On Empathy

This morning, I watched an RSA Animate video by Roman Krznaric, The Power of Outrospection (found via Brain Pickings).

I was drawn to it because of my continued interest in caring—caring about, for and with others. While not exactly the same thing, empathy is connected to care. Krznaric defines empathy in two ways: a. empathy as shared emotional response (you see someone crying in pain, it makes you cry too) and b. empathy as perspective taking (you are able to “step into someone else’s shoes” and understand their worldview/feelings/experiences).

I appreciate Krznaric’s emphasis on empathy, especially how it encourages people to humanize others and to try to understand “where they are coming from” instead of merely dismissing their ideas as wrong or too “different.” Krznaric is really committed to an “empathic revolution.” In addition to his RSA Animate video, he has tons of papers on the topic and a post on 5 easy steps for joining the empathy revolution. He is also in the process of collecting and sharing people’s stories. As a side note, I am pleased to see Krznaric using social media (blogs, twitter, YouTube) for his empathy project. Last year, I wrote an article critiquing a recent study that suggests that social media could be a main contributor to college student’s increased lack of empathy.

But (and you had to know that but was coming), even as I appreciate Krznaric’s focus on empathy, his shift away from pure introspection (self-help, it’s all about me!) and towards outrospection (stepping outside of ourselves), and his linking of empathy with radical social change, I was a little troubled by some of his language—discovering new lives and civilizations—and his proposals—an empathy museum where you can check people out or learn how to sew a garment from a South Asian factory worker or taking an empathy adventure, like George Orwell, in which you “tramp through the streets of London,” meeting new people and gathering endless material for your writings.

I am reminded of María Lugones and her excellent discussion of playfulness, world-traveling and loving perception. In it, she discusses how we might learn to playfully travel to other worlds, by seeing the people we meet through loving instead of arrogant eyes. She cautions against treating this travel as a holiday, aimed at discovering and attempting to “know” or fully understand (or conquer) these worlds or the people that inhabit them. Central to her argument is somethings that I find to be missing in Krzarnic’s discussion of empathy (to be fair, I’m basing my analysis of his theory on the RSA Animate, and not his essays and books): Writing as a woman of color, who must travel between multiple worlds (and identities), Luguones understands world-traveling to not just be a value we should aspire to do in order to understand others, but a survival tool that many people rely on in order to get by. She writes:

I wonder, who is Krznaric’s audience for this video? Who needs to be told to see/understand other’s perspectives and who already does by necessity?

I have more to say about the problems and possibilities of Krznaric’s empathy revolution, but, as always, I’m running out of time. I’m also having trouble writing coherently and concisely. Not sure why… Here’s one more thing that I want to mention about empathy: What if, when we experience empathy as perspective-taking, we weren’t stepping fully outside of ourselves into someone else’s life, but instead residing beside ourselves (and beside them) in an in-between space where we can see how our lives are connected and implicated in each other’s? So, empathy isn’t about “discovering new worlds,” but about refusing to ignore the richly complex and diverse worlds that we already inhabit. Hope that makes sense.

Speaking of empathy and becoming aware of others’ experiences in order to affect social change (which Krznaric does, roughly 6 minutes in), I came across a story on Colorlines about the Newark super Mayor, Cory Booker. He’s surviving on food stamps for in order to experience what it’s like to live on $30/week for food. He’s taking the #SNAPChallenge:

The SNAP Challenge gives participants a view of what life can be like for millions of low-income Americans. Most participants take the Challenge for one week, living on the average daily food stamp benefit (about $4 per person per day). Challenge participants find they have to make difficult food shopping choices, and often realize how difficult it is to avoid hunger, afford nutritious foods, and stay healthy.

When I have time, I want to research this initiative some more. What sort of empathy does it promote? What social justice actions are coming out of it? What would/does Krznaric think of it?

Twitter, Care and Mother’s Day

Ever since my mom died–well, actually, ever since she got really sick–mother’s day has been hard. And, surprisingly, I never expect it to be. I’ve spent a lot of time developing ways to live beside my grief for my mom. And, as I’ve suggested on this blog and in my latest digital video about this blog, I’ve shifted a lot of my recent focus away from grieving over her loss and towards celebrating (her) life. Yet, even though I feel like I’ve come to some sort of peace with her death, I still woke up yesterday with that unsettled, irritable feeling that made me just want to be alone. When I feel this way, I don’t always immediately read it as grief. Grief is supposed to be waves of sadness and feelings of loss, right? Maybe not; my grief rarely comes in those forms.

According to J Butler (whom I’ve written about a lot on this blog), grief is about coming undone:

I think one is hit by waves, and that one starts out the day with an aim, aproject, a plan, and one finds oneself foiled. …Something takes hold, but is this something coming from the self, from the outside, or from some region where the difference between the two is indeterminable? What is it that claims us at such moments, such that we are not the masters of ourselves? In what are we tied? And by what are we seized (Undoing Gender, 18)?

In my case, what took hold yesterday morning were waves of irritation, anger, intolerance and a strong sense of coming undone as a mother, especially a mother without a mother. Luckily the feeling didn’t last that long, and much of the rest of the day–a beautiful one at a baseball game–was good. But, it always helps me to remember that Mother’s Day, much like my mom’s birthday or the day that she died, will probably always be difficult. And in ways that I might never be able to anticipate.

As I was reading through my twitter feed right before bed last night, I came across lots of RTs (retweets) by Xeni Jardin from people who were grieving because of cancer on mother’s day (kids who had lost their moms to cancer, or moms who had lost their kids to cancer, or moms who were living with cancer, etc). Jardin started the series with this tweet:

You can check out many of the tweets on this storify by Josh Sterns. What a powerful series of tweets! As I read through them, I was reminded of how I’m not alone and that plenty of people were having the same trouble I was with mother’s day.

Earlier in the year, I wrote a blog post about Xeni Jardin and her use of twitter to practice an ethics of care. Since that post, Jardin’s use of twitter in relation to (her) cancer has continued to involve multiple caring practices. Her tweets on mother’s day are just one more example.

Thanks Mom! Banksy Beside JennyHolzerMom

epic win photos - WIN!: Hacked IRL: Thanks Mom
see more epicfails

Thanks to Susannah for this image and her question about the link between troublemaking and care. I really like the idea of envisioning encouraging kids to make trouble (well, maybe not always or often in the forms represented in this image) as part of a parent’s caregiving practices. I’d like to read/reflect on this beside JennyHolzerMom’s tweets about the tension between rebelling and following rules:

Word Count: 71 words

the trouble with paternal/imperialist care: some sources on #stopkony

From the Kony2012 site.This list of "culturemakers" is fascinating to me, both who they are and how Invisible Children used them to go so viral with their campaign.

In case you missed it (ha!), the talk on twitter two weeks ago was all about Invisible Children’s Kony2012 campaign. The hashtag #stopkony was trending like crazy and everyone (okay, not everyone) was tweeting about how you should watch the video (which was almost 30 minutes long) on youtube if you cared about “children in Africa.”

The initial buzz focused on how amazingly successful this campaign seemed to be and how it was inspiring so many people to care about an issue and people that they so often ignored. However, I was pleased to see how quickly writers/critics/scholars/activists stepped in and began raising important critical questions about the problems with this campaign: its focus on Uganda, it’s plan for making Kony visible, it’s paternalistic/white savior approach. As a side note, I’ve been noticing lately that there seems to be more visibility for critical voices on the web (or, am I just more tuned in to it?) that are challenging viral media and quick/easy/short-sighted solutions to huge problems. In this post, I don’t want to add to the insightful critiques that many have offered (critiques that keep coming as the topic gets increasingly more bizarre with Invisible Children’s founder, Jason Russell, being detained by police for erratic behavior and public masturbation last week). Instead, I want to use this post as a space for archiving a few of the blog posts/articles that are particularly interesting for me and my thinking about twitter and how it can be ab/used for generating empathy and inspiring people to care.

Here they are (in no particular order):

1: [Data viz] KONY2012: See How Invisible Networks Helped a Campaign Capture the World’s Attention

This post looks at the data to understand how this viral campaign went viral (hint: it didn’t just “happen”) by targeting specific, highly influential celebrities (like Ryan Seacreast…ugh) and by tapping into a network of motivated, concerned Christian youth:

This movement did not emerge from the big cities, but rather small-medium sized cities across the Unites States. It is heavily supported by Christian youth, many of whom post Biblical psalms as their profile bios. Below is a wordle tagcloud highlighting the most common words that appear in their user bios. We easily identify prominent words such as Jesus, God, Christ, University and Student.

2: Why We Should Take Heart from the Backlash Against the Kony Campaign

This article offers a positive spin on how critics were able to quickly and effectively (at least to some extent) challenge the campaign.

It’s online where the Tumblr posts, tweets, and videos from more critical voices can add up and become a wave of dissent. Yes, the Internet may spread bad ideas, but it also opens up new avenues for good ones, dissenting ones…

It also cautions against judging the spreaders of this campaign (mostly Christian youth) too harshly. Hmmm….I want to think about this some more…

In the end, the people (teenagers) who spread this video were motivated by a desire to help, no matter how misguided and problematic the organization behind it. It is easy to be cynical, but the desire to do good by your fellow person is widespread. The video’s virality demonstrates that. May the Kony 2012 backlash result in informing that desire, so that it is humbler, smarter, and can recognize a no-good campaign the next time one comes around.

3: Unpacking Kony 2012

This post provides an excellent and insightful overview. He asks some really important questions about social media and activism, like: Can we advocate without oversimplifying? [good link in post to a discussion of Russell’s video as a “story of self”]

In his conclusion, he raises a ton of questions that could have me thinking/reflecting/ruminating for days. I must return to these question in future reflections:

I’m starting to wonder if this is a fundamental limit to attention-based advocacy. If we need simple narratives so people can amplify and spread them, are we forced to engage only with the simplest of problems? Or to propose only the simplest of solutions?

As someone who believes that the ability to create and share media is an important form of power, the Invisible Children story presents a difficult paradox. If we want people to pay attention to the issues we care about, do we need to oversimplify them? And if we do, do our simplistic framings do more unintentional harm than intentional good? Or is the wave of pushback against this campaign from Invisible Children evidence that we’re learning to read and write complex narratives online, and that a college student with doubts about a campaign’s value and validity can find an audience? Will Invisible Children’s campaign continue unchanged, or will it engage with critics and design a more complex and nuanced response.

4: Kony 2012’s Success Shows There’s Big Money Attached to White Saviors

Building on Zuckerman’s questions about the oversimplification of narratives and issues, this post asks:

But the campaign’s visibility is forcing to the surface some uneasy questions about race, political organizing, and the Internet. Namely: Must nuanced political issues be narrowed down to their simplest forms in order for the public to digest them? Can that issue work without perpetuating deeply problematic caricatures about race? And what, in the long run, does it mean to “win”?
It focuses specifically on how the oversimplification comes at the expense of Africans:

Within days, Ugandan journalist Rosebell Kagumire rose to the top of a chorus of African voices criticizing the campaign.

“It simplifies the story of millions of people in northern Uganda and makes out a narrative that is often hard about Africa, about how hopeless people are in times of conflict,” Kagumire said of the Kony 2012 video. “If you are showing me as voiceless, as hopeless, you have no space telling my story, you shouldn’t be telling my story.”

5: The Road to Hell is Paved with Viral Videos

Here’s an explanation of the title of this article/post:

As a film, as history, and as policy analysis, there is little to be said forKony 2012 except that its star and narrator, Jason Russell, the head of Invisible Children, and his colleagues seem to have their hearts in the right place. But this do-good spirit is suffused with an almost boastful naiveté and, more culpably, an American middle-class provincialism that illustrates beautifully the continuing relevance of the old adage about the road to hell being paved with good intentions.

on paternalistic care:

if the narrative structure of Kony 2012 is reminiscent of anything, it is of a tried and true paternalism that the missionaries milked for all it was worth when they returned to the metropole from the outposts of the British and French empires in which they were  working. Rather than trying to inspire, inform, and mobilize kids through the efficiencies of Facebook to care about faraway tragedies and needs, the missionaries had to content themselves with the largely retail work of mobilizing the faithful.

Later on in the article, the author suggests that the naive, feel-good, unthinking approach to inciting people to care is “childlike.” He describes it as: “cheap techno-utopianism that conflates the entirely admirable wish for a better world with the belief that knowing how to move toward it is a simple matter, requiring more determination and goodwill than knowledge.” While I appreciate his critique here of the problems with oversimplification, I don’t fully agree with his critique/dismissal of kids as critical thinkers/agents/resistors. Many kids are troublemakers who recognize that easy narratives exist and that refuse to uncritically accept the truths that are fed to them. And, many kids, especially teenagers, not only have the capacity for but practice a critical ethics of care. Maybe instead of describing a lack of critical thinking and ethical complexity as childlike, he could have used Cornel West’s understanding of “childish” (which I wrote about at the end of this post):

I want to come back to your point about immaturity because I want to make a distinction between “childish” and “childlike.” You see, the blues and jazz are childlike, the sense of awe and wonder and the mystery and perplexity of things. “Childish” is immature.

6: The White Savior Industrial Complex

The author offers his response to Kony2012 through a series of tweets and then discusses how those tweets have resonated with many audiences. Here are few of the tweets:

This article provides an excellent critical discussion of care, like on how the sentimental white savior only sees need (e.g. hungry mouths), but sees no need to reason out the need for need or how sentimental caring and the need to “make a difference”  enables us to ignore larger structures of power:

Let us begin our activism right here: with the money-driven villainy at the heart of American foreign policy. To do this would be to give up the illusion that the sentimental need to “make a difference” trumps all other considerations. What innocent heroes don’t always understand is that they play a useful role for people who have much more cynical motives. The White Savior Industrial Complex is a valve for releasing the unbearable pressures that build in a system built on pillage. We can participate in the economic destruction of Haiti over long years, but when the earthquake strikes it feels good to send $10 each to the rescue fund. I have no opposition, in principle, to such donations (I frequently make them myself), but we must do such things only with awareness of what else is involved. If we are going to interfere in the lives of others, a little due diligence is a minimum requirement.

Yikes! I intended this post to be brief and to only take a few minutes to write. Ha! Oh well, it was very helpful for me to spend the time reading through these posts and thinking (again) about care on/through/with twitter.

Practicing an ethic of care on Twitter

When I was researching an article on caring about, for and with women who’ve had abortions in late 2011, I started coming across various sources that discussed how people are using twitter for health care. Then, last December, I found an article on Jezebel about Xeni Jardin and how she was live-tweeting her first mammogram. During the live-tweet, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. I marked the article on my Safari Reading List and promised to come back to it after I finished my article on live-tweeting abortion. This morning, I came across a tweet by Maria Popova that reminded me of Xeni Jardin’s use of twitter and her current situation living with breast cancer.

I checked out her twitter feed and found that she has continued to tweet about her experiences. I decided to create a storify in which I archived many of these tweets. The last tweet I archived was particularly striking to me:

Since I’m thinking a lot about cancer this week (with my mom’s birthday yesterday; she would have been 70 if she hadn’t died from pancreatic cancer in 2009), I was particularly moved by her tweets and her efforts to make some sense out of her cancer and to provide others with care.

She tweets a lot about chemo and her experiences going in for treatment. I only accompanied my mom once in her second round of chemo–the round that really ravaged her body and eventually killed her. Would she have appreciated a network of others experiencing the same thing on twitter? Probably not; she didn’t use social media much. But I think having access to more information and insight on how people experience cancer and chemo might have helped me to connect with her more in those last few years.

I think my mom might have appreciated one aspect of Xeni Jardin’s social media ethic of care, her Pinterest board. Ever since I first saw Pinterest, I thought my mom would have enjoyed it. Here’s a board that Jardin is experimenting with in the documenting of her experiences living with breast cancer.