Opinion | Op-eds

The exercise of empathy

There has been a level of presumption in Spectator op-ed pieces lately regarding the definition and exercise of empathy. In his piece “Legacies of trauma” (Oct. 21) Gerardo Romo wrote very candidly about the pain that he has experienced while at Columbia as a queer student of color. He pointed out that, in many ways, the structure of the institution feels not only too rigid to include him in a way that makes him feel part of its community, but also often feels specifically designed to exclude him based on the identities he holds and the body he inhabits.

There have since been several pieces that have directly and indirectly addressed his piece and its general subject, and across them a disturbing trend has arisen. Though a few of these articles make reference to Romo’s piece in passing, their main focus has nothing to do with the problem that he is actually trying to highlight. Instead, they focus on the authors themselves—who, by their own admission, face few or none of the specific challenges that Romo attempted to start a dialogue around. A conversation which began as one revolving around the difficulties faced by a queer student of color—and the ways in which Columbia does not adequately address his needs—has quickly become centered around the feelings of people who acknowledge that those issues of structural, institutional inequality do not apply to them.

None of this is to say that students who do not face certain forms of institutional oppression should not be allowed to discuss things that matter to them and that cause them pain. I only think that, relatively speaking, there exists a lot more space for these conversations—not just on Columbia’s campus but also in society at large. There are far fewer campus-wide discussions about the ways that racism, sexism and homophobia present unique mental health challenges to the students who must face them on an everyday basis. It is telling that this specific conversation started by Romo barely got off the ground before it was derailed by another conversation entirely—one which rejected the validity of that initial discussion and did not genuinely seek to engage with the idea that there might be students here suffering in unique ways. 

Instead, these writers have bemoaned the fact that they aren’t allowed to speak freely about an oppression that they’ve never experienced. It is hard to believe that any of these authors take seriously the claim that racism and homophobia are distinct and deeply harmful realities for certain students—not just abstractly in the outside world but also in concrete terms at this very school. If they did, they would not treat identity politics as though it were a gimmick or based on arbitrary categorizations.

At least one of the authors of these op-eds stresses that he has the ability to empathize with people who face institutional oppression. He seems to make the assumption that empathy is something with which every rational human being is endowed, and that the fact that he has privilege should not blind any of his peers to his humanity.

But empathy, as opposed to sympathy, is predicated on understanding another person’s experience, and such understanding is learned intentionally over a lifetime, it is not instinctual. To me, meaningful empathy on this campus would require an awareness of how seldom students with marginalized identities have actually been allowed to speak to their experience and be heard—without their classmates accusing them of launching a moral attack on the students here who do not share their challenges. Empathy would require understanding the vulnerability involved when discussing personal experiences of institutional discrimination and violence. It would mean understanding that you can’t make a conversation about racism and homophobia about yourself and your feelings and at the same time admit that you face neither of those oppressions. Empathy would acknowledge that building community by continually highlighting the sameness of our experiences only makes sense if we do not continue to face challenges on the basis of our differences.

And perhaps most importantly, empathy involves listening. It involves listening much, much more than you talk—especially to people who haven’t had the space to be heard before.

 The author is a Columbia College senior majoring in English. 

To respond to this op-ed, or to submit an op-ed, contact opinion@columbiaspectator.com.

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Oh my God posted on

YEEEESSSSSSSS!!!!

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Anonymous posted on

respectfully, eloquently put. thank you for writing this.

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Wow posted on

I think this is the first time I've read something a Spec Op-Ed that didn't immediately make me cringe.

Thank you.

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Anonymous posted on

"To me, meaningful empathy on this campus would require an awareness of how seldom students with marginalized identities have actually been allowed to speak to their experience and be heard..."

Are there cases here where students of color or those who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or queer have been censored or not allowed to speak their minds? After all, Romo's piece was published and read by so many on this same op-ed page. And Bollinger not only sympathized with his statement at the fireside chat but pledged to connect him with resources that would help address the issues he was talking about. I completely understand that those sorts of promises can be seen as empty and ineffectual, but what does it look like for there to be a more open forum for these types of issues?

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Anonymous posted on

"Are there cases here where students of color or those who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or queer have been censored or not allowed to speak their minds?"

Yes. In numerous ways. In classes (the Core comes to mind). In organizations. At employment on campus. Around professors, TAs, and peers. Just listen to those around you closely and it'll be easy to hear.

As far as open structure, I think before we can get into that, we as a community of Barnard/Columbia students need to learn how to engage with each other interpersonally and actually be in true solidarity with each other and care for each other (what Imani is implying in empathy). Once that happens, then we can build. But right now, as evidenced by the Spec debate, too many seem to be invested in being "right" or putting their opinions out there and over others that, to me, we're walking all over each other. When that happens it's easy for the university to give empty and ineffectual "advice". So in short: listen and be genuinely kind.

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Anonymous posted on

"What does it look like for there to be a more open forum?" is an honest question. There are so many niche communities on this campus for addressing issues related to identity and the Columbia community, yet it's still incredibly difficult to raise awareness about certain experiences to the whole student body.

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Anonymous posted on

"—without their classmates accusing them of launching a moral attack on the students here who do not share their challenges." Ending of that sentence is key. Because really, everyone on this campus will of course allow others to speak their minds, but will often do so without really listening, or they listen with preemptive defensiveness and end up derailing the conversation by making it about themselves. That is what Imani is talking about.

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<3 posted on

ah i am so thankful for you

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Anonymous posted on

Thank fucking god this has been published.

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Anonymous posted on

Imani hit it on the mark. In my experience, part of the reason why it's difficult to talk to people on campus about these issues is that people get angry at the implication that they are ignorant about these experiences or perhaps have themselves perpetuated microaggressions or harmful norms. It often doesn't even help when talking to people who identify as progressive or liberal--in fact, this often just exacerbates their defensiveness when talking about this issue, since they're accustomed to congratulating themselves for not being as ignorant or explicitly racist/homophobic as the rest of America. And the kicker is, a lot of people start ranting about the "PC culture" here on campus as if deconstructing problematic racism/sexism/homphobia/etc. perpetuates the status quo, when in fact, PC culture serves to benefit THEM— words like "privilege" and "problematic" already exist to soften the impact in lieu of calling things out for what they actually are--e.g. bigotry.

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White Person posted on

Would like to contribute but am guessing the best way I can is by not saying anything at all?

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Anonymous posted on

correct. listen first. I know it's nearly damn impossible because you've been conditioned to see yourself as the default voice of reasoned opinion on every subject, topic, and experience since you were born, but for once, please stop talking. listen. just listen.

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