In the first part of this series I looked at the possible limitations that might stem from the drive towards empathy that is one of the central concerns of the Medical Humanities, Narrative Medicine, and Graphic Medicine. In this post I will move away from questions of empathetic bias, and its sometimes questionable ethics, to discuss the difficulty of connecting empathetic feelings to concrete actions for change.


Fritz Breithaupt, in an essay on what he calls ‘empathy for empathy’s sake’ (151), evokes what is known in Film Studies circles as ‘the sad movie paradox’ (155). We only need look at the films that win the Oscars every year to know that ‘we are moved by sad stories and associate being moved with aesthetic pleasure and aesthetic quality’. Of course there are other apparently unpleasant emotions that we enjoy in certain circumstances, such as fear in the case of rollercoasters or horror films, but this paradox affords the greatest clue as to why we should treat empathy with a certain amount of suspicion.


Films featuring disability are an interesting illustration of this point. Just as moving films are almost guaranteed to win Oscars, films that feature a disabled protagonist frequently pick up awards for Best Picture. This year Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water (2017), in which Sally Hawkins plays a mute woman who falls in love with a humanoid fish creature, was nominated for fourteen awards and won four. Sophia Stuart, writing on the trend in Hollywood for abled actors “cripping  up” by playing disabled people, suggested that there are certain caveats to the way in which disabled people are allowed to be represented.


The stories told about disabled people are limited to real, successful, disabled figures or to people who will inspire a non-disabled audience. Whilst Stuart recognises that these stories can go some way towards humanizing disability, increasing empathy, and affecting social change, none of this really matters without disabled people telling their own stories (2018). This issue of representation and of what type of stories are told about disability has once more been brought to the foreground with the death of Stephen Hawking yesterday. Not only are we reminded of his portrayal by abled actor Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything (2014), but also to the way his death has been co-opted to suit an ableist and individualistic trope of him “overcoming” his disability, and being “free” of it in death. What an audience comes to expect from films about disability, and how these films are consumed, comes to influence what people expect from disabled people’s lives, and therefore reveal the biases and limitations inherent in empathy. It is perfectly possible, for example, for a person to feel for a disabled character in a movie and at the same time vote for a political party that is actively harming disabled people in the here and now.[1] In fact, in the case of Hawking, his achievements have often unfairly been used as a weapon against other disabled people to deny their experience, despite Hawking’s own acknowledgement of the privilege of the accommodations afforded him and the significant barriers facing disabled people today.


These films (and indeed books and comics that feature disability) reveal something more about empathy’s limitations and its less than altruistic motivations. It is possible that empathy is selfish in this regard. Paul Bloom describes the selfish-motivation theory of empathy (which he himself rejects) as helping someone in pain and distress in order to alleviate your own feelings of pain and distress. Because we cannot interact with characters in films, books, and comics we cannot help them, and therefore empathy takes on another quality where we can be said to wear empathy like a badge of pride. We engage in empathy in order to feel better about ourselves, to assure ourselves that we are more morally sound than the person next to us. According to Breithaupt, ‘empathy tends to a self-centred empowerment of the empathizer by granting [them] the privilege of knowing and perhaps controlling the emotion of the other’. In this case the other is not just the object of empathy, but also those they believe do not ascribe to their empathetic world-view. Such thinking in turn leads to a lack of self reflection about the actions and beliefs of the empathizer themselves.


The strange disconnect that is inspired by the presence of empathy in entertainment is due to the temporary and “fictional” nature of these stories. Even when stories about disability are autobiographical or “based on real events” they acquire the air of fiction due to their repacking as a coherent narrative. They are framed as separate from everyday life because we encounter them in separate spaces such as the cinema, the theatre, or within the pages of a book. Therefore we might inadvertently associate these moments of empathy with experiences of leisure or “down-time”. Suzanne Keen’s observation that ‘we engage more easily with empathy in fiction’ therefore expands to texts that may not be strictly fictional, but that we experience as such (Breithaupt, 154).


Once we have finished watching a film or reading a book, the characters within are easy to forget. According to Breithaupt, ‘tragic narratives […] are particularly suited for empathy because we know they will come to an end-there will be strong emotions, but they will come to an end with the character so that the spectator is cleansed of that character-and so can return to [themselves]’ (156). This idea of the experience of empathy being something that cleanses links empathy to the idea of catharsis. Catharsis, like empathy, has been seen as the vicarious purging of unwanted emotions that was critiqued by Plato as being dangerous and undemocratic. This line of thinking was taken further in the political theatre of Bertolt Brecht who believed that the vicarious pleasure of empathetic identification blocked audiences from thinking about their own lives and the forces of power that shaped and restrained them. Keen suggests it is easier to ‘slip into the shoes of literary characters because there are fewer costs and risks associated’ (Breithaupt, 154). As such ‘empathy does not [always] lead to active compassion, since this would involve stopping the cause of suffering’ (Breithaupt, 159).


As I stated in my previous post, I do not believe it would do us good to do away with empathy altogether. Instead, we must continue to be self-critical about our own use of empathy, and we must recognise that empathy alone is not always enough. Jesse Prinz states that although we tend to focus on empathy as the foundation of our moral judgements, other emotions such as guilt, admiration, anger, and disgust, also inform this process (215). Anger in particular has often served as a much stronger catalyst for change than empathy. Although I disagree with Prinz’s assertion that anger is without bias, anger denotes a more active, and less pitying approach to the problems faced by disabled people around the world. It is an approach that merges different emotions and actions with empathy, whilst remaining self-critical, that might begin to afford a true ‘co-experience’ of change (Breithaupt, 152).


References and further reading


Bloom, Paul. Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion. 2018. Vintage. New York.

Brecht, Bertolt. Brecht on Theatre. 2014. Bloomsbury Methuen Drama. London.

Breithaupt, Fritz. “Empathy for Empathy’s Sake: Aesthetics and Everyday Empathic Sadism”. Empathy and its Limits. 2015. Palgrave MacMillian. London.

Brown, Keah. “Saying Hawking Is “Free” From His Wheelchair Is Ableist”. Teen Vogue. 13 Mar 2018.

Keen, Suzanne. Empathy and the Novel. 2010. Oxford University Press. Oxford.

Prinz, Jesse. “Against Empathy” The Southern Journal of philosophy. 2011. 49, 5, 214-233.

Stuart, Sophia. “The Oscars Love Movies About Disability, Not Disabled Actors”. Film School Rejects. 30 Jan 2018.


[1] The significant disparity in numbers of those who turn out to protests against Brexit & Trump compared to the marches against the horrendous treatment of disabled people in the UK & the US is an example of empathetic failures on both the left and the right.

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