Prof. Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela, Stellenbosch University, ventured into the implications of empathy and forgiveness when examining the relationship between a victim and perpetrator of human cruelty at a lecture Wednesday.
“The essence of empathy is the capacity to feel with and to participate in shared reflective engagement with the other’s inner life,” Gobodo-Madikizela said.
Mentalization, stemming from imagination, is a major component of our ability to empathize, according to Gobodo-Madikizela. A person’s ability to truly empathize can be learned at a very young age.
“The human capacity for imagination, being open and receptive to another person’s circumstances, has an important role to play in empathy,” she said.
Gobodo-Madikizela illustrated the power of forgiveness between a victim and perpetrator in a story she heard while working with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission about Amy Biehl — an anti-apartheid activist who was killed in South Africa. According to Gobodo-Madikizela, Biehl’s parents created a foundation in their daughter’s name, and instead of condemning the murder, they invited their daughter’s killer to work with them at the foundation.
When a victim extends an empathic hand to the perpetrator, the perpetrator is more likely to “come closer,” allowing for a deeper dialogue and eventual forgiveness between the two, according to Gobodo-Madikizela.
“These unique moments that we witnessed at the public hearings of the TRC presented us with new solutions that transcend the ‘limits’ of the human condition — profound moments of history that expanded our sense of what’s possible,” she said.
However, Gobodo-Madikizela stressed that the victim is not obligated to forgive a perpetrator.
“I have argued that forgiveness is the wrong word,” she said. “What is really important is for us to consider that it is possible to reconnect with people we have considered to be enemies in the past.”
Gobodo-Madikizela said empathy can help to solve problems that stretch into the past.
“We come from a society or societies that are wounded in your country as well as in mine,” she said. “We’ve carried a lot of wounds, and these wounds are not just from our own generation. They are wounds that go back several generations. Therefore we have to be conscious of how this may impact on our relationships with others.”
Gobodo-Madikizela spoke of a word often found in many African cultures — ubuntu. Roughly translated, ubuntu is “a deep sense of love for the other.”
“The concept of ubuntu is an ethic based on the understanding that one’s subjectivity is inextricably intertwined with that of others in one’s community,” she said. “From the perspective of ubuntu, all people are valued as part of the human community and worthy of being so recognized. This entails not blind acceptance of others, no matter what they do, but rather an orientation of openness to others and a reciprocal caring that fosters a sense of solidarity.”