Empathy, an Empty Signifier

Essays on technology, psycho­analysis, philosophy, design, ideology & Slavoj Žižek


September 26, 2012

Empathy, an Empty Signifier

Most of the reaction to my Kickstarter post focused on the first half, where I argued that the service takes a large cut of the donations while providing surprisingly little value to the projects it claims to serve. I intended this as an example of what I think is the more important issue of Kickstarter’s marketing, which has seduced the progressive left into supporting them and ignoring their exploitative business model.

Several commenters strongly disagreed, and felt that any criticism of Kickstarter is so outlandish, it cries out for a psychoanalytic explanation. They propose that this essay is the return of a repressed trauma of failed Kickstarter project. What my would-be analysts miss is that in the essay, my libidinal energy is obviously cathected in what I call Good™ values – the feel-good, pro-social change-the-world capitalism that surrounds Kickstarter – rather than the service itself.

To me, the real question is why this style of marketing is so compelling to so many. Re-reading the essay, I feel like it is inadequate to answering that question in many ways, because it tempts the reader to see the problem as an example of greenwashing – or, I suppose, Good™-washing. The issue is framed partly as a problem of corporate deception, that we, the good people who hold these values, have been dazzled by capitalists falsely claiming to represent them.

But it’s wrong to imply that pro-social values that have merely been co-opted – I think those bad ideas, and capitalist in their original, uncorrupted form. The Good™ value system is a constellation of ideals like organic food, lifestyle minimalism, conscious capitalism, life-long learning – the list is long and tediously inspirational – but maybe the most important is the ideal of empathy.

“What could possibly be wrong with empathy?!” you ask. Yes, it’s hard to find fault with empathy. How would you even begin? You’d start by making the case that the very impossibility of finding fault with empathy is the whole problem. A concept that registers as indisputably good and true is ideological in the Althusserian sense of ideology. This suggests that our political order is not so much constituted by political “ideologies” (in the common sense meaning of a set of explicit political beliefs), but rather by beliefs that register to our ears, regardless of voting tendencies, as mere statements about reality. It’s a counter-intuitive notion.

Some writers think that empathy can be mobilized in support of traditionally left wing goals. Ideals like equality and shared prosperity are practically dead, but who can dispute the reality of suffering? We can all agree that suffering is bad, that we ought to alleviate suffering wherever possible, and from that we can create a political coalition to address social problems! This is roughly the thesis of Jeremy Rifkin’s book The Empathic Civilization.

Although it’s a compelling idea, I think there are serious flaws. Empathy is often claimed to be non-ideological, transcending left nor right, and yet Republicans are considered to be definitely not empathetic. This isn’t exactly an inconsistency. It is possible to believe that Republican policies and beliefs lack empathy, while also believing that (almost) everyone is able to empathize with suffering, and the discrepancy is often explained by framing it as a difference between ideology and reality.

In a recent Daily Show appearance after the 2012 Democratic National Convention, Bill Clinton explained his critique of ideology in similar terms:

[T]he problem with any ideology is that it gives the answer before you look at the evidence. So you have to mold the evidence to get the answer that you’ve already decided you’ve got to have. It doesn’t work that way. Building an economy; rebuilding an economy is hard, practical nuts and bolts work.

The contrast between ideology and reality is an important part of Rifkin’s thesis. A large part of the book is devoted to the neuroscience and psychology of empathy, and this provides a way for Rifkin to justify liberal-progressive political goals seemingly without making normative arguments. Empathy is wired into your brain and your nervous system, so a society organized according to empathy is grounded in objective, scientific truths, not unproven and unprovable political claims about how society ought to be.

Rifkin relies on science to try to prove that empathy is pre-theoretical, pre-ideological and pre-political. He tells us that babies cry when they hear other babies, but lack the broader awareness to understand why. But this claim falls apart if you try to apply the concept of empathy to resolve recent political debates. Out of empathy for the Iraqi people, we might refrain from invading their country; or empathetically liberate them from an oppressive dictator. We might empathetically give gays the right to marry, or empathetically ban homosexuality to protect the children from sexual deviancy. Abortion is either legal or criminal depending on whether you think we should empathize with the mother or the unborn child, and social spending can be cut for the sincerely compassionate reason of rescuing the poor from a culture of dependency.

Just like the word “freedom”, practically any political position could be condensed in the word “empathy” – politics is partly a debate about what those words really mean and whose definition is the true definition. So political divisions are not resolved by putting aside our ideologies and agreeing that empathy is really what matters in the end. Far from being pre-theoretical or pre-political, in practice, every affective experience of empathy depends on an invisible theoretical background that tells us who is and isn’t entitled to empathy and whose suffering really matters and should be paid attention to.

Social change doesn’t come about by listening to all sides and coming to a consensus about we can all agree on. It happens by taking a side.