This episode focuses on a conversation between Adam and Amy about a TEDtalk titled The Power of Vulnerability presented by Brené Brown. In this video, Brown breaks down the “wholehearted individual” one who has courage, social connection, compassion, and an appreciation for his/her vulnerabilities. They were unashamed to be vulnerable. They are comfortable with saying I love you first, putting an opinion piece out regardless of potential backlash, being authentic without fear. As Brown stresses, the wholehearted have ”the willingness to do something with no guarantees”. It’s allowing for things to fall outside of your control. To accept the controllable and the chaotic aspects of life.
Check Out These Links To Consider Wholehearted Authenticity
Not everyone is like this. Brown points out that many people numb themselves with things like alcohol, drugs, and food to avoid the emotions and thoughts that make them vulnerable. The issue behind numbing is that attempting to erase feelings of sadness, anger, disappointment, embarrassment, and grief also numbs feelings of happiness, love, and connection, which makes people feel more vulnerable and upset continuing in a cycle of misery.
Brown outlines what is behind numbness: “making the uncertain certain”, only valuing the perfect, and pretending that what we do has no effect on others. These habits get in the way of leading a full happy where you feel worthy of love and that you belong. This episode of This Anthropological Life considers the multidimensionality of vulnerability and empathy including: context, biology, technology, and gender.
Check Out the Links Below to Build a Better Understanding of Brown’s Concepts of Vulnerability and This Anthro Life’s Takes on Empathy
The penumbral are those things that are kind of at the edge of our experience (i.e. birth, death, falling in love) , but words do not capture the experience of them
Universality and Vulnerability
Something that we have to be careful with from Brown’s talk is the way she looks at vulnerability as a universal experience. Wholeheartedness is looked at as the solution to all of humanity’s feelings of disconnection and misery, but this cannot be the case as people express their vulnerabilities and empathize with one another differently across the globe.
In the United States, empathy is experienced through feelings (empathizee shows vulnerability-empathizer takes in their feelings), while in Micronesia, empathy is experienced through actions (empathizee shows vulnerability, empathizer shows empathy by bringing food, cleaning, patching their roof, etc.). Clearly empathy is being experienced differently in these contexts, but what they do have in common is the existence of a feedback loop. As Amy states, “there has to be a way that you can check in so that you may calibrate your response that’s what makes empathy different from just sympathy where you project”.
Vulnerability is not something that will necessarily be positively embraced in either of these contexts. Shows of vulnerability in Micronesia to untrustworthy people may result in the exploitation of a person at a particularly vulnerable point of their life through a direct action (i.e. steal). Whereas in the United State, the exploitation of a vulnerable person may be more linked to their feelings (i.e. gossip, threats, etc.), but perhaps less tied to more detrimental action. There are instances when vulnerability is negatively acted against (i.e. violence against people who do not define as heteronormative). If one does not conform to the normative rules of a culture, displays of vulnerability are far more dangerous.
Check Out These Links to Learn More About Empathy Cross-Culturally
Authenticity, Emotions, and Economy
Vulnerability is treated differently cross-culturally, but what about an authentic experience of emotions and empathy? A middle class Western view of authentic displays of connection would not for instance be considered based in the economic. We rarely think of love as connected to money or material survival, but in other parts of the world money is the expression of a bond with another person.
Krista Van Vleet’s book Performing Kinship: Narrative, Gender, and Intimacies of Power in the Andes shows a different means of creating social bonds in the Bolivian Andes. At her field site, she found that the people who were considered to be your parents could change in your lifetime depending on who was providing you with the materials you would need to survive. The concept of who counts as family is entirely dictated through action and the performing of certain duties rather than pure emotion, which Western values point to as the authentic expression of a bond.
Questions of authenticity in the service industry provide interesting food for thought. The concept of “service with a smile” is part of a performance that service workers provide. It is not necessarily what they are feeling, yet through the manipulation of their facial expressions, tone, posture, etc, a service worker can elicit an authentic feeling of being welcomed in a customer. The feelings themselves can be construed or driven a certain way.
Check Out These Links to Learn More About Economics, Emotions, and Some Extras
Biology and Empathy
Studies on the biological components of empathy have been popular in recent years due to the sensationalizing of mirror neurons. Mirror neurons are neurons that become active both when you are performing an activity (i.e. buttering toast) and when you watch someone else do that same activity. There has been a lot of hype surrounding mirror neurons as they were prematurely associated with the rise of human civilization. The idea behind mirror neurons as indicators of humanity stems from their potential relationship to empathy. The hypothesis being something along the lines of if you see someone getting punched then your mirror neurons will activate as if you were punched, which will, in a sense, make you feel their pain. In reality, more research needs to be done to fully confirm the relation of mirror neurons to empathy and “being human”.
Check Out These Links to Learn More About Mirror Neurons
If further research does point to the mirror neuron as actually playing such a large role in the history of humankind then we need to remember that “we may have a biological capacity for empathy but the cultural context in which it is deployed is going to be different”. We can not discount a human experience as solely biological. We must keep considering the socialization processes that are constantly shaping and reshaping how we use our biological “humanness”.
Check Out These Links to Learn About Autism and Empathy
Vulnerability and Robotics
Robotics and Artificial Intelligence are interesting technologies that can be used to explore human preferences for expressions of empathy and vulnerability. Anthropologist Katy Glaskin talks to roboticists and goes to robotics conventions. From her interviews and observations she found that for humans to empathize with a robot or for them to believe it is empathizing with them, humans have to be able to anthropomorphize the robot. They have to be able to assume it has a mind like we do in order to believe it could feel like a human. A robot’s ability to emote can make a person feel it can empathize, which is comforting.
In movies when robots are expressed as cold rational beings that are only there to do a job, that is often when they are the scariest (i.e. Prometheus, Terminator). If a being has empathy it means that it can be influenced by a person’s emotions in a moment, which could move it to think of the person’s interest in addition to its own. When there is no emotion and no empathy, that potential for it to see your fear, sadness, happiness is lost and likewise it would be unreadable to the person.
Check Out These Links to Learn More About Vulnerability and Robotics
Gender and Vulnerability
The ability to turn on and off one’s empathy is highly valued in a military setting as that control would allow a soldier to kill without hesitation. In the United States, men were historically the soldiers, which would connect them to the unemotive. On the other hand, women are often expected to be emotive, but only in the proper contexts and amounts. If Hillary Clinton were to cry, she “goes from this scary pant suit wearing she monster” to she’s too weak to be in a position of power. Showing vulnerability becomes a liability for her. When people do not conform with the norms of their gender they are put in a precarious situation where they must monitor themselves even more than what is already expected. Meanwhile heteronormative men are often portrayed as unbreakable rather than vulnerable, showing a small vulnerability is often valued, but this too can only happen positively in a controlled way. Amy points out that something like crying in public can be experienced differently even within a gender. She states that,“for some men it is a dangerous act, but for others who have already proven themselves on this hierarchy of masculinity it becomes an asset”.
Check Out These Links to Learn More About Gender and Vulnerability
Check Out These Links For Miscellaneous Things That Pertain To the Episode