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Empathy, anger and the struggle against injustice

Let me describe an episode that originally moved me to think, speak and write about justice and to get involved in a number of justice movements. I call this the first of my “awakenings.”

In September 1975 I was sent by Calvin College, where I was a philosophy professor, to an international conference on Christian higher education at the University of Potchefstroom in South Africa. Potchefstroom is a small city located roughly an hour’s drive from Johannesburg. At the time, only whites were admitted as students.

Most of the South Africans present at the conference were white Afrikaners, but there were a few so-called blacks and coloureds from South Africa as well. In addition there were scholars from other parts of Africa, a sizable contingent from The Netherlands, a number of us from the U.S. and Canada, and a few from Asia.

Though the conference was not about the South African system of apartheid – recall that 1975 was well before the revolution – apartheid was the dominant topic of conversation during coffee breaks and meals, and it constantly threatened to intrude into the conference itself. Eventually the organizers of the conference consented to hold a special evening session on apartheid.

The discussion in that late night session was more intense than anything I had ever before or ever since experienced. The Dutch delegates were very well informed about South Africa and very angry about apartheid; they vented their anger at the Afrikaners. The Afrikaner defenders of apartheid in turn vented their anger at the Dutch. Later I would learn that Afrikaners fended off most critics of apartheid by telling them that they were misinformed. They could not plausibly charge the Dutch with being misinformed. So instead they charged them with being self-righteously judgmental.

Eventually the so-called black and coloured scholars from South Africa began to speak up, more in tones of hurt than of anger – or so it seemed to me at the time. They described the daily indignities heaped upon them and the many ways in which they were demeaned; they spoke of being expelled from their homes and herded off into Bantustans; with great passion they cried out for justice.

I was profoundly moved by this cry for justice coming from these victims of injustice. But more than that: I felt that I had been issued a call from God to speak up for these wronged people. I did not hear words in the air; it was by way of their speech that God spoke to me. I was convinced that fidelity to God required that I speak up for these victims of injustice in whatever way might prove appropriate for a professor of philosophy at Calvin College.

Oppressive benevolence
The response by the Afrikaners at the conference who spoke up in defense of apartheid took me completely aback. They did not contest the charge of injustice. Instead they insisted that justice was not a relevant category. Order and disorder were the relevant categories. South Africa was threatened with disorder; communists were lurking behind every bush. And as to the whole project of apartheid, they insisted that this was an act of goodwill on the part of the ruling Afrikaners. In South Africa, they explained, there were some 10 or 11 different nationalities. The system of apartheid was inspired by the ideal of each of these nationalities finding its own cultural identity. If that was to happen, they could not live mingled through each other; they would have to live separately, apart; hence, apartheid. To this visionary nationalism some added stories about their own individual acts of charity: clothes they gave to the “black” family living in the backyard that their own children had outgrown, trinkets that they gave to the family at Christmas, and so forth.

In short, the Afrikaners presented themselves as a benevolent people. I saw self-perceived benevolence being used as an instrument of oppression.

In their own voice
I returned home a changed person. I bought yards of books about the situation in South Africa and its historical origins, and read avidly. I began to think, speak and write about justice in general and about injustice in South Africa in particular. I returned to South Africa a number of times; and I became friends of many opponents of the old regime, black, coloured and white.

I have often reflected on why this experience was so moving for me. I had been a vocal supporter of the American civil rights movement, though I had not traveled to the U.S. South to participate in protest marches. I had been a vocal opponent of the Vietnam war; I had spoken out publicly in opposition. But I had not felt called, not in the way I did when confronted by the victims of injustice. I had not been motivated to think, speak and write about justice. Why was that? What made the difference?

I had read Christian scripture and heard it read ever since childhood. I now know that the theme of justice pervades Scripture: God loves justice and enjoins you and me to love justice. No doubt I knew that in 1975. But it had not sunk in. That’s how it often is with Scripture. It takes experience of a certain sort for its message to sink in.

The answer to my question that I eventually settled on was that now I had seen the faces of the wronged and heard their story in their own voice, whereas that was not the case, or was only barely the case, for my participation in the civil rights movement and in the opposition to the Vietnam War.

In his wonderful book, Just Mercy, Bryan Stevenson calls seeing the faces and hearing the voices of the wronged proximity. I had experienced proximity.
Justice prerequisite
That answer suggests a new question: What difference did proximity make?

Seeing the faces of the wronged and hearing their story in their own voice evoked empathy in me. By “empathy” I do not mean compassion, and even less do I mean pity. I did feel compassion. But the compassion was incorporated within empathy. I found myself empathetically united with these people, emotionally identified with them. I felt anger with their anger, hurt with their hurt, humiliation with their humiliation.

I don’t doubt that some people are motivated to struggle to right injustice by a sense of duty. Possibly some are motivated by the conviction that this is what a good and virtuous person does. And perhaps some are motivated by the conviction that in so acting they are imitating God and advancing God’s cause in the world. But I have come to think that, for most people, being motivated to struggle for the righting of injustice requires emotional engagement.

I should mention that you don’t actually have to be face-to-face with the wronged; film can work just as powerfully. And drama and fiction can also be powerful; witness the effect of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. We imagine what it’s like to be a person of that sort in that sort of situation. I think it’s this imagining that evokes empathy. 

Yet another question rattled around in my mind. Empathy with the wronged was evoked in me by my face-to-face encounters. But empathy was not evoked in the Afrikaners at the conference who spoke up in defense of apartheid, even though they had seen the faces and heard the voices of the wronged far more often than I had. Why the difference?

The natural response of a human being to confrontation with the faces and the voices of those who are wronged is empathetic identification with them. If one feels no empathy, then, unless one is a sociopath who lacks the capacity for empathy, one’s empathy is being blocked. This is what Scripture calls “hardening of the heart.”

Built-up, blocked-up hearts
And what explains the blocking of empathy? What explains hardening of the heart? Let me mention five factors. No doubt there are others.

One reason why empathy is often blocked is that the hard-hearted person has learned to dehumanize the victims – or if not precisely to dehumanize them, to think of them as lesser human beings with diminished sensibilities, sometimes even as loathsome. They are vermin, scum, Japs, dagos, Jew-boys, terrorists.

A second reason is perceived culpability. Their plight is of their own making. Thus empathy is out of place. The poor are poor because they are lazy; their poverty is their own fault. And so forth.

A third reason why empathy is often blocked is that the hard-hearted have embraced an ideology which says that some great good will be achieved by the present policies. Securing that great good comes at the cost of the suffering of some, and that’s unfortunate. But the great good outweighs the suffering. So one must harden one’s heart and do what the great good requires. Pol Pot preached to his followers that they must rid themselves of emotion and become purely rational.

A fourth reason why empathy is often blocked is that those whose hearts are hardened find themselves attached to the victimizers. These are one’s own people; one is attached to them. They have themselves gone through the crucible of suffering. This was a powerful factor in the case of the Afrikaners.

Last, what may be the most common of all. Empathy for the victims is blocked by the person’s realization, perhaps half conscious, that feeling empathy would lead to acknowledging one’s own complicity in the plight of the victims. Acknowledging one’s complicity would require reforming one’s way of life; and such reform is more than one can bring oneself to do. One would be ostracized by friends, make less money, lose one’s position of privilege and power. Best, then, to harden one’s heart and make contributions every now and then to charitable organizations. Then nothing has to change.

Heart treatment
To evoke empathy for the victims in those whose hearts have been hardened, and thus to advance the cause of justice, one has to diagnose the particular cause of the hardening of their heart, and then do what one can to remove that cause. In each case, one has to craft one’s approach to one’s diagnosis of what it is that is causing the blocking of empathy.

Scholarship often plays a role at this point. Adam Hochschild, in his wonderful book Bury the Chains, describes how the anti-slavery advocates in 19th century England succeeded in persuading the British public that the abolition of the slave trade would not plunge England into poverty; abolition of the slave trade would not require a radical change in lifestyle.

Sad to say, attempts to remove blockages to empathy are often unsuccessful; then pressure of one kind and another has to be applied. That’s what happened in the case of South Africa; the boycotts had an effect.

Let me conclude. My main theme has been that emotional engagement with the victims and the perpetrators of injustice are the most powerful motivators of the struggle to right injustice – empathy with the victims, anger at the latter. I don’t claim that everybody who is engaged in the struggle to right injustice is emotionally engaged in one or the other of these two ways; but I have come to believe that this is what is most common.

So if you want to engender support for a social justice movement, you have to do what you can to evoke emotional engagement with the victims and their victimizers. For those whose hearts are not hardened, the most effective strategy is to provide face-to-face encounters, along with film and fiction that invites and enables imagination. As for those whose hearts are hardened, you have to do what you can do to undo the blockages to empathy and to counter the all-too-human inclination to prefer hand-wringing or charity to the pursuit of justice.

Engaged exegesis
I am a Christian speaking to a Christian audience. But I have scarcely mentioned Scripture. What role does Scripture play in the struggle to correct injustice?

Need I tell you that empathy with the wronged is blocked in Christians as well as non-Christians? All the Afrikaners at that conference in Potchefstroom were Christians. Need I tell you that Christians as well as non-Christians often prefer hand-wringing or charity to getting involved in the struggle to correct injustice?

Ever since 1975, a good deal of my writing has been devoted to trying to open the eyes of my fellow Christians to the biblical message that God loves justice and hates injustice, and enjoins you and me to do the same. But it has been my experience that unless biblical exegesis is joined with the sort of emotional engagement that I have been discussing, nothing much happens. Our hearts have to be engaged, not just our heads! 

  • Nicholas Wolterstorff taught Philosophy at Calvin College from 1959-1989. He has published widely on aesthetics, philosophy, education and justice, including Art Rethought: The Social Practices of Art (2015). He has lectured and taught at universities around the world. This article has been revised for Christian Courier from a recent lecture given at Westmont College.

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