The risks of empathy: Interrogating multiculturalism's gaze
Empathy is widely embraced as a means of educating the social imagination; from John Dewey to Martha Nussbaum, Cornel West to bell hooks, we find empathy advocated as the foundation for democracy and social change. In this article I examine how students' readings of Art Spiegelman's MAUS , a comicbook genre depiction of his father's survival of Nazi Germany, produces the Aristotelian version of empathy advocated by Nussbaum. This ‘passive empathy', I argue, falls far short of assuring any basis for social change, and reinscribes a ‘consumptive' mode of identification with the other. I invoke a ‘semiotics of empathy', which emphasizes the power and social hierarchies which complicate the relationship between reader/listener and text/speaker. I argue that educators need to encourage what I shall define as ‘testimonial reading' which requires the reader's responsibility.
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