Cesar Chavez Day, by Alejandro Magaña

Cesar Chavez visits college - By Movimiento - Own work, cropped - CC BY-SA 3.0 httpcreativecommons.orglicensesby-sa3.0 via Wikimedia CommonsEvery year around Cesar Chavez’s birthday, as media outlets report of festivities in his honor, I’m reminded of a joke in a Simpsons episode and the strange sadness it elicited in me when I saw it: Homer Simpson is on his front lawn and is confronted with the apparition of a debonair, mustachioed man who introduces himself as, “the spirit of Cesar Chavez.”

In typical Homer confusion he asks, “Then why do you look like Cesar Romero?”

The ghost replies, “Because you don’t know what I look like!”

Cesar Chavez is certainly revered by many people, especially within the Latino community, but despite the steadily increasing ubiquity of his name across the United States, especially the American Southwest, there are still many Americans today who don’t really know who he is, let alone what he stood for, or what he accomplished.

Cesar Chavez was a Mexican-American community organizer turned labor leader. A former migrant farmworker recruited by the Community Service Organization (CSO) in its heyday of the 1950s, he co-founded the National Farmworkers Association (NFWA,) which later became the United Farm Workers (UFW,) the first successful union for migrant farmworkers. The UFW’s membership consisted mostly of indigent Latinos and Filipinos, and their struggle for justice and dignity, fighting to gain higher wages and better conditions in the fields where they were deprived of basic needs such as clean drinking water and bathrooms, became a national moral cause under the stewardship of Chavez, who courted national and international sympathy using militant non-violent tactics in the vein of Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr, such as strikes, boycotts, fasts, and peaceful marches.

Chavez was not an imposing orator with the fire-and-brimstone timbre of the Reverend Dr. King, nor did he cut as iconoclastic a figure as Gandhi, but in his unassuming way he could be just as charismatic and endearing, and this often caught people off guard, as it did an interviewer for the New Yorker in 1973, who, “had expected, if not a Mexican-American Lenin…a young, hard, intense man bristling with revolutionary zeal. Instead we found Mr. Chavez to be a stocky man…about five feet seven …with Indian features…and a pleasant earnest manner.” With his trademark regular boys’ haircut parted on the side and wearing simple cardigans with button down plaid shirts and slacks, his fashion was more Mr. Rogers than Mr. Lenin. He looked the part of the humble Everyman that people felt they could relate to.

On a personal note, my parents actually met while working with Cesar Chavez in the early ‘70s, and when they tell stories of those days, they both recall how approachable he was with his easy but confident demeanor; how people were drawn to him and trusted him, even as he took them out of their comfort zones, like the time he sent my mom and a few other farmworkers to Chicago, to publicize and organize the Grape Boycott, even though they spoke very little English and were armed with just a few phone numbers of sympathizers there along with the names of some churches that might possibly provide them with food, room and board. They believed they could accomplish such ambitious plans because this diminutive, unpretentious man seemed capable of stopping the engine of the entire agricultural industry and took on Big Agribusiness all by himself. Before it became widely known as the slogan of Barack Obama’s presidential campaign, I grew up with my father reminding me, “¡Si se puede!” (Yes, you can!) a phrase Chavez often chanted before throngs of people at picket lines and marches.

Like Gandhi and King, he was intensely spiritual and absolutely committed to non-violence. In what may be his most recognizable aphorism, he said, “It is my deepest belief that only by giving our lives do we find life. I am convinced that the truest act of courage…is to sacrifice ourselves for others in a totally non-violent struggle for justice.” Self-immolation was a recurring theme in both word and deed: in 1968, during the Delano Grape Strike, after several tense confrontations at the picket lines nearly devolved into violence, he fasted for 25 days to encourage and remind the farmworkers that their fight was to be a non-violent one. He would fast for 24 days again in 1972, and in 1988 he fasted for 36 days(!) to bring attention to the pesticide poisoning of grape workers and their children. It is thought that his relatively early death at the age of 63 in 1993 was probably due to aggregated health complications suffered from these sacrifices. Still, even now, if you talk to people who marched with Chavez and the UFW back then, most speak of Chavez in reverential, even hagiographical ways, for to them he was como un santo: like a saint..

Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, as the UFW made sweeping legislative strides on behalf of organized farm labor, Chavez was also becoming the most widely known leader within the broader Chicano Movement, or “El Movimiento,” a civil rights movement which empowered Mexican Americans caught between two cultures, not quite Mexican enough for their Mexican immigrant forebears, nor seen as truly American by the white hegemony. The term “chicano” was originally a derogatory term for the American children of Mexican migrants, but in the Movement it was flipped, transmogrified, to be a badge of ethnic pride. Of course Chavez always made sure to situate the fight of the UFW as united with the struggle of “all farm workers across the country, the Negroes and poor whites, the Puerto Ricans, Japanese, and Arabians…the races that comprise the oppressed minorities of the United States,” but “The Plan de Delano,” a text co-authored by Chavez with Dolores Huerta and the Chicano playwright Luis Valdez, reifies and emboldens his ethnic heritage, declaring “We are sons of the Mexican Revolution.” To this day, the flag of the UFW, showing a black Aztec eagle on stark red background, is widely considered a symbol of Chicano or Latino pride. Those of us who wear this symbol, or even, as in my case, have it tattooed on their body, recognize that the life we have so firmly rooted in the United States, with access to resources and opportunities that our parents or grandparents did not have, is due to the hard work and vigilance of people like Cesar Chavez, Dolores Huerta, or my mother, Maria Saludado.

The identity politics that certainly began to swell in the 1960s have persisted despite reactionary criticism and remain particularly relevant today; an era in which the ugly scars of racism seem as starkly etched in our national consciousness as ever. As we near the end of the second term of America’s first ‘non-white’ President, as Mexican immigration continues to be a galvanizing and polarizing issue in the US, and the Latino vote is highly prized on both sides of the political aisle, conditions would seem fecund for a reboot of El Movimiento. In appropriate fashion, this year the Cesar Chavez Foundation, an offshoot of the UFW, began its annual celebration in San Fernando, the first city in the nation to commemorate Cesar Chavez Day with a paid holiday, with a rally and march to encourage activism to “Dump Trump.”

¡Que viva César Chávez!

(this piece has been published previously in Ordinary Philosophy)

~ Alejandro Magaña is a musician, poet, and songwriter some of the time, and a father and husband all of the time. He blogs at Aether Ore and lives in San Diego with his wife and son and books and records.

Sources and Inspiration:

● My mother and father. ¡Que viva mis padres!
● Chasan, Daniel. “‘Marcher,’ an interview with Cesar Chavez,” The New Yorker, May 27, 1967.
● Chavez, Cesar, Huerta, Dolores, and Valdez, Luis. “The Plan of Delano,” El Malcriado, March 17, 1966.
● Chavez, Cesar. An Organizer’s Tale: Speeches Ed. Ilan Stevens. London: Penguin Books, 2008.

~ Ordinary Philosophy is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Any support you can offer will be deeply appreciated!

O.P. Recommends: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie on Discovering America, from The New Yorker’s Politics and More Podcast

Summer 2014 issue of Ms. featuring Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, by Ms. magazine, CC BY-SA 4.0

In this fascinating podcast episode, the brilliant and eloquent Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie discusses her American experience, the absurdity of racism, the increasing orthodoxy and silencing of dissent on the political left, and much more with The New Yorker’s David Remnick. I find Adichie one of the most mesmerizing speakers and conversationalists around today.

Enjoy, and if this podcast episode happens to be your introduction to Adichie’s insightfulness and complex set of perspectives, an internet search of her name will reveal a wealth of talks, interviews, and more… you’re in for one intellectual treat after another!

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

Cesar Chavez Day, by Alejandro Magaña

Cesar Chavez visits college - By Movimiento - Own work, cropped - CC BY-SA 3.0 httpcreativecommons.orglicensesby-sa3.0 via Wikimedia CommonsEvery year around Cesar Chavez’s birthday, as media outlets report of festivities in his honor, I’m reminded of a joke in a Simpsons episode and the strange sadness it elicited in me when I saw it: Homer Simpson is on his front lawn and is confronted with the apparition of a debonair, mustachioed man who introduces himself as, “the spirit of Cesar Chavez.”

In typical Homer confusion he asks, “Then why do you look like Cesar Romero?”

The ghost replies, “Because you don’t know what I look like!”

Cesar Chavez is certainly revered by many people, especially within the Latino community, but despite the steadily increasing ubiquity of his name across the United States, especially the American Southwest, there are still many Americans today who don’t really know who he is, let alone what he stood for, or what he accomplished.

Cesar Chavez was a Mexican-American community organizer turned labor leader. A former migrant farmworker recruited by the Community Service Organization (CSO) in its heyday of the 1950s, he co-founded the National Farmworkers Association (NFWA,) which later became the United Farm Workers (UFW,) the first successful union for migrant farmworkers. The UFW’s membership consisted mostly of indigent Latinos and Filipinos, and their struggle for justice and dignity, fighting to gain higher wages and better conditions in the fields where they were deprived of basic needs such as clean drinking water and bathrooms, became a national moral cause under the stewardship of Chavez, who courted national and international sympathy using militant non-violent tactics in the vein of Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr, such as strikes, boycotts, fasts, and peaceful marches.

Chavez was not an imposing orator with the fire-and-brimstone timbre of the Reverend Dr. King, nor did he cut as iconoclastic a figure as Gandhi, but in his unassuming way he could be just as charismatic and endearing, and this often caught people off guard, as it did an interviewer for the New Yorker in 1973, who, “had expected, if not a Mexican-American Lenin…a young, hard, intense man bristling with revolutionary zeal. Instead we found Mr. Chavez to be a stocky man…about five feet seven …with Indian features…and a pleasant earnest manner.” With his trademark regular boys’ haircut parted on the side and wearing simple cardigans with button down plaid shirts and slacks, his fashion was more Mr. Rogers than Mr. Lenin. He looked the part of the humble Everyman that people felt they could relate to.

On a personal note, my parents actually met while working with Cesar Chavez in the early ‘70s, and when they tell stories of those days, they both recall how approachable he was with his easy but confident demeanor; how people were drawn to him and trusted him, even as he took them out of their comfort zones, like the time he sent my mom and a few other farmworkers to Chicago, to publicize and organize the Grape Boycott, even though they spoke very little English and were armed with just a few phone numbers of sympathizers there along with the names of some churches that might possibly provide them with food, room and board. They believed they could accomplish such ambitious plans because this diminutive, unpretentious man seemed capable of stopping the engine of the entire agricultural industry and took on Big Agribusiness all by himself. Before it became widely known as the slogan of Barack Obama’s presidential campaign, I grew up with my father reminding me, “¡Si se puede!” (Yes, you can!) a phrase Chavez often chanted before throngs of people at picket lines and marches.

Like Gandhi and King, he was intensely spiritual and absolutely committed to non-violence. In what may be his most recognizable aphorism, he said, “It is my deepest belief that only by giving our lives do we find life. I am convinced that the truest act of courage…is to sacrifice ourselves for others in a totally non-violent struggle for justice.” Self-immolation was a recurring theme in both word and deed: in 1968, during the Delano Grape Strike, after several tense confrontations at the picket lines nearly devolved into violence, he fasted for 25 days to encourage and remind the farmworkers that their fight was to be a non-violent one. He would fast for 24 days again in 1972, and in 1988 he fasted for 36 days(!) to bring attention to the pesticide poisoning of grape workers and their children. It is thought that his relatively early death at the age of 63 in 1993 was probably due to aggregated health complications suffered from these sacrifices. Still, even now, if you talk to people who marched with Chavez and the UFW back then, most speak of Chavez in reverential, even hagiographical ways, for to them he was como un santo: like a saint..

Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, as the UFW made sweeping legislative strides on behalf of organized farm labor, Chavez was also becoming the most widely known leader within the broader Chicano Movement, or “El Movimiento,” a civil rights movement which empowered Mexican Americans caught between two cultures, not quite Mexican enough for their Mexican immigrant forebears, nor seen as truly American by the white hegemony. The term “chicano” was originally a derogatory term for the American children of Mexican migrants, but in the Movement it was flipped, transmogrified, to be a badge of ethnic pride. Of course Chavez always made sure to situate the fight of the UFW as united with the struggle of “all farm workers across the country, the Negroes and poor whites, the Puerto Ricans, Japanese, and Arabians…the races that comprise the oppressed minorities of the United States,” but “The Plan de Delano,” a text co-authored by Chavez with Dolores Huerta and the Chicano playwright Luis Valdez, reifies and emboldens his ethnic heritage, declaring “We are sons of the Mexican Revolution.” To this day, the flag of the UFW, showing a black Aztec eagle on stark red background, is widely considered a symbol of Chicano or Latino pride. Those of us who wear this symbol, or even, as in my case, have it tattooed on their body, recognize that the life we have so firmly rooted in the United States, with access to resources and opportunities that our parents or grandparents did not have, is due to the hard work and vigilance of people like Cesar Chavez, Dolores Huerta, or my mother, Maria Saludado.

The identity politics that certainly began to swell in the 1960s have persisted despite reactionary criticism and remain particularly relevant today; an era in which the ugly scars of racism seem as starkly etched in our national consciousness as ever. As we near the end of the second term of America’s first ‘non-white’ President, as Mexican immigration continues to be a galvanizing and polarizing issue in the US, and the Latino vote is highly prized on both sides of the political aisle, conditions would seem fecund for a reboot of El Movimiento. In appropriate fashion, this year the Cesar Chavez Foundation, an offshoot of the UFW, began its annual celebration in San Fernando, the first city in the nation to commemorate Cesar Chavez Day with a paid holiday, with a rally and march to encourage activism to “Dump Trump.”

¡Que viva César Chávez!

~ Alejandro Magaña is a musician, poet, and songwriter some of the time, and a father and husband all of the time. He also works full-time as an office manager at Urban Ore in West Berkeley. He lives in North Oakland with his wife and son and books and records.

~ Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, entirely supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Sources and Inspiration:

● My mother and father. ¡Que viva mis padres!
● Chasan, Daniel. “‘Marcher,’ an interview with Cesar Chavez,” The New Yorker, May 27, 1967.
● Chavez, Cesar, Huerta, Dolores, and Valdez, Luis. “The Plan of Delano,” El Malcriado, March 17, 1966.
● Chavez, Cesar. An Organizer’s Tale: Speeches Ed. Ilan Stevens. London: Penguin Books, 2008.

This piece was first published one year ago today here at Ordinary Philosophy

Cesar Chavez Day, by Alejandro Magana

Cesar Chavez visits college - By Movimiento - Own work, cropped - CC BY-SA 3.0 httpcreativecommons.orglicensesby-sa3.0 via Wikimedia CommonsEvery year around Cesar Chavez’s birthday, as media outlets report of festivities in his honor, I’m reminded of a joke in a Simpsons episode and the strange sadness it elicited in me when I saw it: Homer Simpson is on his front lawn and is confronted with the apparition of a debonair, mustachioed man who introduces himself as, “the spirit of Cesar Chavez.”

In typical Homer confusion he asks, “Then why do you look like Cesar Romero?”

The ghost replies, “Because you don’t know what I look like!”

Cesar Chavez is certainly revered by many people, especially within the Latino community, but despite the steadily increasing ubiquity of his name across the United States, especially the American Southwest, there are still many Americans today who don’t really know who he is, let alone what he stood for, or what he accomplished.

Cesar Chavez was a Mexican-American community organizer turned labor leader and . A former migrant farmworker recruited by the Community Service Organization (CSO) in its heyday of the 1950s, he co-founded the National Farmworkers Association (NFWA,) which later became the United Farm Workers (UFW,) the first successful union for migrant farmworkers. The UFW’s membership consisted mostly of indigent Latinos and Filipinos, and their struggle for justice and dignity, fighting to gain higher wages and better conditions in the fields where they were deprived of basic needs such as clean drinking water and bathrooms, became a national moral cause under the stewardship of Chavez, who courted national and international sympathy using militant non-violent tactics in the vein of Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr, such as strikes, boycotts, fasts, and peaceful marches.

Chavez was not an imposing orator with the fire-and-brimstone timbre of the Reverend Dr. King, nor did he cut as iconoclastic a figure as Gandhi, but in his unassuming way he could be just as charismatic and endearing, and this often caught people off guard, as it did an interviewer for the New Yorker in 1973, who, “had expected, if not a Mexican-American Lenin…a young, hard, intense man bristling with revolutionary zeal. Instead we found Mr. Chavez to be a stocky man…about five feet seven …with Indian features…and a pleasant earnest manner.” With his trademark regular boys’ haircut parted on the side and wearing simple cardigans with button down plaid shirts and slacks, his fashion was more Mr. Rogers than Mr. Lenin. He looked the part of the humble Everyman that people felt they could relate to.

On a personal note, my parents actually met while working with Cesar Chavez in the early ‘70s, and when they tell stories of those days, they both recall how approachable he was with his easy but confident demeanor; how people were drawn to him and trusted him, even as he took them out of their comfort zones, like the time he sent my mom and a few other farmworkers to Chicago, to publicize and organize the Grape Boycott, even though they spoke very little English and were armed with just a few phone numbers of sympathizers there along with the names of some churches that might possibly provide them with food, room and board. They believed they could accomplish such ambitious plans because this diminutive, unpretentious man seemed capable of stopping the engine of the entire agricultural industry and took on Big Agribusiness all by himself. Before it became widely known as the slogan of Barack Obama’s presidential campaign, I grew up with my father reminding me, “¡Si se puede!” (Yes, you can!) a phrase Chavez often chanted before throngs of people at picket lines and marches.

Like Gandhi and King, he was intensely spiritual and absolutely committed to non-violence. In what may be his most recognizable aphorism, he said, “It is my deepest belief that only by giving our lives do we find life. I am convinced that the truest act of courage…is to sacrifice ourselves for others in a totally non-violent struggle for justice.” Self-immolation was a recurring theme in both word and deed: in 1968, during the Delano Grape Strike, after several tense confrontations at the picket lines nearly devolved into violence, he fasted for 25 days to encourage and remind the farmworkers that their fight was to be a non-violent one. He would fast for 24 days again in 1972, and in 1988 he fasted for 36 days(!) to bring attention to the pesticide poisoning of grape workers and their children. It is thought that his relatively early death at the age of 63 in 1993 was probably due to aggregated health complications suffered from these sacrifices. Still, even now, if you talk to people who marched with Chavez and the UFW back then, most speak of Chavez in reverential, even hagiographical ways, for to them he was como un santo: like a saint..

Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, as the UFW made sweeping legislative strides on behalf of organized farm labor, Chavez was also becoming the most widely known leader within the broader Chicano Movement, or “El Movimiento,” a civil rights movement which empowered Mexican Americans caught between two cultures, not quite Mexican enough for their Mexican immigrant forebears, nor seen as truly American by the white hegemony. The term “chicano” was originally a derogatory term for the American children of Mexican migrants, but in the Movement it was flipped, transmogrified, to be a badge of ethnic pride. Of course Chavez always made sure to situate the fight of the UFW as united with the struggle of “all farm workers across the country, the Negroes and poor whites, the Puerto Ricans, Japanese, and Arabians…the races that comprise the oppressed minorities of the United States,” but “The Plan de Delano,” a text co-authored by Chavez with Dolores Huerta and the Chicano playwright Luis Valdez, reifies and emboldens his ethnic heritage, declaring “We are sons of the Mexican Revolution.” To this day, the flag of the UFW, showing a black Aztec eagle on stark red background, is widely considered a symbol of Chicano or Latino pride. Those of us who wear this symbol, or even, as in my case, have it tattooed on their body, recognize that the life we have so firmly rooted in the United States, with access to resources and opportunities that our parents or grandparents did not have, is due to the hard work and vigilance of people like Cesar Chavez, Dolores Huerta, or my mother, Maria Saludado.

The identity politics that certainly began to swell in the 1960s have persisted despite reactionary criticism and remain particularly relevant today; an era in which the ugly scars of racism seem as starkly etched in our national consciousness as ever. As we near the end of the second term of America’s first ‘non-white’ President, as Mexican immigration continues to be a galvanizing and polarizing issue in the US, and the Latino vote is highly prized on both sides of the political aisle, conditions would seem fecund for a reboot of El Movimiento. In appropriate fashion, this year the Cesar Chavez Foundation, an offshoot of the UFW, began its annual celebration in San Fernando, the first city in the nation to commemorate Cesar Chavez Day with a paid holiday, with a rally and march to encourage activism to “Dump Trump.”

¡Que viva César Chávez!

~ Alejandro Magaña is a musician, poet, and songwriter some of the time, and a father and husband all of the time. He also works full-time as an office manager at Urban Ore in West Berkeley. He lives in North Oakland with his wife and son and books and records.

~ Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and is ad-free, entirely supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Sources and Inspiration:

● My mother and father. ¡Que viva mis padres!
● Chasan, Daniel. “‘Marcher,’ an interview with Cesar Chavez,” The New Yorker, May 27, 1967.
● Chavez, Cesar, Huerta, Dolores, and Valdez, Luis. “The Plan of Delano,” El Malcriado, March 17, 1966.
● Chavez, Cesar. An Organizer’s Tale: Speeches Ed. Ilan Stevens. London: Penguin Books, 2008.

On Empathy, Sympathy, and Compassion

I was listening to an episode of Inquiring Minds podcast the other day, and in it, cognitive scientist Paul Bloom discusses his and others’ research on the earliest manifestations of morality in human babies, a hot topic in psychology and neuroscience these days.

Near the end of the (fascinating) interview, Bloom discusses the difference between compassion and empathy, as he sees it:

‘..I’m writing a book on empathy now, and I’m against it. I’m arguing that empathy’s a poor moral guide. And it’s… it’s like saying you hate kittens, or you’re in favor of Ann Coulter… it just sounds really weird. But I would make a distinction between empathy and compassion, where empathy is putting yourself in someone’s shoes and feeling their pain. And I think empathy can do good in the short term, but it tends to distort things. It’s racist and parochial, it’s a lot easier for me …to feel empathy for someone who looks like me and is adorable, than someone who scares me or lives far away and doesn’t look like me.

Empathy is innumerate, it tends to focus on the plight of individuals, not on groups. It’s because of empathy that societies like ours tend to care much more about a little girl stuck in a well than we do about global warming. Because I can empathize with the girl and her family. Global warming is some abstract thing. Yeah, it might kill billions of people, but show me one… and if you can’t, empathy has no moral pull. Compassion is valuing people, it’s valuing human life, and in a distant sort of way. And I think in every possible way, compassion trumps empathy. Even at the local level. So it’s not just contemporary doctors, but it’s actually Buddhist theologians [who] have long pointed out that feeling empathy for suffering people will exhaust you and will burn you out and make you useless, while a more distanced compassion, where they [people] have value, and you care about them and you want them to be better, but you don’t feel their pain, is actually better to be a good person.So I’m a big champion of compassion and very down on empathy.’ – Paul Bloom, ‘Babies and the Origins of Good and Evil’, Inquiring Minds #60, 46:38 – 48:24

I was edified by Bloom’s remarks: a few times over the last several months, I thought over what I’d written in a previous mini-essay, ‘Empathy for Immigrants‘. In it, I appealed to those who take a hard-line stance against amnesty for illegal immigrants, challenging them to imagine having to choose between obeying the law and trying to procure health, safety, and access to a better life for themselves and their children.

While I continue to think it important to be able to put ourselves in others’ shoes, to take their emotional perspective, to realize that their interests are just as important to them as ours are to us insofar as we can feel with them, I’ve been doubting that this is of primary importance. To think it is, is to imply that if we don’t feel emotionally attached to others’ interests, then they might not be important. Empathy, it seems, is too narrow, too dependent on us happening to feel like being good to others. What leads to empathy in the first place?

As I was thinking about it, over time, I realized that what I was really calling for in that piece was more like sympathy, or compassion. But let’s take a moment here to consider an objection that probably already arose in your mind, or was about to: isn’t it just a question of semantics to be picky about the meanings of empathy, sympathy, and compassion? Aren’t they more or less interchangeable terms? Or aren’t they close enough to the same that the differences aren’t worth worrying about?

It’s true that they are often used interchangeably, and in some cases, it doesn’t matter which term is used, if what’s being said comes across clearly enough through context. Other times, though, they’re used interchangeably and confusingly, as in the Wikipedia article which seems to mix up the meanings of ‘sympathy’ and ’empathy’ multiple times in the first paragraph alone, and the Dictionary.com article which contradicts psychotherapist Stephen Crippen. In any case, it’s not the semantics of the words themselves which are so important (though for clarity’s sake it helps to distinguish the differences, and use accordingly), of course: it’s the ideas these terms are meant to convey.

So how do these three terms differ, and why is it important to understand the difference?

Keeping in mind that it’s the ideas behind the words, not the semantics, that are important, I’ll be using the word empathy in the way that academics and researchers such as Bloom, Rebecca Saxe, and Steven Pinker tend to use it, to refer to a state of internalizing anothers’ mental state, of ‘putting yourself in their shoes’, of experiencing, if only for a moment, another’s pain, joy, or perplexities as your own. Sympathy, while a related concept, is more often used (according to my own experience and my admittedly rather perfunctory research) to refer to a state of general concern for or identification with anothers’ experience, without necessarily internalizing it. Pinker describes it as ‘aligning another entity’s well-being with one’s own, based on a cognizance of their pleasures and pains’ (576). In other words, when we sympathize, we still identify with another’s internal experiences and care about them, but it’s enough to know they have them: we don’t necessarily have to feel them ourselves. Sympathy, then, is more like compassion, which is to care about the well-being of others and desire to help them as a result of our convictions, regardless of whether we feel like it at the time.

So to go back to my objection about empathy: it seems too narrow, too contingent, to be more than a starting point, morally speaking. It can give us the original impetus to do good, but doesn’t go far enough. Empathy gives us patriotism, local-sports-team-fandom, a feeling of religious, racial, ethnic, cultural, and ideological identity. These can all be important; David Hume points out how central the passions or ‘sentiments’ are to human morality, including empathy (in his time, termed sympathy). (Book III, Sect 1, Pt 1) Without our empathetic responses first toward our families, then our immediate social circles, then our wider community, morality would probably not exist. Those instincts first show us in life how to care about other people, as it did our earliest pro-social ancestors. Caring about people like ourselves is relatively easy.

That’s because, as Bloom points out and as history shows us, our empathetic response is usually aroused by the cute and the familiar. Just about everyone wants to help big-eyed babies, dimpled little children, good-looking people, and members of our racial, national, religious, cultural, political party, or sports team ‘tribe’.

Yet, empathy does little for us when we encounter people from other groups. We don’t like to think about it, but we rejoice when we watch someone we don’t identify with take a fall; we don’t really want to help them most of the time. This is so common, we take it for granted so much, that we don’t even notice it happening. Gun enthusiasts rejoice when George Zimmerman is set free and mock Trayvon Martin’s defenders, and anti-gun activists feel a thrill when yet another school shooting adds weight to their argument, even as both groups speak regret for the victims. Conservatives gloat over Bengazi and liberals over Iran-Contra, and act as if each occurrence is a ‘proof’ of the rightness of their party and of the evilness of the other; we say little or nothing about the dead unless it serves to bolster our talking points. We beat up fans wearing the wrong sports jersey as we leave the game, ‘our’ team victorious, and we turn up our noses as we find ourselves having to share space with unsophisticated, poor, ‘uncool’, awkward, or otherwise ‘outsider’ people. We can’t, really, imagine what it would be like if ourselves or our children belong to groups who are more routinely beaten, imprisoned, or shot while committing the sort of petty crimes and youthful indiscretions, or having a public outbreak of mental illness, that our group routinely goes through unscathed. We bomb, declare war on, execute, allow to starve and die of illness in refugee camps and across the border, and otherwise treat our fellow human beings with an abundance of neglect and destruction, because we happen to not feel like caring for them. Empathy fails all the time.

It takes that leap of the imagination, inherent in sympathy or compassion, to want to help those who are not like us. Sympathy and compassion make us want to help people not just because we feel like it but because we believe in it for its own sake, for philosophical, religious, or other ideological reasons. Experiencing more kinds of people who are not like us, personally through travel and virtually through media, expands our opportunities and our instincts for empathy to some extent. Hume made this case somewhat controversially in his time, and our experience in our new cosmopolitan, digitally connected world bears this out. Yet sympathy/compassion can extend this capacity orders of magnitude more: it leads us to universalize the kindness and generosity that we naturally extend to our members of our close communities. Sympathy/compassion is the habit of  extending our concern for others based on our beliefs about justice, community, human rights, human flourishing, and so on. When we base our convictions on the right way to treat others on reason at least as much as on our pro-social instincts, we expand our moral characters, and not only increase our sympathy/compassion, we develop and expand our capacity for empathy as well.

*Also published at Darrow, a forum for culture and ideas

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

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Sources and Inspiration:

Bloom, Paul. ‘Babies and the Origins of Good and Evil‘, Inquiring Minds podcast episode #60

Crippen, Stephen. ‘Empathy, Sympathy, and Compassion 101‘.

Hume, David. A Treatise of Human NatureVolume III – Of Morals (online). Originally printed for Thomas Longman in London, England, in 1740. (I had a glorious time referring to versions published in Hume’s own lifetime during my trip to Edinburgh!) 

Pinker, Steven. The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Had Declined. New York: Viking Penguin, 2011.

Saxe, Rebecca et al. ‘Finding Empathy‘, Video

Stueber, Karsten, “Empathy“, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2014 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.)

What is the Difference Between Empathy and Sympathy?‘, Dictionary.com Word FAQs.

Empathy for Immigrants

M.S. St. Louis, 1939, which carried 930 Jewish refugees who were turned away from the U.S, Canada, and Cuba

M.S. St. Louis, 1939, which carried 930 Jewish refugees who were turned away from the U.S, Canada, and Cuba

To those hard-liners against amnesty for people who immigrated here illegally:

Remember that many, perhaps most, have done so because they’re rescuing themselves and their children from dire poverty, from murderous drug cartels, or from other dangers. They aren’t able to immigrate legally, even if they wanted to, due to the long wait times, high cost, and stringent requirements.

Do you think that all people, morally, should always place a higher value on obeying immigration laws than on the lives and well-being of themselves and their children?

This brings to my mind a famous example of people denied entrance to this country who were fleeing danger and oppression, and were forced to return to Nazi-terrorized Europe. Untold numbers of people died as a result.

Think of your own children, family, and loved ones, and of what you would be willing to do to save them from harm. I’m betting every one of you would break a law or two.

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, entirely supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!