Empathy is the Ultimate Neutrality

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


September 14, 2014

Empathy is the Ultimate Neutrality

Today there are those who believe that empathy is a solution to our social problems. They tell us that the indignities suffered by minorities and oppressed groups could be resolved if only we in the majority would empathize more, and in their vision of a better society, there would be abundance of caring and kindness between its members.

How could you disagree? The cognitive scientist Paul Bloom will soon publish a book that looks at the consequences of empathy and concludes that reason is a better guide for social policy. Empathy turns out to have some undesirable side effects, like a desire for retribution on behalf of victims without regard for long-term consequences. Or the identifiable victim effect, which causes us to react to the plight of individuals more strongly than to the suffering of vast numbers. There are some other concerns, but on the whole, they are pragmatic considerations that ask whether empathy is effective or not. But another kind of critique is possible.

Žižek tells a joke about a Jewish Ukrainian who applies to emigrate from the Soviet Union. The emigration office bureaucrat asks him why he wants to leave and he replies “I have two reasons. First, I’m afraid the communist regime will fail and the next power will blame the Jews for communist crimes.” The bureaucrat replies, “That’s ridiculous, the communist regime will last forever!” The Ukrainian replies “Yes, and that’s my second reason.”

It’s possible to critique the advocacy of empathy along similar lines. Before one even begins a critique, the immediate reaction is “How could you possibly find fault with empathy?” As Bloom says, “Most people see the benefits of empathy as too obvious to require justification.” That empathy is a self-evident virtue can be transformed from an objection to criticism to a criticism in itself.

To understand this, we must first take account of our political situation with this striking observation from political theorist Chantal Mouffe’s essay Why the left needs a political adversary not a moral enemy:

Today social theorists like Anthony Giddens and Ulrich Beck argue that with the demise of communism and the socio-economic transformation of society linked to the advent of the information society and to the phenomenon of globalisation, the adversarial model of politics has become obsolete and that what we need is a politics “beyond left and right”, a politics not any more structured around social division and without the us/them opposition.

This “post-political” discourse is accompanied by the promotion of humanitarian crusades, ethically correct good causes and the increasing reliance on the judiciary to deal with political issues. What this signifies is the triumph of a moralizing liberalism which pretends that the political has been eradicated and that society can now be ruled through rational moral procedures and conflicts resolved by impartial tribunals. It is the culmination of a tendency inscribed at the very core of liberalism which, because of its constitutive incapacity to think in truly political terms, always has to resort to another type of discourse: economic, moral or juridical.

However the liberal incapacity to acknowledge political antagonisms does not make them disappear. Despites the fact that the key words today are those of “good governance” and “partisan-free democracy” no politics is possible without defining frontiers. The democratic consensus proclaimed by all those who celebrate the “centre” cannot exist without defining an exterior which by its very exclusion secures its identity and its coherence. Hence the necessity of defining a “them” whose existence will provide the unity of the democratic “we”. But since one cannot think of politics in adversarial terms, this “them” cannot be envisaged as a political adversary any more. It is therefore on the moral terrain that the frontier is drawn. This is why the “extreme right”—a rather undifferenciated and unexamined entity—is increasingly presented as the personnification of the “evil them” against which all the good democrats should unite.

Clearly, what we are witnessing is not the disappearance of the political antagonism but a new mode of its manifestation. Given that it cannot be articulated in terms of a confrontation of hegemonic socio-economic projects, this antagonism now expresses itself in the moral register. What is at stake is still a political conflict but disguised as a moral opposition between “good” and “bad”. On one side the good democrats who respect universal values and on the other side the representatives of evil, the racist and xenophobic right with whom no discussion is permitted and which has to be eradicated through moral condemnation.

After the killing of Michael Brown and the outrage and protests which followed, polling revealed stark differences in the interpretation of those events between white and black Americans. A majority of whites believe that the police are handling the protests appropriately, the killing didn’t raise racial issues and that the investigation will be run fairly—some argue that it indicates a lack of empathy.

There are obvious benefits to advocating for more empathy. It’s a position that purports to transcend traditional divisions between Left and Right, a serious and respectable idea that centrist politicians like Obama are able to promote without offending anyone. And who could possibly object to something so obviously good as the idea that we need more empathy?

Empathy is able to cross political lines because it’s seen as a physical and thus non-political sensation. Advocates like Jeremy Rifkin, author of The Empathic Civilization, makes use of neuroscience to argue for a society based on our supposed empathic “wiring”, our innate, universal ability to experience others’ feelings which he believes has been repressed and subverted by merely cultural phenomena like blood ties, religious, ideological and national identifications which restrict our ability to empathize with those outside of those spheres.

In adopting these views, we end up abandoning political struggle that aims to wrest control of institutions. Instead, we are directed towards strategies of moral improvement of society. Non-profits press city councils to issue public proclamations affirming the value of compassion, and sponsor classroom programs and seminars. Media strategies are developed to promote and model empathy for an impressionable public, and neuroscientists and cognitive psychologists develop workshops and training exercises that are supposed to enhance our capacity for empathy.

Today, moral condemnation is the tool of choice among activists. Public shaming, confession, repentance, penance and redemption are now routine. These are celebrated as successful actions furthering the cause because public exposure of individuals’ moral failings are viewed as the linchpin of progress.

The necessary correlative to empathy is the figure of the victim to whom it is directed. Similar to empathy, the idea that victims are owed moral consideration is taken as too obvious to require justification, which is is precisely why the strategy of representing those who experience injustice as victims is so wildly popular. It wouldn’t be a stretch to call this the sine qua non of contemporary leftist activism. Exposing one’s deep emotional sensitivity to the plight of the unfortunate is a taken as a sign of authentic commitment to their struggle.

If the intent is simply to draw attention to suffering, there might not be any problems. But the way that empathy works is quite different. Proponents reminds us that empathy (ideally) leads to altruistic action, which sets up a dichotomy between passive victims and active empathizers which is quite different from a traditional political view. Those who struggle against injustice are the active parties, the proletariat, the agents of history fighting to overthrow a corrupt system.

Empathy is part of a broader humanitarian frame where victims are viewed as traumatized and disabled by their victimization. Far from being agents of historical change, some social justice activists routinely claim that educating and changing society is not their job, strangely insisting that the responsibility for creating a just and egalitarian society lies with the existing one. Furthermore, to be treated as the agent of change is taken as yet another victimization, another burden placed on them by an unjust society.

If empathy engenders passivity in victims, it also demands moral innocence. Is there any stronger empathetic response than the outpouring of support for the innocent victim? What can open our hearts like the immaculate, unblemished lamb at the slaughter? In his essay The Superior Virtue of the Oppressed, Bertrand Russell pointed out the perverse logic of this idealization that connects innocence and passivity: “The idealizing of the victim is useful for a time: if virtue is the greatest of goods, and if subjection makes people virtuous, it is kind to refuse them power, since it would destroy their virtue.”

In the wake of Ferguson, the hegemony of the empathy ideal was revealed, along with its limitations. The New York Times published what they surely thought of as a balanced profile of Michael Brown that was intended to show “both problems and promise in his young life.” The author John Eligon described him as “no angel” and included details like his dabbling with drugs and alcohol. The article provoked accusations of bias and racism and massive outrage online and in the media because it was perceived to undermine public support for the protests.

Everyone agreed that the New York Times should have never used those words. And this is very revealing. It demonstrates how the success of a social justice movements depends on idealizing victims, and portraying them as unrealistically moral and good. When this perfect image fails—as it always does because no one is that good—so does the movement. In Michael Brown’s case, all it took was the revelation of his perfectly ordinary imperfections to create an emergency situation. Protesters accused the newspaper of racism for portraying him as anything less than angelic. Perversely, this reaction only strengthens the already impossible requirement for innocent victims.

Chantal Mouffe points out that simply transposing political antagonisms into a moral register doesn’t make those antagonisms disappear. Psychological research studies have shown that we don’t spontaneously experience empathy for everyone in equal measure. We perceive black people as feeling less pain than white people. At first glance, this appears to confirm the claims of Rifkin and others who say that racial and other identifications narrow our circle of compassion to exclude people of different races. But it turns out that this finding holds for black participants as well as whites. The researchers hypothesize that regardless of our racial identity, we tend to perceive those who face greater hardship in life as tougher and less sensitive to pain.

Our spontaneous empathetic abilities do not transcend ideology or political antagonisms as so many hope they do. In fact, they seem to be strongly affected by the social hierarchies of the society we live in. It might even be possible to argue that empathy is the problem here, not the solution. Advocates get around this criticism by emphasizing that what they want is universal empathy, and most people will require special training.

But even so, political questions are not dissolved. One could empathetically extend benefits to help the unemployed pay their bills, or empathetically remove them on the theory that it teaches helplessness. One could vote to legalize abortion to empathize with mothers, or vote to ban it empathizing with fetuses. Empathy could lead you to wage war to liberate the Iraqi people from a dictator, or to oppose that war.

Universal empathy might encourage us to see the world as others see it, but doesn’t help us decide how to handle conflicting perspectives. In many cases, it’s not even clear that extending empathy to everyone is a good idea. If we met a slave-owner who was distraught over being forced to give up his slave, it doesn’t seem that extending empathy to both of them and trying to find a middle ground would lead us in the right direction, nor should we empathize equally with a Nazi and a Jew. Many people express reluctance to prosecute rape cases out of empathy for the perpetrator.

When it comes to questions of gross injustice, there can be no middle ground. One is forced to take a side, either for or against. Justice is one-sided. Empathy is the ultimate neutrality.