Entangled Empathy: An Alternative Ethic for Our Relationships with Animals

Colin Dayan in the Boston Review:

ScreenHunter_1404 Sep. 30 21.30The most striking thing happened as I began reading Lori Gruen’s book, Entangled Empathy: An Alternative Ethic for Our Relationships with Animals. I was sitting on the porch when a baby white-throated sparrow flew inside. Attempting to escape, the sparrow repeatedly dashed itself against the screens, head down in exhaustion. I tried to lead it to the open door. No luck. But then a male cardinal appeared outside. It hovered, went first to one side of the screen, then the other; held tight one moment, moved softly the next. Flying against the screen, it guided the captive bird, gradually, from side to side, up and down—all the while outside the porch—and led it to the open air. For twenty minutes I watched a bird save another not of its brood, and I thought: now that is empathy.

Yet empathy is a word I have always distrusted. Deep and enigmatic, at best it means being present to or with another being; at worst it calls forth a moral surround as exclusive as it is well intentioned. Along with sympathy, and often confused with it, empathy summons an intensely humanized world, where our emotional life—how much we feel for or with—matters more than the conditions that cause suffering and sustain predation. Examples are all around us. To consider but one, we all know the sad excesses of sentiment that followed the 2010 Haiti earthquake. Money flowed to the coffers of international aid organizations and NGOs, but it never reached the hundreds of thousands of Haitians who continued to live as displaced persons in camps. Inhumanity can easily be moderated, legitimized, and even reproduced by the humanitarian concern that is analogous to it.

As an Americanist, I learned from Edgar Allan Poe how the language of sentiment animates subordination. A slave, a piece of property, a black cat—once loved in the proper domestic setting, they arouse a surfeit of devotion, bonds of dependence that slavery apologists claimed could never be felt by equals.

More here.