I recently attended an event hosted by Simon Fraser University as part of their Public Square series of talks. To be honest, I was a little hesitant to attend, mostly due to a lack of initial interest in the topic. I’m glad my wife pushed me just enough to want to (this is our idea of a date night: a public lecture hosted by a university. Don’t judge us!) It turned out that the talk was actually deeply aligned with recent questions I’ve been having around education, curriculum, representation, and belonging. While this season of public lectures is over, culminating recently with an event with the Right Honourable Adrienne Clarkson, former Governor General of Canada, I am already looking forward to the next series of lectures once they resume in September.
The talk I attended April 5, 2017 entitled “Rendered Responsible by the Fragile” was given by Dr. Ann Chinnery, Associate Professor and Director of Undergraduate Programs in the Faculty of Education. The full video of her lecture is available online and I’ve embedded the clip as part of this post. The talk she gave was a well thought-out and grounded. Below are some concepts that emerged:
1. The problem with empathy
While I still believe that empathy has merit and is something that can be taught in schools, at home, and in the community, I was reminded how problematic empathy can be. As explained by Dr. Chinnery, empathy is achieved through the practice of putting ourselves in the shoes of someone else, to try and understand the lived experience of someone else by trying to put yourself in their position and place. What Dr. Chinnery pointed out is that empathy is predicated on the belief that it is even possible to be able to put ourselves in the shoes of someone else. By virtue of this, empathy supposes that the lifeworlds of someone can be easily entered into. Moreover, the additional problem with empathy is that it not only presupposes that we can put ourselves into someone else’s shoes (regardless of the complexity of the lifeworld of the person) but that in doing so, nothing is lost in that process. In fact, quite the opposite can happen. As we empathize, we may cause an even further harm: to trivialize. How can I ever fully empathize with someone who’s history, experience, gender, sexuality, politics, etc I don’t truly understand or have never lived through?
Though problematic, empathy does however allow us to cast aside our self-centeredness and self-importance. I believe that becoming empathetic beings is not only a process, but also a skill set. Like all skills, empathy develops the more we practice it and while there is always a danger in not fully understanding those that we try to empathize with, through that process of at the minimum trying to understand someone’s lifeworld, we in fact live out our humanity. If individuals are part of larger communities, from the micro (e.g. the family) to the macro (e.g. global citizenship), living well in those communities must emerge from a desire and a willingness to empathize with others.
2. The Other, the Oppressed, the Subaltern, the Savage, the Vulnerable … and now … Precarity!
Language is extremely powerful — it is through language that our thoughts are mediated. By that fact, the words we use allow us to share our own inner truths. Words like the Other, the Oppressed, the Subaltern, etc all have deep meaning and allow us to understand the nature of power and social capital held by different individual. The Other is that person who is different from the mainstream, the Oppressed is that person who is socially, politically, and economically held down, the Subaltern, is that group which exists beneath and under hegemonic power structures.
Judith Butler is one of those individuals that people studying power, and especially the dynamics of gender, have most likely heard of. I was first introduced to Butler’s idea of performity in my undergrad and her ideas were, and still are, very relevant to my life. One of the main reasons why I decided take parental leave for nine months after the birth of our daughter in 2016 was based on a desire to upend traditional perceptions of gendered roles in the family. Don’t tell my daughter, but beyond a deep yearning to be at home with her, I also approached this experience as an opportunity for a social scientist to study and live the experience of being a male primary care giver in a role that is traditionally filled by women. This was very much informed by my readings of Butler and others who made me question the pre-conceived notions embedded in the performance of roles (which are often, and sadly, broken down along the lines of gender).
In addition to having a familiarity with the above ideas, I was introduced to a new related concept, that of precarity as described by Butler. Precarity is very much tied to the idea of vulnerability. Those in precarious states of being exist in positions of uncertainty and whose political influence (and here, not political in terms of government or rights, but in terms of belonging to the polis, political tied to the concept of social standing) does not extend beyond small parochial communities. This was my first introduction to this concept and so my understanding of it is somewhat limited. I would encourage those interested in this concept to read this quick article and to do further research on this concept.
I was very fortunate to be able to ask Dr. Chinnery a question at the end of her lecture. I wanted to hear her opinion on the cause of precarity and precarious states of being. I asked whether she believed, as I do, that one of the root causes of precarious states is the inability for those in such positions to be able to find adequate ways of disclosing their personhood, identity, values, and desires to a larger audience. I would argue that the inability for the Other, the Subaltern, the Oppressed, the Precariat to find place and inclusion in society is caused by the inability of these peoples to find meaningful ways to represent their narratives with a larger audience and mainstream society.