Friday, August 1, 2014

On Empathy, Social Movements, and Universalism

On Empathy, Social Movements, and Universalism: Loaned from German, "empathy" only became a word in English in 1909. As a sentimental feeling, it taps into the notion of human suffering, particularly by pushing people to become "totally immersed" in another person's perspective. It differs from sympathy in that sympathy merely reflects sorrow for another's loss (while empathy is geared toward "feeling" another's pain). Empathy also became an effective strategy for invoking social change at the turn of the 20th century, as "muckraking" photojournalists like Jacob Riis sought to elicit empathy among the upper classes regarding the wretched conditions in New York City tenements. After first eliciting empathy, a social movement can emerge. In general, social movements are informed by some sense of inequity or injustice in society at large. Key aspects of social movements include leaders that articulate ideas, followers that personally commit to those ideas, and organizations that get built from the "bottom up." Where universalism fits into this social milieu is precisely when thinking about everybody's basic nature. That is, universalists call for people to recognize a set of elemental qualities which define much of the human experience. Jane Addams was one such universalist who saw a common (moral) dignity in each person, regardless of race, ethnicity, class, language, gender, age, or religion.

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