Empathy Awareness

Popular actress Kate Winslet has announced that she is writing a book to promote autism awareness and to raise money for an autism charity she founded, the Golden Hat Foundation. The book will feature poems by an autistic child and pictures of several celebrities wearing a golden hat. Each of the celebs will talk about what they imagine it would be like to suddenly gain the ability to communicate.

The charity itself seems well-intended. It seeks to help non-speaking autistic people learn to communicate, while also providing them with a good academic education and job training. Its mission statement declares, “The Golden Hat Foundation is a non-profit organization dedicated to eliminating barriers for people with autism around the world, and creating an environment that holds these individuals as intellectually capable.”

But with all due respect for Winslet’s intentions, this fundraising method seems open to criticism as a misplaced appropriation of the voices of actual autistic people. It has what might be described as colonialist overtones to it, rather like those 19th-century charitable appeals in which prominent members of society urged wealthy white donors to imagine how they’d feel if they were poor unfortunate savages in need of civilizing.

As I discussed in a post called More Doing, Less Empathizing, this approach of imagining what it would be like to be someone else is mainly what’s measured on empathy tests. The highest scorers on such tests are those who often imagine how the world looks to others and who pity those regarded as less fortunate. High levels of empathy, as so measured, seem to be in conflict with the multicultural approach of respectfully listening while other people describe their own feelings and experiences.

What’s often called empathy these days, particularly when we’re told that autistic people lack it, seems to consist of a tendency to make assumptions about others’ feelings while overlooking the existence of different perspectives. As such, what’s really being measured is one of the styles of consciousness discussed by Mark Stairwalt last year:

“When you behave as if there are not all that many right, healthy, or justifiable ways to be human, when you see differences as deviations from an ideal rather than variations on multiple ideals, when you discount gray tones for black and white, when you focus on the literal rather than the metaphorical, your overall style of consciousness might be said to be monotheistic—yea, though you are still tossed around and toyed with by various lesser gods, just like the rest of us.”

As we head into April and prepare for random celebrities telling us all about what they imagine it would be like to be an autistic person, I suggest another awareness event: Empathy Awareness. We could all use a reminder that empathy, as the word has come to be defined in today’s society, often doesn’t have much to do with genuine understanding of others’ feelings and experiences.

on 03/30/11 in featured, Society | No Comments | Read More

Leave a Reply