Empathy isn’t just something that happens to us—a meteor shower of synapses firing across the brain—it’s also a choice we make: to pay attention, to extend ourselves. It’s made of exertion, that dowdier cousin of impulse. Sometimes we care for another because we know we should, or because it’s asked for, but this doesn’t make our caring hollow. The act of choosing simply means we’ve committed ourselves to a set of behaviors greater than the sum of our individual inclinations: I will listen to his sadness, even when I’m deep in my own. To say ‘going through the motions’—this isn’t reduction so much as acknowledgment of the effort—the labor, the motions, the dance—of getting inside another person’s state of heart or mind.
This confession of effort chafes against the notion that empathy should always arise unbidden, that genuine means the same thing as unwilled, that intentionality is the enemy of love. But I believe in intention and I believe in work. I believe in waking up in the middle of the night and packing our bags and leaving our worst selves for our better ones.
In his Discourse on Colonialism (1951), Aimé Césaire wrote that Hitler slumbers within ‘the very distinguished, very humanistic and very Christian bourgeois of the Twentieth century,’ and yet the European bourgeois cannot forgive Hitler for ‘the fact that he applied to Europe the colonial practices that had previously been applied only to the Arabs of Algeria, the coolies of India and the Negroes of Africa.’
Mahmood Mamdani, from “Modernity and Violence” in Good Muslim, Bad Muslim (via tzunuun)
It bears repeating that the reason Hitler is a Western symbol for the darkest depth of all evil, is that he broke the pact of whiteness and did things within Europe that white people agree should only be done to non-Europeans in Africa, Asia, America. Genocide in those places is acceptable, even natural, to Europeans; but Hitler brought genocidal brutality to Europe, and for that he’s the epitome of evil.
Names are like passkeys which unlock our empathy, in a single moment capable of transforming a stranger into someone deserving of our decency. But, interestingly, the empathizing effect of knowing someone’s name still applies when its bearer isn’t human.
It was quite likely after our earliest interspecies bonding, with the domestication of dogs some 50,000 years ago, that we first began to bestow some form of personal names upon animals, too — and in so doing, elevated their distinction from a generalized animal, to an individualized companion. It’s not surprising then that, in that recognition, dogs soon gained access to affection and endearment we once reserved only for our own kind.