Opinion | The Canon

Empathy is the first step in cultural sensitivity

After Kappa Alpha Theta’s Olympics-themed party, there was little agreement—except on the point that Columbia students need to become more educated and aware of other cultures. This lack of cultural understanding is definitely a problem, but it isn’t the only problem. Blatantly disrespectful actions at Columbia and other colleges aren’t solely the result of a failure to be aware of other cultures. Rather, they also come from laziness, lack of judgement, and choosing to act with no regard for others. We know this because many students are aware of other cultures, but still chose to act inappropriately. It’s a problem remedied by thinking before acting—specifically thinking from the viewpoint of others. There is no valid solution to that problem, but we should expect better of Columbians. 

But before we place blame, we need to clarify exactly what qualifies as respectful treatment of another culture and what is instead careless misuse. We need to articulate what the difference is between cultural appropriation and learning from other cultures. The line between the two is sometimes blurred, but with proper judgement, there is no need to toe the line between appropriate and inappropriate. All it takes is a bit of empathy to create an understanding that acting out stereotypes of any sort is hurtful. There is little ambiguity there. 

This is the central problem with the Theta scandal. There was, quite simply, a shocking lack of consideration. And it shouldn’t be anyone’s responsibility at this school to teach their fellow students how to be considerate to fellow human beings. By college, it’s expected that most people have picked up on the general idea that people should be treated with respect. 

Elora Lopez’s recent op-ed (“Why I don't view the costumes and cutouts in the same way,” Feb. 27) about how she views the incident really highlights this point about respect: Knowing that another person has taken the effort to understand one’s point of view makes a huge difference in the way events are interpreted. Empathy is central to her understanding of the actions of both parties involved. Equally emphasized is the fact that Chicano Caucus made sure to acknowledge culture with respect, while Theta did not. The call for empathy then must extend beyond the actions of individuals and into the discussions about those actions. It was easy for Internet commenters to get worked up over the apparent hypocrisy of Chicano Caucus’ statement when those commenters decided to treat the situation without context. There must be some way to find a balance between empathy and criticism in our responses, as well. Commenters who were empathetic toward Chicano Caucus’ actions were accused of hypersensitivity, while those who questioned Chicano Caucus’ actions were accused of being overly critical. Without that balance, there will only be an unresolved conflict.

As illustrated by this specific example, it is certainly not just a question of people being unaware of how to respect others’ cultures. There is a need to continue opening up dialogue to promote empathy.

But empathy is never easy. How do you get people to care about the ways their impulsive actions hurt others? It isn’t hard at all to encourage people to speak up when the debate is on culture in the abstract. But when an individual is shown that his or her behavior crosses over into a form of cultural appropriation, the discussion becomes more personal. This automatically makes debate in the abstract difficult—personal concerns are concrete.  That abstract debate has a place, but in application, it is easier to avoid the minutiae and instead treat others the way they say they would like to be treated. 

Britt Fossum is a Columbia College sophomore with a prospective major in chemistry. She contributes regularly to The Canon.

To respond to this piece, or to submit an op-ed, contact opinion@columbiaspectator.com.

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Marco posted on

Can a liberal democracy really respect a culture that brutalizes women's rights, religious rights, gay rights, children's rights? Can you respect a culture that has brutal punishments for unauthorized sex between consenting adults, or the death penalty for being an apostate?

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