several films for the UN, best summed up by this Vice headline: The UN Is Using Virtual Reality to Make the Rich and Powerful Feel Empathy.

A couple of years ago I was at a talk in Berkeley, when an academic casually threw up on the screen video of the violent killing of Lee Rigby while discussing how young people didn’t feel empathy any more because they were so alienated by screen use. I thought this was both bullshit, and incredibly offensive, as it was the academic himself who was failing to empathise with either the acts depicted, or with an audience who perhaps did not want to be exposed to violent images. The constant (and frequently non-consensual) reproduction of images of violence is itself a form of violence. When I questioned this, I found neither the academic nor much of the audience really understood why I objected. This episode, I think, really put me off the whole idea of empathy.

At the same time as we are subjected to more and more images of violence and suffering, our ability and willingness to respond by actually caring about those suffering seems to deteriorate. Images do not function as empathy machines. They do not bridge this gap. I take as emblematic of this effect the image of the dead body of Aylan Kurdi, the three-year-old child who drowned off a Turkish beach in 2015 as his family tried to reach Europe. The image travelled around the world to near-universal outcry, but has done nothing whatsoever to halt the ongoing extermination programme on Europe’s borders.

Empathy as a basis for care depends on the ability to identify with the other. As such, it is fundamentally insufficient for justice in a world of increasing racism, nativism, visual distance and division. One should not have to identify in order to have compassion – and even identification, as Yang explains, is all to often a simple and even violent appropriation, which does not get us anywhere either.

I discovered an interesting counterpoint to this failed vision for care in a discussion on the nature of heroism in Radiolab’s episode How to be a Hero. The show features interviews with several recipients of the Carnegie medal, awarded for acts of selfless courage – such as saving strangers from a burning car, or an oncoming train. Each of them is asked what they were thinking when they acted in this way: none of them can give a good answer.

Robert Sapolsky, the neuroscientist featured in the second half of the programme, describes how moral reasoning plays little or no role in such decisions. “People don’t think their way to a moral decision”, he says. Given the opportunity to think, most people reason their way out of caring. In fact, acting selflessly requires detachment. Heroes, in this reading, are the equivalent of skilled pianists. They have practiced compassion until it becomes a muscle memory. There is no requirement for proof or justification, by image, experience, or otherwise, in order to act with care or justice. It is only necessary to act rightly.

You can listen to the full interview here.

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