Quotations from Spellman’s “The Heady Political Life of Compassion”

Compassion, like so many of our other complex emotions, has a heady political life. Invoking compassion is an important means of trying to direct social, political, and economic resources in one’s direction (indeed, compassion is one of those resources). Existing inequalities between persons may be exacerbated rather than reduced through the expression of compassion. Interpretive battles over the significance of a person’s or group’s suffering reflect larger political battles over the right to legislate meaning. The political stakes in the definition, evaluation, and distribution of compassion are very high. (364)

So while Harriet Jacobs was in part hoping to arouse compassion and concern in an apathetic and neglectful white audience . . . she was aware that appeals for compassion could be politically problematic. Incidents in a political text not simply because it is meant to get its audience to challenge existing institutions but also because it constitutes an ex-slave’s struggle against readings of her experiences of slavery that would reflect and reinforce the master-slave relationship. Indeed, we cannot adequately understand the plea for compassion in Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl unless we look at Jacobs’s ongoing attempts throughout the text to assert and maintain authority over the meaning of her suffering. (354)

In many ways Incidents is a lesson in how to assert your status as a moral agent, and maintain authorship of your experiences, even as you urge your audience to focus on he devastating suffering to which you have been subjected against your will. Brent is well aware that in the process of getting her audience to feel for her and other slaves as crushed victims of an evil institution supported by cruel people, she may simply provoke hostile disapproval of her actions and character, or an anemic kindness, mistakenly understood by those who feel it to be proof of their Christian virtue. So care she takes great care instructing her audience about what they are to think and feel: she alerts the member of her audience to the kinds of misreadings and misunderstandings to which they are likely to be subject; she tries to establish herself as a moral agent and political commentator and not simply a victim; and she encourages her audience to feel not only compassion but outrage in response to slavery. (357)

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