The functionality of the empathy gap

I have been talking with a few of my mamasisterfriends who live in NYC and have school-aged children. We’ve talked aplenty about the ways in which children in this city, and these are middle and upper middle class children, have to learn to navigate an imposing public transit system, stay in constant communication with their justifiably worried parents, and develop their internal radar systems for when to be more alert and who might be trustworthy. No small suite of feats.

And yet, having these conversations puts me in mind, of course, of the thousands of families whose children are being rejected, often violently, by U.S. residents at the U.S. Mexico border. I wonder if any of us who have grown up with relative economic ease, in one of the wealthiest nations in the world, can come close to understanding the level of desperation, vulnerability, and terror that it takes for families to send their children on life-threatening journeys. Can we approximate what is happening in the hearts, minds, and souls of parents who know full well that the journey stands a very good chance of harming their beloved children and yet quite literally, see no other option for bare survival? And this question doesn’t begin to touch what these young people experience. It boggles the mind and heart to begin to try to grasp their suffering. Perhaps, then, the better question is how so many in the U.S. have determined that this human suffering isn’t actually happening to people worth that kind of empathic reach and simply don’t go there.


There are so many ways in which comprehension of this self-created crisis of refugees at the US Mexico border demands further sophistication. Any discussion of the plight of these children that doesn’t include U.S. policies of free trade, drug ‘wars,’ prisons and cheap labor, in short policies to support capitalism, is frankly bankrupt and fallacious. And yet, the headlines and deeply unfortunate soundbites from interviews with protestors feature the logics of “legal” migrants who claim to have obeyed immigration laws that have shapeshifted over time to protect white supremacy, such as having waited in fictitious immigration lines, as well as U.S.-born citizens who rarely are even asked to justify why they are endowed to refuse others, leaving unagitated the privilege enjoyed from geopolitical happenstance of birthplace. These logics are a kind of geographic cousin to the front row theatre-like viewings of the bombings of Gaza that some Israelis are conducting.


What is the functionality of the socioemotional politics that allow for such willful disregard of facts, suffering, and the core interconnectivity of all living beings? I firmly believe that we don’t do a single thing without there being some kind of function in it. Now whether we can ascertain what that function is another, usually more complex, question. In this case, what functions are served by, metaphorically and literally, strolling past such infrared human suffering?


With due respect for the complexity of human consciousness, we simply can’t hold open and constant a regard for all of the joy, pain, and everything in between that we encounter. Our consciousness would overload in no time at all. In fact, as Michael Pollan describes in his exploration of the dynamics between the evolution of cannabis and human beings and why humans would seek a substance that would stunt their short-term memory, “Of course, forgetting is not a defect of a mental operation, although it can certainly be that; forgetting is a mental operation. It’s almost as important as remembering.” In fact, cannabis and other consciousness-altering substances have been prescribed to people who suffer from post traumatic disorders as a way of contending with the wattage of their consciousness that is in fury of debilitating memories.


However, the disregard of human suffering at the border, in Detroit, in Gaza, comes from a very different relationship to consciousness and forgetting, one that is actually fully awake and deftly selective about who deserves empathy and attention, and who doesn’t. What do these protestors get by ignoring human suffering, turning into spectacle and drowning it out with their own screams of entitlement and worth? As I wrote here, in the case of the U.S.-Mexico border, it is decidedly convenient to cast migration as acts of individuals’ regard for state law, rather than the complex push-pull of capital and exploitation that it actually is. This convenience is underwritten by the need to protect the benefits that one has experienced by virtue of geopolitical happenstance of birthplace.


As someone who has worked, thought, and written about colonialism, migration, and possibilities and politics beyond, I am consumed with how we might change some of these realities. I believe that it must include reckoning with the core truth that tolerance of and dismissal of human suffering is deeply necessary for the core colonial project of designating some as not so human after all. It is functional for coloniality to meter out levels of humanity. This empathy gap exacts various material effects. Mia McKenzie wrote about it eloquently here, in protesting the myriad violence that is visited upon populations of color and collective shrug it gets, if that, from vastly more privileged white people. A white child is shot in a white neighborhood, and it is a public crisis. Thousands of Black and Brown children are hurt, go missing, and/or are killed, and it barely merits a mention. Artist Kara Walker creates an epic homage and interrogation of the humanity behind and underneath our centuries-long addiction to sugar, and yet, white spectators of the exhibit made mockery of black suffering, making modern day instagrammed echoes of postcards of lynchings of black men and women. The examples, sadly, abound.


Without a doubt, any move to address the suffering experienced in multiple places, including the US Mexico border and Gaza, will have to include multiple fronts of action and intent. We will be sorely remiss and sure to repeat these actions, though, if we don’t reckon with the logics that are all too at ease with some humans being more human than others.



2 thoughts on “The functionality of the empathy gap

  1. You always bring out – or uplift – the humanity behind the stories of marginalisation. As you write, it’s beyond my imagination that empathy has its limits when it comes to this issue. Those who define other people as being more or less human are in fact presenting themselves as being less humane, only one letter away from who they are disparaging.

  2. Pingback: An August of ice bucket challenges and armored militia | Decolonizing educational research

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