Political Theory

Humility and Empathy in Emancipatory Politics



What does it look like for members of differently situated social groups to cultivate understanding in ways that are productive in the context of emancipatory social movements? Through a reading of the use of empathy and humility in antebellum antislavery narratives, I criticize a model of such understanding grounded in empathy and defend a model grounded in humility. On the empathy model, increasing understanding consists in learning more about the experience of members of other social groups. I argue that when privileged political actors focus on cultivating empathy with subordinated political actors, they tend to act in ways that efface the latter’s own political judgment and agency. On the humility model, increasing understanding consists in acknowledging the limits and particularities of one’s social position. Cultivating humility is still a matter of increasing understanding, however: humble political actors are better able to acknowledge other persons as autonomous and equal political agents.


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