Contributors: Julie Gemuend and Mitch Goldsmith, members of the Young Professionals (in research) Exploration Group (YPEG). Photos by: Julie Gemuend.
How can we productively and meaningfully respond to emergent environmental and social crises in ways that remain open and attentive to the needs of others, including nonhuman others? At the same time, how can we protect ourselves from being so open that we become overwhelmed or despondent about the scale and urgency of the compounding emergencies that characterize our times, what many now call the Anthropocene — our current epoch of human-induced global environmental change? Systems thinking is an important part of grasping and responding to our current social and environmental precarity. Systems thinking understands humans and other beings, entities, and forces as interdependent actors irreducibly entangled with each other. These entanglements form a series of dynamic “systems” or networks that operate in ways inconceivable within a reductive, mechanistic framework. A systems approach to sustainability and environmentalism instantiates not only new ways of conceiving our relationships to nature, but also new ways of being in, and relating to, the world at large. Empathy activates our awareness of emotional and embodied relationships to both oneself, and others, and can be a crucial part of generating systems of care and environmental sustainability.
But what is empathy? Words, like people, are part of a lineage — a family tree — and though the term empathy is a fairly young branch, it nevertheless benefits from a rich, colourful, and complex history. First appearing in the English language in 1908, empathy, translated from the German term Einfühlung, literally means “feeling into.”i Einfühlung was theoretically developed within the fields of philosophical aesthetics and psychology over the 18th and 19th centuries and came to embody a strong connotation to physical responsiveness. In other words, it was a connection between bodies and other bodies, as well as bodies and objects. Einfühlung was also frequently applied to the experience of viewing art and in this way, empathy largely emerged as a term that concerned not only the enlivening of artifacts but the sensing and comprehension of those artifacts in and through the body, as well.
As the 20th century progressed, so too did the meaning of empathy. It abandoned its relationship to the body and settled within the domain of psychology, where it continues to be investigated largely as an emotional experience. This is how the context in which the term is commonly understood and used today, disembodied, and floating across our social media spheres — often as a dramatically reduced or misinterpreted version of itself. In fact, many social media platforms have recently become saturated with empathy-related content that draws millions of views.
But something is missing in the transformation of empathy as an embodied and relational experience to empathy as mere psychological phenomenon or online clickbait. Arguably, empathy can perhaps be best understood as a powerful transformative tool that offers a pathway to radical intimacy and encourages us to rethink our relationship to the natural world. Yet its power to enhance our communion with ourselves and others in a sustained way has been compromised due to appropriation, misuse, and misunderstanding within the social media realms we frequent. Thus, we must develop a more robust and nuanced understanding of the concept in order to use it constructively. This is especially important when considering empathy’s foundational role in building and maintaining ecologically sustainable relationships and institutions.
Within social media systems, for example, the rise of self-identifying empaths — those who believe they have heightened perceptual abilities, which they often describe as the ability to feel what others are feeling — have popped up across a range of platforms. This has been especially true in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. This phenomenon can be seen on Reddit, where, for example, the membership to the “Empaths” Subreddit forum soared from 20,000 members in 2019 to over 100,000 members in 2022.ii Data from Google Trends corroborates this increase in popularity, reporting a dramatic spike in searches for the term in January 2022, right around the time one “empathic” TikTok user went viral after their video provoked widespread critical reaction. The video has since been deleted but essentially the user frames their empathic abilities as a kind of superpower capable of immediately detecting nefarious undercurrents in individuals that no one else is able to sense. Detractors interpreted the video in myriad ways — as hyper-judgmental, insensitive, dangerously parochial — and created parodies of the video, which also went viral.
Critics of the term empath, and its appropriation, often argue that those who portray themselves as empathic, or empaths, are narcissistic and attention seeking. This, they argue, is the exact opposite of empathy. However, these online empaths are perhaps products of a larger system. Under the banner of capitalism, new age spiritualism appears to be a driving force behind this new “narcissistic empathy,” which places attention on individual self-improvement (often labelled as “self-care”) and leads to the online exploitation of empathy as a commodity. This commodification of emotion disempowers the capacity of empathy to enhance our relationships with ourselves, others, and the environment. It ultimately highjacks our desire for connection by putting it to work in favour of capitalist systems of power, all the while claiming to transcend those systems. Furthermore, no matter how seemingly deserving of scorn, the critics who mock these social media “empaths” perpetuate a kind of anti-empathy that reinforces the idea that what happens to one person does not affect another, that we are not connected, and that others do not matter. This worldview is one that positions itself in direct contrast to both empathy and systems thinking.
In light of these debates, we advance empathy as a loaded — but vital! — concept about care, interconnectedness, intimacy, compassion, and community, including community beyond the human. Central to empathy’s power, we argue, are the kinesthetic, embodied, and physical dimensions of the concept explored in its antecedent, Einfühlung. Empathy discloses that the psychological and the physical — the mind and the body, reason, and emotion — cannot be disentangled and marshals both into the service of understanding ourselves as/and others. Unfortunately, much of this complexity is missing in the online cache generated by TikTok empaths and their critics. The simplified conception of the term distorts empathy into a process of emotional contagion; when one contemplates another’s sadness, one becomes sad. Walt Whitman illustrates this phenomenon when he writes: “I do not ask the wounded person how he feels. I myself become the wounded person.”iii This is not how we should understand empathy. Empathy, we suggest, extends beyond this kind of projection, and should instead be understood as an oscillation between one’s own perspective and that of another (between first person and third person). It is a process of gathering knowledge about the situation and then assessing that knowledge, which gives rise to a genuine desire to help and to ease the other’s pain.
According to the philosopher Lori Gruen, empathy is best understood as the temporary suspension of the self rather than “a kind of narcissistic projection of our own interests and desires onto others, particularly nonverbal others,” such as animals and the environment.iv In her book Entangled Empathy: An Alternative Ethic for our Relationships with Animals, Gruen argues that empathy can form the basis of a powerful environmental ethic that can ground our relationships with other humans, animals, and the more-than-human world in ways that are both caring and just. For Gruen, the key to this empathetic ethic is the understanding that we are already entangled. That is, we already always exist in complex webs of relationships, or systems —whether we like it or not. An entangled, empathic ethic, therefore, is accountable to these relationships and those they are inextricably linked to. There can be no individuals that exist prior to and separate from the entanglements that constitute them.
Ultimately, this attentive attunement to our entanglement amounts to, according to Gruen:
“[A] type of caring perception focused on attending to another’s experience of wellbeing… [and] [a]n experiential process involving a blend of emotion and cognition in which we recognize we are in relationships with others and are called upon to be responsive and responsible in these relationships by attending to another’s needs, interests, desires, vulnerabilities, hopes, and sensitivities.”v
What would change, we ask, in the way we work, socialize, shop, travel, worship, and relax, if we prioritized the cultivation of empathy, including empathy for nonhumans and those most affected by anthropogenic environmental change? What would our schools, offices, hospitals, governments, and other institutions look like if they prioritized care, that is, to quote Gruen, the “needs, interests, desires, vulnerabilities, hopes, and sensitivities” of others, including the planet, in their daily practice? What industries and practices would be deemed untenable in an empathic society? What would have to change? And what would remain? Far from frivolous, these questions, we argue, are central to adequately responding to this current human-induced age of climate crisis, deforestation, oceanic acidification, and mass extinction.
We are not suggesting that empathy alone can change the world. Indeed, empathy can go wrong. Sometimes there are things we don’t know or don’t perceive accurately, which leads to what Gruen calls “epistemic inaccuracies”. Other times, we may misunderstand others’ experiences, what Gruen calls “ethical inaccuracies” and, of course, we can become overwhelmed by demands on our empathy or else fail to empathize adequately, what Gruen calls “empathetic saturation” and “incomplete empathy,” respectively. However, despite these dangers, we believe that a shift in the way we understand, and practice empathy can help guide, inspire, and sustain ecological thinking and movements. Uncoupling empathy from perceptions, however real or unfair, of empathy as self-aggrandizing or commodified, as seen in the debates of Tik Tok empaths discussed above, is the first step towards rehabilitating the concept as a critical mode of ethical and embodied relationship-making. Empathy both acknowledges our irreducible entanglement with other humans, animals, machines, plants, and indeed — the entire cosmos — and calls us to be responsive to the complex needs of these innumerable others. While we can’t be everything to everyone all the time, empathy can serve as the organizing principle in our daily lives, including in our visions for a just and hopeful ecological future.
i British psychologist Edward Bradford Titchener is credited with the coinage
ii https://subredditstats.com/r/empaths iii Merrill, C. et al. 2016. ”Song of Myself: With a Complete Commentary.” University of Iowa Press, p. 113.
iv Gruen, L. 2015. “Entangled Empathy: An Alternative Ethic for Our Relationships with Animals.” Lantern Books, p. 57.
v Gruen, L. 2015. “Entangled Empathy: An Alternative Ethic for Our Relationships with Animals.” Lantern Books, p. 3