Against Abstraction – Stanford University Press Blog

The most alarming aspect of the American political climate today is a failure of empathy.

Khizr and Ghazala Khan

Khizr and Ghazala Khan at the 2016 Democratic National Convention. Public domain via Wikipedia.

Of the many alarming aspects of the current American political climate, perhaps the most striking is the frequency with which politicians, political commentators, and the electorate have taken recourse to emotional abstraction. This may seem an odd assertion, given the more obvious invigoration of the alt-right, the continuing financial pollution of representative government, and the ferociousness of debates about race, faith, and belonging in American society.

Much has been said about the perversion of history that allows some to suggest that this country should implement blanket exclusions, large-scale deportation, or even mass imprisonment based on geographical origin or religious affiliation. As many people have noted, such views warp the shameful history of this country’s behavior toward marginal groups. Among other things, those views obliviate or even deny outright the Constitutional, economic, and political damage done by Executive Order 9066, which saw over 110,000 people of Japanese ancestry forced from the West Coast and relocated to what Franklin Delano Roosevelt himself called concentration camps.

Much has been said about the perversion of history that allows some to suggest that this country should implement blanket exclusions based on geographical origin or religious affiliation.

Criticisms of this sort are entirely valid, but they raise another question: What allows such sentiment to reach critical mass? This is an easy question to miss, particularly when the election cycle asks us to identify our political hopes, fears, dreams, and resentments with one or another person, rather than with the people and policies associated with that person. The risk in this is that we will ignore the engine of that person’s candidacy. And to ignore that engine is to ignore a vital, if elusive, part of what allows reactionary sentiment to gain purchase in the first place: emotional abstraction, which is in truth a failure of empathy.

Political campaigns necessarily trade in certitude, their claims streamlined and tailored for the broadest impact and the quickest payoff. To that end, they appeal to patterns already in place, and as those patterns repeat themselves they tend to come unmoored from reality as they undergo further streamlining, focus-grouping, and tailoring for efficiency. Election-cycle claims thus become like a dysfunctional family more interested in scoring rhetorical points than making a genuine connection. The result is a tailspin of continuing abstraction, as ideas increasingly come to resemble parodies of themselves (ever bolder, ever more confident, but ever less anchored to facts on the ground), shading out nuance and polarizing audiences.

The example of the Khans holds an important lesson for us.

There was perhaps only one moment in the 2016 presidential election when that tailspin may genuinely have come to a halt, albeit briefly, and that was when Khizr and Ghazala Khan publicly honored their son, Humayun, who died in a suicide bombing during the Iraq War. Despite being part of the Democratic National Convention, and despite being directed specifically at the Republican nominee, Khizr Khan’s remarks were profoundly important, for they provided a point of contact for people who might otherwise never have had reason to talk to—perhaps even think of—one another. From military veterans and their families to Muslim activists, the Khan family became a site of shared identification, even as vast differences among people remained visible.

It is tempting to think of Khizr Khan’s remarks as little more than a public relations coup aided by intemperate responses on the right, but to do so is to miss the most important aspect of those remarks: their extraordinary emotional weight. The profound loss the Khans continue to suffer in the wake of their son’s death is what drew people to the family, exerting a kind of gravitational force that has acted across political, religious, and racial spectra. Tellingly, that gravitational force has continued to exert itself long after the convention and well beyond the confines of one party or another.

That gravitational force isn’t uniform; it acts on different individuals in different ways. When Khan asked if his son would have a place in a right-wing world order, his question resonated with military veterans in one way, with Muslim Americans in another, with recent immigrants in still another, and so forth. In this respect, his question is a close relative of the cultural work (not merely political) that many Japanese Americans and Japanese Canadians have been performing in the wake of their wartime experiences of injustice. From Congressional testimony in support of the Civil Liberties Act of 1988 to participating in retroactive diploma ceremonies all along the West Coast, from Seattle and Los Angeles to Vancouver, B.C., these people have sought to demonstrate much more than the fact that the past is repeatable, and that such repetitions are avoidable. They also have sought to demonstrate to others that action derives first and foremost from direct, emotional investment.

“There are Arab Americans today who are going through what Japanese Americans experienced years ago.”

A case in point is when, in December of 2015, Donald Trump flirted with the wartime incarceration of Japanese and Japanese Americans as potential precedent for how he would respond to threats of Islamic terrorism within the U.S. Though Trump ultimately walked his statements back, he did so at least partly in the face of vehement criticism from a spectrum of sources. Most important among these were people of Japanese ancestry themselves, who spoke not only to the Constitutional threats of mass incarceration, but also to the toll that imprisonment took. The Japanese American National Museum, for instance, warned in a formal statement that “History reminds us that as a nation we must not target any one group—be it racial, ethnic, religious, or based on any other single criteria—and deprive those in the group of freedom and human rights. We strongly caution against rhetoric that purposely provokes unfounded fear of any one group….”

The Long Afterlife of Nikkei Wartime Incarceration

Though directed most obviously toward ethical questions, the Museum’s statement also struck an emotional chord, adding that, “we know from experience that such rhetoric can lead to hysteria that only impedes meaningful leadership of our democracy.” In this respect, they echoed a sentiment that Fred Korematsu, one of a handful of Japanese Americans who challenged the legality of Executive Order 9066, voiced in an interview late in life. Asked about contemporary parallels, Korematsu observed that “There are Arab Americans today who are going through what Japanese Americans experienced years ago, and we can’t let that happen again. I met someone years ago who had never heard of the roundup of Japanese Americans. It’s been sixty years since this [arrest] happened, and it’s happening again, and that’s why I continue to talk about what happened to me.”

With respect to the 2016 election cycle, the example of the Khans holds an important lesson for us. Injustice, whether bruited casually or pursued programmatically, exacts a toll that cannot be measured solely in lost income or missed professional opportunities. That toll is also personal, and its corrosive effects work at an individual level. But they work not only on the targets of unjust behavior and vicious sentiment; they also work on those who trade in such behavior, those who voice such sentiment. The people who peddle stereotypes seek to perpetuate convenient abstractions drained of all emotion, save fear, which drives us away from one another and into increasing isolation. Empathy, by contrast, draws us together. It is the gravitational force that can enable us to recuperate the past on an individual level and, in so doing, move beyond dry templates for thought and toward genuinely productive action. Abstraction is the enemy of the good, and only through the hard cultural and political work of pursuing its opposite, empathy, can we hope to hold that enemy at bay.


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Karen M. Inouye is Assistant Professor of American Studies at Indiana University, Bloomington and author of The Long Afterlife of Nikkei Wartime Incarceration.

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