Precarious Care: Critical Empathy and the Stories We Are




In his book, Radical Hope, Kevin Gannon observes that time spent in college did not educate away the racist and anti-Semitic impulses of students who marched in Charlottesville shouting hateful slogans. Jonathan Dollimore notes in the revised introduction to his book, Radical Tragedy, that a love of art and music did not stop Nazis from perpetrating the atrocities of the Holocaust. These are the kinds of observations that leave a mark on the brain. Both of these texts point to the elephant in the Humanities classroom, a critical caveat to the comfortable assertion that Humanities education makes us more empathetic people. These examples raise the deeply disruptive specter that there is no necessary connection between empathy and education in the arts, or that, if there is, it is not at all a direct path to fellow-feeling.


And yet. And yet, the belief that there is a connection persists in me, troubled and contested but stubbornly assertive. I want to say that, in the case of the perpetrators of violence in these examples, someone did art appreciation wrong, or was not educated the right way, or was educated in the wrong context, or, or, or....

An audience watches a B-Boy execute a headspin

Shelby Richardson explains in her TEDx Talk the ways that, on a physiological level, dancers and observers of dance are linked by mirror neurons that transfer the energies of movement back and forth across the apparent division of the stage from the auditorium. In our Wyrd Words conversation, Rodrigo Beilfuss talks about the ways that, in theatres, audiences begin to breathe together. Their heartbeats synchronize. Sitting 4000km away on one side of a Zoom screen, I watch a student read Lear’s last lines—“Pray you, undo this button”—and I weep, even though I believe in my calcified scholar’s heart that Lear is an ass. Over 227 million kilometers away, a robot called Perseverance executes a complex autonomous “7 Minutes of Terror” to land on the surface of Mars and, when we hear the “heartbeat signal” in our separate Earthbound houses, we feel relief: the rover is “alive.” A millennium ago, a scop shouts “HWAET!” (listen up!) into the din and smoke of a Scandinavian mead hall and in my classroom, students are startled out of their after-lunch slump, look up from their phones to see me, armed with nothing but a poem, standing on the desk, fighting the ghost of a dragon.


The “heartbeat signal” is only a string of ones and zeroes. Beowulf, if he ever existed, lost his battle with the dragon a thousand years ago or more. The ones and zeroes, or the scratches on the page or the sweep of the dancer’s arm or the timbre of the scop’s voice give us information. But it’s the poetry, the story that gives those things context and its partly the beauty of the name, “heartbeat signal,” that makes us care.


Woman holding a cardboard protest sign that says: What lessens one of us lessens all of us."

But the critique of the idea of empathy raised by Gannon and Dollimore demands that we pay careful attention to what we mean when we use such words as empathy and care, particularly to justify our projects as educators. Jesse Stommel suggests that empathy can be a colonizing or patronizing act, because it assumes that we can feel what others feel. He suggests that compassion is a better way of showing care, “as something that I do, not something that I do to you” (“Designing for Care and Embracing Ungrading”). Parker Palmer asserts that ethics cannot do its job when it is taught in a context of capitalist instrumentalism that co-opts ethical arguments in order to rationalize greed and other anti-empathetic stances and behaviours (A Hidden Wholeness). Perhaps it is so too with art. Perhaps an art delivered or taught in an inappropriate context cannot complete the empathetic circuit. Perhaps the concept of empathy is undone or requires careful definition.


A concrete bridge over a river. In the foreground, a glass sphere inverts the bridge and reflects the sky and the sun.

In Poetics, Aristotle asserts that the key to the identification that defines catharsis is the ability of art to create a bridge between pity (sucks to be you) and fear (sucks to be me). At its heart (the heartbeat signal of Poetics), the catharsis effected by art is not as much about voiding the spleen of bad feelings as it is about recognizing the self in the other: “If I were Oedipus facing the same circumstances” (sucks to be you), “I would probably feel the same way” (sucks to be us). The path is there. The circuit is laid out and ready for current. Plato, who called for the expulsion of poets from his Republic, did not quibble about the ability of art to make us care about things. He worried, rather, that it could make us care about bad things as well as good things, things that accord with our reason and things that pit us against it. Calling a string of data a “heartbeat signal” can make our hearts beat together, even if that heart is mechanical, or long dead, or of another race. A slur chanted in a mob can likewise make our hearts beat together in fear of the mechanical, the long dead or the Other. In Precarious Life: The Power of Mourning and Violence, Judith Butler finds lurking in "[o]ur fear of understanding a point of view... a deeper fear that we shall be taken up by it, find it is contagious, become infected in a morally perilous way by the thinking of the presumed enemy" (8). The trick is to find a reciprocity between these poles of pity and fear so that “sucks to be me” doesn’t send us marching into the street to make sure that it “sucks harder to be you.” This negotiation with our fears is risky business, and art, with its seductions and power of influence, is one place where that fearful negotiation takes place. This is a place where the boundaries between ideas and the material world become uncomfortably, generatively porous.



People stand in a line on a ridge, silhouetted against a large, blank, sepia-toned sky.

In my belief that there is a connection between empathy and art is a desire for a critical empathy, one that is acutely aware of the capacity of stories to connect us and to sever us from others by delimiting the scope of what is meaningful and who matters. To practice critical empathy is to exist in the tension between the seductions of universalism and of solipsism, between the desire to be included and the resistance to being absorbed into someone else's story. As Philip Sidney says in The Defense of Poesy, in order to learn, to be moved to virtue, we need to find a path between the arid precepts of philosophy and the one-damn-thing-after-another details of history. For him, in that narrow space where we live "crawling between earth and heaven" (Hamlet) lies poetry. In her Wyrd Words interview, poet and educator, Sarah deLeeuw ,cautions against the colonizing, univeralizing potential of an empathy that absorbs the other into our own point of view. She also advocates for the power of stories to push back against the universalizing and the reductive if we can "pay remarkable and focused attention to the details that do make up difference" so that we can find the "very micro-scale, very particular overlaps" that form the ground of connection when we pay attention to context and complexity.


This notion of critical empathy is, therefore, a call to hard work. In a concise rebuttal of the comforts of what would come to be popularly called "relatability," Butler argues for a resistance to an unchallenging "proximity to the similar." Instead, she makes the case for greater engagement with "the proximity of difference," those stories that make us "work to forge new ties of identification and to reimagine what it is to belong to a human community in which common epistemology and cultural ground cannot be assumed"(38). We must, in other words, become "precarious" in our own stories.

A man in a red shirt balances on a tight rope high in the mountains.

It is possible to care for good things and for bad things, for truth and for lies. Stories can tell us to listen or to speak or to shut up, that we matter or that we don’t. And the tricky thing about stories is that they are not always up front about which kind of stories they are. But in all cases, they are what we are. That’s where hopeful education comes in, where the “critical” in critical empathy becomes, well, critical. This is where those ways of knowing we teach in the Humanities--close reading and context and a tolerance for complexity and a willingness to get muddy--become crucial.


For Gannon, the radical act of hope is in telling and committing to a narrative and recognizing its power as a political act: "Creating a narrative and embodying it in our practice is an intentional act, a stand on certain foundational principles. To reject classrooms of death and live in a pedagogy embracing liberation and hope is deciding to place oneself in particular ethical and political territory" (19). Such a commitment requires the embracing of difficulty and discomfort even within our most cherished and axiomatic stories about what we are doing when we do education. Education is about learning to tell the difference between the stories--especially the ones we tell in and about our classrooms--that give voice to the messy complexity of living, and the ones that deny life and voice in favour of the comfortable, the reductive and the cynical. The work of critical empathy and hope makes our lives "precarious" by putting our comfort, even our comfortable fear, at risk. A hopeful education helps us to choose between those stories that break us open to greater connection and deeper humanity and those that make us impervious to these things (Parker Palmer, The Courage to Teach).


~Lisa Dickson


A broken chain link fence with the sunrise in the background.

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