Book Review: Entangled Empathy by Lori Gruen

Entangled Empathy

Just as feminist allegiance means nothing without challenging patriarchy, it’s no longer enough to be pro-animal without engaging the emotional systems in which nonhuman rights have become ensnared. Such thinking inhales through the lungs of Entangled Empathy, from which philosopher Lori Gruen exhales a timely call to action.

Gruen begins where she must: by thumbnail-sketching her activist history, during which time she grew critical of “animal suffering,” already too vague a term to be of value to a political throat parched for want of specificity. Entangled empathy comes as a refinement of Gruen’s formative scholarship on sympathy, wherein she critiqued utilitarian animal rights trendsetters like Peter Singer for their paltry affective resonance and inability to articulate the hierarchical infrastructures from which hang the skeletons of those gone before.

As Gruen defines it, empathy is more than glorified sympathy. In the latter framework, the effects of any active moral agent (read: sympathizer) amount to nothing more than singularities. One nods, however deeply, in the general direction of doing good but moves on for having done so, leaving systemic origins unscathed. Ignorance of the profound relationships between victims and victimizers leads to compartmentalization of self-interest. Which is why we should be ever-wary of hypotheticals, such as the infamous “child or the dog” (only one of whom you have time to save from a burning house) scenario posed by Gary Francione. These leave us unhealthily equipped for the interactive possibilities of daily circumstance. While it may behoove one to recognize the spectrum of responses possible in crisis situations, confining those responses into arenas of the mind is of little more use than throwing heretics to lions.

Gruen is critical of sameness-over-difference arguments such as those espoused by another pioneering thinker, Tom Regan. Her gripe is not with the motivation but with the perpetuation of human standards as existential norms that reinforce what she calls an “arrogant anthropocentrism,” an ideology by which human significance trumps itself with illusions of grandeur. The problem with Singer and Regan is that neither’s argument is particularized. It comes down to the difference between being rational and relational. In response, Gruen proposes a compound approach in which similarities and differences are vitalized through context.

Because, really, the issue at hand is not the attribution of human qualities to animals, but lack of recognition in their entanglement. Gruen parries those who cry “anthropomorphism” by forging connections with the little things. The dangers of anthropomorphism, then, lie not in the projection of selves onto others but the erasure of others through selves. When we ascribe feelings and thoughts to animals, we are not imparting the uniquely human, but elucidating inner qualities. True anthropomorphism is assuming that animals are empty machines. Such thinking fits snugly alongside Kay Milton’s alternative concept of egomorphism, a process by which ego or self becomes the golden standard of all earthly life and serves to frame economy as a social relation.

The value of Gruen’s approach flowers through its recognition of relationships in an interconnected world. Though human suffering statistically pales in comparison to animal suffering, focus on the former betrays an egomorphic attribution of importance that blankets fatalities of creaturely life with a central ideal. Gruen can only fault the bulk of ethical theory for being so inaccessible in this regard, separated as it is from on-the-ground practice. The conundrum of standard ethical arguments lies in the fact that they, in Gruen’s words, “flatten or erase the complexity of actual moral problems.” The key word here is actual. Connecting to lived experiences is paramount in any ethical project.

Gruen’s project is, above all, a feminist one for valuing the truth of experience as something more than narrative evidence. There is no relational existence without some form of communication at play. Her approach deeply echoes, and builds upon, Marc Bekoff’s concept of “deep ethology” in that it recognizes animals as beings who thrive on communal living. Not only does she follow in the compassionate footprints of Bekoff in advocating an empathetic worldview; she fills those footprints with theoretical plaster and paints them in the practical colors of the activist’s palette. It’s an approach, too, that sidesteps unproductive debate around the concept of sentience—which, no matter how you slice it, portions its largest share to Homo sapiens—by asserting that animals deserve respect by sheer virtue of their existence. It’s not about bringing animals to our exalted level of difference, but recognizing that differences are nature itself. It is the realization that, through manipulation of nature, unfounded cruelties, and the exaltation of humans above other animals, we all have blood on our hands. Which brings us to the ecological core of her argument. This is the only logical direction in which to move, looking at the integrations of inner and outer, nature and nurture, fear and determination that are the lifeblood of advocacy. As an activist, Gruen is one who turns to this state of affairs not with confrontation, but with the realization that, as author pattrice jones would have it, living beings are “open systems” rather than objects. Seeing our bodies as systems within systems renders lofty separation impossible.

Empathy is a proven evolutionary process. Specificity is key to unlocking and understanding malfeasances of cultural appropriation and other forms of dominance-based thinking. Taking ourselves beyond comfort zones is a small price to pay when we’ve done nothing but take animals out of theirs. Gruen’s response is something far more important than a paradigm shift. It is the recognition that paradigms are themselves precepts of a hierarchically minded species. Recognition of entanglement illuminates the necessity of the micro in the meso, and of the meso in the macro.

Understanding moral perception, as practiced through this radical form of empathy, means being self-aware and reflective. It also means being preemptive. It necessarily makes mistakes through anticipation. It is a learning process. This is why Gruen aligns herself with the sadly under-recognized feminist ethics of care tradition, which harbors no illusions of objectivity or impartiality, but instead embraces integrations of subjective awareness. Entanglement breaks down the binary opposition of justice and care and guides us instead into a relational perspective of action and response, thereby honoring the truths of difference and their many manifestations across demarcations of race, class, and geographic location. Just as Bekoff argues that animals’ emotional lives are public, Gruen shows they are vividly private. And yet, we can no longer say the personal is political, because this ignores the fact that we live in an age where the political has become too personal, invading corporeal and psychological spaces with ideologies that lure us from entanglement.

Empathy is a tall order in the present day. On this point Gruen would seem to follow jones in seeing the schism between self and world as the result of a traumatic separation from nature, one subject to both conscious and unconscious reinforcement from all directions. Emotions are both physical and social, defining and reflecting dominant paradigm shifts in relation to the connectedness of all life. They are generative tools in matrices of binding force. All action moves forward. All action carries repercussions. All action is change. None of this suggests that empathy cannot be overused or misguided, for what Gruen calls epistemic failures (incorrect readings of situations) are always possible. This is why attention to the self is so vital. Just as alienation compounds itself, so does empathy generate more of the same. All it takes is a bit of logic and willingness to observe, listen, and speak through action.


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