Brandon Marlon
One of the People

Empathy vs. “Representation”

The current cultural and political preoccupation with “representation” leaves much to be desired. Regrettably, it seems that either none have thought through this politically correct concept or, much more likely, none has had the gumption to challenge it and reveal its glaring, fatal flaw.

The faint of heart are understandably reluctant to question an idea that seems born of good intentions; offering a countervoice against the prevailing zeitgeist is never easy, and dissenting from Now Trending notions suffused with an aura of virtue is especially unappealing, even to the most intellectually honest.

But honest reflection and conversation can edify humanity, even if they entail slaying a few sacred cows in the process.

The idea that all human groups need to be represented in every sector of the public sphere presumes that everything needs to appear like the United Nations or the Olympics, regardless of the purpose or mandate of the endeavor. This is as absurd as requiring every singular color in the spectrum to be a rainbow.

Underlying “representation” is the thoughtless and mistaken presupposition that every definable group needs to dispatch delegates or emissaries to occupy positions, regardless of their qualifications or experience or suitability, in order to satisfy standards of fairness. When this happens, however – and this point is wholly lost on advocates of “representation” – it is patently unfair to persons from whatever background who actually deserve such positions. Well-intentioned or no, “representation” amounts to no more than an artificial, aesthetic diktat that privileges tokenism over merit, and when merit loses, everyone suffers as a result.

Worse, faulty reasoning lies at the very epicenter of the half-baked argument for “representation”: without recognizing one’s external image and likeness in the public arena, one cannot identify with those involved.

In other words, at the root of “representation” is none other than narcissism.

To claim that one human being cannot relate to another if they are not superficially identical is to have a very low opinion of human character indeed. We are not so self-centered, group-centric, or limited in our thinking and feeling, and we should not allow the minority among us who are to trap us in their needlessly circumscribed perspectives.

Reasonable people everywhere should consider it asinine nonsense to insist that men can only identify with men, women with women, blacks with blacks, whites with whites, Jews with Jews, gentiles with gentiles, Hispanics with Hispanics, etc. This entire line of thinking is insulting to the intrinsic dignity and integrity of all human beings, who are always much more alike than different, regardless of the particular packaging.

We are all perfectly able, as individuals and as group members, of transcending ourselves and identifying with those unlike us. We do this by means of our universal capacity for empathy.

Empathy, not “representation”, is what indicates the rightly longed-for edification and enlightenment of humankind.

Relating to others because they happen to share the same race, ethnicity, religion, nationality, language, gender, or sexual orientation is no great feat; on the contrary, it is the most reflexive and instinctive thing to do.

What virtue’s vicars, self-appointed and solipsistic, fail to realize is that we become our best selves when we evolve and develop the ability to recognize our reflection – our common hopes, fears, dreams, troubles, successes, failures – in those who on the surface are markedly different from us. By acknowledging commonalities profounder than surface traits, we span the chasms between disparate individuals and communities, strengthening and ameliorating society as a whole.

Empathy signifies sophistication, “representation” a regression towards the worst aspects of clannishness. Empathy opens us to the value and worth inhering in strangers; “representation” is a solecism relegating us to a ghetto mentality. Empathy broadens our horizons and builds bridges; “representation” cages us into groups pitted against each other, jostling for elbow room and seats at the table. Empathy emphasizes our inner essence, “representation” fixates on meaningless externals. Empathy is ethical, “representation” parochial. Empathy binds and elevates us, “representation” entrenches us in small-mindedness.

Let us have the courage to challenge the erroneous thinking holding us back from true social progress and salutary cultural policies. Inclusion based on merit, and not on insignificant attributes, is a principle we should all be able to readily agree on.

“Representation” may be the fad du jour, but only empathy heralds a better day.

About the Author
Brandon Marlon is an award-winning Canadian-Israeli author whose writing has appeared in 300+ publications in 33 countries. He is the author of two poetry volumes, Inspirations of Israel: Poetry for a Land and People and Judean Dreams, and two historical reference works, Essentials of Jewish History: Jewish Leadership Across 4,000 Years and its companion volume Essentials of the Land of Israel: A Geographical History.
Related Topics
Related Posts