Empathy After 9/11

Daniel O'Gorman


In his book, Empathy and Moral Development, the psychologist Martin Hoffman defines empathic response as ‘the involvement of psychological processes that make a person have feelings that are more congruent with another’s situation than with his own situation’ (Hoffman 30). An emphasis on such empathic connections has been prominent in the field of trauma studies since the 1990s, and particularly in the work of Cathy Caruth, who suggests in Unclaimed Experience that ‘History, like trauma, is never simply one’s own, that history is precisely the way we are implicated in each other’s traumas’ (Caruth 24).


"9/11 Memorial Lights" viewed from Brooklyn Bridge [Image by Barry Yanowitz under a CC-BY-NC-SA license]


In recent years, a rhetoric not dissimilar to this has been gaining ascendency well beyond the academic sphere: on his campaign trail in 2007, for instance, Barack Obama famously stated that what the US Supreme Court lacked under the Bush administration was ‘the empathy to recognize what it's like to be a young, teenaged mom; the empathy to understand what it's like to be poor or African-American or gay or disabled or old. And that's the criteria by which I'm going to be selecting my judges’ [1].

The events of September 11 2001 and its long-tem aftermath have, more than any other contemporary political issue, prompted critical theorists to adopt a comparably empathic line by calling for a political response founded in the experience of post-9/11 trauma and mourning for the dead. The thinker who has taken up this position most prominently is Judith Butler, who argues in Precarious Life that ‘Such mourning might (or could) effect a transformation in our sense of international ties that would crucially rearticulate the possibility of democratic political culture here and elsewhere’ (Butler 40). Her 2011 lecture on the subject, delivered at the Nobel Museum, Oslo, is available to watch here.

A comparable position can be identified in a number of the essays in Judith Greenberg’s edited collection, Trauma at Home: After 9/11. Marianne Hirsch, for instance, invokes Walter Benjamin in a discussion of photographs that she took on and after September 11, suggesting that the images are ‘composed of layers of interconnected moments’ (Hirsch 73). The topic is engaged with most fully, however, in Jill Bennett’s contribution to the collection, ‘The Limits of Empathy and the Global Politics of Belonging’. Bennett draws on the distinction that Kaja Silverman – herself borrowing from Max Scheler – elsewhere makes between ‘heteropathic’ and ‘ideopathic’ modes of empathic identification (the former implying ‘an identification with an alien body or experience’, the latter being ‘essentially self-referential, grounded on shared reality’), suggesting that ‘[i]deopathic identification with the victims of the World Trade Center attacks is … dependent on maintaining a sense of the victims as sufficiently “like us” to enable us to imagine ourselves in their place’ (Bennett 134). This, in turn, leads her to ask ‘on what basis, then, were “alien” identifications repudiated and cultural affinities reinscribed? And why did the suffering of one particular group engender empathy at the cost of another?’ (Bennett 134).


Firemen's boots at the 9/11 memorial in Battery Park [Image by Ulterior Epicure under a CC-BY-NC-ND license]


This kind of questioning is also evident in Michael Rothberg’s contribution to the volume, in which he explores the ‘volatile dynamics of intersecting experiences of suffering’ (Rothberg 148). He expands upon it in his chapter, ‘Seeing Terror, Feeling Art’, in Literature After 9/11, edited by Ann Keniston and Jeanne Follansbee Quinn. Arguing that ‘terrorism doesn’t so much eliminate as readjust affect’, he identifies the writing of Don DeLillo as being particularly able to ‘help us to reimagine the possibility of seeing and feeling at the same time in order to foster an embodied form of understanding’ (Rothberg 2008: 139, 131). The literary critic, Richard Gray, takes a similar line. Although more critical of DeLillo (as well as of similarly prominent authors of 9/11 fiction, such as John Updike and Jay McInerney), he argues that certain other novelists have shown a tendency to ‘respond to the bigger picture’ (Gray 134). These include Russell Banks, Jennifer Egan, Deborah Eisenberg, Rattawut Lapcharoensap, Cormac McCarthy and Mohsin Hamid, writers who, he posits, at least to some degree participate in an ‘enactment of difference’ (Gray 134).

The contribution that these theorists have made towards a reformulation of the mechanics of empathic identification after 9/11 has been valuable in numerous ways, not least in countering the arguable deficit of empathy in the Western public sphere for those suffering the effects of unfettered neoliberal expansion during the years leading up to the attacks. However, I would like to offer something of a constructive critique. While I do not want to undermine the importance of empathic affect in the post-9/11 geopolitical context, in my view the arguments put forward by these thinkers might benefit from a more extensive thinking-through of the concept’s potential shortfalls. As Hoffman makes clear in his study, empathic response – while crucial to the project of ‘demand[ing] basic human rights everywhere’  – can in some situations actually be counter-productive in the progression towards this ethical goal (Hoffman 298). He describes a number of ‘self-destructive mechanisms’ by which empathy can effectively undercut itself, which he collects under the umbrella term ‘empathic over-arousal’: that is, ‘an involuntary process that occurs when an observer’s empathic distress becomes so painful and intolerable that it is transformed into an intense feeling of personal distress, which may move the person out of the empathic mode entirely’ (Hoffman 198). He argues that ‘the culmination effect may be that the observer’s empathic distress diminishes to the point of the person becoming indifferent to the victim’s suffering’ (Hoffman 205-6).


Empathy: responding to the bigger picture [Image by Elisa Dudnikova under a CC-BY-NC-ND license]


With this in mind, I would tentatively suggest that a new post-9/11 ethics drawn from trauma-induced empathy might not in itself be sufficient for a serious rethinking of the contemporary politics of identity and difference. I would posit, rather, that in order for empathy to have significant practical effect beyond the academic sphere, it needs to be compounded with thinking itself, in the sense in which Hannah Arendt defines the term: namely, as a ‘two-in-one’, or ‘the specifically human actualization of consciousness in the thinking dialogue between me and myself [which] suggests that difference and otherness … are the very conditions for the existence of man’s mental ego’ (Arendt 187). Empathy without thought – that is, without an acknowledgement of the ‘dialogue’ between the self and its internal other, or the ‘duality of myself with myself’ – can easily become not only a self-defeating mechanism, but also, more damagingly, a narcissistic and inadvertently imperialistic one, in which the empathic act takes precedence over the political action that it can hypothetically initiate (Arendt 187). By compounding empathy with ‘thought’, it may actually be possible to reinforce what Dominick LaCapra calls ‘empathic unsettlement’, or the ‘desirable affective dimension of inquiry which complements and supplements empirical research and analysis’ (LaCapra 78). In other words, in order for theorists of post-9/11 trauma to resist falling prey to ‘empathic over-arousal’, it might be necessary for them to acknowledge a need for empathy itself to be ‘unsettled’ and critically interrogated.


How can we teach "empathic unsettlement"? [Image by sigckgc under a CC-BY license]


My point is not so much that empathy needs to be toned down or reduced, but rather that the recent drive in theory towards a more indiscriminate empathic response to global violence since 9/11 is to some degree wrongly framed: specifically, I would suggest there has been a tendency to equate a lessening of empathic discrimination too easily with an increase in empathy for those hitherto beyond its reach. In contrast to this, I am arguing in favour of more, not less, discrimination in post-9/11 empathic response. Diverging to some extent from Butler’s identification of the ‘precariousness’ of life (and, in turn, the equal horror of all violence regardless of its context) as a basis for broadening the scope of empathic global relations, I would suggest that it is precisely because of this equal precariousness of all life that a more thoughtful judgement needs to be made about what constitutes an unjustifiable act of violence. In order to empathise with a victim of violence, it is, as Butler rightly suggests, necessary to recognise his or her life as precarious, but I would add that it is also necessary to recognise that s/he is a victim, and as such a victim of something. While this ‘something’ might not be identifiable straight away, it can potentially set in motion a trail of thought that aims at coming to a judgement about the violence in question, as such causing an instinctive, indiscriminate empathy with the victim to evolve into a qualified, discriminating one, placing it in context and creating the circumstances necessary for an appropriate empathically-informed intellectual response to take place. It is precisely such a response that contemporary theory engaging with 9/11 and its aftermath has to some degree fallen short of either calling for or achieving.


CITATION: Daniel O'Gorman, "Empathy after 9/11," Alluvium, Vol. 1, No. 1 (2012): n. pag. Web. 1 June 2012, http://dx.doi.org/10.7766/alluvium.v1.1.05.


[author] [author_image timthumb=’on’] http://www.alluvium-journal.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/12/Daniel-OGorman-pic1.jpg[/author_image] [author_info]Daniel O'Gorman is completing a PhD in post-9/11 fiction and critical theory in the Department of English at Royal Holloway, University of London and is Associate Lecturer at Buckinghamshire New University. [/author_info] [/author]


Works Cited:

Arendt, Hannah. The Life of the Mind (New York and London: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1978).

Bennett, Jill. ‘The Limits of Empathy and the Global Politics of Belonging’, in  Judith Greenberg, (ed.), Trauma at Home: After 9/11, (Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press, 2003).

Butler, Judith. Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence (London and New York: Verso, 2006).

Caruth, Cathy. Unclaimed Experience: Trauma, Narrative, and History (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996).

Gray, Richard. ‘Open Doors, Closed Minds: American Prose Writing at a Time of Crisis’, in American Literary History, 21, No. 1 (2009): 128-151, http://dx.doi.org/10.1093/alh/ajn061

Greenberg, Judith (ed.). Trauma at Home: After 9/11, (Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press, 2003).

Hirsch, Marianne. ‘I Took Pictures: September 2001 and Beyond’, in Trauma at Home: After 9/11, ed. Judith Greenberg (Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press, 2003).

Hoffman, Martin. Empathy and Moral Development: Implications for Caring and Justice (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000).

Keniston, Ann and Jeanne Follansbee Quinn (eds). Literature After 9/11 (Oxford: Routledge, 2008).

LaCapra, Dominick, Writing History, Writing Trauma (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001).

Livingstone, Abby and Mark Murray. ‘Context of Obama’s “empathy” remark’, MSNBC (http://firstread.msnbc.msn.com/_news/2009/05/01/4430634-context-of-obamas-empathy-remark).

Rothberg, Michael. 2003. ‘“There is no poetry in this”: Writing, Trauma, and Home’, in Judith Greenberg, (ed.), Trauma at Home: After 9/11, (Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press, 2003).

Rothberg, Michael. 2008. ‘Seeing Terror, Feeling Art’, in Ann Keniston and Jeanne Follansbee Quinn (eds), Literature After 9/11 (Oxford: Routledge, 2008).



[1] Barack Obama, speech to Planned Parenthood, 17 July 2007, qtd in Abby Livingstone and Mark Murray ‘Context of Obama’s “empathy” remark’, MSNBC (http://firstread.msnbc.msn.com/_news/2009/05/01/4430634-context-of-obamas-empathy-remark).



Please feel free to comment.

8 Replies to “Empathy After 9/11”

  1. This prompted me to think about the representations in British culture of the First World War. Often the tragedy of that conflict seems to become generalised into a narrative of the pity of war without really exploring the specifics of the historical situation. The image of 'lions led by donkeys' becomes a symbol of the organised callousness of politicians and generals that borders on a 'so it goes' resignation. We can thus construct an image of ourselves as being liberal, tolerant and humane without bothering to comprehend the complex nexus of nationalism, identity, class and struggles for power between competing nations and empires that create armed conflict. The moving individual stories of the men dying in the trenches paradoxically effaces the reality of the structures that lead to war. The personal becomes depoliticised in historical fiction and cuts off the realities of the period from the realities of our own times. Thus suffering created by politics in our contemporary situation can be similarly generalised and stripped of its ugly underlying realities. So it goes.

  2. Dan– really interesting piece. The accompanying photos got me thinking about the project of memorialisation at the site– is the memorial a concretisation of empathy? I guess I am thinking that maybe the memorial splits the empathetic project: which remains a vivid legacy in global politics and to the communities directly effected; but is potentially subsumed into an apprehendable, map-able, narrative of NYC for vast swathes of people who have always been at a remove. Perhaps the meditaion of the event links into that last point– it always-already was a memorial in some abstract way. Anyway, really interesting– thanks!

  3. Zara – I might have to take some of the responsibility for "narrativising" Dan's article through choice of accompanying images! Since we have a CC-BY license we can only use images shared through similar Creative Commons agreements which meant that Dan's original images weren't able to be used on the website. 

    I'll leave Dan to respond to the point about concretising empathy…

  4. Just wanted to add that one of the post-9/11 novels that is deeply invested in questions of memory, trauma and empathy, and seldom gets discussed in this context, is EL Doctorow's Homer and Langley (2009). The novel concerns two brothers who hoard objects from across the twentieth century in a upmarket brownstone in New York. It won't spoil it to say that the end of the novel has them dying buried under the pile of their stuff (the weight of memory) in a metaphorical restaging of the attack on the world trade center. The novel is invested in how memory and memorialisation "concretise empathy" to use Zara's phrase and leave us unable to progress – the stultifying effects of memory in a post-9/11 world. Worth looking at in the context of Daniel's discussion of the possible dangers of excessively empathic responses.  

    Thanks for the comments, everyone.
    Jim – WW1 is an interesting comparison, and not something that I had thought about. I think you’re right to make the connection. There’s definitely a depoliticising aspect to the way in which the war is sometimes represented in mainstream British culture: we’re often encouraged to empathise in a general sense with the soldiers’ suffering in the trenches, like you say, without thinking too much about the social and political circumstances that put them in that position in the first place. (Paul Gilroy has made a related argument regarding the nationalistic ‘postcolonial melancholia’ that he sees as characterising much of the British collective memory of WW2.) On the other hand, I’m not sure I would say this necessarily is always the case, particularly when it comes to soldiers’ personal stories. As some – although, admittedly, not all – of the work in Holocaust/trauma studies has shown, first-person testimony in particular can provide a useful way of concretising the abstract, indiscriminate (and sometimes hollow or rhetorical) sense of empathy that people feel towards the figure of the anonymous soldier. In this sense, details of soldiers’ experiences can actually be an effective catalyst for remarrying the personal to the political. So, I suppose what I’m saying is that my problem might not be with the stories themselves so much as with the way that they’re framed by culture: the romanticised Wilfred Owen beloved of Daily Mail readers is very different from the Wilfred Owen whom the same readers would encounter were they to actually go back and re-read some of his poetry.
    Zara – I’m not sure what I think about the 9/11 memorial, to be totally honest. I’m always a bit stumped by questions about it! Maybe it’s because I’m not a New Yorker, and the memorial is connected to its geographical location in a way that literature is (arguably) not. What I would say, though, is that perhaps we can see the controversy about how long it has taken to decide on the memorial’s form as itself being characterised, at least in part, by an argument about empathy: the question of who exactly it is that visitors to the memorial are empathising with is fraught with political implications (to what extent are visitors prompted to think about the victims as New Yorkers, Americans, world citizens, business people, kitchen assistants, male, female, black, white, Jewish, Muslim e.t.c.? And if all of the above, then to what extent? And how can the memorial achieve this?). Jill Bennett gets at these questions in her discussion of Kaja Silverman in Trauma at Home. Not sure if that answers your question!
    Michael – Thanks for mentioning the Doctorow book. I haven’t read it myself, but it’s one more to add to the list! 

    Also, Zara – I wonder whether Jonathan Lethem might be doing something similar, albeit in a very indirect way, in Chronic City? A tiny group of privileged Manhattanites trapped on their (virtual?) island – where 9/11 doesn’t seem to have taken place – read a ‘War Free’ edition of the New York Times and are literally unable to imagine – let alone empathise with – the world beyond the Lincoln tunnel. Maybe memorialisation can’t take place until the loss has been externalised. Or maybe the memorial is the externalisation, providing a reification /‘concretisation’ of the loss. Which, in turn, might produce a more ‘heteropathic’ sense of empathy, i.e. imagining the victim’s suffering without necessarily first needing to think of him/her as sufficiently ‘like’ oneself. Until this empathy with difference occurs, one is stuck in a little virtual world, like  polar bear on an ice floe. (A little sketchy, I admit… need to think it through a bit more!)

  7. Hi Daniel,
    Great piece! A recent article that touches on similar issues is "Holding on to 9/11: the Shifting Grounds of Materiality" by Laura Tanner (PMLA Jan 2012). Tanner argues for a re-appraisal of the role of media in the apprehension of 9/11 and for a more complex engagement with the empathic responses allowed (perhaps even encouraged) by mediated experience. 

  8. Hi Daniel
    Thanks for a really useful and provocative article and apologies for my late arrival at the discussion. I agree that LaCapra's work is still the most helpful for theorising empathy, as his formulations crucially maintain an equal balance between empathy's cognitive and affective components. The problem with Hoffman's approach, encapsulated in your opening quotation, is the idea that we need to feel 'more' for the other than ourselves in order to empathise, when as you rightly point out we should simultaneously maintain an objective perspective that preserves both historical specificity (as Rick Crownshaw argues in his recent book The Afterlife of Holocaust Memory in Literature and Culture) and the otherness of the other. On the problem of victims and victimhood, I recently saw Carolyn Dean give a paper in which she argued that until we find ways to acknowledge and preserve the dignity, agency and resilience of people affected by traumatic events, they will always be reduced to abject victimhood, the object of sympathy and pity but never productive empathy and action. I'm not sure if she's published this work yet, but her existing books on the subject are of great interest too.

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