ENACT: The Educational Network for Active Civic Transformation

Should Peacebuilders Encourage Oppressed People to Empathize With Their Oppressors?

Ethical Inquiry is a monthly series that examines ethical questions, highlighting a broad array of opinion from journalism, academia and advocacy organizations. Our intent is to illuminate and explore the complexity of some of the most vexing ethical questions of our time.

September 2012

artwork of a bride by dor guez"Samira, Lod Ghetto," by Dor Guez

Several workshops, events and exhibitions at Brandeis University this fall are exploring explore the relationship between oppression, occupation, art, dialogue, and social justice.

Expert dialogue facilitator Farhat Agbaria is in residence at Brandeis University from Sept. 19-30 in conjunction with "100 Steps to the Mediterranean," an exhibition at the Rose Art Museum of the work of award-winning artist Dor Guez.

Inspired by Farhat Agbaria’s visit and the Dor Guez exhibit, in this “Ethical Inquiry” we ask: Should oppressed people be encouraged to empathize with their oppressors?

What feelings and sensibilities should guide the stance that oppressed people take towards those who are members of the dominant community? What responses are just? What response will best contribute toward a more peaceful world? Should peacebuilders encourage oppressed people to empathize with their oppressors?

Diverse perspectives have emerged among scholars, philosophers, peacebuilders, and activists with regard to these questions. This inquiry is organized according to some of the ways it has been suggested oppressed people might respond to an oppressor: with anger, with violence and revenge, with compassion and mindfulness, with concern for humanity, and with empathy.


First, some definitions as they relate to this Inquiry:

To oppress is “to crush or burden by abuse of power or authority.” For the purposes if this article, the terms oppressed (position of diminished political, economic, military or cultural power) and oppressor (position of relative political, economic, military or cultural power) will stem from this same definition.

To empathize is to be “aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner.”

Arguments Against Empathy

When a population faces structural violence and repeated oppression, many argue that the most logical and appropriate responses are anger and a desire to seek revenge.


Legal philosopher Jeffrie Murphy considers resentment amongst oppressed individuals to be a positive emotion as it carries considerable self-respect. “Resentment is a response not to general wrongs but to wrongs against oneself … I am suggesting that the primary value defended by the passion of resentment is self-respect, that proper self-respect is essentially tied to the passion of resentment, and that a person who does not resent ethical injuries done to him… is almost necessarily a person lacking in self-respect. ...”

Others disagree with Murphy’s assessment. Murphy’s co-author, American political philosopher Jean Hampton, sees a danger in embracing resentment and anger but advocates for alignment against evil or wicked actions. In "Is Listening Ever Wrong?" Dr. Cynthia Cohen explains that Hampton believes “that ethically good people (ethically good members of both the occupied and occupying community, we might presume) should be angry with the occupiers and in fact should hate them.”

Dr. Gobodo-Madikizela, a psychologist involved in South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, explains the psychological need for victims or oppressed to blame a social system or larger community for the violent actions of oppressors. She suggests that an individual’s cruel actions cannot be examined alone but must be understood within the larger context.

Paolo Freire suggests, “Almost always, during the initial stage of the struggle, the oppressed, instead of striving for liberation, tend themselves to become oppressors, or ‘sub-oppressors.’”

Omar Bargouti, an Egyptian born activist against the Palestinian occupation and founder of the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic & Cultural Boycott of Israel writes in his chapter “Ethical Implications of De-dichotomization of Identities in Conflict” that “So long as the oppressed can only see the ‘other’ as devoid of all attributes except being oppressor, he cannot possibly challenge the dichotomy of the oppressor-oppressed; he can only reverse it. Such a challenge would require delving with valor into the commonalities, the shared majal, or what Hegel calls the ‘universal.’

Violence and Revenge

The desire to seek revenge is common amongst oppressed populations. Professor and scholar of genocide Alexander Laban Hinton, author of "Oppression and Vengeance in the Cambodian Genocide," explains that leaders of the Khmer Rouge sought “subaltern vengeance” upon their former oppressors which served to fuel the genocide.

Morton Deutsch, conflict resolution specialist and founder of Columbia University Teacher College's International Center for Cooperation and Conflict Resolution states, “Violence against people is apt to weaken the support of existing and potential allies, unify the oppressors, and lead to a vicious spiral of increasing irrational violence. The violence is irrational in that it is impelled by a thirst for vengeance rather than by an attempt to achieve strategic objectives. Violence of any sort against a powerful oppressor usually leads to an intensification of oppression rather than an increased readiness to engage in constructive negotiation.”

In "The Wretched of the Earth," Frantz Fanon contends that “Colonialism ... is violence in its natural state, and it will only yield when confronted with greater violence” Fanon was not alone in preaching violence as the only way out of colonialism and neocolonialism. Che Guevara argued that “to solve the problems now besetting mankind, there is need to eliminate completely the exploitation of the dependent countries by the developed capitalist countries.”

The post-Civil War period in the United States is an example of a time when some oppressed people responded with violence, often as a method of self-defense. In "White Violence and Black Response: From Reconstruction to Montgomery," Herbert Shapiro writes that “most of the racial clashes that marked the Reconstruction era blacks were defeated, but … blacks did not respond passively to violence.” Shapiro asks, “how did blacks respond to the violence that marked this complex struggle? Their response was shaped by several considerations ... [including] the right of self-defense when actually confronted with violence.”

Arguments for Empathy

While some advocate for and justify the need for oppressed peoples to seek revenge, demonstrate anger, and even act with violence, many transformational leaders continue to call for acts of empathy.

Compassion and Mindfulness

According to Buddhist peace activist Thich Nhat Hanh, peaceful coexistence cannot be attained from an angry or resentful stance, but the acknowledgement of these emotions can encourage necessary meditation and the discovery of compassion. He explains, “If we work for peace out of anger, we will never succeed. Peace is not an end. It can never come about through nonpeaceful means. When we understand the reasons for the hurtful action we will no longer blame [the perpetrator] for making us suffer, because we know that he is also a victim. To look deeply is to understand. Once we understand we will long for him to suffer less.”

The Dalai Lama, known for a belief in “universal responsibility and reverence for all living things,” explains “human kindness does not come about in isolation but is dependent on the kindness of others. ... Being of help to others and being considerate of their rights and needs is not just a question of duty, but also has a bearing on our own happiness.”

From this perspective, the happiness of the oppressed is dependent on their ability to hold compassion for their oppressor. This goes beyond simply empathizing with the other, but being able to love and respect the oppressor as one would one’s own people. Thich Nhat Hanh explains that with this mindfulness, “it is possible to live happily in the here and the now.” He practices and preaches compassionate and deep listening as a means to relieve the suffering of others. Through listening to the suffering of others, “even if he says things that are full of wrong perceptions, full of bitterness, you are still capable of continuing to listen with compassion. Because you know that listening like that, you give that person a chance to suffer less. ... One hour like that can bring transformation and healing.”

In violent conflict, writes Thich Nhat Hanh, “Both sides are motivated by fear, by anger, and by wrong perception. But wrong perceptions cannot be removed by guns and bombs. They should be removed by deep listening, compassionate listening, and loving space.”

If “happiness is the cessation of suffering,” as Thich Nhat Hanh believes, is it realistic or possible for the oppressed to overcome their own suffering and find bliss in the present?

Concern for Humanity

Dr. Cynthia Cohen, Director of the Program in Peacebuilding and the Arts at the Ethics Center, explains in her chapter “Should Oppressed People Empathize With Their Oppressors?” that “the ability to see the human face of the enemy is an important aspect of retaining their own humanity. ... Even in the context of an occupation, some people from the less powerful community make the difficult choice to try to hold onto a sense of the humanity of those from the more powerful community — in part because it preserves their sense of their own humanity.”

Civil rights activist, historian and professor Howard Zinn emphasizes how challenging it is to really see the oppressor as human: “In the long run, the oppressor is also a victim. In the short run (and so far, human history has consisted only of short runs), the victims, themselves desperate and tainted with the culture that oppresses them, turn on other victims. ”

Influential 20th century educator and philosopher Paulo Freire believes that in these moments, oppressed communities can attain liberation, dissolving the oppressed-oppressor relationship, by recognizing the humanity in their oppressor. In "Pedagogy of the Oppressed" (p. 44) he writes “in order for this struggle to have meaning, the oppressed must not, in seeking to regain their humanity (which is a way to create it), become in turn oppressors of the oppressors, but rather restorers of the humanity of both. This then, is the great humanistic and historical task of the oppressed: to liberate themselves and their oppressors as well.


University of Cambridge psychology and psychiatry professor Simon Baron-Cohen is well known for his research exploring the meaning of human empathy. He views empathy as a crucial human trait that protects and supports human happiness. According to Baron-Cohen, empathy is a solvent that holds the power to literally dissolve global conflicts. “Unlike the arms industry that costs trillions of dollars, or the prison service and legal system that cost millions to keep oiled, empathy is free. And, unlike religion, empathy cannot, by definition, oppress anyone.”

Ras Ceylon, a California based rapper and ethnic Sinhalese openly sympathizes with the Tamil refugees in his community. He strives to help all Sri Lankans recognize one another as individuals. While Ceylon has the advantage of working toward this in another country, somewhat removed from the aftermath of the conflict, his role as a member of the Sri Lankan Diaspora can actually help mend wounds related to the conflict.

Nelson Mandela’s outlook and understanding of Apartheid changed significantly during his imprisonment on Robben Island. After numerous violent attacks against the ANC on behalf of the National Party, Mandela became a strong advocate for the use of strategic violence within the struggle and helped found the military wing of the ANC (the MK or Umkhonto we Sizwe).

In his autobiography, "Long Walk to Freedom," Mandela explains that the oppressors hold the power to dictate the rules of the game, and the ways in which the oppressed can attempt to change their circumstances. During his imprisonment on Robben Island, Mandela came to understand that his relationship with his oppressors could have an incredible influence on the history of South Africa, explaining, "You must understand the mind of the opposing commander.”

Mandela began to immerse himself in the culture of his oppressor and eventually negotiated freedom for South Africans. Dr. Cynthia Cohen writes, “Human empathy is not a capacity that benefits only its object. The ability to empathize is a capacity that nourishes and strengthens the empathizer — even, perhaps especially, one who can feel compassion for the suffering of an enemy; even more so, perhaps, compassion for the suffering of an oppressor.”

Final Thoughts

After experiencing oppression and violence from a dominant group, is it possible to view an oppressor with empathy? Is such a perspective a necessary step toward building lasting peace? If it is, how can individuals find a way to understand their oppressor as a human without risking their own safety, and how can communities be supported to view their oppressors with empathy? What steps and initiatives can encourage the oppressed or the oppressor to regard one another with dignity? What is the role of the peacebuilder in this process?