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    The Unclear Relationship Between Action and Empathy

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    Dale Carnegie, a writer from the 20th century, advices, “When dealing with people, remember you are not dealing with creatures of logic, but creatures of emotion.” Often one hears news stories of amazing actions that seem to have overcome an insurmountable feat through sheer will. From a mother lifting a car off of her child to a police officer saving a group of hostages; countless events have left the world in shock of an individual’s superhuman-like abilities. One must wonder when they hear of such an act: What allowed this person to succeed in doing the impossible? The only logical conclusion would be that the person was experiencing a certain emotion so strong that they were able to prevail even when the odds were against them. The progression of these events however are not so conclusive. Some people, such as Rajini Srikanth, argue that emotion is strengthened by engaging in a related action, while others, such as Trinh T. Minh-ha, contend that emotion is the driving factor behind taking action.

    Srikanth takes a stance in her piece, Guantanamo: Where Lawyers Connect with the “Worst of the Worst”, where she claims that authentic empathy only exists once one has already decided to take action. She uses Guantanamo detention facilities to demonstrate to the reader that people do not have true empathy for others unless they have taken the first step in helping them. Often when one hears about an unjust occurrence they may understand that what is occurring is awful, but they lack the human connection to feel true empathy for that person. Srikanth when discussing the work of the pro bono lawyers at Guantanamo Bay asserts, “They enter the field of detainee defense work primarily in response to what they perceive to be a desecration of the law” (137). The author argues that the lawyers that jump to the defense of the detainees at first do not experience true empathy, but rather recognize that these people’s inalienable rights have been infringed and so they choose to take action from a legal point of view. The empathy rather comes into existence once the lawyers have sat down face to face with the detainees and started to build a human relationship with them. This occurs over time as the lawyers begin to view the detainees more as human beings rather than pending law suites and thus strengthen their empathy for them. However, the author of the Lovecidal: Walking with the Disappeared, Trinh T. Minh-ha, argues that this progression is unnatural.

    Emotions are what drive us as human beings in almost all facets of our lives, but when we see or experience suffering they play a far more important role as we seek to correct this source of grief. Las Madres de Plaza de Mayo are a group of Argentinian women who experienced a great amount of sorrow when their children had been murdered by a military dictatorial government back in 1977. Since then these mothers have continued to protest in front of La Casa Rosada, Argentina’s presidential house, demanding the government to take responsibility for this atrocity. The mothers’ emotions have created an international audience that furthered other social changes as well. Trinh T. Minh-ha insists in her publication, Lovecidal: Walking with the Disappeared, that empathy is the driving factor behind the action required to make changes to the unjust parts of our society. When discussing the injustice of the Las Madres de Plaza de Mayo, Minh-ha argues, “It was their love, courage, and steadfast endurance in sticking single-mindedly to their one initial question ‘Where is my child?’ that ended up changing Argentina’s political course by setting an unusual precedent for other political dissents to make themselves heard…” (104). Minh-ha uses this social injustice case to claim the opposing point to what Srikanth tries to state. She contends that the mother’s pain and empathy for their lost ones are the primary factor in action and social change. This is more plausible than Srikanth’s argument as it it behooves one’s grief to be channeled to create change, rather than the action of change to strengthen one’s emotions and empathy. One simply does not possess the drive necessary to surmount such a great social injustice if they do not have the passion and emotion prior to attempting to do so.

    If Srikanth were confronted with the claim of Minh-ha, she would strongly rebuttal that it is not possible to feel true empathy for another person who is suffering, unless you get closer to them by taking action in order to help them. She would point out her study on the lawyers at Guantanamo Bay and state that these people did not go to help the detainees because they felt sorrow for them as humans, but rather they went with the knowledge that their rights were being infringed by the government. However, after working with the prisoners the lawyers began to see them as more than just pending lawsuite cases and more as human beings who have families and lives that have been taken from them. Minh-ha, on the other hand, would counter this argument by stating that the lawyers had to give up so much of their time, personal lives, and energy that without an emotion driving their actions they would not be compelled to carry out these actions. Minh-ha would mention even more groups of suffering people, such as Las Madres de Plaza de Mayo and the families of the victims at tiananmen square, and contend that they put their lives on the line by protesting only on account of their deep sorrow for their lost ones.

    I strongly believe that Minh-ha’s claim is far more plausible than that of Srikanth’s. Innately in us humans is a tendency to connect with others through emotion. For example, we laugh when we hear someone else laughing, or cry when we see someone else suffering because we can relate at a certain degree to what that person is feeling. However, when this connection is not present we no longer feel such a strong attachment to the person, and thus relate far less to what they are experiencing. In the event that another person is experiencing physical or emotional pain, it is far more unlikely that we would go out of our way to help them if we were not feeling some emotion towards them. On the other hand however, when one sees another human suffering and feels a certain degree of pain along with that person they are likely to take action to stop the source of the sorrow that they now feel as well. In the case of the lawyers at Guantanamo Bay, I would argue that their emotional sorrow for the detainees suffering is the very cause that led them to fight for their rights.

    Empathy and emotion are the driving factors behind why social change has occurred throughout history, and why one should be hopeful that activism will thrive in the future as well. Humans’ natural instinct to feel each other’s pain motivates them to come to the aid of complete strangers. From lawyers helping detainees at Guantanamo Bay to mothers protesting their children’s’ deaths, our emotions towards and for one another propel us to not sit idly by while others suffer, but to rather intervene in the hope of invoking change.

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    The Unclear Relationship Between Action and Empathy. (2021, Aug 20). Retrieved from

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