There were many, many things that stood out for me from in a recent episode of On Being with Lyndsey Stonebridge, but one in particular offered something I had never considered before: the fashion for talking about empathy and how limited that quality actually is.
‘I think we talk a lot today about empathy and suffering. And I’m like Arendt. I’m always a bit wary. It sounds like a terrible thing to say. I’m really a bit wary about empathy.’
Stonebridge is an expert on Hannah Arendt’s writing (and this podcast made me very much want to start reading Arendt) who was a German-born Jewish American political theorist. She coined the phrase “the banality of evil” which Stonebridge described as being ‘the inability to hear another voice, the inability to have a dialogue either with oneself or the imagination to have a dialogue with the world, the moral world.’ Discussing Arendt’s views she talks about the difficulties of empathy because, like pity, ‘it kept the power relationship. Other people’s suffering for the one who’s doing the pitying or the empathizing keeps the power.
And also, she didn’t like it because once you have suffering as your ground zero, you can allow for anything in the name to end that suffering. And that was the tragedy for her of the French Revolution. We have to be piteous in order to save the suffering people. And she’s thinking about what it’s like to imagine not being in the place you’re in, to be imagine to be in the place of another.’
She goes on to say ‘If you want a culture that’s going to take on fake news, and the political lie, I say as someone who teaches literature and history, what you need is a culture of the arts and humanity. What you need is more storytelling. What you need is more discourse. What you need is more imagination. What you need is more creation in that way, and more of a sense of what it is that ties us to those words and ties us to those stories.’
Alongside so many of the podcasts I listen to, On Being is one I feel truly grateful for having discovered.