Don’t confuse solidarity with empathy!

The demonstration of solidarity with Ferguson on December 28 in Amsterdam
The demonstration of solidarity with Ferguson on December 28 in Amsterdam

Last week some of us “were” Charlie. Or maybe we “were” Ahmet. Or wouldn’t it be better if all of us “were” Nigerians right now? In fact, last summer we “were all Palestinians”, and just a few months ago all of us “could not breathe”. This expression of commitment to the victims of violence or oppression is certainly not new – after all, the Parisian students in May 1968 “were” all “German Jews” – but it would appear that the immensely popular “Je suis”-slogan is part of a broader development. More than before it seems we want to identify ourselves with the victims. It is no longer enough to only show our “solidarity’ with others: no, we are the others. We feel their pain and understand their suffering!

The original text in Dutch
(January 22nd, 2015)Translated by Jet

This means we all know now what it means to be a Muslim youth from a French banlieue (= suburb), or a black person from an American suburb. We express our empathy by playing a corpse during a “die-in” against racist police violence or a bombardment in Gaza. The fact that many of us do not know about this kind of military violence firsthand or have never been in a banlieue, does not alter these sincere feelings of empathy.

Of course there is nothing wrong with a bit of healthy empathy as such, and not for a moment would I doubt the sincerity of these kinds of expressions. But what we need today more than ever is a strong feeling of solidarity – the ability to unite in mutual understanding and responsibility. And although they are often used together, empathy and solidarity are not the same thing. Even more: real solidarity may be restricted by an overload of empathy.

Firstly, actual inequality is not necessarily an obstacle for solidarity. We do not actually need to have the same point of departure to be able to be united in the struggle against injustice, or for a different society. Solidarity does not at all presupposes that we are all the same or that we all share the same experiences. As an expression and as consolidation of our equality it is of course important to do away as much as possible with the inequality that exists between us. For example, by compensating through our own organizational structures for the privileges that some of us have in this society due to “race”, class or gender. Or by redistribution of our resources. Or by accepting that the majority does not always win the vote and that in fact the minorities should have the final say.

This is exactly why we first have to acknowledge that there is indeed inequality. That your experiences are different from mine. That some of us are privileged over others, often without fully being aware of it. And that as such a white person can never – never! – understand exactly what it is to grow up in this society being black; that a man can never fully understand what sexism is; and that being middle class means it is difficult for you to grasp what life looks like if you cannot be certain that ultimately there will always be a social safety net for you. Empathy does not offer the answer to these questions. It presupposes that “your pain” could also be considered to be “my pain”. That I might feel what you are feeling. In fact, that I might be able to share this: I am like you – “Je suis …” (just fill in the blanks). But this means our eyes are closed to the fact that we will never know what it is like to be that other person, that we have thoroughly different experiences – and that this is in fact part of the problem.

Secondly, empathy often is essentially, and paradoxically, self-centred. If indeed we suppose that we can share the suffering or anger of someone else, that means we project our own understanding of this suffering onto the other person. A good example is the escalation of the social conflict about Black Pete in the Netherlands. Many well-meaning whites are convinced that this racist caricature hurts black people’s feelings. But they thus lose out of sight that many black people refuse to frame their resistance against this stereotype in terms of hurt feelings. If indeed they know about all of this, because during the “public debate” so far it have mostly been the – more or less emphathic – white people who have done the talking. Empathy presupposes that the other person is able and willing to live up to the image that we have of her/him. And not seldom this image is particularly derogatory: that of a weak or vulnerable person who supposedly needs our help.

In addition, thirdly: empathy is not only self-centred but can even be extremely selfish. The presupposition is always that it could be about me. That the suffering that is inflicted could also affect me (because I am empathic!). But very often it is not at all about me: I am no Algerian-French cop or Muslim youth. I am not systematically bullied by the police or frisked without a reason. I also do not belong to a minority that is continuously and publicly abused, ridiculed, and criminalized. Through the pretension that the injustice that hit some is applicable to everyone we take out the sting out of the debate. See the example in the U.S. where the slogan “black lives matter” has gradually been reformulated into “all lives matter”. This inclusivity is all very well but the initial message was that in practice not all lives carry the same weight! This protest was about black Americans and the racist (police) violence that they are confronted with on a daily basis. As non-black fellow citizen you should of course show your solidarity but without pretending that this is about you. The point is: it is in fact not about you and exactly this should be the basis for solidarity.

Lastly: an overload of empathy can be very disempowering. In that case it does not lead to collaborative action to bring about change but it leads to submission and meekness. Solidarity should in fact be about forging bonds that make us stronger and help us to strengthen our demands. Solidarity should lead to more force to bang our fist on the table. We do not ask for change – we demand it! From this perspective I find the slogan “Heart above hard” from the Flemish civil initiative against budget cuts a bit difficult, even though I appreciate and support their movement. Of course I will not for a moment contest that a left-wing policy of solidarity presupposes more – a lot more – empathy compared to the degrading neo-liberalism. But left-wing solidarity should be more than that: no moral appeal from the right or from ourselves to “let our hearts speak out”, but an appeal to join hands in a force to turn the tide. As far as I am concerned, rich upper classes and right-wing politicians do not have to put themselves in the situation of the lower classes. I do not expect them to have a heart. As long as they feel obliged to listen – or preferably even to move out.

So do not confuse solidarity with empathy. We may very well need both. But if you identify with another person too easily (and thus pretend to be that person), you lose sight of the fact that we simply have to live in a world where not all of us are confronted with violence, oppression and exploitation in the same way. And that some of us are privileged, even though we may not have chosen to be so. This realization alone should be sufficient for truly left-wing politics with solidarity at its core.

Mathijs van de Sande