The Limits of Empathy: Criticism and Editing Across Borders
by Casey Beal
As an editor who works primarily with art critics, perhaps this comparison is simply too tempting: a piece of writing will likely never have a closer reader than its most committed editor, just like an artwork will seldom have as close a reader as its sharpest critic.
What drives the comparison for me is a burr that embedded itself when I read this quote from novelist and line editor Jayne Anne Phillips: “[T]he line on the page is the rock solid basis of it all, completely obvious and present, unlike the murk of intention, which is so often only what we think we know about what we’re trying to write.”1 Like Phillips, I think it is the job of editors and critics alike to cut through the “murk of intention”: first to immerse in this entanglement, to embody the position of one who so hotly wants to convey a thing, and then to show no mercy in comparing intention to its always-imperfect execution.
The editor’s inbox overflows perpetually with intent, distilled and concentrated in proposals and article submissions from authors attempting to convince the editor of their fitness to communicate an idea clearly, eloquently, with fresh insight and broad appeal.
In much the same way that the critic’s job is to relate to the vocabulary proposed by an artist, the editor must find their way toward understanding the language of an author. For this reason, I’ve often thought of editing as an attempted act of empathy, which succeeds insofar as both parties are able to inhabit a shared landscape of meaning. My reflex is to say that editing must be rooted in empathy, because in order to work with someone’s writing, you must assume what their intentions are in order to point out where they go awry.
But there’s something I don’t quite trust in the benevolence of this assumption. The self-described “empathic” editor moves in, often reluctantly invited, then commandeers a language that they do not (and perhaps cannot) possess, and imposes a stark legibility that was never envisioned or that sometimes even defies the writer’s point. How could we read this as anything other than a decidedly colonial gesture? I think about it often as I learn how to align myself with a new writer’s voice, while deliberating on how to align their voice with that of a publication’s style andmandate. Just how much legibility should an editor try to impose upon a piece that they didn’t write? Where does the editor’s responsibility lie: with the author’s intention, the magazine’s voice or the imagined reader? Certainly part of the editor’s critical work is to assess the effectiveness of communication, but they should also be able to tell when ambiguity is generative, when what can’t be known should be pre- served untouched.
This is where the ideal of empathy begins to show its limitations as an editor’s tool.
The difficulty is that we are always attempting to relate to each other across the innumerable lines that inform our subjectivities: our race, our class, our gender, our ability and personal history. And the more lines—as readers, editors and critics—that we need to cross to get at the source of the author’s intentions, the more likely it is that we might misread and therefore misrepresent them. What gets misplaced has little to do with empathy, or lack thereof, but rather the will to relate non-hierarchically: to take sincere interest in what is outside one’s sphere of experience, to listen genuinely and make mistakes, to gradually revise one’s assumptions towards establishing an increasingly shared meaning.
For me, the deep problem isn’t how scary and challenging it may be for white editors to work with non-white writers, or to work across any other possible variety of identity lines. The central issue is an insidious smugness in thinking that one’s willingness to occupy another’s shoes might suffice in coaching “proper” communication. This reduces editing to the policing of what is not immediately relatable. It turns my occupation into that of a gatekeeper and bylaw enforcement officer for some fetishized version of “Standard English,” uncritical of the way that grammar has long functioned as a quietly effective bolster of the classist, colonial state. Because elitism and whiteness sadly remain the default in criticism (although perhaps there are encouraging signs that this is slowly shifting), the standard of relatability means that most writers, regardless of race, have their creative and critical output pre-emptively shaped and framed by the hypothetical authority of the White Editor.As critics, we must take seriously the project of undoing this kind of ingrained ideology in our basic models for interacting with one another. As editors, this is a matter of rejecting the notion that our role is that of the benevolent, “empathetic,” technocratic and neutral problem-solver. The colonial impulse to save the other from themselves is not a feature of human nature, it’s symptomatic of the historical and ongoing legacy of Eurocentrism. Since it’s such a common term now, the loose popular concept of empathy is perhaps overdue for a critical accounting.
Empathy, like many vague and overused terms, has become a catch-all for things that are difficult to express. Useful shorthand, for sure, but it also works to ossify living language’s productive contradictions: clumsy placeholders save us from having to reckon with the fact that language’s imprecision, paradox and ambiguity all do important work in representing things that we can’t quite resolve. If there’s a salvage- able core amidst the mélange of things that get lumped in with the term, it is perhaps in embracing language’s inability to precisely render what we do when we seek to understand one another. Given this messiness, the honest embrace of intention—shared by editors and critics—should serve as a processual guiding light, rather than reified and held aloft as a symbol of virtue.
In 2017, there was a sounding of the depths in the old-world ideologies that inform Canadian magazine publishing. Several key players in the industry loudly proclaimed their support for a hypothetical “cultural appropriation prize,” encouraging authors to write stories in voices of other cultures. The fallout was mainly characterized by professionally irritating, well- fed voices whining about perceived threats to their abstract rights to embody whatever subjectivity they might please. It all served as a useful reminder of the limits of “empathy” in its narrow editorial conception. Wounded white feelings signalled a ham-fisted but earnest attempt to really understand the so-called other that they were clumsily still othering.
Tucked away within their conviction gleamed a bright-eyed notion that white editors should think of themselves as neutral line judges, capable of laudable feats of positional self-suppression, rather than as active participants in entrenching the divides they imagine themselves closing. Their presumed duty: to hold the line against the terrifying erosion of certainties, moored by the reliable anchor of language’s immovable authority. This is the weaponization of empathy: the notion that I can lovingly inhabit your language, your experience and set it straight for you— gussy it up so that the people who matter will take it seriously. And if they’re not allowed, it’s bemoaned as a threat to the critical impulse. This is not empathy, but entitled violence, unaccustomed to limitation.
In this and similar ways, the Jonathan Kays of the world make it seem as though something in liberals’ woeful bleeding hearts simply won’t permit anyone to throw punches anymore: that we must all walk on egg- shells for fear of offending someone, and that we can therefore barely talk to one another, let alone aspire to the meaningful criticism that fuels great art.
Perhaps it’s true that we can barely talk to one another, but I don’t think it’s because we’ve become too sensitive. Rather, I think what is lacking are the tools to understand one another across vernaculars, in critical, non-defensive dialogue. My worst failed edits have been with white men, like myself, but many years my senior, and at many tax-brackets’ remove. We simply couldn’t cross the class lines that divided us.
Probably neither of us really wanted to. In the end, that (lack of) desire was surely determinative. The critical intent, the will and intention of the editor is as cardinal as the critic’s, and positions the editor explicitly, not as an objective party, but as someone who (to a greater or lesser degree) wants to understand what the critic is saying, on their terms.
A good point is often lost in conservative self-pity and over-cautious, cancel-averse semantic shifting that masks intention beneath hedged prose. How can we effectively criticize, or edit, or communicate, or under- stand one another across an abundance of identity lines? How can we talk at all, at a time when meaningful collective action is clearly of the essence? If we can’t criticize, how can we advance together? How do we exit the bitterness of self-righteous solitude—of thinking we know what only we think, while actually thinking and knowing very little at all?
On the other hand, in the midst of ongoing genocide, inequality, imperialism and apartheid, there are questions that white critics and white editors must take seriously: Are there texts, voices and experiences that, from my position, should be off-limits? Can this be squared with a critical viewpoint? Is the ability to accurately locate the limits of one’s capacity for empathy key to what makes a good critic and editor?
I think the process of the editor’s productive mis- understandings is the substance of what we mean when we talk about empathy, not our claimed proximity to the experience of another. It is in the former sense that empathy is a vital tool of this occupation. I don’t pretend to apply a universal standard to each text that I edit. Each author occasions a conversation with its own rhythm and rules; each text is a living thing that comes from a different place, where I’ve likely never been. Sometimes I am less effective because of my position or my desire. Sometimes I need to ask for help.
When the issue of empathy’s limits isn’t treated thoughtfully, it is treated loudly and ideologically: used defensively and bitterly to claim that censorship is on the rise, and that the white man just can’t get a fair shake these days.
Ultimately, rather than answers, I can offer only a disposition toward the continued work of understanding. Risking triteness: it’s a process, wherein we must start from scratch, with no rules, each time. Neither editing nor criticism should aim strictly for correction or correctness: repairing what was unruly and mislaid by someone who didn’t possess the proper words. Colonialism lingers in the assumption that from a position of authority, rather than humility, we can offer a fix for the perpetual murk of intention.