Becoming Unsympathetic

What does it mean to call upon another’s sympathy? What are we doing when we are being sympathetic?

Think of sympathy and we tend to think of a situation. Whether or not sympathy is called for might depend upon that situation. We might want someone to be sympathetic to our situation. A call for sympathy might be a call for recognition, a call to someone, so they can make sympathetic noises, the right kind of noises, those “hums” and the “ha’s” that we might hear as sympathetic. Becoming sympathetic might describe a pedagogy: learning how to respond well to another person’s situation as an attunement to how they feel, becoming “in tune” as acquiring an ability to say or do the right things; to know what are the right things to say or do. It might mean knowing when to be quiet or not, to hold or not, to leave or not, even to be helpful, or not. This sympathetic knowing might require a certain kind of intimacy with a person, a capacity to pick up what they asking of us in the flicker of a passing expression, as well a less intimate knowledge: knowingness about situations and what they demand of us. More than that: empathy, compassion and sympathy are modes of being that are about how we respond to a situation of being with someone whose situation is not one that we are in: this being with, but not in, requires that we take care, that we be careful. We might not in hard times have the time to ask the question of how to respond; the necessity of a response, means that sympathy can exercise its own grammar, becoming words that are sent out, that hover, as if they do not come from us, as if they have a life of their own.

Given the scene I have just pictured, one might assume that sympathy is something we need in some situations more than others, situations of sadness or loss, where the comfort of another might be a condition of bearability (I say “might be” as sometimes when one is sad being comforted can be unbearable.) Indeed the condolence card has routinized sympathy as a kind of habit of loss: a habitual response to loss that congeals into an object, the card itself, which can then stand in for sympathy, and even take its place. But of course sympathy does not only refer to a response to situation of sadness. We can question the routinisation of sympathy as a mode of responding to loss. Thinking of feminism as situation, we might challenge one of the primary narratives of sympathy as a gift: sympathy as what some feminists give to others who are suffering from a situation that we are not all in (for further discussion, see the first chapter of my book, The Cultural Politics of Emotion (2004) on “the contingency of pain”).

Returning to the etymology of sympathy, we learn the sympathy derives from  syn- “together” and pathos “feeling.” Sympathy suggests to have a “fellow feeling,” but also to be “affected by like feelings,” such that one person’s feelings are in accordance with another’s. It is this relationship of feeling to accordance that intrigues me: not simply the feeling of accordance but the accordance of feeling. The history of the verb “to accord” is suggestive. The word drives from the Latin word “cordis” or “heart”: to accord is to be of one heart. Perhaps sympathy not simply as a feeling that is sent out, but as a demand that you return feeling with like feeling: that you agree with your heart. We can under how sympathy which seems as a feeling to be about extension (when you are sympathetic to others you extend your feelings to others) can also be about restriction. You might be sympathetic to the extent that you can be in accordance with others.

Maybe you are more kind to those you feel are more of your kind.

One time someone told me that she felt “especially sad” for the honeymoon couples who lost their lives in the South Asian Tsunami in 2004. She did not mean to be unkind to those she did not mention. She did not mean to say that some losses mattered more; rather she just meant to say that she could relate to some losses more because she could relate to some lives more: she could imagine going there, on her honeymoon, with that promise of happiness. Relating to the suffering of others creates a category of “less relatable” others. Sympathy is involved in the creation of the “less relatable,” as well as the “relatable.” Or, to borrow Judith Butler’s (2004) terms, sympathy can create a distinction between more and less grievable lives.

Another time I read a piece of writing that was about a survivor of rape speaking of what she needed to survive her experience. She wrote of the importance of having women only spaces: how spaces for women who have survived that experience might be necessary to surviving that experience. I have much sympathy with this sentiment. But then she created a category of “women” that was about women she could relate to defined not in terms of women who had shared this experience of sexual violence, but women who were not trans women, whereby this “not” was defined in terms of biology (1).  The restriction of relatability becomes a restriction of sympathy. But to question the restriction of relatability would be to become unsympathetic, unkind.

Is this restriction of sympathy to kind unkind? Do we need to give a feminist history to the unkind, or to write an unkind history? I will return to these questions.

Sympathy can be given as a mode of restriction. This was a central argument in my book, The Promise of Happiness (2010), even though I did not put the argument in quite these terms. When we think of sympathy, as I have noted, we tend to think of suffering. But we can be sympathetically happy: we can be happy when others are happy. I have called this “conditional happiness”: when we make our happiness conditional on the happiness of others. Sometimes the conditionality of happiness can be a crisis: we might be made happy by another’s happiness but not made happy by what makes another happy.

Perhaps we can think of sympathy too as conditional. To rephrase an earlier point: the conditions under which feelings are shared might be the conditions under which sharing is restricted. In his approach to moral sentiments, Adam Smith describes: “it gives us the spleen… to see another too happy, or too much elevated, as we call it, with any little piece of good fortune. We are disobliged even with his joy; and, because we cannot go along with it, call it levity and folly” ([1759]2000: 13, emphasis added). For Smith, to be affected sympathetically would be dependent on whether the other person’s emotions appear “suitable to their objects” (14).

I want to think about how the conditions of sympathy – whereby one’s sympathy is given on condition that another person’s emotions are deemed appropriate – are social conditions. We have a revealing moment in the film The Waitress (2007, directed by Adrienne Shelley). Jenna, an unhappily married woman, arrives at a doctor’s surgery and says she is pregnant. The doctor responds sympathetically by offering her his congratulations. His sympathy is not in response to how she does feel (miserable) but rather how she should feel (happy). She is alienated by his sympathy, even though that sympathy is in accordance with an everyday judgment (that pregnancy for married women is a happy event). The waitress is alienated by virtue of her response to being pregnant, such that to be in sympathy with her response of alienation (to offer your condolence) would be to share her alienation: “poor you stuck with him.”

A feminist utterance can be in sympathy with an alienation from happiness. Affect aliens sympathise with alien affects.

We can be alienated by sympathy when sympathy is given in accordance with an expectation of how we feel rather than what we feel. When others expect sympathy from you, they might also be expecting your feelings to be in accordance with theirs. No wonder that in living a feminist life we tend to become unsympathetic. Say someone is getting married. You do want them to be happy. But weddings don’t make you happy: you do not believe in them. But if you you don’t go along and participate in this happy occasion, you would be the one judged as being selfish, as putting your own beliefs before the happiness of others. How could you! Note that people often appeal for you to be happy for them (and to do something with them) when they know are not happy about something. This requirement to suspend your beliefs in order to preserve the happiness of others is an everyday requirement. We learn thus: so much happiness is in accordance with a set of beliefs.

In exploring in The Promise of Happiness (2010) how and when conditional happiness becomes a crisis I offered a reading of Mrs Dalloway and also the film The Hours (based on Michael’s Cunningham’s novel (2002, dir. Stephen Daldry). I have shared the reading of the former on my blog before. I now want to return to my reading of The Hours. The film places three generations of women alongside each other, and follows their life on a single day: a day in the life of Virginia Woolf, of Laura Brown, an unhappy housewife living in the 1950s as she bakes a cake and reads Mrs. Dalloway, and of Clarissa Vaughan who is organizing a party like Mrs. Dalloway, for her ex-lover and friend Richard, who is dying of Aids.

In my reading I focused on Laura Brown our unhappy 1950s housewife. She is reading Mrs. Dalloway.  She explains to a friend  why she relates to Mrs Dalloway, “because she is confident everyone thinks she is fine. But she isn’t.” To be confident is to convince the world of a happiness that does exist; it is to pass as happy with what does exist. It is to say: like you, I am not fine, like you, my life is about maintaining the appearance of being fine, an appearance which is also a disappearance.

To become attuned to unhappiness can be to become attuned to what others do not hear. Feelings of sadness can slip, and stick; they can get all over the place. Laura tries to bake a cake.  She cracks an egg. To bake a cake ought to be a labour of love. Instead, the film reveals a sense of oppression that lingers in the very act of breaking the eggs. Objects that promise happiness can become terrifying: they can haunt you in their emptiness. Not only do such objects not cause your happiness, but they may remind you of your failure to be made happy; they embody a feeling of disappointment. The bowl in which you crack the eggs waits for you. You can feel the pressure of its wait.  The empty bowl feels like an accusation.  Feminist archives are full of scenes of domesticity, in which domestic objects, happy objects, become alien, even menacing.

In one very poignant scene in The Hours, when Laura’s family gathers around the table, having their own party with the cake she has finally baked, the promise of happiness is evoked. Her husband is telling their child the story of how they met. He says: “I used to think about bringing her to this house. To a life, pretty much like this. And it was the thought of the happiness, the thought of this woman, the thought of this life, that’s what kept me going. I had an idea about our happiness.” As he speaks, tears well in Laura’s face. Her sadness is with his idea of happiness. Laura explains to Clarissa at the end of the film how she came to leave her husband and child: “It would be wonderful to say that you regretted it; it would be easy. But what does it mean. What does it mean to regret when you had no choice. It is what you can bear. There it is. No one is going to forgive me. It was death. I choose life.” A life premised on “an idea about our happiness,” for Laura, would be unbearable. Such happiness would be death. She does not leave this life for happiness. She leaves this happiness for life.

For Laura, to leave happiness is to leave everything behind her; it is to cause unhappiness for those who are left behind, an unhappiness which is inherited by her child, who we learn by the end of the film, is Richard. And it is Clarissa who in The Hours cares for Richard and attends to his unhappiness who has to pick up the pieces of the happiness that Laura has shattered. Clarissa: who ends up (like Mrs Dalloway), organizing a party for her friend, worrying (like Mrs Dalloway) that her parties are trivial. Clarissa (like Mrs Dalloway) tries desperately not to be sad; to use the happy occasion of the party, its celebration of Richard’s award as a writer, to stop herself thinking about the sadness of his imminent death; to avoid being overwhelmed by grief.

The film might in its dramatization of the unhappiness caused by Laura, the woman who cannot bear the idea of happiness, withdraw its sympathy from her plight. I think it does.  Perhaps we can learn from this withdrawal of sympathy. If the one who leaves happiness must cause unhappiness to those who they leave, then they must refuse to be sympathetic: they must not return feeling with like feeling (happiness with happiness, love with love) if they are to escape from the very obligation to return.  In other words, to give up happiness is to become unsympathetic. That Laura’s act is only narratable as unkind, violent as well as mean, as the cause of suffering that cannot be repaired, shows us just how hard it can be to give up on the idea of happiness because that idea is also bound up with the impulse to care for the happiness of others.  There are many, I think we know this, there are many who stay in situations of unhappiness out of fear of causing unhappiness, out of fear of losing sympathy, of becoming unsympathetic.

It is hard to leave happiness for life. There is always a gap between becoming conscious of what is lost by living according to an idea of happiness and being able to leave happiness for life, a gap where things happen, where lives are lived and lives are lost. Not only is there sadness in recognising gender as the loss of possibility but there is also the sadness of realizing that recognising such loss does not necessarily make things possible. After all Clarissa in The Hours spends her time, as she did in Mrs Dalloway, caring for the happiness of Richard: it is her relationship with Sally that suffers, which does not have her attention. In the end it is Clarissa’s daughter who is sympathetic toward Laura. We learn from this inter-generational sympathy: perhaps its takes more than one generation to reproduce a feminist inheritance, where we can acquire sympathy (a sympathy for affect aliens as an alien sympathy) toward those whose acts are publicly remembered without sympathy, as causing unhappiness to others.

A killjoy too: she has become unsympathetic. She is deemed as compromising the happiness of others. She is deemed as stealing their happiness because she is unhappy.

She, too.

Me, too.

We, too.

The angry woman of colour: she too comes up as unkind, as mean, as unsympathetic. As always, Audre Lorde’s words are my teachers. Lorde describes: “When women of Color speak out of the anger that laces so many of our contacts with white women, we are often told that we are ‘creating a mood of helplessness,’ ‘preventing white women from getting past guilt,’ or ‘standing in the way of trusting communication and action’” (1984: 131).  These quoted utterances are from letters that Lorde has received from white women. They share a thread. When women of colour speak of racism, we are stopping something, we are getting in the way of the promise of reconciliation, the promise that we can get on, move on, get along. We shatter the possibility of feminist community: how mean. An unkind history, a history of how feminism is assumed to belong to some kinds of women; not others.

We have to shatter some possibilities. Happiness, even.  Break a thread, even.

The freedom to be happy can become: the freedom to avoid proximity to whatever compromises your happiness. Caring for happiness can become: the freedom not to care about unhappiness. Perhaps we need to turn away from any happiness that is premised on turning away from suffering. To be touched by this suffering would not be premised on feeling the other’s suffering. The sympathy of fellow feeling, which returns feeling with like feeling, which is kind to kind, is a way of touching that touches little, almost nothing. To walk away from the paths of happiness would be a refusal of indifference, a willingness to stay proximate to the unhappiness of others, however we are affected.

(1) There are many “biologies,” or many uses of biology.  When biology is used to stabilise a distinction between kinds, biology becomes mastery: a science of kinds.


Ahmed, Sara (2010). The Promise of Happiness. Durham: Duke University Press.

——————— (2004). The Cultural Politics of Emotion. Edinburgh University Press.

Butler, Judith (2004). Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence,  London: Verso.

Lorde, Audre (1984). Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches, Trumansburg: The

Crossing Press.

Smith, Adam [1759] (2000). The Theory of Moral Sentiments New York: Prometheus Books.

About feministkilljoys

feminist killjoy, affect alien, angry queer woman of colour
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4 Responses to Becoming Unsympathetic

  1. MsKittens says:

    Since having a very negative encounter with feminists/feminism last year, I tend to avoid all things ‘feminist’. However, a friend emailed this to me.
    It’s beautiful, your words are alive with the sadness that only comes from experiencing exclusion. Even though it’s not enough to ‘re-convert’ me to feminism, it has awakened my determination to fight for the young women I support; no-one deserves to be isolated.
    Thank you

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