The limits of empathy

When I went to see Karim Ben Khelifa’s virtual reality installation The Enemy at the MIT Museum, the first question in my mind was: How is this going to make me feel? Am I going to be overwhelmed by the sadness of these war stories? When I took off the goggles at the end, I wondered: Did I feel enough? Did it change me?

My focus was on how much empathy this experience would evoke in me. However, in the talk he gave at the MIT Museum last Thursday (available to watch here), Dr. Emile Bruneau challenged the idea that empathy is a clear path towards peace. In his studies of conflicts around the world, Bruneau has found that building empathy is a complex matter.

Knowing that someone else is in pain does not necessarily lead to compassionate actions. This is particularly true in cases of intergroup conflict, where we may feel detachment or even pleasure in response to the suffering of people outside of our own group.

At the other extreme, sometimes we mirror other people’s pain so strongly that it causes us personal distress, making us want to flee the situation. It can be hard to stay grounded ourselves, offering compassion for our fellow humans without exhausting our own emotional reserves.

At the end of his talk, Bruneau suggested that it may be more helpful to address our internal biases than to overload our emotional circuits with affecting stories. He spoke particularly of our basic tendency towards hypocrisy: we tend to judge our own group as good, rational people who sometimes make mistakes due to outside circumstances, and others as evil, irrational actors who deliberately choose to do wrong.

The value of The Enemy, then, may not be in what it makes you feel but in what it makes you think about the combatants you encounter. It is affecting to hear these six men talk about their experiences of violence and, in stark contrast, their joys in finding love or holding their children. Perhaps more importantly, their calm explanations of the choices they’ve had to make reveal that they, too, are reasonable and well-intentioned people caught up in terrible webs of circumstance.

The Enemy will only be at the MIT Museum through the end of December. If you haven't been yet, I strongly recommend seeing it. You can reserve a timed ticket here.