by Evan Kuehn
One of the virtues central to the decade in American public life between Barack Obama’s The Audacity of Hope and the end of his presidency is that of empathy. In a commencement speech to Northwestern University given just before he announced his candidacy for president, Obama famously spoke of an “empathy deficit,” and emphasized the importance of “the ability to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes; to see the world through those who are different from us.” He would carry this theme consistently through his administration, mentioning empathy as an important criterion for a Supreme Court nominee, and in 2016 reiterating its value in a commencement speech to Howard University: “we must expand our moral imaginations to understand and empathize with all people who are struggling.”
Following Obama’s lead, newspapers and popular magazines started telling us how reading novels would make us more empathetic. Frans de Waal, a primatologist, published a widely-read book called The Age of Empathy: Nature’s Lessons for a Kinder Society that was picked up by Oprah’s O Magazine. Experts rushed in from all corners to confirm the importance of this twenty-first century virtue.
In 2018, the excitement about empathy already seems like ages ago. While empathy continues to be a watchword for dissecting what exactly happened in the presidential election of 2016, Americans nowadays are much more attuned to the “deficit” that Obama spoke of rather than to empathy itself. Donald Trump’s presidency embodies what his predecessor warned us all against. Especially since his inadequate response to Hurricane Maria’s devastation of Puerto Rico, “empathy deficit” has resurfaced in political headlines.
The absence of empathy is not universally mourned, however. Many have argued against the idea that empathy is all that helpful in the first place – whether as a cultural virtue that helps us to connect with the stories and voices of others, or as a basis for ethical decision-making. The awkward problem with empathy is that it actually doesn’t necessarily make you a kinder person, nor do you need to be especially empathetic in order to be a moral person.
I think that it’s only fair for us to admit that the critics of empathy (the ones who have really thought about it… not the elected officials who simply seem to lack it) do have a point. People who think of empathy merely in terms of “kindness” offer a superficial understanding of the concept. Empathy is, most basically, about being able to live into another’s situation and track with the actions of another. We are most prepared and most inclined to do this, though, with people who are immediate and familiar to us. First our family, then our community and culture, and also the groups with which we have regularly associated – our community of faith, or school, or sports team. In real life, then, empathy plays out in kinship relationships and tribalism as much as it does in the sort of cosmopolitan ideal that Obama touts.
When a group of kids is choosing teams for dodgeball on the playground, each captain is going to go with their clique of friends first, and inevitably leave an outsider until the end. In this case the captains may fail to empathize with the unfortunate kid that no one wants on their team, but we shouldn’t ignore the fact that this schoolyard pecking order was also a result of empathy as much as it was a failure of it. The team captains did empathize with their own clique. Some kid was picked first, because the captain knew them and knew they could work with them.
With greater consequence, we can look at how the crack epidemic was portrayed during the 1980s and '90s in contrast to how the current opioid crisis is being portrayed in the media. The abuse of crack cocaine was largely associated with inner cities and African American populations, triggered moral panic, and was met with heavier punishments than powder cocaine (which did not have the same demographic associations as crack). Current public discourse about opioid abuse, on the other hand, associates the problem with rural and white populations, and the proposed responses are not heavy prison sentences but rather public health initiatives to prevent overdoses. Public discourse tends to be laudably empathetic toward victims of the current opioid crisis, that is. Perhaps this is because more of these victims are white. More optimistically, perhaps we have learned from the mistakes of the war on drugs and gained some empathy as a result. Regardless of how we came to empathize, though, we can see that at the very least human empathy is rather limited and often too late. For every example of empathy with victims of tragedy, there is probably a lost generation or an ignored community that stands outside the boundaries of our sympathy.
But let’s return to the limelight of political celebrity. A television personality who suddenly becomes president may not be able to empathize with immigrants or the working class, but it’s not exactly correct to therefore say that he lacks empathy altogether. He very well may be able to establish a significant rapport with authoritarian personalities or with those who share a tax bracket with him. This is empathy as well. But if the president is empathetic with the Who’s Who of global authoritarianism, it is quite difficult to simultaneously be empathetic with democratic protesters against oppressive regimes. We have actually seen President Trump try to achieve this sort of moral gymnastics, and fail. In his response to media questions following the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville last August, he said that there “were very fine people, on both sides.” This claim fell flat because empathy with one “side” – an ideologically ethno-nationalist mob – excluded the very possibility of empathy with those who stood outside of the white nationalist vision of that side. In a discussion last August about “Understanding ‘Both Sides’” that is worth re-reading, David Barr and Russell Johnson helpfully clarified that Trump “fundamentally misunderstood what was morally significant about the weekend.”
It seems true, then, that empathy can lead to misunderstanding or to social isolation as often as it can lead us to higher or more universal ideals. Empathy is a foundation stone, and you can use that foundation to build a wall just as easily as you can build a bridge with it.
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So what is the use of empathy? Should we abandon it? If it can serve to reinforce the very self-centeredness that we are trying to avoid, to what extent is it really a virtue?
Empathy is important because it offers us a possibility. It allows us to describe understanding between persons – within the relatively small sphere of fellow humans we encounter in our daily lives, as well as the much larger and potentially more significant group of people we only ever encounter secondhand: through news and social media, or works of art, or history books.
Empathy has often been described as the ability to re-present or re-imagine the thoughts of others. To get an idea of what this means, think of common strategies for active listening where Person A listens to Person B and then tries to helpfully paraphrase what Person B has just said: “What I hear you saying is …” The goal here is communicative – the conversation is intended to achieve mutual understanding. There is no ulterior strategy of trying to convince the conversation partner of anything. Philosophers have built grandiose theories of democracy out of this same therapeutic insight of active listening that shows up in elementary teacher in-services and marriage counseling sessions. Empathy is both a mundane practice that we achieve without even thinking about it, as well as the basis for more elaborate goals of creating better interpersonal relationships, or a more peaceful world.
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This does not mean that empathy alone can make one a virtuous person or preserve the institutions of modern democracy. Empathy requires other aids to understanding. At the very least, it needs (and this is surely not an exhaustive list):
-Curiosity to press against the boundaries of our comfort and our current knowledge.
-Confidence, to recognize that our sense of self and identity doesn’t need to be jeopardized when we become disoriented (or even permanently changed) by stepping into someone else’s perspective.
-And even cold, hard rationality, so that we can recognize when we are falling into mere sentimentalism rather than genuine empathy.
Let me unpack this last one. Human rights are easy to affirm when we see photographs from liberated concentration camps or civil rights marchers being attacked by police dogs. On the other hand, images of a young male stranger cataloged in the news as “thug,” “suspicious,” “enemy,” or “radical,” begin to introduce nagging exceptions to our personal notion of human rights. Thinking about something like human rights in an impersonal, rational way could therefore be of service in cases where we can’t find our way to ideals through sympathetic feelings. It isn’t always so bad to think in universalizing, abstracted terms about what we owe our fellow person. In the rarefied environment of ethical theory or constitutional law, we can guard against our own worst instincts.
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Everything you’ve read about empathy from the pundits and the former president is true.
It is true that reading novels, participating in cultural exchange programs, and volunteering at the local homeless shelter will do a lot to expand your horizons and give you new opportunities for understanding others. You might even become a kinder person as a result. You almost certainly will understand the world in a way you didn’t beforehand.
It’s also perfectly true that “reading literature won’t give you super powers,” as an Atlantic article recently cautioned. Even Obama, the great proponent of empathy, recognizes this when he says to the graduating class of Howard University: “to bring about structural change, lasting change, awareness is not enough. It requires changes in law, changes in custom.” The same goes for mundane empathetic understanding with no pretensions to bigger structural changes. Human connections need an ecosystem where they can thrive. They need legal space for free expression and free association. They need a cultural home (the much-maligned “safe space”!) where familiarity can create some traction for sharing experiences and goals. Empathy builds upon itself, which means that it depends upon prior human connections to build new connections.
The only untrue thing about empathy that you’ve read is in the clickbait headlines. Empathy has sometimes been marketed as a magic bullet, and it simply isn’t one. It’s a foundation stone upon which we can build both walls and bridges. But the potential to wall ourselves in or keep others out does not diminish the fact that empathy remains foundational for building bridges. Cynicism or worldly wisdom shouldn’t keep us from returning to it as the basis for a good argument, a good relationship, or a good society.