Monday, August 6, 2018

Enough with the Empathy

Imagine that you are a good little liberal living in Colorado. Let’s say that you were outraged, beyond reason, by the election of Donald Trump. You were appalled and horrified by the terrible things that the Trump administration was going to do to the poor, the disadvantaged, the underprivileged and the oppressed.

As it happens, when Barack Obama was president and these same victim groups were living in worse conditions than they are today-- because far more of them were unemployed and living on food stamps--you were not outraged. You basked in the warm glow of the Obama presidency. You knew that the president cared deeply. You cared deeply. When you come down to it, that was all that really mattered. You all felt the same compassion. If nothing good happened to the groups you care so deeply about, it did not matter.

We ought to understand the calculus of compassion. When people suffer you have reason to feel for them. You might not feel their pain-- that would be empathy-- but you feel for them. If they get jobs and get off the dole, you have less reason to feel for them. You cannot even console yourself by feeling their pain. As the unemployment rate for minority Americans falls, your compassion no longer has a reason for being. This is not the same as what psycho professionals call compassion fatigue. It means that you believe that feeling matters more than actions and results. Or better, that the only actions that you care about involve charity, not job creation.

Essayist Elisa Gabbert takes a swing at these problems and misses. We are not going to hold it against her. The conversation is so confused and the political environment so toxic that we feel for her pain at not having the freedom to examine issues objectively. She knows that she has to feel certain feelings, lest she and her family be shunned from dinner parties.

Gabbert opens by confusing compassion and outrage. You would think that it would be difficult to confuse the two. Apparently, not.

We have never been more aware of the appalling events that occur around the world every day. But in the face of so much horror, is there a danger that we become numb to the headlines – and does it matter if we do?

In April this year, a woman calling herself Apathetic Idealist wrote to an advice columnist at the New York Times, asking for help in overcoming a sense of political paralysis. This condition, which was keeping her from engaging in “real action”, began in November 2016, when Donald Trump won the US presidential election. “I continue to be outraged by this administration’s treatment of Latinos, Native Americans, Muslims, LGBT folks, women and so many others,” she wrote. “But I’m struggling to summon a response.”

“I have no doubt that many people can relate to your letter. I can relate to it,” began the response from the columnist, Roxane Gay. “It is damn hard to expand the limits of our empathy when our emotional attention is already stretched too thin.”

This seems to be an increasingly common condition. Glance at Twitter or Facebook, and you’ll probably see someone say, “I’m so tired”. There is so much bad news that it feels like we’re running out of emotions. I can relate to Apathetic Idealist, too. For the past several months, I have experienced a creeping psychic exhaustion. “I’m in a numb period,” I tell my friends when they send me frantic texts about the day’s events or ask me how I’m holding up.

Why are all of these good American leftists so tired? Could it be that they are exhausted for listening to their friends ranting and raving? Could it be that expressing such boundless outrage makes you look like a blithering fool? Therapists ought to know that violent expressions of anger provide a momentary catharsis, followed by embarrassment for having thrown a tantrum worthy of an eight-year-old.

Or, better yet, could it be the Trump administration has not quite lived up to its billing as the worst thing that has ever happened in the history of the universe. Even the truest of true believers, even those who are most involved with their emotions, cannot be completely impervious to facts.

Just as compassion and empathy are not the same thing, so too outrage has very little to do with either. Gabbert reviews some of the literature about compassion and empathy, though she tends to confuse them. She concludes that we must feel compassion and/or empathy for the less advantaged, because otherwise we would not want to do anything to help them. Apparently, in the world of the politically correct, doing something means handing out charity. It does not involve creating the economic conditions that will bring them into the workforce… to the point where they no longer need charity.

But the more commonly held view today seems to be that empathy is vitally necessary, not just for direct human interaction, but as a spur to solve the world’s most pressing problems. Why would we come to the aid of people who are suffering, the thinking goes, if we don’t on some level feel their suffering, too?

As Gabbert notes, some moral philosophers, like Kant, did not believe that you need to feel the right feelings in order to do the right thing. In that, Kant was assuredly correct. Worse yet, feeling someone else’s pain or feeling for someone else’s pain does not tell you what to do to help out. If someone feels helpless and you feel that person’s helplessness, you will certainly not know, any more than he does, what to do to draw the person out of his funk.

Gabbert latches on to empathy… the latest psycho panacea. She does not understand that people can have many other reasons for making the world a better place. And she certainly does not understand that there are many different theories for how to do so:

If it is true that empathy is a necessary motivator for making the world a better place, what happens when we feel bombarded every day with the details of local and global disasters, with every shocking crime, political scandal and climate calamity here and abroad? The war in Syria. Refugee crises. Melting sea ice. Professionals on the frontlines of trauma are trained to watch for signs of “compassion fatigue”, but lately it feels as if everyone is at risk. After a year of news addiction that left me with insomnia and heart palpitations, I’m starting to detach. Is there any way around it? What happens when the world wants more empathy than we can give?

Whatever the world needs, it isn’t empathy. One remarks that during the Obama administration not a one of the radical leftists that form this right-feeling coterie, cared a whit for the disadvantaged of the earth, for the victims of the war in Syria-- one that Obama might have done something to stop but chose not to.

Perhaps the disadvantaged of our country and the earth could do with less pity and less condescension. What's wrong with wanting them to have jobs.


Christopher B said...

Neither compassion nor empathy. She's mourning the loss of the ability to virtue-signal.

trigger warning said...

"Melting sea ice."

The technical term for melting sea ice is "water". (Wikipedia)

trigger warning said...

Just to round out my earlier comment...

"Towing an Iceberg to South Africa Might Help Solve Country's Water Crisis, Expert Says"


Ignatius Acton Chesterton OCD said...

As long as it FEELS GOOD...

Results don't matter. Results are bourgeois.

Sam L. said...

"Or, better yet, could it be the Trump administration has not quite lived up to its billing as the worst thing that has ever happened in the history of the universe." DAMN that Trump for disappointing the lefies!!!!1111!!!! And making them SOOOO MAAADDDDD.

Anonymous said...

Sorry, Not Sorry.
I Do Not Care