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“Using Art to Encourage Empathy” by E. Scarry Essay (Article)

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Updated: Jan 23rd, 2021

Arguments that Make Me Uneasy and the Reasons

In my opinion, the contentions put forward by Elaine Scarry regarding the limitations of humans in imagining the suffering of others may be true to some extent. Empathy is a rare virtue among humans, especially if the subject expected to generate this emotion is remote to the concerned person, or he or she has never experienced the situation. For example, people are more sympathetic to the infliction of pain on their close relations or groups that they are affiliated to than when the pain is being meted out to people that are not related to them. However, some of Elain’s arguments make me uneasy, like tending to generalize all humans’ lack of empathy. There exist as many people with ‘generous imaginings’ in the world as there are cruel people.

What Counts as Empathy and Why This is Important

I think Elaine’s comparison of a storyteller’s imagination with that of an empathetic person is rather out of place. When a storyteller narrates a story, he or she uses fictional references. Although the audience may sympathize with the characters in the story, the basis of their sympathy is the illusion that the character’s situations are real. Sometimes it is difficult for the mind to distinguish between real and imagined perceptions and, thus, its response to both situations is the same.

However, for a person to be sympathetic towards another real person, it is a must for them to have experienced the same or similar affliction to that affecting the other person either directly or indirectly. If this is not the case, then the person expected to develop the sympathy may lack that capacity. From my understanding, empathy comes from placing ourselves in other people’s situations. It would be difficult to do that if we have never been in such a situation either as a witness or victim.

Where I would Question about the Authority or Foundation

There are several arguments that Elain Scarry has made in the article, which I think she should substantiate further. For instance, she claims that people’s capacity to injure others is greater than their capacity to empathize with others. This is a subjective argument that is difficult to back since one cannot determine with certainty the capacity of humans to empathize with others or injure others.

The contention that it is possible to increase people’s empathy for others by rotating nouns is also questionable as there is no evidence to that effect. If the U.S. invades Iran, for example, suspecting it of making nuclear weapons, reversing the nouns may not affect Americans’ decisions to wage such a war. It is based on legitimate reasons like securing world peace. Also, claiming that persons who have lost their sense of beauty are less compassionate cannot be established. I believe that beauty and balance are important aesthetic concepts, but it is difficult to establish a relationship between them and fairness, justice, and empathy.

The Concept that Elaine Scarry Seems to Hold on to

Based on my comprehension of the article, Elaine believes that it is a lack of compassion that drives people to inflict pain on others and nations to wage war on other nations (Scarry, 2003). According to her, individuals inflicting suffering or harm on others would be reluctant to do so if they imagined the same being done on them. In addition, she views the inability to appreciate beauty as one of the factors leading to injustice and unfairness.

From her point of view, beauty involves symmetry, a concept that is closely related to justice and fairness. Thus, failure to appreciate beauty causes a loss of balance in all aspects of life, including our judgment of what is right or wrong (Scarry, 2003).

It is this failure that causes people to lose empathy and inflict pain on others. I think her conception of empathy and beauty is quite metaphysical since the two concern about how the world should be in an ideal situation in a state of symmetry. Elaine views were sparked by the apparent insensitivity of the U.S. government in invading Iraq on claims that the country possessed weapons of mass destruction, despite intelligence reports showing otherwise. When the U.S. government could not prove its claims, it resorted to torture of suspects in an attempt to extract information to substantiate its claims.

Disadvantages of Holding on to Her Beliefs

The conclusion I draw from the article is that Elaine has a valid case in advocating for non-violence by requiring people to be more compassionate about others’ suffering. Of course, exploring diplomatic solutions is the most amicable way of resolving disputes, whether it is between individuals or between nations. Despite this, I believe that sometimes it is justified to use war as an option for resolving disputes between nations, especially when one of the nations is not open to diplomacy as has been experienced with countries that are characterized by political and religious extremism.

Revisions that the Theorist should Consider Making on Her Beliefs

I am of the view that there are many reasons why individuals inflict harm on others. While some of them are based on a lack of empathy, others are legitimate such as when a nation attacks another on account of self-defense. Thus, I think it is important for Elaine to consider both legitimate and illegitimate reasons why people may choose to perpetrate physical harm on their counterparts so that she can make a balanced case.

Works Cited

Scarry, Elaine, 2003, Using Art to Encourage Empathy. Web.

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IvyPanda. 2021. ""Using Art to Encourage Empathy" by E. Scarry." January 23, 2021. https://ivypanda.com/essays/using-art-to-encourage-empathy-by-e-scarry/.


IvyPanda. (2021) '"Using Art to Encourage Empathy" by E. Scarry'. 23 January.

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