Saturday, December 14, 2013

what my students may lack

I've heard this criticism before, but I'm not sure how true it is overall: Koreans lack empathy. By empathy, I mean the ability to put oneself, intellectually and/or emotionally, in someone else's place so as to understand that person's perspective.* Is this especially hard for Koreans? The implied critique is that Koreans are too selfish to bother thinking about other people's situations: they can be rude without understanding how it would feel to be the target of rudeness, for example. To some degree, I agree that Koreans don't express sympathy in as touchy-feely a manner as many of us Westerners do; if you're on your knees, in the rain, crying your eyes out, a Korean is likely to command you to "Get up! Stop crying! Soldier on!" But how is that any different from the sort of tough-love sympathy you might receive from, say, a New Yorker?** Are Koreans really any less empathetic than anyone else?

Consider: I saw "Spider-Man 3" some years back (and wrote a massive review of it here) with a Korean audience. At the end of that movie, Peter Parker reconciles with a dying Harry Osborn, who makes peace with Peter after having thought, for several years, that Peter had killed his father. There were plenty of tears from Peter and Mary Jane in that scene, and the Korean girls in the seats next to mine were sniffling, too. They cried despite the fact that that scene contained only white Americans, despite the fact that this was a superhero film, because they had keyed into the human dimension of what was happening. Reconciliation and forgiveness are pancultural; empathy for the characters couldn't have been hard for the girls to find.

But at the same time, I sometimes wonder whether there isn't some truth to the idea that many Koreans (I won't say most) lack the ability to move into someone else's headspace. A few weeks ago, I showed one of my classes the very impressive lightsaber fight, "Ryan vs. Dorkman 2," crafted by Ryan Wieber and Michael Scott. It was a ten-minute video with no dialogue—just lightsaber fighting. At the end of the video, I smiled in delight and turned to my students. To my great disappointment, not a single student, guy or girl, had enjoyed the video. I expected the girls to get all dainty and say "Too much violence," since Dorkman's arm gets amputated toward the end of the saber battle, and Ryan gets bifurcated. I didn't expect the guys to dislike the video. "Boring," some of them grunted. "Not fun," said others.

So in a moment of exaggerated drama, I brandished an accusing finger at all my students (pointing at someone is rude in America, but it's ten times ruder in Korea; I did what I did on purpose) and barked, "None of you appreciates good art!" Some of the savvier students caught my meaning and laughed; other students seemed to take me literally and looked chastened.

I thought about this incident today when, following a Twitter link, I read this Slate article about eliminating essay examinations in favor of oral exams for most humanities courses. At the end of the article, written by Professor Rebecca Schuman, we find these words:

With more [oral] exams and no papers, [students will] at least have a shot at retaining, just for a short while, the basic facts of some of the greatest stories ever recorded. In that short while, they may even develop the tiniest inkling of what Martha Nussbaum calls “sympathetic imagination”—the cultivation of our own humanity, and something that unfolds when we’re touched by stories of people who are very much unlike us.

That resonated with me. Sympathetic imagination—that's what my students lacked! They couldn't get into the lightsaber video because they had made no effort to relate to the video. From my student's perspective, watching the video produced a mindset of, "What does this have to do with me?" Schuman's point is that sympathetic imagination allows one to enter the mental cosmos of someone who is thoroughly Other.*** I told my students to think about how much work those two young guys—themselves college students at the time—had put into the creation of that ten-minute scene. The fight told a story; it had suspense and humor and action. A lot of thought had gone into its conception and execution. My students had picked up on none of that.

So I go back and forth on the Koreans-have-no-empathy question. There are times when I think Koreans are no different from anyone else in their ability to resonate with what others are feeling, no matter the culture of those others. There are other times, though, when I feel as if Koreans really can't feel others' pain or joy or playfulness, and that the reasons for this may be cultural.

If I'm honest, though, I have to admit that the same likely holds true for Americans. We witness suffering all the time on American TV; we're fully aware of all the political strife, the gang violence, the mass starvation, the post-disaster trauma, happening all across the world. Some of that hits us deeply; some of it doesn't. Our empathy has limits. And if that's true for Americans, why can't it also be true for Koreans?

*Yes: empathy, despite the Greek pathos root, does include the intellectual as well as the emotional. See here. An empathetic person doesn't always have to feel what someone else feels: he might be able to imagine—envision—what it's like to be in that person's place.

**I'm thinking, specifically, of a certain 1980s comedian whose name escapes me. At one point in his routine, he mimes someone getting stabbed multiple times and collapsing on the sidewalk. A policeman lumbers up, leans over the dying man, and shouts, "Get up! You're gonna fuckin' die!" This was the comedian's shorthand for New Yawk-style compassion.

***If you're hearing echoes of Husserl's phenomenological approach and his notion of epoché, or bracketing, you're on the right track.


1 comment:

  1. Kevin, this is why I have stopped watching the news EVERY night. I find it really did deaden me to the horrific things in the news. Of course, now I find the pics I DO see of (say) Syria extremely horrifying, but I will take that over being dead to the images.

    I am not an Island.



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