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Top Ten Empathy Trends for 2023
Empathy is a practice and priority, not a mere psychological mechanism. Practicing empathy is a way of being in the world, creating a safe space of openness, acceptance and toleration. In the face of a contagion of Omicron, we need a contagion of empathy. Empathy is contagious. This is a condition you actually want to share with someone else, especially someone who seems to need some empathy – all the while being clear to set firm boundaries against bullying, delusional thinking, and compassion fatigue. Keep in mind this list is a top ten “count down,” so if you want to know what is #1, fast forward to the bottom.
Here are my choices and predictions for the top ten trends in empathy for the year 2023.
10 – Empathy for the jurors in the trial of the century. The prediction is that Mr T will stick to his story – “we was robbed” – even after he is indicated, believing there is no such thing as bad publicity. The prospective defendant is innocent until proven guilty and so on. However, it is noteable that a former-NSA analyst was sentenced to nine years in prison in July 2019 for hoarding official documents [https://www.nextgov.com/cybersecurity/2019/07/ex-nsa-contractor-serve-9-years-hoarding-classified-information/158564/]. This seems open and shut. Nevertheless, this trend is about the jurors and not the defendant. This promises to be a long, headline-grabbing trial, and the jury will have to be sequestered, cut off from news, and, subjected to a lot of legal jargon. Being without Facebook and Twitter and other
is. While the challenges of finding an unbiased jury are not trivial, all that is needed for a fair trial are twelve people who are willing to set aside their opinions and look at the facts from the point of view of the law as defined for them by the presiding judge. That sounds like creating a space for critical thinking and taking multiple points of view, the latter the folk definition of empathy.
9 – Empathy in time of war becomes Red Team not kindness. All the empathy in the world is not going to help anyone if one country invades another with a list of intellectuals, business people, and politicians to be arrested and killed. That noted, the need for helping, compassion, and good works of all kinds is still on the critical path to building a better world. Yet in time of war or threat of war, the power of empathy consists in putting oneself in the shoes of the opponent, thinking like the opponent, and thereby anticipating and thwarting the opponent’s moves. Putting oneself in the opponent’s shoes requires taking off one’s own shoes first. Never underestimate the power of empathy – never – yet empathy does not work very well with psychopaths, bullies, totalitarian dictators, and the criminally insane. Many of these individuals will take the affective, bottom up empathy and use it against you. Therefore, empathic engagement must be limited to cognitive empathy – use critical thinking to try to figure out what the Other is thinking and feeling in order to intervene in a way that is useful according the standards of a humane community.
8 – Elon “44 billion up in smoke” Musk gets empathy for his employees, customers, and stakeholders. And if you believe prediction, then I have a bridge in Brooklyn that I would like to sell to you. The empathic truth of this admittedly cynical prediction is that many of the things that make a person good at business make him or her relatively poor empathizers. Business leaders lose contact with what clients and consumers are experiencing as the leaders get entangled in innovating the technologies in new products and services, solving legal issues, reacting to the competition, or implementing the software required to sustain operations. Yet empathy is the ultimate Capitalist Tool. Empathy is on the critical path for serving customers, segmenting markets, positioning products (and substitutes), taking the perspective of the competition [not exactly empathy but close enough?], building teams and being a leader who actually has followers. Saying that the purpose of business is to make money is like saying the purpose of life is to breathe. Definitely do not stop breathing. The purpose of business is to deliver value and satisfaction to customers. Then the revenue shows up. When the ontology of empathy exposes it as the foundation of community, then expanding empathy becomes nearly synonymous with expanding business. For example, building customer communities, building stakeholder communities, team building, are the basis for brand loyalty, employee commitment, and sustained or growing market share. Can revenue be far behind? Sometimes leaders don’t need more data, we need expanded empathy, though ultimately both are on the path to satisfied buyers, employees, and stakeholders. “CEO” no longer means “Chief Executive Officer,” but “Chief Empathy Officer.” This time one can hear the groans—from the executive suite, not the cubicles.:
Listen on Spotify: https://open.spotify.com/show/6nngUdemxAnCd2B2wfw6Q6 Empathy is one of those things that are hard to delegate. This role shows up like another job responsibility with which the CEO of the organization is tasked—along with everything else that she already has to do. As if she did not already have enough alligators snapping at various parts of her anatomy, one has to be nice about it, too? But of course empathy is not niceness, though it is not about being un-nice. It is about knowing what others are experiencing, because one has a vicarious experience and then processing that further to expand boundaries and exercise leadership.
7 – Etiquette Gurus and celebrity life coaches go back to school to learn empathy. The latest poster child for this trend is Sara Jane Ho, who reportedly broke up with her boyfriend of four years over text, and rationalizes it with a meme about context, in which the context sounded like she was busy making a Netflix show. This is right up there with trend #8, getting fired by a Twitter tweet. The context, according to the author of the article, Maureen O’Connor, was that Ms Ho’s eyes were getting puffy from crying, and she would not “look good” on her Netflix show. Empathy is a high bar and one does not get there every day. If Ms Ho’s resume is to be believed, she is a graduate of Phillips Exeter Academy, Georgetown, Harvard (attended), and now a Netflix sensation. One speculates that she is a survivor of a Tiger Mom or Bootcamp Dad (or both), and may herself benefit from getting a good listening at the side of a committed mentor. Based on the review of Ms Ho’s project by Maureen O’Connor [ https://www.nytimes.com/2023/01/02/style/sara-jane-ho-mind-your-matters.html], she (Ms Ho) exemplifies the kind of etiquette which is a disguised application of sadism, hostility, aggression, and one-upmanship. While I do not know the details and maybe I am missing the humor, but so far, all these people are easy to dislike. You go to take off your coat and you can’t because there is a knife in your back. There is nothing wrong – but something is definitely missing – empathy.
6 – Empathy is a practice not a mere psychological mechanism. Empathy is the practice of authentically relating to the other person. The practice of empathy is a way of being – being with and in relation with others. Many of the misunderstandings of empathy – especially in the form of compassion, pity, emotional contagion – can be traced to treating the practice of empathy merely as a psychological mechanism. There is nothing wrong with this as such. However, what gets missed is the relational quality of empathy. Drive out bullying, hostility, aggression, bad language, and empathy naturally comes forth. People want to be empathic if given half a chance.
5 – Empathy expands for the True Believer, but not agreement with the conspiracy or delusion. The criteria for identifying the True Believer is he or she doubles down. When the space does not arrive from Alpha Centauri – or your candidate does not win – the True Believer does not say, “I might have been mistaken and maybe I need to look at my assumptions or inquire into other scenarios.” The True Believer doubles down – “We was robbed!” “We will catch the next space ship!” It does no good – none – to disagree with the True Believer or to argue or reason, because the delusion or conspiracy theory is holding together the True Believer’s personality. To give up the delusion would be to give up the personality, to risk the disintegration of who the person is. What to do about it? Teach critical thinking. Both empathy and critical thinking create a space of acceptance and tolerance in the context of which the power of the delusion starts to shrink. More on this in the next trend.
4 – Empathy and critical thinking form an alliance. It is a bold statement of the obvious that the ongoing breakdown in community standards bodes ill for a cultural and political and public conversation context in which disputants engage in near delusional disagreement on basic quantitative facts such as the rules of etiquette, basic science such as the biology of vaccinations, gender distinction (or not), the basic results of elections, and so on. Though it is not a quick solution, it is hard to think of a better one: teach skills in critical thinking such as assessing facts against sources, evaluating the reliability of sources, reporters, informants, and so on, against prior performance, checking validity and logic of arguments, and engaging enlarged thinking in taking the point of view of the other person, especially if the person (or group) disagrees with one. (See Jonathan Haber, (2020), Critical Thinking. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.) Taking different points of view, of course, is the basic folk definition of empathy. But do not forget to take off one’s own shoes before trying on the other’s or one will get projection, not empathy.
3 – Translation replaces projection as the underlying model for empathy. “Translation” as in translating between languages or between different artistic media or different signaling systems. In short, psychologism – psychology in the negative sense – is replaced by the linguistic speech act of translating the other person’s experience into one’s own and then giving it back (empathically) to the other. This paradigm of empathy as translation is arguably at the same level of generality as empathy as projection, but remained undeveloped until the rise of hermeneutics along a separate trajectory. The modern innovators of interpersonal empathy such as Carl Rogers (1902–1987) might be read as leap-frogging back to the original sense of entering the other’s world in order to translate it into the first person, subject’s own terms. The translation model of empathy (credited to Johann Herder (1744 – 1803) of whom one rarely hears today) also fits well with what Gordon Allport (1897–1967) and Kenneth Clark (1903–1983) were doing in arraying empathy against racism and prejudice in expanding the boundaries of community by empathically translating between them. An entire possible alternate history of empathy, as yet unwritten, opens up at this point – empathy as translation between persons.
2 – Empathy for the Amazon rain forest grows and reaches a critical mass, but will its critical mass be enough or too late to overtake the “critical mass” of green house gases. The challenge is that global warming does not live like an actual possibility for most people, who cannot imagine such an outcome – for example, just as in December 2019 no one could envision the 2020 global pandemic. Empathy is oxygen for the soul. If the human psyche does not get empathy, it suffocates. Climate changes makes this metaphor actual. If humanity does not drown as the massive Greenland and Antarctic ice sheaths slide into the oceans, humans will suffocate as the levels of green house gases and heat overwhelm temperate habitats. There is no Planet B.Empathy is a bridge: The bridge between the gridlocked present and a seemingly impossible-to-imagine future is empathy. The empathic moment is an act of imagination. That is the interesting thing about empathy. It may seem like a dream; but the dream lives. It is inclusive. Lots more work needs to be done on this connection. For purposes of this list of predictions, this “shout out” will have to suffice. For specific actionable recommendations, see David Attenborough’s A Life on Our Planet, now streaming on Netflix: https://www.netflix.com/title/80216393
2a – Vaccine deniers get empathy and say: “Oh, I wish I were already experiencing the minor side effects of the latest booster shot instead of systemic organ breakdown!” People get the latest booster against Covid, parents get their children the measles and polio and other shots the children need for school, which gets into people’s arms at an accelerating rate. Vaccine deniers get empathy and say: “Oh, I wish I were already experiencing the minor side effects of the latest booster shot instead of systemic organ breakdown!” Biological science continues to produce small, medium, and large “miracles,” even as basic health care services for citizen’s struggle. People become medical doctors and nurses and enter the healthcare field because they want to make a difference. They experience an empathic calling to intervene to reduce the pain and suffering in the world. Then these same people get caught up in the faceless, unempathic bureaucracy of a healthcare system where capitation means doctors have to see an unworkable number of patients a day – four an hour for eight hours. Using empathy and medical ethics, the doctors push back saying: “I am required by medical ethics to spend as much time with the patient as is needed to get the patient the medical treatment they require – and are entitled to be paid for it.
2b – Men lead from empathy in the struggle against domestic violence (DV). When powerful men such as Bezos, Musk, Ellison, Gates, Biden, Milley, clean up their failures of leadership and take action saying “Violence against women anywhere – home or work or anywhere – is unacceptable and here are the resources for intervention,” then a breakthrough will occur. Men will find their voice and speak out even more loudly and provide leadership against domestic violence to those of their own gender who just do not get it.
While women have provided the leadership and will continue to do so, powerful men must step up and provide guidance to their fellows about proper boundaries and respect for them in relationships. This is ongoing. What is new: powerful men step up and speak out and provide leadership among men in establishing respect for boundaries in creating communication, affection, and affinity.
For data- and empathy-based innovations that have occurred in the past year in the fight against domestic violence see No Visible Bruises: What We Don’t Know About Domestic Violence Can Kill Us, New York: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2019. Some sixty percent of domestic violence (DV) victims are strangled at some point during an abusive relationship (p. 65): Big red flag that the perpetrator is escalating in the direction of homicide/Femicide.
Empathy almost always has its uses when tuned to the specific circumstances. Yet empathy is unhelpful in dealing with sociopaths, psychopaths, and [most] bullies. They take whatever empathy you give them and use it the better to manipulate. Top down, cognitive empathy – yes – to understand whether they are a threat and are going to escalate; but therapeutic empathy – “i get you, bro” – is often counter productive. What is productive? Set limits. Set firm boundaries – and enforce them.
Turns out that only some 15% of the victims in one study had injuries visible enough to photograph for the police report (p. 66). Most strangulation injuries are internal – hence, the title. Good news/bad news: The Fatality Review Board is an idea that is getting attention with law enforcement and the local states attorney function. More progress and action is needed in this area.
(1) People stop saying, “I just don’t get empathy” and commit to the practice of empathy. Empathy is a practice and, like all practices, it can be improved by training. Remove the obstacles to empathy such as cynicism and bullying—and empathy comes forth. Remove the resistances to empathy and empathy naturally and spontaneously expands. Most people are naturally empathic.
The one-minute empathy training is trending: Eliminate the obstacles to empathy and a space of acceptance and toleration spontaneously emerges.
Most people do not sufficiently appreciate this: people are born with a deep and natural capacity for empathy, but they are also born needing to learn manners, respect for boundaries, and toilet training. Put the mess in the designated place or the community suffers from diseases. People also need to learn how to read and do arithmetic and communicate in writing. But there is a genuine sense in which learning to conform and follow all the rules does not expand our empathy or our community. It does not help the cause of expanded empathy that rule-making and the drumbeat of compliance are growing by leaps and bounds.
The work at hand? Remove the blocks to empathy such as dignity violations, devaluing language, gossip, shame, guilt, egocentrism, over-identification, lack of integrity, inauthenticity, hypocrisy, making excuses, finger pointing, jealousy, envy, put downs, being righteous, stress, burnout, compassion fatigue, cynicism, censorship, denial, manipulation, competing to be the biggest victim, insults, injuries to self-esteem, and narcissistic merger—and empathy spontaneously expands, develops, and blossoms. Now that is going to require some work!
Teaching empathy consists in overcoming the obstacles to empathy that people have acquired. When the barriers are overcome, then empathy spontaneously develops, grows, comes forth, and expands. There is no catch, no “gotcha.” That is the one-minute empathy training, pure-and-simple.
References and Notes
“The One-Minute Empathy Training”
May I introduce myself? Here is a short introduction to who i am and my commitment to empathy, including a one-minute empathy training. Total run time: about five minutes. Further data: See also
(c) Lou Agosta, PhD and the Chicago Empathy Project
Empathy and Hermeneutics
Empathy has been given a bad rap in hermeneutic circles by being degraded to a psychological mechanism whereas empathy is rather a way of being in relatedness to individuals and community. Key term: being in relatedness. (For those who may not be tuned into “hermeneutic circles” the short definition is: theory of interpretation. When we open our mouths and speak, a lot of what comes out is interpretation.)
The power of empathy – like that of hermeneutics at large – occurs in cleaning up misunderstandings, breakdowns, and miscommunications. A single diagram on p 35 of Empathy: A Lazy Person’s Guide says it all, reproduced here for your convenience.
Enter the hermeneutic circle of empathy and create a breakthrough – success – in relatedness out of the breakdown(s). The empathy lesson is that, when handled with empathy, breakdowns often lead to breakthroughs.
If empathic relatedness misfires in emotional contagion, conformity, projections, or getting lost in translation, then one approach is to abandon empathy and become angry, resigned and cynical. An alternative and better approach would be to expand empathic receptivity, empathic understanding, empathic interpretation, and empathic responsiveness.
For example, if one is experiencing emotional contagion in relating to another person, then one can respond with what I call the favorite indoor sport of academics – over-intellectualization. Go into your head. Nothing wrong with that as such, but it does not expand empathy. A different approach is to take the vicarious experience – the feeling of the feeling of the other – that has been communicated in emotional contagion like an after image of the other’s experience. Use this vicarious experience to be receptive to the other’s experience. Use it as input to understanding what the other person is experiencing.
In another example, empathy can break down in conformity – pressure to conform to social standards or practices that actually empty one’s experience of satisfaction and even be destructive of community. One follows the crowd. One does what “they say.” With apologies to Henry David Thoreau, one leads the life of quiet desperation of the modern mass of men. Instead of promoting conformity – or even a superficial nonconformity – one can use empathic understanding and ask: Who is this other person as a possibility?
If you look at the rules you make up about what is possible in your relationships, then you get the freedom to relate to the rules precisely as possibilities, not absolute “shoulds.” You stop “shoulding” on yourself. You have a breakthrough in what is possible through empathic understanding. Satisfaction in relatedness expands. Relationships become satisfying in ways not previously envisioned. Empathy grows and life is enriched.
So far, this is “bottom up” – so-called affective empathy. Yes, even the empathic understanding is understanding of the possibilities in which we live. Strictly speaking, that is not affective, but neither is it cognitive. It is precognitive. However, when I truly get stuck in trying to understand the other individual and her situation, then I make use of “top down” empathy. This is the folk aspect of empathy: I take a walk in their shoes. I think about – try to grasp in fundamental thinking – what it may be like being in their predicament. I “jump start” my relatedness through interpretation.
Taking a walk in the other person’s shoes—the folk definition of empathy—breaks down if you take that walk using an inaccurate shoe size. You then know where your shoe pinches, not hers. This is also called “projection.” The recommendation?
Take back the projections of your own inner conflicts onto other people. Take back your projections. Own them. You get your power back along with your projections. Stop making up meaning about what is going on with the other person; or, since you probably cannot stop making up meaning, at least distinguish the meaning—split it off, quarantine it, take distance from it, so that its influence is limited.
Having worked through your vicarious experiences, worked through possibilities for overcoming conformity and stuckness, and taken back your projections, you are ready to engage in communicating to the other person your sense of the other individual’s experience. You are going to try to say to the other what you got from what they told you, describing back to the other your sense of their experience. And what happens? Sometimes it works; sometimes you “get it” and the other “gets” that you “get it”; but other times the description gets “lost in translation.”
This breakdown of empathic responsiveness occurs within language. You fail to express yourself satisfactorily. I believed that I empathized perfectly with the other person’s struggle, but my description of her experience failed significantly to communicate to the other person what I got from listening to her.
Without empathic responsiveness, my empathy remains a tree in the forest that falls without anyone being there. My empathy remains silent, inarticulate, and uncommunicative. I get credit for a nice empathic try; but the relatedness between the persons is not an empathic one. If the other person is willing, then go back to the start and try again. Iterate. Learn from one’s mistakes and incomplete gestures.
Many additional examples of empathy successes and empathy breakdowns are available in the light-hearted look at the subject: Empathy: A Lazy Person’s Guide, including some twenty-eight full color illustrations by that celebrated artist Alex Zonis. If you only read one non-academic book on empathy, this is the one. Check it out here: Empathy: A Lazy Person’s Guide.
(c) Lou Agosta and the Chicago Empathy Project
See Lou Agosta’s other books on empathy – academic and popular here: https://tinyurl.com/y8mof57f
Translation, Bible Stories, and Empathy: The Contribution of George Steiner (1929 – 2020)
George Steiner passed away in the fullness of time at his home in Cambridge, England, at the age of 90. This blog post acknowledges and honors him for his contribution, largely previously unnoted, to the understanding and practice of empathy.
Those who are interested in learning more about his many, many books and the
details of his biography can consult the New York Times obituary cited below – he grew up speaking French, German, and English and claimed not to able to remember which came first and he graduated the University of Chicago after a single year in 1948.
In so far as one of the major breakdowns of empathy is when empathic response gets “lost in translation,” George Steiner’s book After Babel: Aspects of Language and Translation (1975) is devoted to empathy and restoring it in the fact of misunderstanding. This turns out not to require the use of the word “empathy.” What is basically a Bible story and a single paragraph in Genesis turns out to be nuanced enough to sustain a five hundred page plus treatment.
Thus, the story of the Tower of Babel from the Book of Genesis in the Bible (Genesis 11: 1–9) forms the backdrop for one of Steiner’s major contributions and, at the risk of oversimplifying his diverse and multidimensional contribution, may be the single best presentation of his life’s work.
As you may recall, in what is basically a Babylonian, not a Hebrew, myth, which gets included in Genesis, there is a Golden Age. It consists in the earth and the peoples of the earth being “of one language and one speech.” I elaborate the point: Disagreements between people about the meaning of truth, beauty, goodness, utility, or freedom simply do not occur because there is only one language, which everyone shares.
So misunderstandings are impossible on principle in this Golden Age. Not only does this make life very agreeable, it gives the people enormous power. You know the expression “Power to the people!” Well, such is actually the case in this story. The people are one, and the people decide that they are not going to settle for life here on earth, they are going to move into heaven. They start building a tower – the Tower of Babel – because heaven is “up there” and how else would you get there?
Next scene. The Gods are looking down from above, as the tower is getting taller and taller. And it is not like just a few people are coming. They are all coming. The Gods are even getting a tad worried about this development – but not for long. A stratagem is needed to foil this unacceptable and obvious sin of pride. Pride goeth before the fall. The Gods “confuse the tongues,” mix up the languages, of the people. The people now become the peoples with each separate community having its own identity and manner of speaking incomprehensible to its neighbors. Before there was only one language, now there are many.
The one builder says: “Pass me the slab.” But he is now speaking a different language than his coworker, who thinks he is saying, “Pass me the mud” or even worse, thinks he is saying, “You are an idiot.” General chaos breaks out with significant aspects of paranoia, xenophobia, hostility, and aggression. Fistfights break out (not actually in the story, but “off stage”). The work on the tower is halted. The project fails. History begins. The Golden age ends; the people are scattered and become different communities (nations); history as we know it starts.
It is a history of misunderstanding between people and peoples, resulting in border disputes, personal disputes, contractual disputes, inheritance disputes, disputes over disputes. Often attempts are made to settle such disputes with aggression, resulting in more disputes. Thus results the current situation of humanity, in which we are not only separated by different languages but misunderstandings occur even within the same language, which becomes other to itself due to ambiguity and vagueness. Not a pretty picture.
So what has this to do with empathy? In so far as empathy lives within language, this is a story about empathy. The Golden Age was one of perfect understanding – empathic understanding. Much of history consists in human understanding getting lost – lost in translation. The result when misunderstandings occur is the current state of the relations between diverse communities – one of hostility and the risk of aggression.
Enter George Steiner’s work: After Babel: Aspects of Language and Translations. The word “empathy” does not occur in this work, yet it is one permeated by the empathic project of overcoming breakdowns in understanding as meaning gets “lost in translation.”
When we practice translation, we are practicing getting in touch with the world of the other person in its nuances and significance. That is top down, cognitive empathy. When we practice translation, we create a clearing for the experiential dimension of a person’s experience to emerge into a clearing in which the feeling can be communicated. That is bottom up, affective empathy.
After Babel is a work of vast learning in which Steiner makes the case for the study of languages, especially as they occur in Sophocles, Shakespeare, Goethe, Dante, Proust, since that is what humans speak and use and live in, rather than language as such as an ideal abstract system. We quite often succeed in translating, even though our translations are far from perfect, in need of revision, and vulnerable to ambiguities of nuance and significance.
To make the connection between translation and empathy, something that Steiner never explicitly does, we are cast upon the seas of the interrelations between different texts. Jorge Luis Borges is celebrated for his fictions that expose the deep structure of nonfictional reality. Early in After Babel (p. 70), Steiner turns to Borges’ short piece “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote” (1939).
The title itself points to what is absurd, even logically alien in Borges’ approach, since everyone knows that Miguel de Cervantes is the author of Don Quixote. Menard’s project was not to compose another Quixote, which would be easy, but the Quixote itself (p. 71).
This is the empathic moment: “Far more interesting was ‘to go on being Pierre Menard and reach the Quixote through the experiences of Pierre Menard’, i.e., to put oneself so deeply in tune with Cervantes’s being, with his ontological form as to re-enact, inevitably, the exact sum of his realizations and statements.
Here empathy is no mere psychological mechanism for the transmission of a contingent feeling, but the foundation of relatedness between persons in time and history.
At this point Steiner quotes Borges’ quoting Cervantes’ and Menard’s texts. They are of course identical quotations from Don Quixote. The reader of Borges’ text (and of Steiner’s use of it) is left scratching his head. But then the punch line:
To write of “history as the mother of truth” at the beginning of the 17th Century when Cervantes was authoring the work was eminently sensible. But to write this way three hundred years later, at the beginning of the 20th Century is a work of towering genius (no pun intended!). When Menard was re-enacting Cervantes’ act of authorship – i.e., transforming Cervantes’ being into his own – Menard did this three hundred years later – after William James has stated that history is not what happened but what we judged to have happened. This a work of supreme and prodigious translation: “The arduousness of the game is dizzying [….] When the translator, negator of time and rebuilder at Babel, comes near succeeding, he passes into that state of mirror [….] He does not know ‘which of us two is writing this page’” (pp. 71, 72–73).
Strictly speaking, this could be seen as a breakdown of empathy, since it implies a merger of the two beings, but the integrity of empathy is restored when the merger turns out to be temporary and transient, preserving the distinction between self and other.
Though Steiner makes the case for comparative literature as the lever of humanization – even while intermittently deploring the state of the humanities as a discipline – in translating back-and-forth, the idea of a logically perfect, ideal language and radical translation are never far away. Radical translation, in turn, puts us in mind of radical empathy – the progressive liberal trying to empathize with the Evangelical Christian and vice versa. How is that going?
Translation is indeed a metaphor for the situation of human understanding, community, and the challenge of expanding empathic relatedness. But in so far as translating is also occurring literally and constantly within a given natural language whenever we ask another person what they are trying to say, even as they say something that seems meaningless, translation is virtually identical with historical existence, our way of being in the world after the fall at Babel.
Granted the matter is devilishly complex, rather than ask what is wrong, point out what is missing – what gets lost in translation? Each of ten thousand distinctions leads to more distinctions and the “fan out” is virtually beyond calculation. Is space available for a space of acceptance and toleration and to resume work, if not on a tower, on a bridge over troubled waters?
Christopher Lehmann-Haupt and William Grimes, (2020), George Steiner, prodigious literary critic, dies at 90, February 03, 2020, The New York Times: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/02/03/books/george-steiner-dead.html
Lou Agosta, Empathy Lessons, (2018), Chicago: Two Pears Press: https://www.amazon.com/Lou-Agosta/e/B07Q4XX6PF?ref=sr_ntt_srch_lnk_1&qid=1581278312&sr=1-1-spell
George Steiner, (1975), After Babel: Aspects of Language and Translation, London: Oxford University Press (a Galaxy Book). 507pp, $4.95 (original price): https://www.amazon.com/George-Steiner/e/B000AQ1YD6?ref=sr_ntt_srch_lnk_1&qid=1581278399&sr=1-1
(c) Lou Agosta, PhD and the Chicago Empathy Project