English Item Journal Article Research

When Empathy Goes Wrong

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Written by Aimee Roundtree

It has been argued that fixating on the big picture–such as tracking numbers–can obscure the lived experience of homelessness. Knowing, for example, that, according to the latest national estimate, Texas experienced a 1.8 percent increase in homelessness in 2017 may not help us fully understand the social issue from a human, individual perspective

Understanding stories of homelessness can help us find meaningful solutions, but understanding these stories is not necessarily intuitive.

In a new article entitled “‘Should You Encounter’: The Social Conditions of Empathy,” published in POROI: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Rhetorical Analysis and Invention, Eric Leake, an assistant professor of English, found that first-person accounts of homelessness did not evoke the empathetic response expected.

Leake examines a newspaper series written by a homeless person, as well as the responses published in a Nevada newspaper, to illustrate dynamics of empathy from a social psychology and moral philosophical perspective. Leake argues that, in this very public exchange between a homeless contributor and newspaper readers and subscribers, empathy took an ironic turn: the more readers and subscribers put themselves in the homeless contributor’s shoes (or what Leakey terms the “self-other overlap”), the more it gave them the space to criticize the homeless contributor for not making decisions that they would make and not behaving as they would.

“I find the irony of empathy to be that the very social forces that would necessitate an expansion of empathy also inhibit it through increasing social division and the reluctance of readers to recognize their own vulnerabilities in the position of others,” Leake writes.

Leake’s rhetorical analysis can help citizens and policy makers reflect on their own assumptions and valuations about the homeless.

About the author

Aimee Roundtree

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