Section: Opinion

Junot Díaz talk uncovers the tendency to perform empathy

It is too often the case that a person uses social media to portray an empathetic awareness of a crisis that they don’t care about. Kenyon students who post about tragic cases of racial, gender-based or ethnic violence on social media don’t convince me they actually care about what they’re posting or responding to.

I was starkly reminded of this at the Junot Díaz’s talk on Oct 9. The vast majority of white people that attended this event have predominantly or completely white friend groups. By going to this event, I didn’t see a white community that truly empathizes with the plight of people of color. Instead, I saw a performance of empathy by a community that has no interest in getting to know the people of color around them. Integration begins to look like a meaningless goal when one is surrounded by white peers who snap their fingers in agreement when someone denounces Trump voters, but are themselves completely incapable of reflecting on their own participation in white supremacy. In the same way that the media makes violence a spectacle, “staying woke” has become an aesthetic people flaunt. Behind both facades is a lack of moral and intellectual investment in a problem we could better understand if we were just willing to reflect.

In my eyes, relying on media outlets to understand your society is just as superficial as white students blindly listening to brown speakers, while doing nothing to question their own lives. True awareness isn’t a means to moral purity by performing decency. To leave it at a performance of moral purity, which is what media outlets reduce our concern for others to, is to leave us ignorant of how we can change and prevent the atrocities that are affecting our own communities in our daily  lives.

I was grabbing lunch with a friend once on New Side. She was reading a newspaper and said, “2016 has been the worst year for Syrian children.” I saw an image of a boy washed up on a beach. She looked at me wanting to see pity. She’s testing me, I thought. I was disgusted. Did she just ask me to perform empathy?

The sterile representation of violence and death by media outlets is incomplete because it forces us to empathize with an image, a statistic or a video. I’m tired of mourning for numbers that are apparently people, and people who were apparently real. Their lives contribute to death counts that have informed me that the world is monstrous. Past this monstrous spectacle of their death, I have no real understanding of their narrative in a humanizing way.

True awareness demands the courage to become proximate to violence or suffering. People who keep up with the media’s account of atrocities, violence or injustices are doing themselves a disservice. By making violence a spectacle and an emotional sensation, the media makes us incapable of understanding the cause of the injustices.

Only by searching for the real causes of injustice can we prevent further crime and change our actions in accordance with the truth. In my opinion, we have to begin to humanize victims of violence by bringing them off the screen and confronting the violence that wrecks every local community. This could begin by physically and intellectually engaging with the opioid crisis that surrounds our community, or the racial hatred that permeates it as well.

For years now I’ve seen people express sympathy for victims of violence and then become forgetful of these atrocities. I’ve made a decision to ignore the media’s account of violence in the future. I refuse to become an audience member to a show that profits from our emotional reaction to others’ suffering, without giving any guidance on where to direct it. Awareness should not be an exercise of moderating empathy. It seems that these days people perform empathy enough to seem decent, but not enough to let it break through their schedules.

Daniel De Andrade ’19 is a political science major from Norwalk, Conn. You can contact him at


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