Humans As Aliens Sympathy, Empathy, Appropriation, Ethics

For individual discussions, you will generally be required to post a response of at least 200 words to a topic of your choice. Each prompt includes introductory explanation plus several questions. Each topic response should focus on a relevant issue you wish to examine and should make a thoughtful, well-developed argument. Close reading and use of quotation is encouraged. Use parenthetical page or electronic location numbers for citation, ie. (148). Before responding to the prompts, read prior posts, especially any that have been highlighted by the instructor. If particular questions have already been answered satisfactorily, choose other questions to address. Strive to avoid producing repetitive responses; instead, try to bring something new to the conversation to keep it moving forward.

Topic 5 – Sympathy, Empathy, Appropriation, Ethics


Sympathy is a feeling of pity and sorrow for someone else’s misfortune. Sympathy is a sentiment experienced by an onlooker.

In contrast, empathy is the capacity to understand or feel what another being (a human or non-human animal) is experiencing from within the other being’s frame of reference, that is the capacity to view the world from another’s perspective and place oneself, by an act of imagination, in another’s position. It used to be assumed that the empathy was a uniquely human trait, but recent research has shown that some other social animals have a capacity for empathy (see, for instance, the work of primatologist Frans De Waal). The evolutionary development of empathy has been tied to its value in complex social environments where understanding others and making alliances boosts social status, security, and mating opportunities. Moreover, the capacity for empathy is now seen by many anthropologists as the necessary biological foundation for ethics.

Appropriation is the action of taking something for one’s own use, typically without the owner’s permission. Cultural appropriation (or misappropriation) is the adoption of elements of one culture by members of another. Cultural appropriation is frequently critiqued for ignoring the intellectual property rights of marginalized peoples and contributing to their ongoing oppression. Cultural appropriation can be a form of cultural imperialism whereby the intellectual products of a colonized people are adapted for the benefit of the dominant group without consideration to the interests or express wishes of their producers. Cultural appropriation can involve claiming falsely to share the experiences of oppressed peoples as a way of bolstering credibility and moral stature.

The film Avatar proposes that one can actually become the other by transferring bodies. Is it politically useful or problematic to imagine such a possibility?

Does the film suggest that embodiment as an avatar is necessary for true empathy? Why are scientific observation, open dialogue, and creative imagination seemingly not enough to produce understanding of the alien?

Do Jake and the scientists engage in appropriation of Navi culture? If so, does this appropriation contribute to cultural imperialism and/or colonization?

In what ways is the film itself a technology of “embodiment”?

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