Feeling for others without them

“The discourse around empathy portrays it as a moral super-emotion,” Olivia Rosane writes this week: If we can feel as others do, we will be more motivated to do right by others, and less likely to do them harm. But empathy, though it might be a means of building relationships and alliances, is insufficient for understanding power structures. It is often invoked by those with the privilege of imagining their own reality as the baseline around which other realities orbit, or else it becomes a glorified pastime — a way of commodifying and consuming other people’s experiences for one’s own pleasure.

Virtual reality is often sold as an “empathy machine” — a narrative technology capable of placing a consumer in other’s position, supercharging their fellow-feeling for social good, boosting fundraising efforts, making viewers more likely to act on human rights concerns while eradicating their prejudices. While this seems promising, Rosane writes, it can also inscribe or re-inscribe a destructive power dynamic between the consumer and the person whose story is being consumed.

VR, of course, is not the first narrative technology to cultivate such a noble veneer: as Rob Horning writes in “Apathy Machines,” 18th-century novels were “testing devices” for emotional integrity, designed to cultivate their readers’ sensibilities, prove their inner worth with feeling, while literary categories of moral legibility bled out into the real world. “If we choose to have a particular experience, doesn’t that make it more a commodified consumer good rather than an ethics lesson?” Horning writes. “Or rather, doesn’t that mainly teach us that we can enjoy feeling ethical as an on-demand experience?” The opposite applies: As Linda Kinstler wrote last February, in an essay on VR models of atrocity sites like Nazi death camps, virtual reality “may very well be the ‘ultimate empathy machine’… but it can manufacture cruelty too.”

Political work can be tedious, messy, and complex, while feelings are immediate and immersive. But they do not necessarily lead to the soundest reasoning, and they are never free of bias — as Paul Bloom, author of Against Empathy, has argued, people are more likely to empathize with someone they already see themselves in. “Empathy” can be weaponized: Even with the best intentions, relying too much on empathy as a driver of action targets individuals rather than larger, more complex forces. Moreover, immersion in another’s experience does not prefigure identification with it. As W. Sebastian Kamau wrote in November last year, in an essay on the limitations of empathy as the primary goal for VR over envisioning new ways of being, “to suppose VR is a solution to racism implies that racism is personal and not also a social pathology. And so, while VR addresses individuals, it does not fix the broader social systems of discrimination that feed and are fed by the individual feelings of animus.” Strategic empathy puts the onus on survivors to translate their experiences for an audience; it risks doing more harm by forcing people to relive or commodify their own distress. A familiar narrative, palatable to those whose attention is being solicited, becomes an imposition that excludes and erases those whose experiences don’t fit.


“Empathy Machines,” by Olivia Rosane

“Apathy Machines,” by Rob Horning

“Rooms Full of Mirrors,” by W. Sebastian Kamau

“Virtual Atrocities,” by Linda Kinstler

Thank you for your consideration. Visit us next week for Real Life’s upcoming installment, SELF-EXPLOITATION.