Proponents of liberal democracy and economics often make an appeal to the rights and rational self-interest of the individual. Citizens are taken to be equal by virtue of their common citizenship, or by access to some abstract, “free” marketplace. Such positions have long been challenged by feminists, Marxists and critical race theorists for obscuring inequity and injustice. While this has led some to replace one abstract universalism with another (e.g. human rights or historical laws), others have argued for a right to defend irreducible difference. But this poses another challenge – how to establish solidarity and social cohesion in pluralistic but polarised societies, awash with disinformation and surveillance capitalism, during a climate emergency where solidarity is needed to mitigate and adapt to unprecedented change?
To explore this problem for democracy, Dr Dan Taylor introduces the concept of sympathy. In the 18th and 19th centuries, there was great interest in sympathy as a moral emotion that opened individuals up not just to the suffering or capacity for goodness of others, but also to a more spiritual and expansive shared sense of being in the world. It’s at work in early theories of cosmopolitanism or in the novels of George Eliot. It also inspired a trailblazing social worker and reformer, Jane Addams, who advocated for the rights of working class women, migrants, sex workers and children in downtown Chicago in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Addams set out to put what she called ‘sympathetic knowledge’ into practice, setting up community services and institutions led by the ideas and testimonies of working-class people. But Addams warned that social workers had to respect and begin from difference; never to assume or project one’s own values, but to begin from listening, and towards co-inquiry and co-participation. While Hull House didn’t always live up to these ideals, they are instructive. If democracies today are to meet the global challenges of climate change and pandemic recovery, Jane Addams can help us think through the opportunities of sympathy amid difference.
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