Notes on: Zembylas, M.  (2012) 'Pedagogies of strategic empathy: navigating through the emotional complexities of anti-racism in higher education'.  Teaching in Higher Education, 17 (2): 113-25.

Dave Harris

There seems to be a bit of a row back on the role of empathy—it is OK as long as it is used strategically, as it 'opens up affective spaces which might eventually disrupt the emotional roots of troubled knowledge -and admittedly long and difficult task' (113).

Strong emotions like 'anger, resentment, and fear' are found in discussions of racism and anti-racism.  Boler has warned us that discomfort may be unavoidable and even necessary, and others have shown how discomfort can 'block, defuse, and distract the transformation of students'.  We can see the general outlines in Ellsworth's 1989 critique of critical pedagogy.  The earlier Zembylas has also argued that emotional responses need to be addressed with 'explicit pedagogic attention' when discussing these matters.  This paper is about what we might realistically expect and how we might work tactically to act as '"conduits for students' affective responses"'(citing Lindquist, 114).

Jansen has noted that the critical theory has limits when making sense of troubled knowledge and transforming those who carry its burden in divided communities.  Knowledge can be troubling and discomforting.  Jansen's example refers to post apartheid South Africa, where troubled knowledge includes 'white's knowledge about their past' which can lead to 'shame, distress, and self defensive anger [and] atonement'.  Critical theory might need to be supplemented with additional pedagogical resources, focused on emotional aspects specifically and they are complexities.  We have to realize that the burden of dealing with troubled knowledge 'is unevenly distributed'.  Pedagogy should aim at 'the formation of new affective alliances among members of a divided community'.  Strategic empathy is one such resource, and he offers prospects and risks: in particular, it involves teachers having to empathize, sometimes against their own emotions, with the troubled knowledge that students carry, even if this troubled knowledge disturbs other students.  The approach can undermined the emotional roots of troubled knowledge and assist integration into more socially just arrangements.

Personal experience shows the problem, teaching a course on cultural difference and social inequality at the Open University of Cyprus.  The assumption was that all participants were homogeneous—Greek, orthodox Christians, white, middle class teachers.  Topics covered included stereotyping, discrimination and racism both in Cyprus and abroad, and various communication and teaching models, including multi-culturalism.  The intention was to raise awareness of 'the ubiquity and multiplicity of racism in our everyday lives' (115).  Cyprus was divided by the 1974 Turkish invasion, and there has been some recent labour migration.  Racist incidents have raised concerns, and studies of the Greek Cypriot media and education system have shown discrimination and strong negative stereotypes towards immigrants, as well as the older split between Greek and Turkish Cypriots.  As a result, loyalties are complex—Greek Cypriots have to coexist with Turkish Cypriots and deal with the increased number of immigrants.

One incident arose where Zembylas was accused of being too immigrant friendly and too hostile to Greek Cypriots, and this produced an outburst against immigrants but denying racism and wishing to remain as proper Greeks.  This led Zembylas to wonder whether he had somehow disregarded their immediate fears, concerns and emotional uncertainty [!]  He realized that his teaching could be seen as just a moralistic approach, sympathetic only to immigrants.  He should have taken into account the strong emotions of his students.  He eventually saw a way to 'find strategic ways to empathise with students' troubled knowledge, even if this knowledge was upsetting to me' (116).

What are the emotional roots of racism and anti racism?  [A review of the issues concerning emotions follows, with the usual themes—emotions are not individual but social and political; sociologists have long been interested in emotional expressions; emotions play a crucial role in bonding and social division as in connections between bodies; we need to see how emotions get attached to certain ideas, including race].  Fanon pioneered the work here to show emotional undercurrents attached to racism.  Racism itself is social political and historical, 'constructed and discursive' (117), and has a material existence in bodily markers and emotional practices which lead to bonding and division.  Racism is also complex, not just a matter of inequality, and not just a matter of cognitive beliefs.  In particular, we need to account for its 'embodiment and affectivity' and how this leads to 'exclusive subject categories'.

There is some recent research showing how direct experience is less influential than 'social, political, and educational forces' which provides social and spatial boundaries and attach particular emotions to them.  Berlak has described how arguments between black teachers and white students produced 'shock and surprise, after a heated exchange', and how this broke the originally neutral and uninvolved discussions to reveal residual racism and emotional undercurrents [and the need to confront them]. Critical analysis of emotions will help us understand these reactions and navigate their way through the 'emotional complexities of racial histories' (118), experienced by both teachers and students.  Thus [the familiar conclusion]: 'Anti racist pedagogies, I argue, are essentially pedagogies of emotion'[so the emotional dimensions have now become not just present, but central].

Normally, the issues are addressed through calm systematic analysis, with emotions ignored.  But there is troubled knowledge, including 'the other's "knowledge of injury"' [and not just with 'race' either] .  Classically, critical theory has analyzed the structures of oppression in order to liberate the marginalized, but this 'has little value in conflict and post - conflict societies'.  There are classrooms that are no longer homogeneous with 'a common understanding of oppression, but deeply divided places' with contested narratives underpinned by the politics of emotions.  Educators themselves can carry this troubled knowledge.  Jansen worked in post apartheid South Africa and notice that those who benefited from apartheid 'carry with them troubled knowledge from the past', yet now had to work with former victims.  The multiple stories about this trouble knowledge should be engaged to build common understanding.  Without such understanding for 'the emotional expression of racist views', students will be alienated.  It is not enough to analyse the formation of hegemony, and we need to focus on people carrying troubled knowledge.  [This seems to be a strange argument here that racists and other oppressors are not victims of hegemony themselves, needing to be liberated by the same critical analysis.  So what does produce racism?  Only the beneficiaries and oppressors are racist? It badly needs studies like  Cashmore on the 'everyday logic' of racism]

It is important not to take sides too early, but this 'happens in critical theory'(119) [so it needs to be less emotional and more analytic?].  Zembylas notes that his own taking of sides failed to engage students' emotional concerns, some of which 'may have been legitimate, others not so'.  Some clearly felt injured because they were perceived as perpetrators.  What is needed is to grasp that racism causes injury to both self and other.  Critical theory classically stresses reason and knowledge, but 'this has systematically ignored the deep emotional structure of faith and belief', and it can even deny the emotional impulses pushing teachers towards critical pedagogy, and their own beliefs.

The goal is to create safe spaces to discuss these matters 'in critical and productive dialogue', to not take sides.  At the same time, we need to make sure that 'the recklessness of accusation is [not] simply tolerated' [so we all need to get cool, academic and reasonable—this stance triumphs over emotional commitment after all?] Such a pedagogical spaces will be fragile.  It might involve the deliberate adoption of a pedagogy of discomfort 'to enhance the learning experience of students who struggle to understand racism and social injustice'[what a euphemism!  Those who do not agree are to be discomfited?].  Even so, 'many things can go horribly wrong' (120)—misunderstanding, the emergence of troubled knowledge, and 'perhaps disruptions'.  Not all students respond in the same way, not all benefit, some resist, some experience distress.  We need to think strategically, to ask 'under what circumstances discomforting learning may help' [not before time!].

Empathy might have a role.  It is ambiguous as we know from earlier work.  Boler has distinguished between active and passive empathy [discussed elsewhere], and favours the former.  Passive empathy tends to lead nowhere.  Both Boler and Zembylas have pointed to the dangers of empathy, which include 'pity, voyeurism or empty sentimentality', but there is also a 'reconciliatory perspective', which can draw both sides 'into shared human community' leading to 'rehumanization of the other', and she had reflective engagement, including 'realizing that the other is like me' (121) [so the Same triumphs again].  This can be expressed in [classic bourgeois counselling] terms: '"I recognize the troubled knowledge you carry and the emotional injury this inflicts on me, others or your self, but I choose to rebuild our emotional connectedness"'[just making this statement is enough then?]

Reconciliatory empathy, except that even individuals were troubled knowledge possess the same rights and this 'involves a genuine effort to get to know the other' without categorizing [usual tautology here -this defines reconciliatory empathy, and also assumes its effects].  It involves emotional openness to 'traumatic racial injury'[dramatizing the issue here—did people fight wars of liberation only to overcome trauma?], and tolerates paradox, even seeing it as enriching. These paradoxes include having to recognise the wounds of the perpetrator from the burden of troubled knowledge.  Here [unlike the earlier discussion of wounding as unhelpful], recognizing it is a sign of ethical responsibility and invites reflection.  Woundedness can be the basis for relationships with victims, 'new affective connections'.

Lindquist offers a personal example about students becoming uneasy to talk about events in Iraq, and claims that the war was unjust.  She found it difficult to stay silent, but developed 'empathetic engagement' with their 'conservative and uncritical positions'.  Apparently it worked.  She made herself '"strategically naive"'(122), by asking how they wanted to conduct the discussion, and then trying to develop empathy for their positions.  This is strategic empathy, and in the involves educators in 'the difficult work of empathizing with views' that one may find unacceptable or offensive', without condoning them, of course. 

In his case, he tried to provide space for students complex responses, trying to imagine what it would be like for some to think that Cyprus was once a place with a clear identity, threatened by immigration; what it felt like to be unequal to immigrants; how a 'structure of feeling' had developed that lead to resentment against immigrants and other enemies.  He also realised there was an ethical responsibility here, and a need to teach 'with ambiguity, ambivalence and paradox'[instead of just preaching at them like he used to?].  He realized that strategic empathy was relational, and 'both emotional and strategic'[otherwise it would look a bit cynical?].  There is a need to avoid premature closure and sustain 'the possibility of transformation'[a bit of a hint of teacher heroism].

To develop a pedagogy of strategic empathy, we should based teaching and learning on troubled knowledge, developing a 'new ethical relationality and emotional culture in the classroom. We need to trace 'histories' of refusal, shame, anger, resentment, and so on' (123), combining affective connections with critical interrogation [tautology and reassertion of the problem].

In conclusion, emotion needs to be recognized as a component of troubled knowledge.  Social and cultural norms are 'deeply entrenched', and challenging them means a challenge to emotional relations to them.  We should focus on how to access 'the deep emotional knowledge of race experience by students were most likely to resist change'.  This will require not just 'the same old rational argumentation about the moral value of anti racism', but a new pedagogy focusing on emotional complexities.  We need to keep such an approach within boundaries, however.  Questions that remain are aware that teachers should become therapists, what happens when students leave the classroom, how we might deal with our 'own prejudices and limitations' and perhaps undertake therapy ourselves.  Nevertheless we should at least think about whether strategic empathy could become valuable.

References include Ellsworth, E. ( 1989) 'Why doesn't this feel empowering?  Working through the repressive myths of critical pedagogy'.  Harvard Educational Review 59(3): 297-324.

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