The fun with studying the "language of conflict" is that you can complicate almost every word.
Today, I'm talking about "empathy"
This past week, Marcus Bullock came to the School of Conflict Analysis and Resolution (S-CAR) to discuss why "empathy" can be a difficult word for conflict resolution. Below are a summary of his comments and the discussion following the lecture.
1. He took us through the etymology of the word. It doesn't exist in many languages.
2. Empathy is a speech act. We 'show' people we are empathetic in a way that says, "look at me, I am a good person, I empathize with you"
There is perhaps a touch of megalomania.
3. Empathy, as a value in conflict, moves us towards a consensus model.
Sara Cobb (of S-CAR) and others are concerned about "consensus" as a conflict resolution model. The idea is to create better-formed stories and make sure marginalized voices are heard. The goal is to enrich the "narrative ecology" of a space rather than find all the "common points of agreement." This model does not seek sameness. Difference needs to be allowed and elaborated where it exists.
The value of empathy- suggests that we all "could" or "should' understand another's experience, rather than just letting it be their experience.
For example, I can never really empathize with a woman who lost her family in Rwanda. To say I do could be seen as arrogant and patronizing. I cannot. And it positions her as someone "I get" -- I do not need to empathize with her for her to have legitimacy -- for her to have a right to her story. For her to be worthy of dignity, rights, etc.
4. Empathy can be used politically-- For example, can the Senators really "empathize" with the working class people who were really hurt by this shutdown? Do they really know what kind of stress it added to their lives, marriages, and bodies?
It may depend on their upbringing. Were they ever poor? black? Hispanic?
In sum, the question empathy raises is whether we can ever really know another's experience? We need to be able to support and allow for Others to have their experience whether or not we understand it. Empathy suggests a kind knowing that can sometimes be patronizing.
Just something to ponder....