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Reading: The Banality of Empathy

Read The Banality of Empathy by Namwali Serpell

I greatly appreciate this essay’s author for the vulnerability and openness in sharing their thoughts. I think it’s incredibly brave to elaborate on the ties between being black and being murdered, and I am hugely deferential.

There are some words that stand out to me: platitude, banal/banality, empathy, repeatedly re-enacts, and emotional palliative. These words actually make me feel hurt because they feel accusational. Here, I can combine them into one sentence: “These banal platitudes lack empathy and repeatedly re-enact a failure to be emotionally palliative.” OUCH. Damn that’s harsh. Can I spin it in a more positive tone? “Platitudes, while seemingly banal, are an empathetic tool for repeated re-enactments of emotional palliatives.” Meh, not so good.

In 2018 and 2019 I attended a lot of theater about blackness. From Suzan Lori Parks’ White Noise to Jeremy O. Harris’ Slave Play and more, these years saw a huge push for work by black playwrights. These shows offered a window into the black experience in their own ways. The audiences that I was a member of always included predominantly older white folks, and I wondered whether they “got it.” Did they understand or swallow the accusations of discrimination that were being pointed at them? They certainly laughed at the generously humorous gags, but did they cry when suffering was presented on stage?

I do not think that empathy is banal. But I agree that constantly sharing and indulging in the experience of others can be tiring, exhaustive, and selfish. If everyone’s life experience is important to know and understand, what energy do we have left for ourselves? And what change will we actually make from absorbing these experiences? Will the film about refugees *actually* incur a citizen to become an activist and reform immigration policy?

It’s a bit heartbreaking to inject pragmatism into the warm realm of empathy. It seems good and just to see the world from someone else’s perspective, but what does that change other than increased sympathy? I feel a bit pessimistic about empathy because when it is granted to me, I claim that it shouldn’t matter to the other person, and I don’t ever expect it otherwise. Yet I will still dramatize pieces of my life and share them with the world for personal reactions.

Should we all care about everything? No. But we cannot stop making content for empathizing. I am interested in a globalized, understanding, and kind world. I want to cry when civilians are bombed in Aleppo, I want to feel relief when Russia backs off from Ukraine, and I want people to mourn my life when I’m gone. Empathy is a human experience because curiosity is a human trait, and people crave information. Embrace the banality of empathy because it doesn’t have to be celebrated when it’s innate to human nature.

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