Essay in Expansions: 100 Responses to “How Will We Live Together?”, edited by Hashim Sarkis and Ala Tannir. Venice: La Biennale di Venezia, 2020.
There is a persistent assumption that when we do feel the suffering of others, we are prompted to relieve it. This drift from empathy to good deeds has structured Western moral philosophy and politics since the seventeen-hundreds. Rousseau analyzed it under the rubric of pitié while Adam Smith under sympathy, but both positioned it at the center of ethical judgments and actions.
More urgently, empathic arousal has been the fulcrum of humanitarian reason and its system unidirectional of care. In the humanitarian equation, depictions of suffering mobilize empathy to solicit donations. To use Michel Agier’s term, these depictions of the human present life stripped bare in the degradations of suffering, reifying nothing else or other than absolute and essentialized victimhood. Thus, the problem is not what humanitarians call “compassion fatigue” — the desensitization due to overexposure to stories and spectacles of suffering — but rather, the acceptance of asymmetry that empathy implies. A world is divided between haves and have nots, benefactors and beneficiaries, where rights, desires, and interests are not enacted and negotiated but donated and bestowed at the beholders will.