Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Not unsympathetic

In "Lived Religion in New York" today we discussed the approach taken by the Journey through NYC Religions website whose director visited our class last week: "sympathetic objectivity." I was expecting the students to be critical, since students at Lang are reputedly suspicious of everything, especially religion, but found them instead to be remarkably friendly to the idea. Our visitor had us read the start of the website's account of its method.

The usual method of journalists is to start with skepticism in order to arrive at an objective picture, then to add sympathy toward the end of the reporting process. Over time, the reporter’s skepticism can harden into cynicism about their informants and, at worst, about life itself. The public too has become cynical about journalists. The public believes that the journalist tactically fakes sympathy at the beginning of the interviews in order to advance their reporting. ...

Proposed instead is starting with sympathy - "fellow feeling." Convince people of the "sympathy of the heart" behind your interest, and they'll welcome you into their religious communities. (Journey has visited over 6500 in all five boroughs!) As one journalist fan of the approach summarized it,

Get more bang for your buck with empathy first. Open ears and heart makes for better interviews. Skepticism later, if needed.

The site invites us into a debate in journalism which has helpful parallels for an introductory course in the academic study of religion.

While we also highly esteem investigative reporting, we don’t think it is the primary paradigm for journalism. Rather, most reporting in democratic societies should be rooted in a concern for building a healthy social trust and community well-being. Journalism should start with genuine sympathy or empathy, move to objectivity, and then if called for, add criticism. ...

[S]ympathetic objectivity is not about feel good, positive stories. It is about deeply understanding and appreciating what other religious people have to say to us who have a different religion or those of us with no religion. We discover that the religious people are contributing assets to our lives in the city, not just deficits. Of course, from this position of deep understanding we will run across weaknesses, contra- dictions and conflicts that our audience ought to be aware of. That is why “sympathy” is only the first step in reporting, not the last step.


There's much to like here. But... can you really get to objectivity from fellow feeling? The Journey team gets invited in by convincing communities that they genuinely believe that each is doing something valuable which other people would benefit from knowing about (and I'm not doubting the genuineness of their belief here). But how do you get beyond providing human interest stories and community announcements? Even if you're not convinced that religion often has a dark side, how can you be sure what you're getting from a religious community's self-descriptions is "objective"?

Not to worry: as one of my students said, there's no such thing as objectivity anyway! All of us are inevitably biased and we should just admit it.

This seemed the wrong way to resolve the problem. (Problem, what problem?) But I made things worse by appealing to the "hermeneutics of suspicion" (assuming everyone knew this and resonated with it) and contrasting it with a "hermeneutics of charity," more academic ways of making kindred points. I should have known better, or at least not been surprised that these didn't fly. The former's worry that people might not fully comprehend their own situations - or their own minds! - found no takers. And the latter's idea that I need to approach the other as probably right, someone I could learn from, demands a more dynamic openness than discrete moments of fellow-feeling. Nobody was getting why both seem to me - at least potentially - instruments of human liberation, which might enhance the creativity and power of lived religion. Sigh.

I'd forgotten my frustration the last time I taught this course (and that to a group many of whom had just completed "Theorizing Religion") when most the class shrugged off every attempt to introduce sociology, psychology, history, theory, critique. "Lived religion" is personal, I was given to understand, and just as nobody can tell me what my truth should be, nobody can know it as I do. The only approach to it is sympathetic objectivity - empathetic respect for my reality. The Journey's mutual admiration society is just what the doctor ordered!

I need to find a way to assert the significance of academic reflection and complication. In class today I tried to describe the value scholarly work adds as filling in what people cannot, in the nature of things, know themselves. This isn't skeptical or debunking (or not necessarily) - I understand it more as liberating. The creativity and power of lived religion aren't undermined by what we do, but can be enhanced by it, no? Ultimately the project isn't categorically different than Journey's, but there are differences of emphasis, method and audience which it will be helpful for us to articulate.

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