Made in America

Learning Sympathy

September 10, 2013

Appeals to our sympathy are everywhere: late-night commercials on behalf of orphans overseas, envelopes bearing pleas from disaster-relief organizations, magazine ads asking help to ease the suffering of piteous (though cute) humans and animals, campus solicitors recruiting students to spend a summer in Central America or Kenya building latrines or conducting AIDS education, and so on. Giving is so popular that companies ride the sentiment. Bono’s “Product Red” campaign channeled a percentage of sales by firms such as Nike and Dell to fight AIDS. Recently, Dignity Health, a huge, nonprofit hospital system, cloaked itself in a “humankindness” campaign, was already taken.

That humanitarian appeals tend to work is not a given of human nature. They work because we moderns have learned to sympathize with the suffering of others as far away as the Congo and as strange as leatherback turtles. Our feelings are the products of a humanitarian sensibility that has risen in the last couple of centuries. We, the Western bourgeois, became more sympathetic as we became more sensitive and sentimental.

Historians of emotions—yes, emotions have a history—have documented the construction of people’s feelings. Before roughly the 1800s, sympathy was less common and more restricted in scope, overwhelmed as people were by practical needs and circumstances. Cruelty ran through everyday life—animal torture, bloody brawling, severe punishment of criminals, child abuse, whipping of servants, and so on. Such atrocities repel us today but were less dreadful and sometimes even amusing to people then. (Steven Pinker’s 2011 book The Better Angels of Our Nature, which I reviewed in these pages, recounts the growing revulsion against such everyday violence.) Over a few generations, middle-class parents, following an emerging elite etiquette, taught their children self-restraint, training them to defuse or at least camouflage their anger and vulgar appetites. Self-control helped the bourgeois separate culturally from the lower orders.

Why this modern expansion in the range of objects fit for sympathy?

Bourgeois Americans sought to be refined, to attain an acute “sensibility.” The sensible viscerally felt a sunset, a painting, a musical passage—and also the sufferings of others. Those who were unmoved were mere brutes. Well-reared Americans nurtured such sensitivity and the emotions—positive emotions, only—that they aroused, making them sentimental. In the early 1800s, the teenage daughter of a Massachusetts businessman described in her diary how, as she sat by her window at twilight, “a sweet melancholy diffused itself over my heart. Memory recalled a thousand tender scenes; the silent tear fell, from an emotion, which it was impossible to control.”

Middle-class women immersed themselves in romantic novels and embraced the books’ message that passion was now a prerequisite for marriage. Indeed, having good character required that Victorians engaged in romantic, lasting love. Abraham Lincoln marked a passage in a best-selling self-help book that he gave to his wife: “The motive power in man is Affection. What he loves he wills, and what he wills he performs. Our Character is the complex of all that we love.” Marriages became drenched in sentimentality. Increasingly, marriages that stayed dry headed to divorce.

Children, too, became more sentimentalized, which made their deaths, so commonplace in early America, all the more crushing. Literate mothers in the colonial era wrote fatalistic, matter-of-fact diary entries about their children’s deaths, but mothers in the antebellum era more often wrote anguished, detailed cris-de-coeur. In the Victorian era, clerics who had once spoken of deceased infants as eternally doomed (for having missed the chance to repent) turned to a rhetoric of pristine innocents called back to Jesus. Sociologist Viviana Zelizer has shown how insurance policies for children, once sold to replace the income a working child would had provided parents, eventually sold as compensation for the heart-wrenching loss of the now “priceless” child. 

Nineteenth-century sentimentality focused a great deal on death. Middle-class Americans amplified grief by, for example, adopting elaborate mourners’ clothing and burying the deceased in forested cemeteries rather than churchyards. These romantic settings evoked stronger feelings and provoked experiences of the sublime. Such melancholia provided fodder for Mark Twain, whose Emmeline Grangerford drew illustrations of tear-streaked mourners with titles such as “And Art Thou Gone Yes Thou Art Gone Alas.” Huck Finn criticizes her poetry, lines delivered “just so it was sadful.” Grangerford’s caricature captures the bourgeois sentimentality of the mid-19th century.

The great reform movements of that time built on and built up middle-class northerners’ sentimentality so as to generate sympathy for the pain and suffering of slaves, abused children, families of alcoholics, and even for heathens bereft of salvation, among other objects of pity. Horrific displays of physical torment—in drawings, in literature, and most famously in stage performances of Uncle Tom’s Cabin—moved audiences toward reform. Yet many reformers worried that such graphic depictions also coarsened the audiences, creating a callous and voyeuristic taste for cruelty—much like the worry these days about “disaster porn.” Historian Karen Halttunen writes that the “cult of sensibility had proclaimed pain unacceptable but simultaneously discovered it to be alluring, ‘delicious.’”

Still, more Americans learned to be emotionally repulsed by what had once been unremarkable or entertaining cruelties such as bear-baiting, lynching, eye-gouging, and wife-beating. Many 20th-century Americans found, as Huck Finn had, the florid sentimentality of their grandparents’ era a bit much, but the underlying code of sensibility and sympathy spread, both in personal relations and in public stances. This code penetrated widely in American—in Western—society and covered an ever-expanding population. Not only for neighbors, fellow Americans, or even fellow Christians do Americans feel sympathy, but for people and creatures around the world. “We” is defined more broadly and expressed in a variety of ways, from adopting Asian and African orphans, to intervening in the Bosnian War, to, among the most sensitive, our mammalian cousins.

Why this modern expansion in the range of objects fit for sympathy? Some explanations point to deep cultural changes in Westerners’ understanding of human nature. New ideas sacralized the individual; described the person (initially only the white male person) as endowed with human rights without respect to any group, status, or estate; and treated him or her as born worthy. For the cultural vanguard of the 19th century, these principles necessarily applied widely. Over the years, the principles covered more races and religions and even species.

Other explanations of sympathy’s greater reach point to economics. One version simply claims that growing wealth and security freed Westerners to focus on higher goals, including the pursuit of conscience. An alternate economic explanation may be more interesting. Some scholars, the historian Thomas Haskell perhaps most explicitly, argue that the widening circle of sympathy resulted from growing participation in commerce. Commerce, especially at a distance, introduces participants to strangers. Success at trade both requires and teaches people to see situations from others’ perspectives, to make and to keep promises, and, by experience, to have sympathy, even empathy, for the other. Buyers and sellers, however much they struggle against one another, come to know one another. Commerce at a distance also instills a sense that one could successfully intervene at a distance. So Haskell titles his analysis “Capitalism and the Origins of the Humanitarian Sensibility.” Some recent cross-cultural research supports his argument, finding that the more communities in developing countries are integrated into commercial markets, the more likely are their residents to engage in sharing and fair-dealing with anonymous partners.

The Haskell argument has been criticized; after all, the slave trade was a perfect example of commercial capitalism. Yet major capitalists of later generations became philanthropic innovators. Many historic developments factor into the advance of empathy. Whatever its source, the gut feeling that we modern bourgeois get when our compassion is touched—say, by celebrities calling for our help in the Concert for Bangladesh (1971), “We Are the World” for Africa (1985), and “Tsunami Aid” (2005)—should not be taken for granted. It is a socially constructed emotion, which needs continued cultivation.

Image: Detail from Sympathy, 1877, by Briton Riviére


 All philosophers have the common failing of starting out from man as he is now and thinking they can reach their goal through an analysis of him. They involuntarily think of "man" as an aeterna veritas [something everlastingly true], as something that remains constant in the midst of all flux, as a sure measure of things. Everything the philosopher has declared about man is, however, at bottom no more than a testimony as to the man of a very limited period of time. Lack of historical sense is the family failing of all philosophers; many, without being aware of it, even take the most recent manifestation of man, such as has arisen under the impress of certain religions, even certain political events, as the fixed form from which one has to start out. They will not learn that man has become, that the faculty of cognition has become; while some of them would have it that the whole world is spun out of this faculty of cognition. Now, everything essential in the development of mankind took place in primeval times, long before the four thousand years we more or less know about; during these years mankind may well not have altered very much. But the philosopher here sees "instincts" in man as he now is and assumes that these belong to the unalterable facts of mankind and to that extent could provide a key to the understanding of the world in general: the whole of teleology is constructed by speaking of the man of the last four millennia as of an eternal man towards whom all things in the world have had a natural relationship from the time he began. But everything has become: there are no eternal facts, just as there are no absolute truths. Consequently what is needed from now on is historical philosophizing, and with it the virtue of modesty.

- Nietzsche, Human-All-Too-Human §2

We should not misunderstand this discussion as implying that the feeling of empathy is somehow a recent phenomenon. The human capacity for empathy would arguably have evolved long before there was any 'society' at all.
Within the short time of human civilization, empathy is no newcomer either. The ancient teachings of Buddha and Jesus Christ emphasized the importance of compassion. The more recent expansion of the scope of sympathy is of course due to practical developments, like those mentioned in this article. But it is not the human capacity to emphasize that has somehow grown, merely our horizons have widened, and our practical circumstances have changed.

Not a new subject any more than it's a recent emotion.

To Arthur:
I'd like to emphasize that the verb most closely related to 'empathy' is 'to empathize'. I empathize enough to believe you meant to say that. I feel like a pedantic ass, but there it is.

Looks like the author is reusing quite a lot from his earlier piece on the same subject.

Judging by this essay, Americans invented sympathy for their fellow man (and animal), just like we did the telephone, airplane, and Agent Orange. Ain't that amazing? So, did Africans and Asians learn it from us, maybe via Hollywood exports or our toppling of their governments in favor of our dictators? Or did we spread it via Capitalism, as the Haskell argument seems to imply? Did we invent sunlight and smiles, too? No wonder they hate us for our freedoms...

Claude S. Fischer is unquestionably right that compassion is a skill that needs constant cultivation and capacity building.  It is not, however, an invention of the West over the last couple of centuries.  Two examples undermine Fischer's dates:
First, the "Metta Sutta," part of the Buddhist canon that is an articulation of friendliness (also known as "lovingkindness") to all beings, and recited as a means of expanding the sympathetic capacities, is somewhere between 2,500 and 1,500 years old.  Its origin is India, and it spread throughout Asia long before it reached the West.
Second, Jesus Christ -- an inhabitant of the continent of Asia -- counseled expansive empathy more than 2000 years ago.  The Christian discourse and elaboration on Christ's teachings relating to compassion are too numerous to name here, and they encompass the Eastern Orthodox, Asian, and North African traditions, as well as the Western European ones.
The global and two-millennium pedigree of the exploration of human compassionate capacities suggests that Fischer's views and conclusions may be less-informed than optimal, and perhaps even provincial and silly.  If the expansion in the range of objects (or subjects) suitable for sympathy is modern, Fischer has not demonstrated how and why.  Nor has he explained why the West should not be considered merely a late-comer to the effort.  

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