When I looked at the table of contents, I was surprised to see the word “empathy”. This is a word, or an idea, that I think about a lot, and I suppose I did not previously consider it in relation to animal studies. It comes up when discussing human rights, especially when one argues the importance of putting oneself in another’s shoes. It comes up in my own research on the obstacles faced by women in same sex relationships trying to conceive, because this is an area that needs more research, and therefore it is an area in need of empathetic or at least sympathetic people to fill in the gaps. It is also a buzzword in children’s literature, which I hope allows for some quality books to hit the shelves. I thought of Last Stop on Market Street or Carmela Full of Wishes, two children’s books that encourage a conversation between reader and child about empathy in action. Notably, neither book has animals present.

Lori Gruen, the author of this chapter on empathy, is the editor of the book. In addition to editing collections about empathy and captivity, she is also the author of the book Entangled Empathy: An Alternative Ethic for our Relationships with Animals, which is suggested as further reading. She is a professor of Feminist, Gender, and Sexuality Studies and Science in Society at Wesleyan University where she also coordinates Wesleyan Animal Studies. I particularly liked this description of her work from her website: “Her work lies at the intersection of ethical and political theory and practice, with a particular focus on issues that impact those often overlooked in traditional ethical investigations, e.g. women, people of color, incarcerated people, non-human animals. She is currently working to unpack carceral logics by thinking through a complex set of issues like dignity, self-respect, empathy, disposability, and hope and hopelessness.” I appreciate the connection between empathy and disposability, even if I had never made the connection before.

All of the sources referenced by Gruen at the end of her chapter are intriguing. One of the references is an article written by Gruen that can be found here: http://america.aljazeera.com/opinions/2015/7/samuel-dubose-cecil-the-lion-and-the-ethics-of-avowal.html It is short and relevant as Gruen argues for an ethics of avowal, rather than competition in “oppression Olympics”. Without an avowal, we are left with discord and the lack of means and support to actually change things for the better.

Another article referenced, written by a science writer named Princess Ojiaku, does a good job of collating scientific studies done on the racial empathy gap: https://aeon.co/essays/unconscious-racism-is-pervasive-starts-early-and-can-be-deadly . I bring it up because the Gruen chapter on empathy only lightly touches on studies done (on human and non-human animals) and I was left wanting more. Surely there are more studies available that focus on empathy in different species, which I find to be super fascinating, but perhaps that is not the point of Gruen’s chapter. She is appealing more to the dearth of empathy felt by humans toward animals and other humans.

A concept that was new to me is the idea of “entangled empathy”, in which “we are attentive to both similarities and differences between ourselves and our own situation and that of the fellow creature with whom we are empathizing” (Gruen 148). Entangled empathy enables us to avoid “false empathy”, which is more superficial and can play out as a “form of feel good voyeurism” (150). Empathy is a “process that includes perception, reflection, and concern” (147) and is a “combination of mental states—an awareness of the distinction between self and other, an understanding of the interests and needs of the other, and a feeling that motivates one to act to help meet those needs” (147). Empathy can come in different varieties, such as an epistemic state, an affective state, or a perception/action state in the empathizer (144). While I love the arguments for entangled empathy, my mind immediately renamed it “woke empathy”, which is perhaps a little unfair but also kind of fitting. It is not enough to be sympathetic or empathetic without first addressing your own privileged status or implicit biases or starting viewpoints. This makes sense, especially when reading the biting critiques of false empathy, if one is to truly empathize with another human or “an other”.

Gruen’s chapter starts out discussing empathy in the animal kingdom but then somewhat disjointedly morphs into an argument about race, after an explanation of “empathy’s others” and the potential ruse of empathy. Gruen discusses antiblackness and speciesism in the same vein, and without discussing what her relation is to the so-called other, she ends on another somewhat disjointed note. This does not discount the rest of the essay, but rather I am left feeling like I need to read her book in order to have a more cohesive bridge between empathy in animal studies and empathy as it relates to racism.

One thought on “EMPATHY

  1. Carrie Hintz

    Lacy, This was a capacious and insightful engagement with the keyword, revealing its strengths and some of its limitations. I am particularly impressed by the research you did into Gruen’s career, and the ways in which that research was driven by your curiosity. CH

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Need help with the Commons? Visit our
help page
Send us a message