The Dangers of Empathy

Philosophers, politicians, literary critics, elementary school teachers: Many people have made the case for the power of empathy—the act of emotionally identifying with, sometimes ‘feeling alongside’—to soften calcified ideas about people with different backgrounds, beliefs, or circumstances from your own. Others (ok, rarely the grade-school teachers) have also made a case for the dangers of that identification, because it’s imprecise, it emphasizes emotion instead of action—and could even encourage a voyeuristic experience of suffering (I need to see proof of your pain), or a self-centered one (I think I understand your suffering, because I’m using my own experience to imagine yours).  

Two of Will Arbery’s characters in Heroes of the Fourth Turning have a version of this debate midway through the play: 

Emily: Well I feel like all I’m asking for, all I’m ASKING for, is just a bigger dose of empathy— 

Teresa: Oh don’t with the empathy. Liberals are empathy addicts. Empathy empathy empathy. Empathy is empty. Hannah Arendt says we don’t need to feel what someone else is feeling—first of all that’s impossible, second of all it’s self-righteous and breeds complacency, third of all it’s politically irresponsible. 

Where does Arbery himself come down in this conversation? When he started writing Heroes of the Fourth Turning, in the wake of Donald Trump’s election in 2016, he was struck by the discourse around “echo chambers”: people’s individual, habitual and closed-off social and media networks. Having grown up among ardent and opinionated conservative Catholics, Arbery wanted to expand the echo chamber of the average theater-goer in New York City—someone likely to be politically and theologically liberal. “The danger of giving you that access,” he writes, “has to do with empathy.” The opportunity, though, was access to a thornier relationship—that of love. 

As Arbery explains in a piece he wrote for the play’s premiere: 

“According to Hannah Arendt, a skeptic of empathy, the trick is ‘to inhabit the position, not the person.’ One trains ‘one’s imagination to go visiting,’ but we should not inhabit, which can shade into a sort of colonizing compassion. The contemporary over-emphasis on empathy has, according to Namwali Serpell, ‘imposed upon readers and viewers the idea that they can and ought to use art to inhabit others, especially the marginalized.’  

“The characters in Heroes of the Fourth Turning are not the marginalized, despite what they might say. Christian conservatism is a secret and shrewd force in our country. I’m not asking you to empathize with these characters. I’m representing their positions, with a goal of impartiality. You can do what you want with that access. 

“But then I wonder, of course, whether you might end up not empathizing with them, but loving them, which I do, and which makes me feel vulnerable and quiet.” 

In orienting his audience away from potential condemnation or identification, Arbery instead tried to create a kind of radical acknowledgment of an inherently human need: proof that our lives have meaning. Looking for an experience that breathes life into that need, one that could be shared by people from fundamentally different belief systems, he turned towards the sacrament: something blessed, divine. “I was really looking for the shape of the sacrament in this play—what work is it doing for the people who are brave enough to receive it.” 

—Adrien-Alice Hansel 

Note: For more on the history of empathy, here is Namwali Serpell’s article, "The Banality of Empathy," that Arbery references. Dramaturg Ashley Chang wrote, "The Trouble with Empathy," for the original production of Heroes of the Fourth Turning at Playwrights Horizons.