Mindy McGarrah Sharp, PhD

(image from Flickr creative commons-license)

Arrows are useful to explain how to do something: open and close, turn left or right, go the correct way on a one-way street. I love using arrows to illuminate complex concepts. There’s nothing quite like a prezi presentation with arrows within arrows, zooming in and out in hopes of depicting the unwieldy connection of nearly everything to everything else in one way or another. Arrows are especially helpful in modeling a piece of this complex world in which we all live, such as stepwise processes essential for procedures like surgery, writing outlines, emergency plans, careful pathways through navigating tense negotiations. Arrows can be invaluable in structuring and communicating convincing explanations. In representational images, arrows point toward the fruitfulness of a particular strategy: follow the red arrow this way à toward success, integration, reward, goal, completion, development, and civilization. Each of these last concepts (success, integration, reward, goal, completion, development, civilization) is interculturally and historically laden, often organized around privilege and always influenced by power. Red arrows, particularly in a world starkly represented as black and white, stand out, signifying particular strategic importance. Empathy in a postcolonial world, however, is not a one-way red arrow strategy.

In a postcolonial world, it can be easier to define challenging concepts by pointing to examples of what they are not.  This is because we live in the process of the postcolonial and not in a world no longer filled with lingering effects of colonial and neocolonial human violence.  In my work, I aim to understand what postcolonial empathy looks like between human beings.  But, it can be easier to see what it is not.  Postcolonial empathy is not a one-way red arrow strategy.  This contention was sharpened for me recently when work colleagues, old friends, writers I admire, and random social media contacts all cited the same viral link (interestingly nearly four years after its first appearance).  Descriptors such as “brilliant” and “awesome” momentarily filled my Facebook feed. I followed the prodding—the metaphorical arrow—and clicked the link, further encouraged by the nearly 2.5 million views it had already received before me. The promised direction was enticing: “If you thought someone couldn’t explain empathy with a dry-erase marker, you’re wrong.” Once on my way, it was an actual one-way red arrow within the presentation that I found quite troubling.

I have come to very much appreciate RSA Animate. The Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures, and Commerce has indeed “hit upon an irresistible formula for modern infotainment,” according to a 2010 interview with an RSA producer Abi Stephenson. Like the arrows I love to use in creative prezis and powerpoints, like the methods I teach and strive to employ in my academic work, images are tools that really can illuminate complex concepts.

For effect—and it is strikingly effective, even a model of excellent note-taking—the basic format for an RSA Animate film short depicts a black and white drawing with key concepts and arrows in red. Line by line, image by image, key concept by key concept (with lots of humor thrown in), red arrow by red arrow, a drawing unfolds as a voice-over delivers a theorist’s complex idea in her or his own voice.

As someone concerned with contemporary postcolonial dynamics, I am deeply aware that any representational image is reductive of human experience at best and risks hermeneutical violence that shores up unjust institutions at worst. So, while I love to use images, charts, and lists, I aim to do so with a critical edge. I strive to dig into complex concepts through such images and metaphors—a diagram of Whitehead’s process theology, a list of what contributes to love and hate in Thurman’s work, a chart of what Fanon might mean by overdetermination or “seeing being seen.”

Which brings me back to the alluring link that led to a RSA Animate complex image unfolding with the voice-over of Jeremy Rifkin condensing his 2009 acclaimed volume The Empathic Civilization. I had recently completed a book about postcolonial empathy and therefore was even more expectant because of my friends and contacts’ insistence that the film short effectively explains empathy, a complex concept that lacks universal agreement on how it works and whether everyone has it, and involves scholarly debate about if it is even possible to learn and grow empathy as a practice.

I affirm the drawing’s red highlighting of some of Rifkin’s key words: like Rifkin, I also see “vulnerability” and “solidarity” as essential to any practice of empathy.  However, pretty quickly in the ten-plus-minute animated short, I was struck by the bodily representation of human beings. While a Western-looking female form makes a few cameos, the biology and sociology of empathy lecture is animated by what must happen inside one person’s embodied experiences to make empathy work, to make it irresistible, and to make its practice sustainable. The one form is predictably a Western-looking adult (but not-too-old) male, a standard yet familiarly problematic representation of universal human experience.

This solitary male is moved by his experience of “others” (not pictured in human form at all by the end of the short, but referred to and therefore assumed to exist as humans—the troubling Disney image of princess Tiana as more frog than human comes to mind—see King, et. al., Animating Difference), particularly in experiences of extreme suffering which summon this man out of himself (sort of—and granted this would be challenging to animate) to be empathic toward his other. This black and white man seems more oriented toward looking over there than visibly transformed or moved by the empathic urge.

The animated drawing ends with a big one-way red arrow pointed from the man, standing on Western soil, to Haiti, bringing to the viewer’s imagination and recollection, the 2010 Haiti earthquake, which makes sense given the film’s publication date the same year. Where are “the others”? Do “they” belong to this man? Does one-way red arrow pointing to an other foster a deep sense of belonging? Can these formless others, as Spivak asks, speak? Are “they” only on the receiving end of a big one-way red arrow? Where are the mutual partnerships with Haitians advocated by Paul Farmer? Where is the moving bodily tug represented in the brilliant work of Edwidge Danticat?

Empathy is a matter not of simple explanation or even complex explanation, but of understanding. And, it’s not just a theory about understanding, but indeed empathy is also the embodied practice of understanding. One theorist I find helpful, Heinz Kohut, helps me put it this way: essential and time-consuming processes of explanation are far from human experience, whereas the rarer (especially when approaching mutual) understanding is close to human experience. My own understanding of empathy in Misunderstanding Stories is that it is only possible when we probe into the violence that continues to contribute to contemporary life.  In a postcolonial world, any representation of human experience needs to be as wide and inclusive as possible while also aiming to be aware of its intractable limits, uncertainties, and complicities in exclusion. This is a lot to ask, but it’s a more liberative and responsible way to move toward deeper understandings.

Postcolonial theorists as well as critical theorists more generally have long been wary of anything that reduces to black and white, “black and white” itself now recognizably a troubling and unhelpful phrase. Historical causality, forgiveness, distinguishing a good life, justice—none of these processes reduce to a simple dualism.

I remember when I first learned chemistry equations. The specific and long process that occurs over the arrow was always the key to moving from the place on one side of the arrow to the other. Likewise, the imperfect practice of postcolonial empathy is more about an unfolding process between persons and communities than any one-way red arrow from “here” to “there.” The great hope is that everyone has a say and a voice, but this hope springs from the realities in which we humans constantly contribute to silencing other voices.

Empathy is a messy equation that requires deep listening, requires yielding to perspectives different from and that challenge my perspective, and requires making sense of histories in relation to contemporary contexts. As a pastoral theologian, I value learning more about empathy from all kinds of disciplines, experiences, and explanations—each making more complex what anyone can mistake as a simple formula for empathic human community. I agree with Rifkin that empathy is a process of sustaining human community and I appreciate new ways of thinking about it with the tools he provides.

The RSA Animate propels me to read his book. But, I haven’t yet and I wonder how many of the 2.5 million viewers have stopped at the short precisely because of its clever efficient summative allure. The RSA Animate explanation is helpful, but it is partial. I fear that reducing Rifkin’s and others’ theories of empathy to a ten-minute drawing that ends in a one-way red arrow is counterproductive to the development and growth of postcolonial empathy.

To understand empathy, I know that more people need to be represented and any arrow must be itself point back toward itself reflexively in a spiraling process of multiplicity. It’s not that empathy is all about me, but empathy must involve some sort of dynamic “we.”  Only then can we point nearer to the messy beautiful human lived experience that I seek to understand and that can sustain the planet in a context of crisis, a concern I share with Rifkin.

Sharp photo 1Dr. Melinda McGarrah Sharp (PhD Vanderbilt) is Assistant Professor of Pastoral Theology and Ethics at Phillips Theological Seminary in Tulsa, Oklahoma.  Author of Misunderstanding Stories: Toward a Postcolonial Pastoral Theology, McGarrah Sharp draws attention to experiences of intercultural conflict as sources of understanding and meaning across diverse communities.  She teaches across traditional residential, online, concentrated and immersion formats of theological education, in addition to leading seminars in professional societies and local faith and interfaith communities.  As a teacher-scholar, she studies grief and violence as present dynamics of all communities—she believes with postcolonial scholars that unmasking complex histories around these co-present dynamics will lead to deeper hope and peace.  McGarrah Sharp is committed to integrating scholarship, teaching, and community involvement.  McGarrah Sharp is a trained clinical ethicist, lay United Methodist, and returned Peace Corps volunteer.  She can be reached here.