selective empathy

Following the explosions in Boston, Glenn Greenwald asked about “selective empathy.” He asked whether compassion could also be extended to victims of U.S. military aggression. The question has become more urgent as we learn more about who died in Boston, as lives are narrated and mourned, and we are asked to feel for a range of strangers, now made less strange through biography. Greenwald’s question is, broadly, about how strangers are made less strange, how feelings are mobilized to produce affiliations with strangers, how life is given value. It is also, I think, about indifference and pleasure.

Empathy is generally considered the capacity to put oneself in another’s situation through an act of the imagination. Its call to action is, “how would I feel if I were in that position?” Greenwald’s notion of “selective empathy” suggests that we choose when to extend this imagination. But what would compel such an extension? The ordinary facts of bad events and quotidian practices of oppression suggest that we are always choosing when to extend empathy. When is feeling called forth to extend the imagination?

In “Notes of a Native Son,” James Baldwin recounts his experiences working in a factory in New Jersey in 1942: “I learned in New Jersey that to be a Negro meant, precisely, that one was never looked at but was simply at the mercy of the reflexes the color of one’s skin caused in other people.” Baldwin’s writing on race relations—I think we need to emphasize the word “relations” more than we do, for race is a relation and is, of course, haunted by sex—tracks through a strange archive of feeling: anger and resentment, yes, but also love and indifference. He is interested in how “race” produces or fails to produce particular forms of relations. In the passage above, he is interested in how feeling becomes reflex or, rather, how to read feeling back into reflex.

How does one read the smile, the frown, the hug, the punch, the tensed muscle, the slack jaw that “marks” the race encounter or, more precisely, that racializes the encounter? How does one read the “reflex” of saturated histories that are not often acknowledged as histories? Or the saturation of affect produced as “race” today, be that through avowal, disavowal, hate, love, knowledge, ignorance, study, uninterest, disinterest, investment? How might one read or unread or reread those micromuscular movements that index race as bodily reaction? How might one track the peculiar pedagogy of minoritization that trains one to read such micromuscular movements?
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“I don’t hate anyone.”

We tend, I think, to believe racist acts or statements are “intentional” and reveal a “deep” structure within someone. I am inclined to believe those who say their statements are “not intended to be” racist. This belief comes from an ongoing engagement with psychoanalysis, where the “slip” does not reveal the “truth” of self so much as the chaos of the unconscious.

Increasingly, especially because of teaching many students who proclaim we are “post-race” and so we don’t “think that way,” I am interested in race as a relation of indifference. What does it mean not to think that way? Or not to think of “that” at all? I am interested in the surprise expressed by so many students when they hear an action or statement described as “racist.” One might call this “privilege,” and perhaps it is, but I wonder if thinking through indifference might yield something else.

To be indifferent, I learn from Sara Ahmed (in The Cultural Politics of Emotion, Queer Phenomenology, and The Promise of Happiness) is to have a certain affective disposition.

I find these definitions of “disposition” from the OED to be useful:

a. The state or quality of being disposed, inclined, or ‘in the mind’ (to something, or to do something); inclination (sometimes = desire, intention, purpose); state of mind or feeling in respect to a thing or person; the condition of being (favourably or unfavourably) disposed towards.

b. A frame of mind or feeling; mood, humour.

c. Physical aptitude, tendency, or inclination (to something, or to do something).

How might feeling have a disposition? How might it be oriented toward one thing and not another? How is imagination extendable to one thing and not another? How might race be a relation predicated on the disposition of feeling and the extension of imagination? How might a racist act be described as the absence of this imaginative extension and the muting of this disposition of feeling? Or, conversely, might a race relation be about saturated imagination and affect? In Playing in the Dark, Toni Morrison demonstrates the aesthetic effects of this imaginative failing: she argues that Willa Cather’s Sapphira and the Slave Girl is poorly developed because Cather is unwilling to extend the full capacity of feeling to her black characters.

Indifference traffics as: “I did not think you would mind”; “I did not think that was hurtful”; “I did not find that hurtful”; “you’re being too sensitive”; “I did not think”: “I did not know”; “I did not imagine”; “I could not imagine”

It is this last that captures indifference: I could not imagine.

As always, Fanon:

To speak gobbledygook to a black man is insulting, for it means he is the gook. Yet, we’ll be told, there is no intention to willfully give offense. OK, but it is precisely this absence of will—this offhand manner; this casualness; and the ease with which they classify him, imprison him at an uncivilized and primitive level—that is insulting.

If indifference is one element of race relations, then I think pleasure is an equally important one. Scholarship on slavery and lynching has demonstrated the immense pleasure taken in spectacles of black pain and suffering and death: the grinning faces of souvenir-bearing good folk at public lynching festivals should always arrest us (but see “indifference”).

But the pleasure of the relation of race is more: it is pleasure in black suffering and black death but also pleasure in black anger and black resentment, pleasure in oppression and pleasure in resistance. Race relations might, in fact, be about scenes where relations are produced as pleasure. This pleasure, as Baldwin demonstrates in Another Country, is, variously, shared, withheld, acknowledged, created, destroyed, melancholic, or future-directed. It is a pleasure that comes from being acknowledged, ignored, fetishized, voided. It is the pleasure that constitutes a “relation” and is “relation” in all its strange politics.

How does this “pleasure” relation relate to “selective empathy”? Are we inclined to extend empathy to those who pleasure us?

In Stars in My Pocket like Grains of Sand, Samuel Delany writes, “You give me so much pleasure, why should I ever want to hurt you?” I have been staring at this sentence for close to a year now. I don’t know what to do with it. Is this part of the radical politics a queer focus on pleasure can produce? I think Delany’s sentence demands something that my attachment to Fanon might not allow. I put it here to interrupt my (un)certainties about race relations.

Thinking about indifference and pleasure as key elements of oppression demands, I think, a stretch of the imagination. It means we can no longer presume (if ever we did) that disclosing systems of oppression or naming them will produce a moment of moral or ethical arrest, let alone reflection. I think that we must pay closer attention to the “it was a joke” response to critique, because that directs us to examine the pleasure of domination and the pleasure of indifference and what happens when those pleasures are threatened.

3 thoughts on “selective empathy

  1. Can we move beyond the moment of arrest caused by your confrontation with Delaney by assuming that there are different sorts of pleasure, or that there are different sorts of “relating to” that bring pleasure, either one of which might let us see different ways people relate to things they see as a source of pleasure?

    “Relating to” here is deliberately ambiguous enough to encompass a relationship between two people who regard each other as persons, a relationship between a subject and an object considered subhuman (whether a dehumanized human being, or a non-human animal), and the way a person relates to an object considered inanimate (whether actually inanimate or a human being regarded as no more than an inanimate object). Anything we perceive as outside or separate from ourselves is something we can “relate to” as I use it here.

    I literally cannot enjoy the pleasure of eating good foods without destroying that food I eat, yes? Even with an inanimate object that I hoped to gain more pleasure from in the future (maybe a book) upset I feel about its destruction is really only regret that I (and maybe other people) cannot enjoy it in the future. But taking pleasure in the company of a person I understand to be as human as I am, that does, I think, make me more likely to hope they are spared suffering and the sympathize or empathize when they do suffer. How pleasure affects my perception of something seems to depend on what sort of relation already existed before.

  2. Patrick, yes about that prior relation. If you’ve read Stars in My Pocket you will know that Delany is describing a relationship between two men who have been “matched” to a 99.99% degree, so there is a prior anticipation, an “orientation,” Sara Ahmed might term it, toward pleasure. This “prior” relation makes all the difference. This is where Fanon makes things difficult for me, because the “prior relation” he describes is both precise and fuzzy: colonial modernity. And for Fanon, this is both a historical “thing” and a psychic “thing,” or, to be more precise: it is about how colonial modernity produces not simply structural inequalities but also psychic structures as foundational as the Oedipus complex. The problem of colonial modernity for Fanon (and, I think, for Sade, though he’s not thought of in these terms) is that one’s pleasure with another need not be, and, in fact, isn’t necessarily ethical. Or, rather, not necessarily anchored in a desire for the other’s wellbeing.

    We know this from the multiple anecdotes we read and hear about unsatisfied partners. Delany is trying for something genuinely difficult, I think. It emerges from a particular moment, a particular history, a particular orientation toward pleasure that I think was lost much too quickly, but which, I think, still holds some potential. Might considering others as sources of pleasure create an ethical situation? Might considering one a source of pleasure for others create an ethical mode of relating? I honestly don’t know.

    I especially don’t know because of the “prior relation” that precedes the encounter between pleasure-seekers and pleasure-receivers.

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