Kinesthetic Empathy, Dance, and Technology (Published in Polymath: An Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences Journal)

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I argue that when we use email, text messaging, or social media websites such as Facebook to interact, rather than communicating face-to-face, we do not experience the best kind of empathy, which is most conducive to experiencing benevolence for
  POLYMATH: AN INTERDISCIPLINARY ARTS & SCIENCES JOURNAL 1 Kinesthetic Empathy, Dance, and Technology Andrew J. Corsa Colorado State University Pueblo I will argue that for us to experience the best empathy with others, we must view their facial expressions or bodily gestures, and/or hear their voices’ tones and intonations. In contrast, when we view text or static images while we use Facebook, email, or text messaging, we do not experience the best empathy. Imagine the time when you most clearly and strongly empathized with someone because of text or static images you read or saw on Facebook. I argue that no matter how well you empathized, humans are capable of experiencing empathy that is even better when they communicate face-to-face and respond to paralinguistic and non-verbal cues. I define the “best” empathy as that which is most strongly felt and is most conducive to experiencing benevolence for others. Since it is morally good to be someone who experiences benevolence, empathy that is more conducive to benevolence can be considered “better”—in a normative sense—than empathy that is less conducive to it. No doubt, it is possible to experience strong feelings of empathy and benevolence as a result of reading text and viewing static images online. 1  Likewise, it seems possible to imagine scenarios in which one person empathizes very well with another as a result of reading Facebook posts or email, and would fail to empathize as well face-to-face. Finally, it is possible to imagine that certain people might empathize better with others via Facebook or email than they do in person. But these possibilities are beside the point. Rather, I argue only that, while people read text on Facebook or in email, they will never experience the best empathy of which humans, overall, are capable. Much of this paper focuses on providing a detailed interpretation of David Hume’s account of sympathy, which will serve as this paper’s foundation, and 1. As one example, Sushama Kasbekar describes the strong emotional responses individuals felt in response to viewing static photos of Aylan Kurdi, a three-year-old Syrian refugee who, with his brother and mother, drowned as they tried to make their way from Turkey to a Greek island (Kasbekar 2016). After viewing photos that had been widely shared on Twitter and Facebook, those interviewed expressed strong empathetic, emotional, and heartfelt responses. I discuss this example again in part IV.  CORSA “KINESTHETIC EMPATHY” 2 which I take to be relevant to recent discussions of empathy. I interpret Hume to claim that, in order for us to experience the strongest empathy for another person, we must see or hear that person’s facial expressions, gestures, and vocal intonations. In order to argue that Hume is correct, I appeal to the work of philosophers, dance theorists, neuroscientists, and psychologists—such as Albert Borgmann, John Martin, Marco Iacoboni, and Justin Kruger—whose work, taken together, highlight the importance of gesture, expression, and voice. 2  Albert Borgmann suggests that were we to rely too heavily on technological devices—like those that do not let us engage with expression and  voice—our lives might become disengaged, distracted, and lonely. John Martin suggests that, if we fail to respond empathetically to the motions we see in dance, the dance would be ineffectual and fail to serve its function. Marco Iacoboni highlights the ways our brains respond when we witness and mimic facial expressions, and how those responses play a key role in empathy. And Justin Kruger focuses on the differences between communicating face-to-face and communicating via email with fewer nonverbal and paralinguistic cues. David Hume, more clearly than his contemporaries, links the notions of empathy and benevolence. Studies from psychology and neuroscience support Hume’s contention that the more strongly we empathize with people, the more likely we are to experience benevolence toward them. I will argue that while we use Facebook, text, and email, we do not experience the strongest empathy, and so do not experience the empathy that is most conducive to benevolence. Since it is morally good to be benevolent, while we use Facebook, text messaging, and email, we do not experience the kind of empathy that is most conducive to a morally ideal life. I. Philosophy of Technology, Albert Borgmann Before defining my terms and outlining how and why I appeal to the work of theorists from numerous disciplines, I outline the critique of technology I have in mind. I reflect on communicating face-to-face in relation to what Albert 2. Susan Leigh Foster draws conceptual connections between David Hume’s and Adam Smith’s accounts of sympathy and explanations of spectators’ responses to dance offered by dance theorists such as John Martin (Foster 2011, 137-145 and 155-163). Foster connects these to the work of neuroscientists on mirror neurons (165-168). She focuses on these connections for very different reasons and does not arrive at my conclusions.  POLYMATH: AN INTERDISCIPLINARY ARTS & SCIENCES JOURNAL 3 Borgmann calls “focal things,” such as country roads, home-cooked meals, and hearths. Through these reflections, we can come to better appreciate the cost of any form of communication in which, unlike in face-to-face discussion, we cannot  view each other’s expressions and gestures or hear each other’s voices. Borgmann suggests that a road near a creek, out in the country, can be an example of what is called a “focal thing,” something that clarifies important relations in our lives (Borgmann 1984, 197). 3  According to theorists like Borgmann, there is a “splendor” in the simplicity of a lengthy run on a road (202), and running on a road “demands patience, endurance, skill, and the resoluteness of regular practice” (Strong and Higgs 2000, 22). According to these theorists, the run along the road is also inseparable from its context—from the world and our engagement with it. When running on the road, there is a “telling continuity” between the road “and the weather overhead, between the high, oily waters of the creek, the month of May, the receding snowfields, and the previous winter’s snowfall” (23). These theorists suggest that the road gathers together all of the unique experiences of a particular day and physical activity, and offers the runner a unified experience (22). Borgmann suggests that focal things and events can bring us together in a way that devices cannot, and he offers additional examples of focal things, including the hearth of the past and the home-cooked family meal. Borgmann contends that a family meal can be a focal event that “gathers the scattered family around the table,” and “recollects and presents a tradition,” focusing us on family traditions, etiquette, and face-to-face exchanges (Borgmann 1984, 204). A hearth of the past “gathered the work and leisure of a family and gave the house a center” (41-2). Borgmann writes that the hearth’s “coldness marked the morning, and . . . its warmth the beginning of the day.” He suggests that a hearth also defined family members’ place in the household: “The mother built the fire, the children kept the firebox filled, and the father cut the firewood” (42). Borgmann maintains that devices such as treadmills and modern heaters offer limited commodities rather than unified experiences. According to 3. Pieter Tijmes writes: “One searches in vain for a definition of focal things; rather, Borgmann shows them off deictically—testimonially or appellatively. Focal things are of different srcins and often fulfill different roles, making it impossible to point to a specific definition. Focal things form a group and belong to each other without sharing a fixed general characteristic” (2001, 22). Instead, they can be characterized as those things that have a central meaning in our lives, grant us a “central orientation” (22), incorporate a sense of meaning (23), and clarify important relations in our lives (Borgmann 1984, 197). Like Borgmann, I provide examples in order to provide a better sense.  CORSA “KINESTHETIC EMPATHY” 4 Borgmann, a hearth (a focal thing) used to do far more than merely offer warmth, but that is all a modern heater does. Microwave dinners might draw us together, but not in the same robust way as a home-cooked meal. According to theorists like Borgmann, while a run on a road near a creek offers a wholly unified experience, a run on a treadmill is “discontinuous   with this larger context of one’s life, community, and place” (Strong and Higgs 2000, 23). These theorists suggest that a treadmill isolates just a few aspects of a run from the rest; it provides the exercise of muscles without the weather, the changing seasons, and the sights and smells of a forever-changing, natural environment. Borgmann worries that, if we are consumed by devices and lose touch with focal things and practices, our lives might become to a greater degree disengaged, distracted, and lonely (1984, 76). I do not intend to endorse Borgmann’s value judgments, or to argue that he is correct that focal things such as hearths, home cooked meals, and country roads are superior to devices such as heaters, microwaves and treadmills. But, in later sections, I will argue that communicating via text—using Facebook or email—has a cost. I will argue that while we communicate via text, we cannot experience the kind of empathy that is most conducive to experiencing benevolence for others, as is morally good for us. 4  Regardless of whether Borgmann is correct about heaters, microwaves, and treadmills, I will contend that communicating face-to-face is a unified experience in a way that communicating via text is not, and humans are capable of experiencing better empathy when they are engaged in the kind of unified experience face-to-face communication provides. Communicating face-to-face does not just involve words; it involves a manifold engagement, a unified experience of facial expressions, movements, gestures, vocal tone, and intonation. In contrast, email is a more limited form of communication because of its comparative lack of nonverbal and paralinguistic cues such as inflection, gesture, and vocal expressions (Epley and Kruger 2005, 414-15). My target in this paper will be any form of communication that does not let us see one another’s gestures or expressions or hear each other’s voices. I write about Facebook, email, and text-messaging interchangeably, because I am only concerned with this limitation that they share in common. 4. See my argument in Section VIII, the premises of which are defended in earlier sections, which concludes that while we are using Facebook, email, or text-messaging, we do not experience the kind of empathy that is most conducive to benevolence.  POLYMATH: AN INTERDISCIPLINARY ARTS & SCIENCES JOURNAL 5 II. An Interdisciplinary Approach Here, I comment on the interdisciplinary method I will employ to defend my conclusions, explaining why I appeal to theories from an array of disciplines and draw connections between them. Suppose you have no opinion about the truth of a claim, x  . Now suppose you subsequently come to learn that a number of theorists whose work you greatly respect all support x  . Even if you have no opinion about whether their arguments are sound, you would still have greater reason to believe that x might be true than you had before. You would not have  proof that it is true, but you would have greater reason . You would have greater reason even if the theorists disagree on a wide variety of topics including substantial claims directly related to x  . Further, ceteris paribus, you have greater reason to believe that x might be true if the theorists belong to a wide array of different disciplines than if they all share the same discipline, because theorists from different disciplines, who employ different strategies, are less likely to make the same mistakes. Finally, if these theorists’ accounts of x seem to fit together into a compelling bigger picture, you would have even greater reason to believe x might be true, because its truth would help to explain the “fit” between the theories. I seek to establish, based on the agreement of respected theorists and the “fit” of their theories, that we have good reason to believe my conclusions about kinesthetic empathy might be true. For this essay, broad scope is a virtue. I focus on the work of a variety of theorists, because, as suggested above, this method is the most successful when the theorists discussed belong to an array of different disciplines. It is not essential that I focus on the sometimes substantial ways in which the theorists I discuss would disagree. As suggested, you come to have greater reason to believe a claim, x  ,   might be true   after learning that respected theorists agree on it, even if those theorists disagree on a wide variety of other points including those directly related to x  . Likewise, I will not focus on the small details of each theory. Regardless of their details, if I can show that these theories agree on key claims, I will have provided greater reason to believe those claims are true. At times this essay is very detailed, but only as is necessary to demonstrate that each of the theories can be taken to support my conclusions. I do not provide proof that the theorists’ arguments I discuss are sound. As suggested above, when you come to realize that respected theorists agree on a
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