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Analyzing and subverting the frames of selective empathy

Julien Brugeron, Allan Deneuville et Soukayna Mniaï
Traduction de Katharine Throssell
Cet article est une traduction de :
Analyser et subvertir les cadres de l’empathie sélective [fr]

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1This 10th issue of Hybrid journals gathers articles from the conference “Selective Empathy: States, Media Silence, and Minorities,” held on the 17th and 18th of December 2021 at Campus Condorcet in Paris. This was the opportunity for encounters between researchers, artists, empathy professionals (psychologists and social workers), as well as victims of a certain selective empathy in the media – asylum seekers, exiled journalists for example – who work hard to have their voices and subjectivity heard in order to be the agents of the discourses around them. The publication in two volumes of the conference papers in the journal Hybrid aims to study selective empathy through a variety of approaches and objects from a pluri-disciplinary perspective.

2The introduction of this issue goes back to the origin of the word “empathy,” before demonstrating how social frameworks of empathy lead to explain the visible paradox between empathy that should be universal and the assessment of its selectivity. Next, the introduction outlines the theoretical framework on which are built the articles of this issue. Through a disciplinary approach, this issue analyses both the political, psychological and literary mechanisms, and the different modalities of subversion of the selectivity of empathy, aiming at extending it to people and minority groups.

3In ordinary language, feeling empathy means putting oneself in the other’s shoes, recognising, understanding, and possibly sharing their emotions. This phenomenon involves an ability to project oneself into the other, to imagine what I would feel in a similar situation. Empathy therefore supposes the recognition of a shared humanity and results in a feeling of belonging to the same community. This emotional reaction may be sought in order to shed light on injustices or inequalities and constitute a register of awareness-raising for different causes, with a view to extending this circle of empathy. The criticism of inequalities in treatment in the media, history, or literature therefore reveals the fact that the selectivity of empathy, far from being a consensus, is at the heart of ethical struggles and contestation. Indeed, condemning the selectivity of empathy in a given individual behaviour, media coverage, or state policy, entails the expression of a moral judgment and implicitly suggests the possibility of an extension of our empathy to other subjects, in reference to a principle of justice. These discourses and practices challenging dominant empathic norms are therefore central in any social movement seeking to have its cause recognised as legitimate and worthy of interest, whether that cause is animal rights, environmentalism, or rights for indigenous peoples. Denouncing the selectivity of empathy therefore means expressing a criticism that is both political and ethical, in order to question its foundations and attempt to change the borders of that selectivity. This discourse is particularly based on an argument of commensurability, to justify the need to feel empathy for different groups. Thus, we should be just as empathic towards refugees from all over the world as we are towards the Ukrainian refugees who have fled their country since the Russian invasion in February 2022.

4Based on a principle of belonging to a shared humanity and a requirement for universal justice (Boltanski & Thevenot, 2022), selective empathy appears to be an oxymoron that must be deconstructed. This journal issue sets out to study the apparent paradox between an empathy that is seen as natural and which should be universal, and the empirical observation of its selectivity. The different contributions respond to two central questions—which political, psychological, and literary mechanisms shape this selectivity of empathy? And how can they be subverted to give rise to empathy towards minority or marginalised groups or individuals?

What is selective empathy?

5The genealogy of the concept of empathy shows that its selective dimension has always been questioned. The word “empathy” itself is a relatively recent invention because it only appeared in English in 1909 and in French (empathie) in around 1960, as translations of the German “Einfühlung,” which literally means “feeling into” someone. However, although the term is recent, the concept it refers to had been the object of numerous reflections in European moral philosophy since the 17th century. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, for example, based humanity’s capacity for morality on pity (1755), a feeling that through a projection of the imagination, allows one to be sensitive to the suffering of the other. Lack of pity, or its selectivity, can be explained by a distance from the state of nature; for Rousseau, this is a feeling specific to human nature. As for David Hume and Adam Smith, they used the term “sympathy,” of which the etymological origin means “to suffer with,” to refer to the ability to understand, share, and be affected by the feelings of others, whether by emotional contagion (Hume, 1993), or by identification (Smith, 2012).

6It was only in the 18th century that the neologism “Einfülung” appeared in the work of the German philosopher Johann Gottfried Herder, to refer to a process that enables the comprehension of historical and cultural diversity through an act of imagination involving the decentring of the self in order to understand a foreign culture in all of its alterity. In the 19th century this neologism was taken up by German aesthetic philosophy (Vischer, 2009) to describe the ability of an individual to understand a work of art or literature through projection and identification. The German philosopher Theodor Lipps (2018) then introduced it into psychology. These were the works that inspired the British psychologist Edward Titchener, who translated Einfühlung by empathy in 1909, a translation that was widely debated. From a term originally used to describe an aesthetic experience, empathy became central in conceptualising the connexion with the other, particularly in the study of intersubjectivity in psychology, psychoanalysis, psychotherapy, and phenomenology (Husserl, 1950). In the 20th century the terms empathy and sympathy diverged conceptually. Where sympathy encourages feeling the other’s emotions along with them, empathy supposes feeling in, through a process of understanding the other’s emotions without necessarily feeling them oneself.

7Since the early 20th century, many disciplines have drawn on the notion of empathy, from philosophy to psychology (Berthoz & Jorland, 2006; Attigui & Cukier, 2011), in aesthetics (Gefen & Vouilloux, 2013) and even, more recently, neurosciences (Decety, 2004). The concept of empathy has given rise to various theorisations in these different disciplines, sometimes entirely opposite, which explains why there is no single consensual definition of this notion. As Jacques Hochmann explains in his Histoire de l’empathie (2012), the concept of empathy has taken two paths over the 20th century. On the one hand there is “a rational utilisation of empathy as a means of putting oneself in the other’s place, to understand their intentions, beliefs and feelings,” which he describes as “dry empathy,” and on the other there is “a more affective use to share one’s emotional life and create around oneself a climate that is favourable to fulfilment,” which he calls “wet empathy” (p. 13). Patricia Attigui and Alexis Cukier specify that different models of explanation of the affective and cognitive mechanism of empathy coexist, in a “complex dialectic […] between affective sharing and social representation” (2011, p. 11-15).

8Due to the pluri-disciplinarity in this issue, the articles in these two volumes propose different ways of defining empathy, but the guiding principle of these approaches remains the connection between the self and the other. Indeed, to use Hochmann’s words, “empathy responds to the question – what does the other feel, what do they believe, what do they think? It is a gesture toward the other, to understand or explain their behaviour, [which] demands a […] change in spatial perspective, a way of putting oneself in the other’s place” (p. 173). Yet it contains within it the potential risk of considering the other as oneself, as the articles by Sophie Mendelsohn and Guillaume Wavelet remind us.

9While research in cognitive and neuro-sciences explore the biological and mental mechanisms of this projection of the mind (how can we envisage the emotions of the other?), this issue focuses on the social mechanisms of empathy and proposes an analysis of another of the paradoxes within this concept—why can we imagine the emotions of the other in certain cases and not others? Indeed, although empathy is an individual process it exists within collective frames, so rather than necessarily considering the selectivity of empathy as a deviation of a natural faculty shared by all humans, we can try to understand the foundations for this empathic investment, or its absence, by investigating the formation of individuals’ feelings of collective belonging and the values that underly them. Research in psychoanalysis and social psychology (Tisseron, 2010), moral philosophy (Attigui & Cukier, 2011), anthropology (Gallenga, 2008), or the sociology of emotions (Traïni, 2009; Kaufmann & Quéré, 2020) show that feelings of empathy and their expression vary between individuals, particularly depending on the power relations they are caught up in. This issue thus pays particular attention to class, race, gender, and colonial relations.

10There are different factors that can explain what Gérôme Truc has defined as “modes of concern” (2017). We might feel particular empathy because of shared characteristics (age, sex, profession, residence, etc.), personal or family experience, or historical, cultural, or political conditions. But what are then the political, social, and cultural conditions for the presence or absence of feelings and expressions of empathy? What roles might be played by different forms of mediation (media framing, literary representations, or historical commemoration) to favour, or on the contrary prevent, hinder, or interrupt empathy?

11We might seek to provoke empathy, or overplay its expression; inversely, we might seek to distance ourselves from it, through a process that might extend to “dis-empathy” that Cukier defines as the “destruction and forced inhibition of empathy in others, for the purpose of domination” (2011, p. 403). The articles in this issue propose an analysis specifically of the role of political, psychological, and literary frames in the construction of selective empathy, presenting the other as a fellow being we can understand and with whom we can share emotions, or, on the contrary, marginalising them and preventing empathy. They show that this selectivity of empathy particularly effects ethnic, religious, and sexual minorities because of the multiple relations of oppression they experience, and the processes of reification they are subject to.

Encoding/decoding empathy, from mainstream media to literary empathy

12Although the contributions to this issue shed light on the different modalities for the mediation of empathy which frame the ways each person imagines others, they also analyse the room and possibilities for the subversion of these interpretative frames. Thus, the questioning of how the media cover certain facts is based on the idea that through their framing the media tend to direct their audience’s empathy towards particular groups, conveying greater value onto certain lives and certain deaths than others. A given event can also be covered in different ways, both in quantitative terms (in the number and length of articles, or amount of airtime) or qualitative terms (narratives, iconographic choices, interviewees, terms used to describe the event, etc.). Media silence on an issue, whether the manifestation of passive or active ignorance, limits the expression of empathy toward certain people and groups. From 24-hour news channels, to social networks, to alternative podcasts, the media reflect and produce the prisms through which the world is interpreted (Citton, 2017).

13However, the construction of frames does not guarantee that these will act in the same way on everyone, or that we are all sensitive to the same subjects. In his 1994 article, “Encoding/Deconding,” Stuart Hall suggests there is a tension between the encoding and decoding activities in cultural and media productions. Using the example of television discourses, Hall begins by studying the first part of the semiotic relationship, encoding, in which televised production constructs a code through the choice of the subjects covered, the framing, the voices, and other media elements available. In a second section, relatively independent from the first, he looks at reception, and the decoding of the code proposed by the production. Although the first part of the relationship—encoding—has a certain prevalence because of the asymmetry between distributers and audiences, it can by no means entirely determine the way a message will be decoded.

14Thus, the professional encoding of empathy can rely on the law of journalistic proximity in order to broaden the circle of readers and gain their loyalty, based on the model of an ideal reader, and may give rise to the creation of conscious or unconscious frameworks that lead to certain selective media phenomena. For example, the “missing white woman” syndrome is a term used for media bias that gives more visibility to cases where white upper- or middle-class women go missing, compared to missing non-white women or women from lower social classes. However, by constructing an ideal reader, this law of proximity envisions the audience as homogenous, overlooking the complexity of the media decoding process and side-lining certain categories of the population.

15Contemporary approaches in social semiotics (Saemmer et al., 2022) provide innovative ways to explore the interpretative filters at work in the decoding of cultural and media productions, as well as their plural nature, despite dominant media frames. The articles in this issue specifically propose alternative empathic filters, in opposition to mainstream media framing. They shed light on those for whom empathy can never be taken for granted in western media.

16The idea of semiotic framing of empathy necessarily implies that we consider, beyond linguistic signs, in the aesthetic issues of empathy, when literature deals with the question of the suffering of the other. This does not mean that literature considers itself the ultimate site for empathy. In this respect, Carlos Fuentes, in a speech entitled “Central and Eccentric Writing,” given at the American PEN in 1988, pondered the end of western supremacy due to a rise in voices that were previously silenced. From there, he envisaged the end of Eurocentric monologism which he saw as preventing discourses and dialogues by others, and identified the prevalence not of a universal truth, but of plural truths. Following the fall of colonial empires and the observation of neo-colonial persistence, post-colonial and post-structuralist literature took up the question of aesthetics, particularly as it concerns empathy, to question the legitimacy of its frames.

17Gayatri Spivak, in her famous essay Can the Subaltern Speak? (2010) shows how the “euro-centric subject,” its voice, and the spread of that voice, implies the dialectical construction of the non-European other, on which this false-centre imposes anonymity and silence. The concept of the “subaltern” engages in a new methodology for analysing the representations of those who are the central objects of literary works. Spivak proposes a resolutely political, historical, and social reading of literature, when the impossible political agency of individuals is directly echoed by the way they are represented in fiction.

18Affect theory in literature works toward a materialist consideration of the situated construction of the subject, according to which their identity is constructed both consciously and unconsciously, in a fundamentally relational dynamic that determines their relation to the world (Liljeström, 2018). Literary studies that draw on affect theory as an analytic tool follow a post-structuralist dynamic. The constitution of subjectivities is the result of linguistic models that are either imposed or renewed to provoke dissidence and promote individual agency through fictitious characters. Given that, affect theory (and the literary articles in this issue) provide striking examples of this because they do not limit themselves to a linguistic reading of literary characters and real individuals. Indeed, by placing the body of individuals at the centre of representations, and exposing both what they are subject to and what they do, desire, or decide (Schaefer, 2019), the goal is to escape the conceptual straightjacket of the study of these individuals and give (restore) them—literally and metaphorically—both body and agency.

19Although the body, as Judith Butler stated in Frames of War (2009), is a linguistic object as well as an object exposed to social norms, it is necessary to raise the question of the structural conditions that determine the precariousness of lives lost, for example in terms of war, and the reasons for which we give value (or not) to certain deaths rather than others. In spite of the distance and media depersonalisation of lives in danger, the goal is to move beyond the media frame imposed on empathy which gives rise to only a structurally limited revolt. As evoked in the articles dedicated to literary works, “exposure” (to use Butler’s terms) is not necessarily equivalent to a recreation that individuals are subject to, but writing and image (or the discursive and the visual) nevertheless attempt to reappropriate the media portrayal of suffering.

Presentation of the articles in the issue

20The articles in this volume begin by providing philosophical, psychological, and historical analyses of the mechanisms and effects of the selectivity of empathy, before examining more closely the different modalities of literary mediations of empathy.

21Thus, this issue opens with Elise Huchet’s reflections on the notion of frame in Judith Butler’s philosophy, which highlights the political aspect of selective empathy. The concept of frame provides an explanation as to how our perceptions, and the gaze we project on different human lives are framed by political discourses or dominant media and journalistic practices. Elise Huchet thus proposes different paths to subvert these frames, and to give rise to new ones in order to challenge this political construction of selective empathy.

22The next two articles question the psychoanalytical model of empathy. Sophie Mendelsohn, co-founder of the Pantin collective and co-author of La vie psychique du racisme, with Livio Bonni, suggests that we see psychoanalysis as the discipline and method that allows us to study the cruelty of the other. Her contribution reveals that empathy is always psychanalytically constructed on a foundation of non-understanding and cruelty. Using this, she analyses the reception of archives and commemorations around the Algerian War, which, according to her, do not take into account that cruelty. By playing off memory against politics, these commemorations seek to bring a reconciliation that would silence the uncompromising aspects of war.

23This reflection resonates with the article by Guillaume Wavelet which is focused on translation within transcultural therapeutic frameworks. He establishes a mutual reflection between empathy and translation in order to warn against an excess of empathy that could lead to the negation of the other if we do not recognise the necessarily destructive nature of these two activities. He shows how non-translation may become a form of empathy because it recognises the alterity of the other by refusing systematic identification and allowing the multiplication of points of view within the subject.

24The contribution by Arvi Sepp proposes an analysis of the notebooks of the Jewish German philologist Victor Klemperer, author of a journal investigating the language of the Third Riech. Through an analysis of the vox populi, Klemperer seeks to identify—like an ethnographer of ordinary language—the level of empathy the German population felt toward persecuted Jews. Arvi Sepp shows clearly all the ambivalence of empathy toward the population of persecuted Jews which echoes the psychological texts in this issue.

25Finally, there are three articles that explore the link between empathy and literary practice, by analysing the voices of three authors: Arundhati Roy, Meena Kandasamy and Joy Harjo.

26The two sections of the article by Aline Lebel show how the frame of literary empathy is constructed. The contextualised analysis of the TV documentary Bandit Queen directed by Shekhar Kapur (the cinema adaptation of the biography of Phoolan Devi) and the novel The Ministry of Supreme Happiness (2018) by Arundhati Roy, demonstrate the ethical tensions resulting from the aesthetic representation of rape.

27The article by Aurore Montheil also proposes an analysis of an Indian novel, The Gypsy Goddess by Meena Kandasamy, published in 2014. Kandasamy sheds light on the blind spots of the story by developing an empathic narrative strategy based on the confrontation between individual points of view on the subject of the institutionalisation of discriminations. It is precisely to obtain reparation that the narration in Kandasamy’s work refuses the selectivity of empathy in a caste system in which dominants have a greater voice.

28Finally, the novel is not the only area in which literature attempts to determine the conditions for empathy toward victims reconstructed by narration. Poetry, as David Reckford shows, with the Poet Laureate Joy Harjo, is also a resolutely political undertaking, when it sets out to map indigenous poetical productions, and thus show how poetic voices from a people victim of past genocide and present discriminations are distributed and diffused. David Reckford explains how this map updates a project of cultural sovereignty through the authority and the authorship of writing by poets.

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Julien Brugeron, Allan Deneuville et Soukayna Mniaï, « Analyzing and subverting the frames of selective empathy »Hybrid [En ligne], 10 | 2023, mis en ligne le 28 septembre 2023, consulté le 04 décembre 2023. URL : ; DOI :

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Julien Brugeron

Julien Brugeron holds a PhD in American literature (University Paris-Nanterre) and is a specialist in writings on armed conflicts between the late 19th and early 21st centuries. His research also covers aesthetic oppositional and anti-system productions, as well as pluri-national and pluri-lingual reactions—Latin American and Middle Eastern—to American imperialism.

Allan Deneuville

Allan Deneuville is a lecturer at the University Bordeaux-Montaigne (MICA). His research covers the circulation of texts and images from and on socio-digital networks. He is the co-founder of the research and creation network Après les réseaux sociaux (

Soukayna Mniaï

Soukayna Mniaï is a PhD candidate in anglophone studies and ATER at the University Paris-Nanterre. Her research covers the fight against sexual violence in higher education in the United States, between the 1970s and today, from a perspective that combines the history and sociology of social movements, public issues, and gender.

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