Professionalizing History 3: Empathizing and Sympathizing
In the last installment of Professionalizing History, I answered the question of what it truly means to be a historian and broke down the 2013 version of the American Historical Association’s Tuning Project. I highly recommend reading this series in order by publish date in order to fully understand what it means to professionalize history.
A couple of weeks ago, I overheard two women discussing the difference between empathizing and sympathizing in history. I’ll refer to these women as A and B throughout this paraphrased and relatively touched-up recollection of their conversation. A was much younger, probably in her mid-to-late twenties. B was middle aged in her early fifties. A was pro-empathizing, while B was not only pro-sympathizing, but anti-empathizing as well.
A: It’s important for people to be able to empathize with people throughout history in order to understand the position that they were in.
B: It’s impossible for people to empathize with most of history. We sympathize with it.
A: What do you mean?
B: Nobody can empathize with something they’ve never actually been through before. You can’t ever empathize with a starving child if you yourself have never been a starving child. You can sympathize with the child, but you cannot empathize with it.
A: Well…that’s kind of irrelevant. Empathizing with someone means you understand the feelings and scenario that someone has gone through, not necessarily going through it yourself and understanding exactly how that feels.
B: That’s sympathizing, not empathizing. Empathizing means you can be in tune with people in history. It’s the ability to experience the feelings of another person…going beyond sympathy. You can’t be in tune with a Jew in Nazi Germany unless you’ve been in the same – or similar – position. Which you haven’t.
A: And sympathizing is?
B: Sympathizing is the ability to understand the suffering of others. As a historian, I can understand how a Jew in Nazi Germany felt…but I am unable to speak from experience about how a Jew in Nazi Germany felt.
A: Well… you can feel empathy for history. When you find yourself in a tragedy, you oftentimes look back in history to see exactly how people before you worked through it. If you lose your house, car, and job due to recession, you can look back to the Great Depression and empathize with them.
B: But you’ll never actually feel like someone who lived through the Great Depression. A male cannot give empathy to a female complaining about her sore feet until after he walks through an obstacle course in high-heel shoes.
A: I disagree. The job of a historian is to see perspectives from the viewpoints of everyone. If you merely sympathize with these viewpoints, you don’t truly understand their viewpoint. Sure, maybe you can’t fully empathize with a Jew in Nazi Germany…but you sure can attempt to.
B: I’m 50 years old, I know a lot more than you.
Up until the very end, B had my moral support during their conversation. But I seem to sympathize with A’s argument more. I find myself riding the fine between empathy and sympathy when reading and researching history. Sure, I understand that I can’t necessarily empathize with a starving child unless I, myself, had once been a starving child. However, it is the job of a historian to attempt to empathize with the individuals they study the past. A good mixture of sympathetic behavior and empathetic mindsets are important to get the best perspective.
Plus…it’s kind of ignorant to just claim you win the argument because of your age.
As I expressed in the previous post, one of the most critical skills historians should master is the ability to empathize with people and movements through any time period.
To empathize is to not only share but to understand the emotional and historical background for anyone in any society. A good historian will try to put themselves in someone else’s shoes in order to truly understand the sources they are researching. Any and all historical viewpoint should be not only read, but understood in a sense that will allow for history to recognize them. A human being is more than a statistic…they are an individual that allowed history to progress forward. Thus, any individual interested in history should be able to recognize where in history they are currently residing within
It is important to realize that the terms “sympathizing” and “empathizing” are not interchangeable. We have a bit of a problem when it comes to understanding the terminology of different words and using them appropriately. A great example is the debate of climate change vs global warming; although that entire argument is a different subspecies for a different topic.
Historical empathy is more than just being in the shoes of someone else. It’s seeing a person, idea, or situation through the circumstances, concepts, and problems of the era. It’s taking everything into consideration, rather than feeling sympathetic towards one source. To sympathize is to take a side by the reigns and put it as reason for your perspective, to empathize is to see everything at an angle you couldn’t be able to see without. But, as B stated during their conversation, it is difficult to ’empathize’ with someone without proper understanding. BUT that’s what history is about – to attempt to understand!
The ability to understand history comes from examining/interpreting evidence, understanding the significance of evidence, understanding the ‘continuity’ and ‘change’ in society’s norms, and realizing the differences between each perspective through empathetic analysis. It takes more than sympathizing to understand history as a whole.
Take it this way: the President of a country may sympathize with coal miners after they are crushed horrifically…but they won’t empathize enough to increase safety precautions in the industry.
That’s about it for the third post in this Professionalizing History series. This is the last post that I wrote in bulk for this series…which means I’ll be viewing just how well this series is received as the first three articles are posted. I don’t expect it to be long before I publish the fourth installment, which will be focused around the “war” against American historians and the lives of Robert Acuna and Howard Zinn, both brilliant historians with unique platforms for understanding history.