1 year ago


Zach Marschall and Prof JP Singh summarise the discussion on Empathy, reflecting on the show "Flight".

“The world still thinks India has a functional democracy. I beg to differ.”

Those were the words of Shubham Roy Choudhury in his presentation on empathy, the theme for today’s discussions. Acknowledging that today marks the 70th anniversary of Indian independence from British rule, Shubham referred to the lack of empathy in the current Indian state toward non-Hindu minorities and the presence of lynch mobs in India to comment on the need to bridge divides.

The political stakes of empathy impelled this group to focus on current political world events to a greater extent than in previous deliberations.

Douglas Lonie argued that arts practitioners need to extend their emotional responses beyond the theater. Ann Henderson punctuated this plea by reminding the Global Cultural Fellows about the high levels of poverty that exist in Edinburgh, which are easily cloaked by the consumption and excess of the Edinburgh festivals.  

 “Empathy is the window that opens the emotional process,” said Ariel Stolier. But at what point, other Fellows questioned, is empathy overdone? Would an excess of empathy lead to political impotency in resolving child poverty in Edinburgh? After all, emotional processes are no substitute for material support to the most underprivileged.

Fellows watching video - Photo by Mahtab Farid

Likewise, Caitlin Nasema Cassidy stated the need to determine whether empathy is a needed factor for inspiring hope and realizing social action. There appeared to be consensus among the Fellows that the answer is too hard to find definitively, but Devika Ranjan offered empathy as an ideal to strive for, but one that is not necessary attainable, suggesting that empathy can never provide a true vicarious experience.  

The discussion leaders used the idea of the Open Table to further an intense 90 minute discussion on empathy in the afternoon.  The rectangular table in the middle of the round room where the deliberations have been taking place acted as a space “a dinner conversation” space for about 10 fellows to rotate in and out.

Douglas Lonie introduced the Open Table as a “performance” where “there is an end but no conclusion.”

An intense discussion followed.  The Fellows debated the differences between empathy and sympathy, artistic closeness and empathic distance, and whether empathy is a process or an end.

Asif Majid introduced the psychological concept of “interpathy” that combines empathy and sympathy.

“What’s not empathy?” asked Consuelo Hidalgo.  The answers brought in judgment, pathological personality traits, and disengagement. 

Empathy may be necessary in the human experience for how we relate to one another, but it appears not sufficient alone for achieving meaningful results in the cultural and political spheres.

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