Exploring the Empathy Gap: November Events Recap

In 2013, the writer Teju Cole, in an interview with Mother Jones, suggested that there is an ‘empathy gap’ in drone warfare. Speaking of his Twitter fiction, ‘Seven Short Stories about Drones’ — which rewrites the opening lines of seven canonical novels by weaving in references to drone warfare — Cole said,

‘I had been thinking so intensely so much about the global war on terror, especially the heavy silence that has surrounded the use of drones to assassinate people outside this country… this was just another way to generate conversation about something that nobody wanted to look at.’

Sarah Zhang, ‘Teju Cole on the “empathy gap” and tweeting drone strikes’, Mother Jones, 6 March 2013.

The question of drone warfare’s empathy gap is also the subject of rock band Muse’s album Drones (2015). Originally inspired by composer Matthew Bellamy’s reading of Brian Glyn Williams’s Predators (2013), the album, Bellamy stated, was

‘a modern metaphor for what it is to lose empathy. Through modern technology, and obviously through drone warfare in particular, it’s possible to do quite horrific things by remote control, without actually feeling any of the consequences, or even feeling responsibility in some way’.

Gavin Haynes, ‘Muse interview’, NME, 20 May 2015

At our sold-out event during the ESRC Festival of Social Sciences at the University of Sheffield, we discussed what shapes and forms such an empathy gap took.

The first part of the evening was a film screening of Sonia Kennebeck’s documentary National Bird (2016), which opened up thought-provoking questions about what can and cannot be perceived from a drone. Through its three whistleblower narratives, the film probes the devastating consequences of attempting to bridge the gap, whether by exposing the fallacies of drone operation, or by seeking out the civilian victims of collateral damage in the U.S. Drone War.

The second part of the evening was dedicated to thinking about the art of drone warfare in two senses. First, there has been an outpouring of the visual and multimedia arts in response to developments in drone warfare. Second, predicated on advancements in aerial imaging, and deeply intertwined with the entertainment and gaming industries, drone warfare is itself a kind of art. These topics were covered in a panel conversation with our invited guests: Politics Lecturer Ross Bellaby, and artists Mahwish Chishty and Tomas van Houtryve.

Ross spoke about the historical development of drone warfare, its reconfiguration of ethical questions in war, and the future of autonomous warfare. Mahwish and Tomas each presented aspects of their work, and talked about their motivations and their creative processes. Tomas explained how he researched instances of civilian collateral damage, which often took place at gatherings such as funerals and weddings, and during moments of prayer; he attempted to bridge the empathy gap by featuring similar scenes, but on the U.S. soil. Mahwish, whose drone art draws from the cultural idioms of Pakistani truck art, remarked that a drone operator was so moved by her work that they got in touch to ask if they could have a copy of one of her artworks, which they then put up to remind them of what they were ‘actually doing’.

During their visit to Sheffield, Mahwish and Tomas also gave separate talks at the University to an interdisciplinary audience of staff and students. The School of English has written a report of the week’s activities here.

Our thanks to the British Academy for sponsoring this event; the Curzon Sheffield for hosting us; Sonia Kennebeck and Ten Forward Films for giving us permission to screen her film; Ross for his insights on the history and future directions of drone warfare; and Mahwish and Tomas for traveling from so far to speak to us about their important artwork.