This article seems to be an appeal to white Americans who have grown up in the southern US states to develop a self-understanding of their ‘interpretational reflexes’ of which they are blissfully unaware. While the author lists the pain which she has suffered as a Black woman writer, and this must, consciously or otherwise, be an attempt to evoke ‘empathy’ (imaginatively living in another’s shoes), it is not what she consciously appeals for. She clearly wants a level playing field, and sees the unconscious dominant white southern ideology as being the problem. She wants white southerners to come out of denial, and to face this ideology of white dominance.
Psychologists like Yale Professor of Psychology Paul Bloom (2016) agree with our author. His argument (not accepted by all) is that empathy is usually directed not towards another ‘out-group’ but towards an in-group or individual with whom we share as much in common as possible. For this reason, empathy can be highly dangerous. It can lead to gross over-reaction over the death of (say) one person, with a completely disproportionate response, even leading to mass killings and violence. Research shows that greater empathy is correlated to greater harshness of punishment towards people seen as threats (this of course cuts both ways, black vs. white, white vs. black, and feeds the process known as ‘co-radicalisation’). The dominant ideology of the plantocratic élite was justified through ‘pluralistic ignorance’, a psychological mechanism where people may have doubts, but dare not share these doubts, lest they undermine the status quo; they therefore reinforce the dominant ideology in language and actions, even while festering doubts may be there. This dominant ideology maintained the flow of capital, expropriation of land, the planting of cotton, and the growth of southern slavery, all in lockstep between the American South and the Liverpool and Lancashire cotton mills, with UK government support (anyone not convinced of this, should read Sven Beckert’s great work, Empire of Cotton: A New History of Global Capitalism, which was recommended by Jim Walvin).
How can people address the huge suffering that this ‘lockstep’ caused, both to the Southern slaves, and the Lancashire mill workers? Bloom says that no-one can live with empathy, without burnout, even if this empathy is pro-social as regards an out-group. He recommends a rational compassion. Compassion is the projection outwards of loving thoughts (not inwards towards another’s suffering, which is empathy). Research studies shows that compassion leads to greater motivation to help, while empathy brings sadness and pain. Bloom acknowledges that (say) empathy drove and awakened the antislavery campaign, for example the Brooks motif), but that compassion is (psychosocially, for example Thomas Winterbottom’s medical work in Sierra Leone) a better way . . . Would this surprise our author? Probably not, for it seems that this is what she has in view.
What is the significance of this, for MJR, if Bloom is right? Films like ‘Twelve Years a Slave’, and the new version of ‘Roots’ might unavoidably focus too much on the violence and therefore the empathy aspect, rather than compassion. This suggests the need for a more subtle approach, rather than hitting people with the most painful images conceivable. How can love, especially agapē love, be encouraged? The New Testament has four words for ‘love’: agapē, eros, storgē, and philein, with the latter two being concerned with the in-group, eros with sexuality, and agapē with obedience to God, not empathy, per se. We are called to love others, even people very different, even enemies, because that was modelled by Jesus, and this is what God wants! ‘Compassion’, in this use, seems to be pretty much synonymous with agapē type love.
(Read Ijeoma Olou's article here.)