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The Short Review: The holocaust of sex
[Amin Srinivasan, The Right to Sex: Feminism in the Twenty-First Century, New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2021, 277 pp.]
This is an important book – and a difficult one. Provocative and thought-provoking, one of its many strong points is that it invites further conversation, debate, and productive agreement – and disagreement – about important, difficult topics in what is often referred to as “sexual politics.”
It is also a hard book to review, because it requires that the reviewer get in touch with [in this case] his own thoughts, feelings, and would-be positions on difficult issues in sexual politics, feminism, men behaving badly, gun violence, involuntary celibacy [key term], mental health, community well-being, social justice, incarceration, sex work, and the possibility of life, liberty, and the pursuit of property – I mean, happiness.
Professor Srinivasan’s [Chichele Professor of Social and Political Theory at All Souls College, Oxford University]] book is not particularly confessional and the author remains fairly anonymous personally throughout. That is most proper in a scholarly collection – most people have uneventful lives that do not make a good memoir. However, a lot of things fell into place for me about her thought and writing when she acknowledged “offering a utopian feminist response to our current situation” (p. 121). Take a note – herein lie the strengths and limitations of utopian thinking – and this book.
While the author does not get personal, the reviewer must do so – or he risks being just another annoying crank (not to say that could not also occur). So get ready. There I was a seventeen-year-old kid, graduating from an all-boys college prep about to go to the University of Chicago. The really tasteless joke about it was that the squirrels on the quads were more aggressive than the boys but less hairy. Ouch! I was not so much celibate as, in plain English, “hard up.” I note as extenuating circumstance the lack of opportunity and the inhibition due to hell fire and damnation sermons from black-robed clerics about the spiritual dangers of masturbation. I started on the process of getting a lot of therapy and, mostly, it worked.
As part of my enthusiastic efforts to understand what girls were and really wanted – little did I realize this was an ontological inquiry – I saw this book at the Green Door Bookstore, The Second Sex. It had an out of focus picture of an attractive woman on the cover, naked, so I bought it. It turned out that most of the young women I was trying to date were not interested in discussing existential philosophy, which was one of the strong points of Simone de Beauvoir’s monumental study.
How was I supposed to know? Beauvoir’s presentation seemed like common sense to me – this is how things worked or ought to work. Human beings are pour soi, not en soi, conscious beings, not unfeeling things. Biology is not destiny. Woman is not a mere womb; man is not mere testosterone [I am adding the latter]. Human beings get socialized – oftentimes badly – and biological sex gets distorted into freedom limiting gender roles. Mutually consenting partners have interpersonal relationships, including sexual ones. Get a job. Get economic freedom. Set boundaries – consent or withhold it. Be spontaneous – be free! Seemed like a good idea to me.
Now bring that to the battlefield called dating. “I just want to be your friend and have a meaningful conversation with you about existentialism – naked in bed.” Hmmm. In that regard, my self-study did not work very well. Fortunately, many women are empathic and appreciate men of integrity, even if they are socially awkward, men who want to relate to them as a whole person, including a sexual one.
Maybe I am kidding myself. I looked at my own father’s bad behavior and committed that things would be different in my own life; and fortunately, I had the education and the resources to make it come out that way. It did not work perfectly but it worked well enough. (See also the above about the therapy process.) In a world in which the vast majority of men of integrity support equal wages and equal opportunity and sharing domestic chores and childcare, we are all feminists now.
After reading Amia Srinivasan, I now know that my conventional feminism is significantly different than radical feminism, which, in turn, is different than Marxist feminism is different than psychoanalytic feminism is different than skeptical feminism is different than utopian feminism and so on. Who would have thought? The devil – and the politics – is in the detail.
Fast forward to November 2021. I hear Amia Sriivasan interviewed on Ezra Klein’s New York Times podcast introducing this (to me) new distinction involuntary celibate (“incel”). Now I definitely need to get out more, but this was the first time I encountered it. Cherish the moment when one can bring a “beginner’s mind” to the conversation.
An “involuntary celibate” is defined by Srinivasan as “a certain kind of sexless man: the kind who is convinced he is owed sex, and is enraged by the women who deprive him of it” (p. 73). The most famous incel was Elliot Roger, who perpetrated a mass casualty event, published a 107,000 word incel rant (“manifesto”) “My Twisted World” (p. 74), and took his own life.
Srinivasan draws together all the young men shooters who reference this celebrity celibate (incel) killer, Elliot Rodger (p. 111). Srinivasan reports that in 2017, the online discussion forum Reddit took down its 40K member incel support group for glorifying and inciting violence. Tough reading.
Srinivasan cites case-after-case of individuals, lonely young men, who talked themselves into that twisted point of view. It seems to be trending, which is to say delusional thinking is trending. It is.
The incel seems to think “right” means the necessity of entitlement, not permission. Theirs is an error in modal logic. Srinivasan gives numerous examples of individuals who rehearse their grievances, real and imagined narcissistic injuries, and upsets about some aspect of man/woman relations and work themselves up into a towering rage. This individual is headed for trouble; and when he takes time out from playing single person shooter video games and gets an actual weapon, then the community is headed for trouble.
In the title article “The Right to Sex,” and including “The Politics of Desire,” Srinivasan make a list of young men who either self-identity as incels or invoke the name of “Roger Elliot” in the course of perpetrating mass shootings. To say the list is disturbingly long is an understatement.
While we are making lists of the slaughters of innocents, Srinivasan calls out the suffering of woman victims and survivors in domestic, intimate partner violence without explicitly citing patriarchy expanding manifestos. These include named individuals Jyoti Singh, Delta Meghwal, Devi Punita (wife of the executed “rapist”), Maggie Reese ((e.g.) pp. 12, 16), which make the narrative accounts of the crimes and perpetrations highly impactful.
If there is a writerly or rhetorical method to Srinivasan’s series of essays, it is to be matter of fact, objective, giving an account of what happened. The reader goes along, taking it all in as the account unfolds. It’s awful. It appalling. It’s devastating. It’s soul damaging, even. It gets inside you, then blows up. It is stressful. It requires recovery time – like after spending time in a sweat lodge or chewing peyote. These incels – and assorted other deviants, individual and institutional – are damaged goods, and the reader gets a strong sense of that too, because it bores its way under the skin. It works.
Just as I sometimes had to put down writings about the Holocaust, lynchings in the US South, and the Armenia Genocide, I also needed frequent breaks to catch my breath. I hasten to add that it is important not to shoot the messenger, and Srinivasan is not performing a body count (except in a few equally disturbing footnotes). And yet the steady drum beat of violence against women is like the sound in the background of the clubs hitting the heads of the Armenian victims.
Srinivasan’s book is the holocaust of sex. The fires of the “holocaust” in question are not ones of passion or desire, but rather of anger and rage. Note the small “h” this time since there is only one Holocaust with a capital “H”. This holocaust is filled with the suffering of innocents, widespread injustice, and an awful lot of violence. It accurately paints a picture so bleak that further consciousness raising will likely expand our consciousness of misery and pain, nor do I here want to debate the need for it.
Now I can hear the concerned interlocutor: But, Lou, can’t you take it? Do you want to bury your head in the sand like an ostrich with your rear end high in the air? The answer is direct: I can take it. But do I want to?
Though the Nazis worked faster and were methodical beyond method, they only had about eight years total to murder the six million. What if they had two thousand (or five thousand, depending how one counts) years on which the patriarchs have been working to exercise domination?
Go back in mythical time and compare this with the death of Clytemnestra and the vindication of Orestes in the Greek tragic play, the Eumenides (458 BCE), one of the founding justifications of The Patriarchy [the unfair devaluing of women and the domination, enforced by men’s violence], which, to be sure, was already in place.
Recall that Orestes was found innocent of the crime of murdering his mother, Clytemnestra, who Orestes really murdered, because she – the mother becomes “mother” – was just the vessel of his birth, the container, the nanny, there being really only one true parent, the father and his semen. You can’t make this stuff up; but you can connect the dots with the Sandy Hook mass shooting (2012) that began with one disturbed young man [an incel prior to the name?] shooting his mother – an act of domestic violence, a mom who bought him the gun and took him shooting prior to his killing her and all those teachers and children, everyone as cute as a button.
The long history of violence against women and the shallow, fake ideologies to support blatant power grabs by the patriarchs, enforced by violence. An angry response is motivated, valid, human, and, if you (the reader) are not upset by the narrative, in particular the first essay, then you are not neurotypical. There is a calculated rage, a quiet seething, scholarly rage behind this book; and there is nothing wrong with that. Indeed the response is all the more powerful for not being expressed in loud exclamations or denunciations or rants. None of that here.
Since this founding Patriarchal injustice [which does not come up in Srinivasan, but, arguably, is a background presence], more than two thousand years ago, the sheer numbers of women, including females in orphanages and on the street in China and South Asia (and everywhere), killed, tortured, destroyed emotionally (if not physically) by abuse at the hands of men, dwarfs the work of the Third Reich. This is not good news. There is no silver lining.
Our age is one “by the numbers” – so do the numbers, albeit of a kind on the back of an envelope. Patriarchy (and a close set of closely related misogynist movements and political identities such as incel-ism (if that is a word)) over the centuries has produced orders of magnitude of suffering pain, injustice, darkness, and evil. The reader’s head reels.
This is the annulling of relations between the sexes. The emotion overrides the impeccable logic and marshalling of case after case of gender-based violence. As far as I am concerned, “Justice” Brett Kavanaugh, Dan Turner, Amy Cony Barrett [does she really subscribe to the “woman as vessel” theory of Aeschylus?] belong “under the bus” with Weinstein, Ray Rice, Crosby, et al. Along with the incels, these people are easy to dislike. Nor am I saying we should like them. I am asking: Is there any hope – for relations between the sexes (like, you know, men and women)?
This book requires a truth and reconciliation commission between the sexes. This would be similar to that formulated by Desmond Tutu in South Africa for the perpetrators of apartheid to tell the truth about what they did to the victims and see if the survivors can find something to forgive. That would be a practical, albeit utopian response.
Such parties to such a Truth and Reconciliation process might be able, someday, to have lunch together at the mall, but it is unlikely they would ever be able to have sex (intimate physical relations). Neither will the oppositely gendered readers of this book. Blame patriarchy, not the book or its author. Yet it makes me sad. Maybe that’s bedrock. The work of mourning of so many loses.
The Long Review: Don’t Say What is Wrong, Say What is Missing
This is a book rich in empathy, deep compassion, and committed to building a more inclusive community over the course of the next five years. And if you believe that, I want to sell you the London Bridge. No doubt I missed something – how else to explain the lack of a single gesture in the direction of empathic relations between men and women? Note that the word “empathy” does occur twice towards the backend, but then only in the context of the breakdown of empathy (solidarity) between mainstream feminists, radical feminists, and skeptical feminists (pp. 161 – 162).
The possibility of empathy between men and women as men and women is not acknowledged. It is missing. I hypothesize the reason: The dystopia of Patriarchy (systematic unspoken sexism) crushes the empathy and compassion out of all of us. This is an issue for this reader because: in the face of so much violence, can we find or recover a shred of our humanity? I do not need to say “shared humanity,” because “unshared humanity” is not humanity.
Since this is not a softball review, I put this book down and wonder: All the happy couples, whether on their honeymoon, in their golden years, celebrating the birth of their first child or their third, are self-deceived, kidding themselves? If they are experiencing happiness, that is what they are experiencing. If one were to argue that all happy couples are also unhappy couples [an issue missed by Tolstoy], I would have to acknowledge the point. But that does not mean one should not enjoy the moment.
Even if Patriarchy is the ideology of male chauvinism and its corrupt power dys-dynamic, the attempt to step outside the conflict of ideologies and utopias, risks precipitating an authoritarian regime. How to manage the risk?
Is a shared framework of communication between men and women even possible? This is not changing the subject: One widely accepted approach to the philosophy of science according to Thomas Kuhn is that translating between paradigms involved a strong element of incommensurability. Something is lost in translations – usually the scientific theory. Aristotle and Galileo were talking scientific languages so different (because they were inhabiting world so different) that it made no sense to try to translate between their theories of motion and of nature. One had to undertake an apprenticeship from the ground up to learn from scratch by dwelling in the other paradigm. Rarely was that practical or possible.
“The Very Idea of a Conceptual Scheme” by Donald Davidson tried to show that the entire idea of a conceptual framework was flawed. If one assumed diverging conceptual frameworks (as did Kuhn or in another context P.F. Strawson) and if one succeeded in translating between them, then one soon realized the frameworks were not that different; or not the sort of thig it made sense even to try to translate between – e.g., witchcraft / sorcery and biochemistry. These remain like Mayan Glyphs in comparison to Egyptian Hieroglyphics prior to the discovery of the Rosetta Stone. However, then it turns out they were all calendars after all! Vastly oversimplifying matters for this review, the metaconceptual framework itself is natural, ordinary language.
But what about that tribe of indigenous people where the adult men and women really do speak two mutually incomprehensible languages, diverging in both vocabulary and syntax? Although Srinivasan’s book is extremely well-written, hard-hitting, compelling, and even a tad funny at times, I repeatedly came away thinking we really are speaking two mutually incomprehensible dialects, like the men and women in those tribes.
In the context of popular sex psychology, John Gray’s Men are From Mars, Women are From Venus (1992) series expresses the same idea, though with a large collection of tips and techniques for actually doing the translating. I can see Professor Srinivasan now quoting Nietzsche “Ekel! Ekel! Ekel [Disgust! Disgust! Disgust]” and making a corresponding gesture. No one can be faulted for not writing a tips and techniques book. But I wonder if blowing up the entire system and starting over is a workable, viable anything, not that she proposes such a gesture.
Here is the rub. In spite of Srinivasan saying she is NOT playing a zero-sum game (winners and losers are required), she is. She is scoring intellectual points against an opponent who is not interested in debating and in many cases not capable of it. Notwithstanding the impeccable logic and marshalling of data, the potential for self-deception LIVES in this work. It’s a hard hitting conceptual analysis. It really is. It is a hard-hitting political parsing of the different kinds of feminism and options available to them in the face of continuing bad behavior on the part of men and the institutions that men continue to dominate. The inauthenticity is this is a high-end academic treatise and it is nothing personal and one should not take it personally or make it personal. Any yet … And yet if sex is not personal, then I would not know what is. Maybe that is why there is no way else to be in the face of this mess we call “humanity” other than utopian. The better angels of our nature are in short supply here, which, once again, is not necessarily the author’s doing but still must be charged to her account (narrative).
This is how personal she gets: Srinivasan is a utopian feminist (p. 121). This is the strength and limitation of utopian thinking. The power of utopian thinking is the power of language – the power of the condition contrary to fact statement(s). Simone de Beauvoir expressed some of that in a vision of a society in which free women and men could encounter one another as equals, economically, politically, sexually, and humanly. It hasn’t worked out – at least not well enough, fast enough, or comprehensively enough. Patriarchy dies hard – especially if is joined with economic, hegemonic, racist, homophobic, antisemitic, antiimmigrant, ideologically distorted modes of discourse. However, utopian thinking can also become a refuge for the powerless and frustrated. It is hard to hit a moving target. Did I mention, this is the limitation of utopian thinking?
Now once a person picks up a weapon (or a date rape drug) to perpetrate violence against his [female] neighbor – whether he is an incel, a Don Juan, one of the Marx Brothers, or one of the Muppets – the matter is no longer psychological, political, or medical – it is a matter for law enforcement. Even if such individuals need therapy – the right to therapy? – they still must be incarcerated to protect the community from their boundary violations.
At the risk of a really bad pun, Srinivasan takes no prisoners. The carceral system – wide spread incarceration of young men of color and female sex workers – ignores the deep causes of most crime – poverty, racial prejudice, borders, and caste. Most mainstream feminists have little to say to incarcerated women “implicated as they themselves are in the carceral system” (p. 163). [Ouch!] Srinivasan innovates (for me) a new distinction – “immiseration,” expanding the oppression of the worse off woman in the short-sighted attempt to create a better long-term future, expanding criminalization of sex work and sex workers.
Insofar as Srinivasan writes things that upset radical feminists, mainstream feminists, and the confused masses in between, she is definitely on the right track. There may have been a brief radiant moment about the time that Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex created a clearing for economic, political and sexual self-determination; but those days are history. The debate about whether women as a group represent an exploited class in the Marxian sense is still a bone of contention for radical and conventional feminists, but if there is any doubt about it read on.
Given that the Mississippi Attorney General Lynn Fitch [“powerful white woman”] questions whether abortion promotes equality for women, it is clear that some successful, establishment women are willing to throw their “sisters” of color under the abortion abolition ban bus. The devil may quote scripture in saying that more than half of high-end corporations surveyed offered some form of parental leave, including unpaid leave [Nicole Ault, Wall Street Journal, Nov 28, 2021]. White lies, damn lies, and statisticians? Srinivasan notes that abortion bans do not result in fewer abortions, but rather increase the number of women who die.
Perhaps we could/should turn our prisons into university-like facilities where professors from Oxford or the UChicago hold seminars with the incarcerated – the idea has merit – but better check with the professors first. Though Srinivasan does not say so – this would have been a specific utopian proposal – I think she would sign up to hold the seminar. I have my doubts about the other colleagues at Oxford or the UChicago. I am assuming that we could manage the risk of all this turning into Mao’s “reeducation camps” that flourished in the so-called cultural revolution.
The Unreview: After the tragedy comes – the comedy
Humor and empathy are closely related. In both practices one crosses the boundary between self and other. However, in the case of empathy one does so with a certain commitment to preserving the integrity and wholeness of the relatedness whereas with humor a large mixture of sexual and/or aggressive inuendo is perpetrated. We will start with empathy and work our way in the direction of a couple of really bad jokes.
Now purely as a thought experiment – you know, like in Physics 101 where we take a ride on a beam of light, knowing full well it is not technically possible at the moment – let us try a thought experiment with the incels.
After incarcerating or canceling or cognitive behavioral theraputizing the incel, let us try engaging him with – empathy. Key term: empathy. Let us take a walk in his shoes. Knowing full well that the incel is like a ticking bomb, let us engage with one prior to his picking up a weapon.
I cut to the chase. It is not just sexual frustration, though to be sure, that is a variable. There is also a power dynamic in play. This individual has no – or extremely limited – power in the face of the opposite sex. He is trying to force an outcome.
Here we invoke Hannah Arendt’s slim treatise On Violence. Power down, violence up. Whenever you see an individual (or government authority) get violent, you can be sure the individual (or institution) has lost power. The water cannon, warrior cops, and automatic weapons show up. (I could not find it or Arendt in the index or notes.)
The incel is powerless – okay, include a large dose of sexual frustration too – lacking in the key skill of swiping left /swiping right [on an online dating app] – in the face of human beings who are also women. The incel embraces his own frustration like Harlow’s deprived Macaque monkeys embraced their cloth surrogate mother, even though it lacked the nipple of the wire-framed one.
From the inside, the incel is a deeply aggrieved person. He nourishes and rehearses his grievances. He waters the tree of his sorrow and anger – and naturally the tree grows. He has gotten his feelings hurt by woman or women or his fantasy about them – and wherever there are hurt feelings, can narcissistic rage be far away? Is he more attached to his grievance [about not getting (sexual) encounters] than to having a life, however imperfect that life may be? Apparently so.
Now I do not want to make light of anyone’s suffering. Srinivasan’s work presents us with a long narrative of suffering women, suffering humanity, presented objectively and without much rhetorical affect so that it may land all-the-more powerfully with full emotional impact. It does. And it is not appropriate to put the incel’s suffering in the same class or category as that of the victims or survivors. But that does not mean he is not suffering.
I repeat: I do not want to make light of anyone’s suffering; but that does not mean we cannot enjoy a lighter moment amidst this holocaust of sex. I don’t know – upon further reflection, enjoying a lighter moment does seem like an impossibly high bar. But I am going to try anyway. After the tragedy, we have the satyr play – like this review.
We can repurpose jokes about virgins and lawyers as “incel jokes”. An incel and a philosopher (female) walk into a bar. The bartender asks: Why would the incel rather date a lawyer than a philosopher? Give up? Because then he is sure to get screwed.
Remember the more tasteless and objectionable the joke, the funnier it is (until it isn’t):
The incel kidnaped this girl last night. Fearing for her life, she yelled: “Please – I don’t want to die a virgin!” The incel thinks: If that isn’t consent, I don’t know what is.
[Right – he still doesn’t get it.]
The incel’s dystopian life points to his utopia, which consists in two words: “Get laid.”
Here is a draft of a cold open for a Saturday Night Live (SNL) sketch between an incel and his new therapist. This work would really require about two years. You have two minutes.
Light, action, camera: We are now in session:
Therapist (T): Dude, it’s ladies’ choice these days – swipe left / swipe right.
Incel (I): Drop dead! I want it [sex] on my own terms or not at all.
T: Where’s your sense of humor? Women like guys who are considerate and funny.
I: I am happy having a satisfying relationship playing video games.
T: By the way, when is the last time you changed that t-shirt?
I: Who needs to waste time changing and showering. Personal hygiene is for losers – love me as I am, dude.
T: I really get it, man – showering is overrated – but how about showering with a consenting woman friend? Just saying…
I: [Insert an avalanche of devaluing language about women – not suitable for polite company]
T: Look it, man – you are just not in touch with your inner jerk. Key term: inner jerk.
I: Cut the psychobabble. [Additional devaluing language about women – and now about the therapist – not suitable for polite company]
T: This is tough stuff and I can see your suffering is significant – but are you aware you got a chip on your shoulder the size of the Great Pyramid of Giza?
I: Cut the travel brochure – I won’t get on an airplane to travel if I have to wear a mask.
T: Okay – the chip is only the size of the Washington Monument – women like guys who respond to them as a whole person – their interests outside the bedroom as well as in it.
I: Nobody gets me, man, they are just not in touch with my greatness. [Additional devaluing language about women – and about the therapist]
T: I get it – you are angry – you feel invisible – not acknowledged as a possibility – you are feeling frustrated – say more about that
I: [More devaluing language – but now more sexualized and seductive – includes actual and alleged narcissistic slights perpetrated by a girl he tried to ask out on a date years ago in 8th grade. ]
T: That must have hurt. It does sound like you have not been treated well – still sometimes she has to say “No” to establish a boundary before she can freely say “yes” and get intimate. And “no” does indeed mean “no” – but it is okay to check back in a week or two – unless she tells you not to do so.
I: [Additional devaluing language about women]
T: You know, it occurs to me [dangles foot with high heel] that you may be overthinking this whole sex thing.
I: I do think about sex a lot; but what I need is action.
T: Keep it simple. When you’re hot, you’re hot; when you’re not, you’re not. Desire happens. Arousal happens. Keep your powder dry, and plan on being around when it happens – to her.
I: I just can’t seem to score, man. [Breaks down and shares an instance of premature ejaculation or impotence or a same sex encounter or a boundary violation perpetrated by an adult member of his family on him when he was still of tender age (this list is not complete)]
T: I really get it – but sex with a willing adult partner is more like ordering a pizza than scoring points – each of you suggests a couple of toppings – and let the fun begin. Just a tip for beginners – don’t take off your clothes until you have had at least a couple of good make out sessions on the couch.
[Stage notes: Fade to black and break for a commercial – an online dating service where you meet your “soul mate.” At this point, the sketch is no longer funny – if it ever was.
Stage notes (continued): the therapist is a conventionally attractive woman, professionally dressed, with skirt that exposes the knees, legs crossed and high heels visible – one leg dangles seductively at key points in the conversation and is as expressive as the dialogue: think – the incel’s worst nightmare of the unavailable object: the nervous [male] energy will automatically be translated into laughter.]
Srinivasan’s book presents a spectrum of incompletenesses from which none escape – neither the incels, the Patriarchs, the Marxists, the radical utopians, the traditional feminists, the skeptical feminists, the psychoanalytic feminists. All we have are fragments of human beings. As Nietzsche (a misogynist if not an incel) wrote: nothing but fragments of human beings – not a whole human in sight. How do we make things whole?
For most people, the fulfillment of one’s project of becoming a complete human being requires relationships with both genders. Note this does not necessarily mean consummating sexual relations with both genders, but rather interacting in the symbolic and social realms. Therefore, a recommendation to the author for her next book, perhaps on feminisms and empathy: reach out to Jeremy Howick of the Oxford Empathy Programme. He’s in the neighborhood [https://www.philosophy.ox.ac.uk/oxford-empathy-programme ].
According to Alain de Botton, “We need both art and love to make us whole…” [How to Think More About Sex, p. 72]. I would add laughter and empathy.
 Richard Brooks (April 26, 2017),”Cultures Where Mean and Women Don’t Speak the Same Language,” https://www.k-international.com/blog/men-and-women-dont-speak-the-same-language/ [checked December 13, 2021]
(c) Lou Agosta, PhD and the Chicago Empathy Project
Suzanne Keen’s Empathy and the Novel (2007, Oxford University Press, 242 pp.) can be read as an introduction to empathy studies, fiction (novel studies), and reading in the enlarged sense of engaging with the Humanities. Keen’s approach to these intersecting discourses is nuanced, subtle, and not easily summarized. She provides a great springboard for further conversations, elaborations, and social psychology experiments.
The usual definitions of empathy are reviewed, especially: a vicarious, spontaneous sharing of affect (2007: 4). I would add: talking a walk in the other person’s shoes; transiently, temporarily, and selectively identifying with the other person; appreciating who the other person is being as a possibility; feeling and experiencing vicariously what the other person feels and experiences; being fully present with the other person in such a way as to acknowledge and respond to the other’s humanity. Keen’s book is fully buzzword compliant, including accounts of theory of mind, mirror neurons, and storytelling.
A significant aspect of the interest in relating empathy and the reading of fiction, especially novels as in Keen’s book, is to make the world a better place. Read some quality fiction; expand one’s empathy; and take action to improve the world. Wouldn’t it be nice?
Keen notes: an ideal type case is that of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852), which, in its time, was a run-away best seller, opening the eyes of contemporaries to the injustices and inhumanity of slavery, furthering the cause of abolition. Even if such a book as Stowe’s did not directly create a social movement, with the benefit of 20-20 hindsight, it is notable as representing a parallel and behind the scenes shift in the prevailing values of the community. (Sinclair’s The Jungle or Dickens’ Oliver Twist might be added to the list of influential works (2007: 118)). And yet the libraries are overflowing with novels that did not make a difference and are read by few.
Due to the importance of the empathy-altruism hypothesis developed by C. Daniel Batson, Suzanne Keen begins her book on Empathy and the Novel with Batson’s hypothesis and its relation to the practice of reading fiction.
At the risk of oversimplification, I gloss the subtleties and what the empathy-altruism hypothesis gets right: empathy creates a clearing for the prosocial, helping behaviors of altruistic behavior such as one finds in Good Samaritan scenarios. When read judiciously, this hypothesis neither reduces altruism to empathy, nor vice versa. Experimental subjects who are empathically “primed” find that their “empathy” understood as prosocial engagement spontaneously manifests itself in the direction of altruism when challenged to do so. Nevertheless, Batson’s work is a masterpiece of studied ambiguity when it comes to deciding where the boundary lies between empathy and altruism.
Keen’s approach privileges the novel, in which the fictional world brings forth a “safe space,” in which empathy can be applied without requiring that anyone take action: “…[F]ictional worlds provide a safe zone for readers’ feeling empathy without a resultant demand on real world action” (2007: 4). That is quite appropriate from the perspective of a professor of English literature. However, one might just as well reverse the equation. Empathy creates a clearing for acceptance and toleration within which the imagination performs its work of capturing experience as a narrative in which the empathic exchange of emotional and imaginative psychic contents occurs.
My position in the matter is: Empathy opens us to (“tells us”) what the other person is experiencing; our good upbringing, morals, ethics, and professional practices tell us what to do about it. This makes it sound like empathy is a mode of observation or perception, and it is indeed that. However, insofar as empathy is something that requires two people in interaction, the empathizer is required to perform an empathic response in order to complete the loop and validate the empathic interaction.
One key point of debate is whether reading novels expands a person’s empathy. Though Keen is inclined to favor this hypothesis, she marshals significant evidence on both sides of the debate and concludes that the jury is still out.
The literary career of empathy (Keen’s incisive phrase) extends from 18th century warnings by the clergy and other learned men that novel reading ranks among the incentives to the seduction of female readers (Keen, 2007: 37) all the way to the enlightenment philosophers such as David Hume and, finally, Percy Bysshe Shelley’s guidance to extend the sympathetic imagination to feel with others. “Sympathetic” because the word “empathy” had not yet been coined in the English language (which would happen in 1909 as E. B. Titchener’s translation of the German “Einfühlung”). Fast forward to James Joyce, Sam Beckett, and Berthold Brecht, who become anti-empaths, privileging defamiliarization and estrangement in narrative.
The moral peril of vicarious emotions to the innocence of girls becomes the emotional contagion that Brecht sees as subverting the consciousness raising of the workers and potential for revolutionary action of the working class by means of his Epic Theatre. None of this is full blown adult empathy, but it is on a spectrum of empathic relatedness that is wide and complex.
Arguably, the listening and receptivity of the community were ready to respond to the message of these books due to seismic shifts in social and productive relations; and the book provided concise language and a set of powerful images to make the point at hand. Though correlation is rarely causation, sometimes correlation is good enough.
No substitute is available for the “magic bullet” of identifying a specific replicateable cause, and such discoveries are rare. Though many people confuse cause and effect (nor am I saying that happens to Keen!), from the point of view of an alliance between empathy, fiction, and social action, it is almost as enlightening and effective to have the literary fiction represent the “signs and portends” of social dynamics that can then become the target of appropriate political action, fund raising, consciousness raising, and social influence. As Keen puts it, “…[reading literary fiction becomes] a sign of one’s empathy and commitment to human principles” (2007: 167). Reading literary fiction – presumably along with political editorials – would be a source and a method of consciousness raising. Still most readers do not look to reading literature as sources for social action in the real world – or at least the evidence-based studies that Keen sites do not show such a result. (2007: 118).
All the casual, easy generalization such as “altruism results in expanded empathy,” “empathy results in expanded altruism,” “reading quality fiction (novels) enhances empathy,” “empathy enhances appreciation of the novel” have significant qualifications, conditions, and counter-examples. Never was it truer, the devil is in the details; and Keen’s work contains a wealth of engaging examples and background on empathy studies. Incidentally, Keen ends her book with some twenty-seven proposals about narrative empathy (2007: 169 – 171).
In discussing the enhanced empathy of authors, who report that their characters come to life in their imaginations, Keen acknowledges the moral ambiguities of the possibilities of empathy for both good and evil. For example, Keen reports that William Pierce (pseudonym: Andrew MacDonald), founder of a white supremacist organization, published The Turner Diaries (1978), containing hateful depictions of blacks, Jews, and gay people. The novel was apparently written with some literary skill. Timothy McVeigh, the bomber of the Federal Building in Oklahoma City (1995), studied this book, and, based on the account in the novel, “emulated its protagonist by building a fertilizer bomb to explode a government building […] made and deployed in a small truck” (Keen 2007: 127).
True, it is highly improbable that the novel by Pierce (MacDonald) caused an upstanding citizen to become a mad bomber. McVeigh was already entangled with murderous levels of prejudice and deviance, and was therefore attracted to the novel. Do not confuse cause and effect; yet the evidence is that this white supremacist novel – and the bomb making parts of it – inspired McVeigh and made him a more dangerous deviant.
Another celebrated example of a novel having alleged causative effects, not mentioned by Keen, in the real world is Goethe’s The Sufferings of Young Werther, in which the broken-hearted hero commits suicide. There really was an epidemic of copycat suicides across Europe in which romantically devastated individuals would jump off of bridges with a copy on the novel in their respective pockets as a kind of suicide note. More good empathy gone bad? Can’t get no satisfaction – or empathy? More likely, individuals who were already suicidal found an expression of their suffering in literary form thanks to the dramatic finesse of Goethe.
I offer a bold statement of that which is hidden in plain view. The hidden variable is the practice of empathy itself. If I read a novel that enrolls me in the practicing prosocial empathic responsiveness to my neighbors, then empathy is expanded. If I read a novel that enrolls me in the practice of white supremacy, then the latter is expanded.
One could argue, though I will dispute the formidable ambiguities, that even white supremacists can be empathic towards other white supremacists. That is the critique of empathy that asserts empathy is too parochial, limited only to the in group, and, as such, a problematic “virtue,” if one at all. The answer is direct. In so far as the white supremacists [and so on] require one conform to a certain prejudiced, humanly devaluing ideology to qualify as the recipient of the practice of empathy, the empathy misfires and fails.
Thus, the debate is joined. The celebrated Self Psychologist and empathy innovator Heinz Kohut, MD, gives the example of the Nazis who equipped their dive bombers with sirens, the better to impart empathic distress in their victims, thus demonstrating their (the Nazis’) subtle “empathic” appreciation of their victims’ feelings. I am tempted to say, “The devil may quote scripture,” and Nazis may try to apply some subset of a description of “empathy.”
Note that Kohut speaks of “fiendish empathy” and the use of empathy for a “hostile purpose” while emphasizing his value neutral definition of empathy as “vicarious introspection” (1981: 529, 580). Nevertheless, the point is well taken that empathy is a powerful phenomenon in all its dimensions and requires careful handling. [For further details see: “On Empathy,” The Search for the Self: Volume 4: Selected Writings of Heinz Kohut 1978-1981, London: Karnac Books, 2011: 525 – 535].
The Nazi applies a kind of entry level emotional contagion or affective transmission of feelings, but the process breaks down at the point of empathic responsiveness. Empathic responsiveness requires a core of acknowledgement and recognition of the other person’s humanity.
But it is plainly evident that the would-be “empathy” of the Nazis (or the white supremacists) misfires and fails in a contradiction. It is a flat-out contradiction to relate authentically to another human being while dehumanizing him or her. Empathy doesn’t work that way. Empathic responsiveness simply does not admit of bombing people or disqualifying them as “less than” or other than human when they plainly are human.
One of the strongest points of Keen’s book is the final chapter on “Contesting Empathy,” in which she cites a long series of objections, qualifications, and doubts about empathy. Failed empathy, false empathy, fake empathy, breakdowns of empathy, and the social construction of the emotions are engaged and deconstructed. Empathy has to run a gauntlet of things that can go wrong with it, though I suggest it emerges out of the backend bruised but still in one piece.
This point is not well-understood in the empathy research literature where break downs of empathy are mischaracterized as features of empathy itself. To blame empathy for its misuse, breakdowns, and misapplications is rather like using the smoke alarm to decide when Thanksgiving turkey is done.
Keen is concerned that the empathy-altruism hypothesis with which she launches her project is left hanging by a thread. If the work of Kohut is to be credited (who, by the way, is not mentioned by Keen), the hypothesis is not likely ever to be validated. Yet if empathy is a practice, not a mere psychological mechanism, then by practicing it, we get better at it in using it to reinforce and expand our shared humanity. Empathy becomes a powerful force in creating a clearing to call forth “the better angels of our nature.” The empathy-altruism hypothesis as an aspirational project, not a social psychology given.
Thus, the really tough question is how does “empathy” as a psychological mechanism relate to “empathy” as a interpersonal process and “empathy” as a practice in relating to people. One starts out talking about empathy as a psychological mechanism, subsumed by a biological mirroring system (even if mirror neurons remain debatable) and invoking identification, projection, and introjection.
Almost immediately one has to give an example of two people having a conversation in which one is feeling and experiencing something that the person may or may not “get” or “understand.” Then one finds oneself immediately discussing the practical considerations of why, in the course of the personal interaction, the empathy succeeded or broke down in a misunderstanding, and how to improve one’s practice of empathy based on experience.
It makes a profound difference from which definition of empathy one begins, though ultimately one has a sense of traversing all the distinctions and simply coming back to enhanced relatedness and understanding of the other person.
One goes in a circle. Readers are attracted to the literary fiction that speaks to their hopes, possibilities, and fears, which, in turn, expands and reinforces their hopes, possibilities, and fears. Then, either by accident or diligent search, readers encounter new forms of writing that change their experiences and perceptions. The writing causes the readers to see existing social structures and ways of relating to other people in new ways. The hermeneutic circle of interpretation? The engaging thing about bringing the hermeneutic circle to empathy is that it provides a series of steps, phases, within which logically to organize the process. Even if ultimately such a hermeneutic circle of empathy falls short of a formal algorithm, one gets a coherent guide against which to succeed or fail and engage in a process of continuous improvement based on experience.
What if a rigorous and critical empathy gave us the data needed to grasp the way to the humanity enhancing actions that need to be taken? The application of empathy would become an imperative guiding our reading and relatedness along with the moral imperatives so important to Keen and Batson. Empathy has not usually functioned as a criteria of literary significance or greatness – until now.
REFERENCES and NOTES
Since Keen published her book in 2007, several peer-reviewed have appeared that support the hypothesis that reading literary fiction expands empathy. These are useful, but do not decisively determine the outcome of the debate; and, obviously, these researchers did not include Pierce (MacAndrews) on their list. A lot of work gets done here by the adjective “literary.” For example:
Bal, P. M , Veltkamp, M. (2013). How Does Fiction Reading Influence Empathy? An Experimental Investigation on the Role of Emotional Transportation. PLoS ONE 8(1): e55341, https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0055341;
David Comer Kidd, Emanuele Castano. (2013). Reading Literary Fiction Improves Theory of Mind, Science 18 October 2013, Vol. 342, Issue 6156, pp. 377–380, DOI: 10.1126/science.1239918;
Kelly Servick. (2013). Want to Read Minds? Read Good Bookshttps://www.science.org/content/article/want-read-minds-read-good-books [The page # is not available on the web version; but they are short articles.]
The reader may usefully review my blog post on these publications and “reading literary fiction expands empathy”: https://bit.ly/311A2G8
(c) Lou Agosta, PhD and the Chicago Empathy Project
Listen to this post on Spotify: https://open.spotify.com/show/6nngUdemxAnCd2B2wfw6Q6
I have been known to say: “We don’t need more data; we need expanded empathy.” But truth be told, we need both.
In an April/May survey by the human resources company Businessolver of some 1,740 employees, including 140 CEOs and some 100 Human Resources (HR) professionals, respondents reported:
37% of employees believe that empathy is highly valued by their organizations and is demonstrated in what they do.
Of the other 63% of employees, nearly one in three employees believe their organization does not care about employees (29%).
One in 3 believe profit is all that matters to their organization (31%).
Nearly one in two believe their organization places higher value on traits other than empathy (48%).
The evidence supports a conclusion that a significant deficit exists between experience and expectations relating to empathy. On a positive note, 46% of employees believe that empathy should start at the top. This opens the way for business leaders to articulate the value of expanding business results through empathy. The same survey indicates that the three most important behaviors for employers to demonstrate empathy include:
listening to customer needs and feedback (80%);
having ethical business practices (78%);
treating employees well, including being concerned about their physical and mental well-being (83%).
Three behaviors that demonstrate empathy according to the Americans Businessolver Survey:
listening more than talking (79%);
being patient (71%);
making time to talk to you one-on-one (62%).
The five behaviors that demonstrate empathy in conversation include:
verbally acknowledging that you are listening (e.g. saying, “I understand”) (76%);
maintaining eye contact (72%);
showing emotion (70%);
asking questions (62%);
making physical contact appropriate for the situation (i.e. shaking hands) (62%).
All this is well and good. But is it good for business? The survey reports that 42% of the survey respondents say they have refused to buy products from organizations that are not empathetic; 42% of Americans say they have chosen to buy products from organizations that are empathetic; 40% of Americans say that they have recommended the company to a friend or colleague. The answer to “Is empathy good for business?” is “Yes it is!”
“Corporate empathy” is not a contradiction in terms
This section is inspired by Belinda Parmar’s article “corporate empathy is not an oxymoron.”[i] Belinda Parmar is one of those hard to define, engaging persons who are up to something. She is founder of the consultancy The Empathy Business. She is an executive, a self-branded “Lady Geek,” public thinker, woman entrepreneur evangelist, and business leader.
According to Parmar, her consultancy’s corporate Empathy Index is loosely based on the work of the celebrated neuropsychologist Simon Baron-Cohen’s account of empathy.[ii] Parmar states in the newly revised 2016 Empathy Index, “empathy” is defined as understanding our emotional impact on others and responding appropriately. How does one map this to the four dimensional definition in Figure 1 (see p. 41 above)?
This captures what our multi-dimensional definition of empathy has called “empathic interpretation.” Parmar’s definition also calls out both the aspects of “understanding” and “responding,” which nicely correspond to empathic understanding and responsiveness, respectively, but misses empathic receptivity. Thus, three out of four. Not bad. How these get applied is a point for additional discussion.
Parmar and company’s Empathy Index aims at measuring a company’s success in creating an empathic culture on the job. This is not just a spiritual exercise. Parmar reports that the top 10 companies in the 2015 Empathy Index increased in value more than twice as much as the bottom 10, and generated 50% more earnings according to market capitalization.[iii] Now that I have your attention, a few more details.
The Empathy Index reportedly decomposes empathy into three broad categories including customer, employee, and social media. These contain further distinctions such as ethics, leadership, company culture, brand perception, public messaging in social media, CEO approval rating from staff, ratio of women on boards, accounting infractions and scandals. Over a million qualitative comments on Twitter, Glassdoor, and Survation were classified and assessed as part of the process of ranking the companies. Impressive. There is also a “fudge factor.”
The Empathy Index used a panel selected from the World Economic Forum’s Young Global leaders, who were asked to rate the surveyed companies’ morality. Note that Belinda Parmar was herself one of these leaders at some point, though presumably not for purposes of her own survey. Further conditions and qualifications apply. The company must be publicly traded and have a market capitalization of at least a billion dollars. The companies were predominately companies in the US and UK, a few Indian and no Chinese (due to difficulty getting the data). All the companies on the index had large numbers of end-user consumers (see “The Most Empathetic Companies,” 2016, Harvard Business Review for further details on the methodology). [iv]
Presumably the absence of steel mill, oil service, and aero-space-defense companies is not a reflection on their empathy, but simply indicates the boundaries of the survey. The 2015 index is widely available publicly and will not be repeated here. Suffice to say that the top three companies in 2015 were LinkedIn, Microsoft, and Audi. Google was at 7; Amazon, 21; Unilever, 38; Uber, 59; Proctor & Gamble, 62; IBM Corp, 89; Twitter, 93; and 98, 99, and 100 were British Telecom Group, Ryanair, and Carphone Warehouse, respectively. Interesting. My sense is that being on the list at all and relative ranking on the list in comparison with companies in a similar industry is more important than any absolute value or the numeric score as such, though the absence of a intensely consumer-product-oriented company such as Nestlé does give one pause. It is a deeply cynical statement, but an accurate one, that you know the pioneers by the arrows in their backs.
The truth of this otherwise politically incorrect observation is that innovators do not get the product or service perfect the first time out, and competitors are strongly incented to criticize and try to improve on the original breakthrough. Therefore, I acknowledge the value of the Empathy Index, and I acknowledge Belinda Parmar’s contribution. Empathy is no rumor in the work Parmar and her team is doing. Empathy lives in the work she and her team are doing.
How shall I put it delicately? The challenge is distinguishing empathy from ethics, niceness, generosity, compassion, altruism, social responsibility, carbon footprint, education of girls (and boys), and a host of prosocial properties. As this list indicates, lots of things correlate with empathy. Lots of things are inversely correlated with empathy. Empathy is the source of the ten thousand distinctions in business, including correlation with improved revenue, and meanwhile empathy gets lost in the blender.
The Empathy Index is a brilliant idea—and I am green with envy in that I did not implement it. In a deep sense, the only thing missing in my life is that my name is not “Belinda Parmar.”
Yet the reduction to absurdity of corporate empathy progresses apace with the Empathy Index as carbon footprint, reputation on social media, and CEO approval rating get included.
This index was designed prior to the revelation that social networking systems had become a platform for a foreign power (Russia) to publish exaggerated, controversial positions designed to ferment social conflict over race, economics, and extremist politics in the USA. Presumably further checks and balances are needed prior to accepting the reputations culled from such networks, unless one wants to include the approval rating of Russian trolls. Nothing wrong with approval ratings as such, but I struggle to connect the dots with empathy. Empathy is now a popularity contest to drive reputation and, well, popularity.
I acknowledge the engaging and powerful work being done by Belinda Parmer and associates to expand empathy in the corporate jungle. The challenges of engaging with empathy as a property of the complex system called a “corporation” should not be underestimated. However, I propose to elaborate an alternative point of view regarding corporate empathy.
Corporations are supposed to be treated as individuals under law, which makes sense if one restricts the context to having a single point of responsibility for the consequences of the corporation’s actions.
Thus, for example, the accounting department cannot say, “It’s not our fault; marketing made promises we were unable to honor while manufacturing cooked the books behind our back.” That is not going to work as an excuse. Whoever did it, the corporation is responsible. However, empathy in a corporate context is not additive in this way.
The empathy of the corporation is not the sum of the empathy of all the individuals. It is true that a single individual who becomes known as “unempathic” has the potential to “zero out” the empathy of the entire organization; but for empathic purposes, “corporate empathy” is the integral of the seemingly uncountable possibilities, interpretations, and responses of leaders, workers, stake-holders, across all the functions in the organization.
For example, when IBM says “everyone sells,” IBM does not mean that the geek in the software laboratory has a sales quota. That would be absurd. IBM means precisely that the geek in the lab sells by writing software code so great that it causes customers actually to call up the account (sales) representative and ask for it by name. This puts me in mind of Arthur C. Clarke’s science fiction saying: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Likewise, with empathy: the customer may not directly experience the empathy of the geek in the back office, but the commitment, functionality, and teamwork “back there” is so over-the-top, that the sales person’s empathy with the customer is empowered in ways that seem magical.
In this alternative perspective, a corporation is an individual that positions itself on the continuum between “empathy in abundance” and “empathy is missing” by enacting four practices: (1) listening (2) relating as a possibility (3) talking the other person’s perspective (4) demonstrating all of these—listening, relating as a possibility, and walking in the other’s shoes—such that the other person (customer, employee, stake-holder, general public) is given back the person’s own experience in relating to the corporation in a way that the person recognizes as the person’s own.
It has been awhile since the mantra of empathic receptivity, understanding, interpretation and response has been reiterated, so the reader is hereby reminded to check on Figures 1 and 3 in the previous chapters for a review as needed (see pp. 41, 89). Empathy is not something “owned” by the executive suite, marketing, human resources, or sales, to the exclusion of other roles. Everyone practices empathy.
Stake-holders may include the general public, whose well-being and livelihoods are impacted by corporate practices (or lack thereof). For example, the general public was profoundly affected (and not just by the price of gasoline) by the failure of an off-shore oil well in 2010 that sent some 205.8 million gallons of crude oil pollution into the Gulf of Mexico.
It is never good news when one’s corporate break down becomes a major motion picture—in particular, a disaster movie such as Deep Water Horizon. Note also this implies that empathy is not a method of waging a popularity campaign on social media.
If the corporation is British Petroleum (BP), then the empathic response might well be an acknowledgment that your experience of us is: “The only thing more foul than our reputation is the pollution perpetrated on the coastlines of Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi, and Florida and the lives and livelihoods of the millions of people who live there.” And BP has to do this even while defending itself in court against major legal actions where anything one says can and will be used against you.
What does it mean for a corporation to listen? Ultimately customers, employees, stake-holders must decide if a corporation has been listening by the way the company’s representatives respond. At the corporate level, empathic receptivity (listening) and empathic responsiveness are directly linked.
“Empathically” means respond in such a way that boundaries between persons are respected and respectfully crossed, agreements with the other person (or community) are honored, the other is treated with dignity, the other’s point of view is acknowledged, and the other is responded to in such a way that the other person would agree, even if grudgingly, that its perspective had been “gotten.”
People test whether others have been listening by examining and validating their responsiveness. Responsiveness includes the questions that they ask and the comments that they make in response. Most importantly it includes follow up and follow through actions.
Once again, breakdowns point the way to breakthroughs. A less dramatic example than Deep Water Horizon? From a customer perspective, here is an example of an everyday breakdown: “Corporations to customers: Stop Calling! Go to the web instead. Fill out the form, and wait for a response”—usually in an undefined time. The experience is one of being left hanging.
Today many corporations prefer that the customer interact with them through their web site, because web sites are less expensive than call centers. Phone numbers are disappearing from web sites; and even when a phone number is present, it may not be the proper one. The phone number at the bottom of a press release causes the phone to ring in the marketing department, not customer service.
Even when a phone number is available, the wait time is long and the service representative, who is a fine human being, is poorly informed. What is the experience? No one is listening. That is not a clearing for success in building an empathic relationship.
What then is? An ability to assess quickly what is the break down, suggest a resolution, and have a defined process of escalation to open an inquiry into the problem. The breakthrough is when the customer call is acknowledged and the equivalent of the help desk trouble-shooter calls the customer back at the number provided to the automated system with the solution or proposed action. The technology to do this has existed ever since the call center was invented, but until Apple thought of it, no one configured it to work from outbound call center to customer.
From an employee perspective, an employee will experience the corporation as listening if the person who sets his or her assignments (“supervisor”) is a listener. That means creating a context in which a conversation between two human beings, who are both physically present, can occur. Given that one person may report to someone in a different city, teleconferencing has a great future as does a periodic in-person visit.
However, if the one person is multi-tasking, working on email while supposedly having a conversation with the other person, that is not listening. Eliminate distractions. Set aside emails. If one is awaiting an urgent update regarding an authentic emergency, then it is best to call that out at the start of the conversation. “I might have to interrupt to take a call from Peoria, where the processing plant has an emergency.”
An “open door” policy can mean different things, but I take it to mean that “anyone can talk to anyone” and not have to feel threatened with retaliation. An “open door” is a metaphor for “listen” or “be empathic.”
If an employee is having trouble focusing on the job, something is troubling her or him, and the listener demonstrates empathy by asking a relevant question or providing guidance that brings the trouble into the conversation: “Say more about that” or “Help me understand” can work wonders. As soon as the employee believes that someone is really listening, out come the details needed to engage in problem solving.
If we are engaging with what might be described as employee “personal issues” such as the ongoing need to care for a disabled parent or child, substance abuse, mental illness, corporations realize that managers are not therapists. Smart corporations marshal external resources that operate confidential crisis phone lines and referral services. It is not entirely clear what “confidential” means here, since if the employee is missing most people notice it; but presumably such an absence does not directly feed into the employee review process. Such personal assistance centers are able to make referrals to providers of medical, mental health, or legal services. The benefit for the corporation is that employee stress and distraction are reduced. The employee is able to continue contributing productively as an employee. It is an all around win-win.
Yet the employee and his crisis are predictably going to show up in the manager’s office at the end of the business day before a holiday weekend. This is perhaps the ultimate test of the manager’s empathy. He or she is now being addressed as a fellow human being by another human, all-too-human, human being.
This is an empathy test if there ever was one; and this is where practice and training can prepare the manager to respond appropriately by marshaling resources on short notice. In a crisis on Friday afternoon at 4 pm before a holiday weekend, managers can create loyalty for life in the commitment of the employee, who was assisted in a way that made a profound difference. “Above and beyond” recognition awards for the empathically responding manager are appropriate too.
Let us shift gears and take the conversation about corporate empathy up a level with a particular example. Nestlé has a portfolio of popular and even beloved brands that literally come tumbling out of the consumer’s pantry and refrigerator when one opens the door. Some 97% of US households purchase a Nestlé product, which extend from chocolate to beverages to prepared foods to baby food to frozen treats to pet products and beyond. You might not even know it, but Perrier, Lean Cuisine, Gerber, and Häagen Dazs are Nestlé brands. So are Purina pet products..
Nestlé is so committed to sustainability in nutrition, health, and wellness that it produces a separate annual report dedicated to identifying, measuring, and reporting on its progress against literally dozens of sustainability goals. After reviewing this material, as I did, the reader can hardly imagine that Nestlé has any commitments other than social responsibility, though Nestlé is a for profit enterprise and doing very well as one.
Sometimes our strengths are also our weaknesses. Nestlé is a strong contender to be the most empathic corporation on the planet, regardless of how one chooses to define empathy. Yet it did not even get on Belinda Parmar’s Empathy Index. What gives? A single blind spot in the 1970s, in which Nestlé leadership thought it saw a long term growth opportunity in infant (baby) formula, got in the way. Given the population growth in parts of Asia and Africa, Nestlé thought it could steal a march on the competition.
Nestlé had been a force in infant formula, especially for those babies whose mothers are unable to nurse due to illness or when it comes time to wean the infant. Yet it looks like corporate planners projected first world infrastructure onto the third world in an apparent breakdown in empathic understanding and interpretation. A world of good work and good will was destroyed or at least put at extreme risk.
Nestlé’s marketing of baby formula has created an enduring controversy. Starting in the 1970s Nestlé has been the target of a boycott based on the way that Nestlé marketed baby formula in the developing world.[i] From a public relations perspective, it has been a breakdown, if not a train wreck. The initial issue was supposedly that Nestlé was too aggressive in marketing baby formulation as a substitute for breast feeding. However, when one looks at the details, the issue really seems to be empathizing with the practice of breast feeding, given life in many third world countries. A breakdown in empathy?
The third world often lacks clean water, reliable power for sterilization of baby bottles, instruction labels in local languages that can be read and understood and followed by possibly illiterate or partially literate mothers. If the mother is healthy and lactating, breast feeding is a strong candidate to be the preferred method of infant feeding.
I have been known to say: “We don’t need more data, we need expanded empathy.” But, truth be told, both are required here.
Infant morbidity and mortality is reportedly three to six times greater for those infants using formula than for those who are breast fed.[ii]Nestlé responds—with a stance whose empathy is questionable—with a defensive conversation about compliance. Nestlé states that it fully complies with the 34th World Health Assembly code for marketing infant formula.
Nestlé’s Annual Review 2016 states with expanded empathy:
We support and promote breastfeeding as it is the best start a baby can have in life. In cases when breastfeeding is not possible due to medical or physical conditions, infant formula is the only breast-milk substitute recognised by the World Health Organisation. Nestlé Nutrition provides high-quality, innovative, science-proven nutrition for mothers and infants to help them start healthy and stay healthy during the critical first 1000 days.[iii]
But the matter is complex. IBFAN (the International Baby Formula Action Network) states that Nestlé distributes free formula in hospitals and maternity wards in the third world. This seems literally like manna from heaven; but the free formula lasts only long enough for lactation to stop (“lactation,” of course, being the naturally occurring production of breast milk after the woman gives birth).
After leaving the hospital, the formula is no longer free, but because lactation has ceased, the family must buy the formula. Gotcha?! IBFAN also asserts that Nestlé uses “humanitarian aid” to jump start markets and does not label its products in the language spoken in the country where the product is sold. “Humanitarian aid” is not marketing, but then again maybe such “aid” has similar, if unintended, consequences as “free samples” in marketing. Further, IBFAN asserts that Nestlé offers gifts and sponsorship to influence health workers to promote its products.
Nestlé denies these allegations, and states that it is responsive, and ongoing steps are being taken to remedy the situation.[iv] Never was it truer that empathic interpretation is a dynamic process.
One person’s empathic responsibility is another person’s unempathic irresponsibility. Note that the duck-rabbit (see Figure 4, cited above, p. 182) maps to a single continuous line on the page. It is the “objective” reality of the line itself that starts resonating, flipping back and forth, when it encounters the human perception system. Perhaps it was just too complicated and controversial to include Nestlé in the Empathy Index, formulated by Belinda Parmer’s process.
Any corporation that commits to practicing empathy will find its commitment challenged in ways that an Empathy Index (as currently defined) cannot imagine—or capture.
So popularity contests are likely to remain the preferred method of expanding empathy in marketing departments, especially among those who are—you guessed it—popular! The easy way out? Among those who decide to do the tough work of empathy, acknowledging inauthenticities and cleaning up integrity outages, a corporation can practice empathy at a high level and also have a reputation that is (in)distinguishable from the tar-like asphalt that randomly washes up on the beach after an oil spill.
Empathy in the corporate environment is “trending,” but remains a work-in-progress with many trade-offs and opportunities for debate. Still, the battle is joined.
The challenge is to see the empathic forest for the trees. Corporate empathy means many things. In corporate speak, “empathy” becomes a synonym for “employee benefits,” “social responsibility,” “executive ethics,” “favorable feedback from employees,” and “team building.” For example, input to Parmar’s Empathy Index includes “carbon footprint,” “number of women on the Board,” and reputation on social networking media. Carbon footprint?
Connecting the dots between empathy and carbon footprint is definitely a work-in-progress.
Stake-holders—people who buy stocks or bonds in a publically traded company—give money to the company. They want money back in turn—cash flow or profit or both. Don’t tell me about empathy; show me the money!
Although some investors are interested in social responsibility, most investors are interested in profit. They are not asking for empathy or even particularly interested in empathy, unless they decide it can make money for them. As Chris Janson, country western, singer says: “They say money can’t buy happiness. [Pause.] But it can buy me a boat—and a truck to pull it.” Funny. The suspicion is that the good ol’ boy doesn’t get enough empathy from the supervisor down at the saw mill, and needs to get away to go fishin’, which, in turn, simulates an experience like stress reduction, a major result of empathy.
Saying that the purpose of business is to make money is like saying the purpose of life is to breathe. Keep breathing—and make money—by all means. But the purpose of life is to find satisfaction in one’s work, raise a family, write the great American novel (it’s good work if you can get it!), experience one’s efforts as contributing to the community and making a difference.
Likewise with business. Business is about delivering human value and satisfying human demands and goals, whether nutrition, housing, transportation, communication, waste disposal, health, risk management, education, entertainment, and so on. Even luxury and conspicuous consumption are human values, which show up as market demands.
The customer with a complaint is an example of supply and demand. The customer is “demanding” a product or service that satisfies the real or implied service level agreement. What is often not appreciated is that the customer is also often demanding empathy as part of the service level agreement.
Which direction is the empathy travelling? From employee to customer? From supervisor to employee? From executive to stake-holder? The one who gets paid the money provides the empathy along with the produce or service. Even fairly abstract financial instruments such as insurance and hedging future prices in commodities such as wheat or oil have a valid function in risk management and so have an empathic core of managing hope and fear about the future. The one exception I can think of? Trading derivatives and derivatives of derivatives becomes a formal financial form of gambling. Absent empathy, some people find that gambling provides them with the stimulation they require to feel alive.
One may argue that transportation does not require a Lamborghini and that a Honda Civic will do quite well, thank you; but the debate is still about the experience of brand equity, which is a proxy for empathy like “carbon footprint.” The purpose is to create satisfied customers, suppliers, buyers, sellers, and partners. Review the above-cited quote from Jack Welch that “shareholder value is a result, not a strategy” (see p. 274 above). If one does these things well, addressing a demand in the market, the money shows up.
In conclusion, business people “get it”—empathy is good for business. Profit is a result of business strategy, implementation, and operations, not “the why” that motivates commercial enterprise. And if profit shows up that way (as the “the why”), then you can be sure that, with the possible exception of index derivative hedging, it is a caricature of business and a limiting factor. Business prospers or fails based on its value chain and commitment to delivering value for clients and consumers. However, as noted, some of the things that make people good at business make people relatively poor empathizers.
Business leaders lose contact with what clients and consumers are experiencing as the leaders get entangled in solving legal issues, reacting to the competition, or implementing the technologies required to sustain operations. Yet empathy is never needed more than when it seems there is no time or place for it. This is a challenge to be engaged and overcome.
What to do about it? Practice expanded empathy. Empathy is on the critical path to serving customers, segmenting markets, positioning products (and substitutes), psyching out the competition—not exactly empathy but close enough?—building teams and being a leader who actually has followers. Empathy makes the difference for contributors to the enterprise at all levels between banging on a rock with a hammer and building a cathedral. The motions are the same. When the application of empathy exposes and strengthens the foundation of community, then expanding empathy becomes synonymous with expanding the business.
Building customer communities, building stakeholder communities, building teams that work, are the basis for product innovation, brand loyalty, employee commitment, satisfied service level agreements, and sustained or growing market share. Can revenue be far behind? Sometimes leaders don’t need more data, leaders need expanded empathy, though ultimately both are on the path to satisfied buyers, employees, and stakeholders. If the product or service is wrappered in empathy, has an empathic component as part of the service level agreement, gets traction in the market, and beats the competition’s less empathic offering, then we have the ultimate validation of empathy. We do not just have empathy. We have empathy, capitalist tool.
[i] Belinda Parmar. (2016). Corporate empathy is not an oxymoron, Harvard Business Review: https://hbr.org/2015/01/corporate-empathy-is-not-an-oxymoron [checked on June 30, 2017]. This article includes the complete list of 100 companies.
[ii] Simon Baron-Cohen. (2011). The Science of Evil: On Empathy and the Origins of Cruelty. New York: Basic Books (Perseus).
[iii] Belinda Parmar. (2016). The most empathetic companies. 2016. Harvard Business Review, 12/20/2016: https://hbr.org/2016/12/the-most-and-least-empathetic-companies-2016 [checked on June 30, 2017].
[iv] Parmar 2016.
[ii] Ibid., Nestlé boycott, Wikipedia
[iii] Nestlé Annual Review 2016: https://www.nestle.com/asset-library/documents/library/documents/an nual_reports/2016-annual-review-en.pdf: 20 [checked on 12/11/2017]. Note that Nestlé produces three (3) corporate annual reports every year. One for Nestlé International; one for Nestlé USA; and a third on Nestlé’s measurable commitments to social responsibility.
[iv] Op. cit.: Nestlé boycott, Wikipedia.
(c) Lou Agosta, PhD and the Chicago Empathy Project
Listen on Spotify: https://open.spotify.com/show/6nngUdemxAnCd2B2wfw6Q6
“CEO” no longer means “Chief Executive Officer,” but “Chief Empathy Officer.” This time one can hear the groans—from the executive suite, not the cubicles.
Empathy is one of those things that are hard to delegate. This role shows up like another job responsibility with which the CEO of the organization is tasked—along with everything else that she already has to do. As if she did not already have enough alligators snapping at various parts of her anatomy, one has to be nice about it, too? But of course empathy is not niceness, though it is not about being un-nice. It is about knowing what others are experiencing, because one has a vicarious experience and then processing that further to expand boundaries and exercise leadership.
This puts me in mind of a mini-case-history reported by Annie McKee in the Harvard Business Review (HBR).[i] In this case, an up and coming executive, Miguel (not his real name), goes from turning around many struggling divisions in a multi-divisional corporation to a kind of identity crisis about who he authentically is in relation to the possibility of empathy. Miguel is a wizard at finding profit and weeding out waste. Miguel goes from division to division (each big enough to be a separate company) working his financial wizardry. It seems to work.
If the case sounds like a thinly disguised version of the career of Jack Welch, who was CEO of the multi-divisional General Electric (GE) from 1981 to 2001, then so be it. Welch retired from GE with a package estimated at $417 million.[ii] According to some reports, Welch was nicknamed “Neutron Jack,” because, like the neutron bomb, he eliminated the people while leaving the buildings and the profits standing.
Welch innovated a management approach called “rank and yank,” now widely imitated. Each year, the bottom 10% of his managers, regardless of absolute performance, would be let go. Those in the top 20% were amply rewarded with bonuses and stock options, which were extended liberally from top executives to nearly one third of all GE employees.
Welch reportedly fought against, but did not solve, the chronic problem of Wall Street pressure to sacrifice the sustainability of long term growth for short term profit. Welch railed against the very system that he outfoxed brilliantly over a twenty year career as CEO, but, note well, only after he got his payout.
Regarding shareholder value, Welch said in a Financial Times interview on the global financial crisis of 2008–2009: “On the face of it, shareholder value is the dumbest idea in the world. Shareholder value is a result, not a strategy […] your main constituencies are your employees, your customers and your products.”[iii]
Now you are going to expect me to say this method was the epitome of lack of empathy, and from the perspective of the employees whose jobs were eliminated, it definitely lands that way. Yet that is precisely what Welch was hired to do. Thus, the context.
Next act, quick scene change back to Miguel. In McKee’s HBR mini-case-history, his corporate superiors inform Miguel that those employees who survived his restructurings now hate their jobs, teams are dysfunctional, and the “by the numbers” culture has become toxic. (I believe this did not happen at GE.) Miguel is told “fix it” or he will never become CEO (which is apparently part of his agreement and expectation).
Miguel hires Professor McKee as his empathy consultant, and he is making slow, all-too-slow, progress working with her in expanding his empathy when another set-back occurs. Miguel’s wife throws down the gauntlet, pointing out that he is never available for her and the kids even when he is supposedly physically present. This hits home, literally. This inspires Miguel to expand his practice of empathy to a new level. He commits to learning how to listen, relate to others as a contribution, walk in their shoes, and respond empathically.
Thanks to Miguel’s renewed commitment—and McKee’s consulting and coaching—the empathy training works. Miguel expands his empathy in time. All live happily (and empathically) ever after, both at home and on the job, in this “just so” story.
However, in the real world, the Miguel and Welch narratives dramatically diverge—as do fiction and nonfiction. As a celebrity CEO, the dynamics of Jack Welch’s personal vicissitudes were played out in the public press, so they are readily available to the interested gossip—I mean reader—and the details of Welch’s three divorces will not be rehearsed further here. This speaks volumes to most ordinary humans. Thus, the lives of the rich and famous.
The empathy lesson? There is an cost and impact to every initiative and project. The cost and impact extend to empathy. Empathy is expanded or contracted. There is a cost and impact to “rank and yank,” even for those doing the ranking (though, of course, especially for those who are “yanked”).
No one needs to feel sorry for anyone, reportedly the “yanked” walked away with nice packages, but this is not for the faint of heart. On a happier note, Welch goes on to found a management school, the Jack Welch Institute, in an initiative designed to rationalize and replicate the business methods and financial “magic” that he developed at GE. Some thirty-five CEOs heading corporations today have been trained in his method (mostly at GE, not his theme-branded school). The principles Welch developed are also delivered at business schools such as MIT’s Sloan School of Management. With the case of Welch in the background, one realizes that the mini-case-history of Miguel really does indeed conceal an alternative point of view. However, “alternative” does not mean “inaccurate,” but a re-description of events that points to a hidden empathic breakdown.
Miguel was doing exactly what his corporate superiors asked him to do. If the financial results were not sustainable after his departure, this was so much “regression to the mean.” Even the average profitability of the companies identified by the celebrated In Search of Excellence by Thomas Peters and Robert Waterman dropped sharply within a few years in the absence of sustained leadership. “Regression to the mean” means literally that when one performs above average now, get ready for one to perform below average later; when one performs below average now, get ready to perform above average later. The boss will predictably approve of the above-average performance and disapprove of the below-average one; but the subsequent performance is governed by “regression to the mean,” not the boss’ approval or disapproval.
For all the ambiguous comments made about Jack Welch such as “Neutron Jack,” he managed to create an entrepreneurial spirit in a giant, multi-divisional bureaucracy. Now that was both the good news and the bad news. For those employees looking to put in their time, performing routine tasks—and conforming—prior to collecting a pension, that was bad news. It demanded a way of relating to possibility that required innovation and transformation that was ultimately career ending for those individuals.
To his enduring credit, Welch inspired an approach to creating possibilities by his own example that he called “boundaryless.” In short, he broke down organizational silos by giving permission to cross boundaries between traditional functions in search of possibilities, i.e., innovations. The boundary crossing sounds like the skillful use of empathy in building and managing cross functional teams.
Welch formed cross-functional teams to brain storm and implement possibilities that had not previously been envisioned. He championed ideas and possibilities for improvement regardless of whether the ideas came from inside or outside the company. “This is the way things have always been done” became the wrong answer, or at least no longer the default reply. Note that “boundless” behavior should not be confused with boundary violations. Empathy is about crossing boundaries to give the other person the possibility of breakthrough contribution, doing so with respect and recognition, and in a way that preserves the integrity of the boundary.
Welch was in charge at GE for twenty years; he had sufficient time to train divisional leaders in sustaining his practices; and retain them in charge of the divisions he had restructured. During his tenure at GE, the company’s value reportedly rose some 4,000%.[iv] If that is not sustained value, I would not know it.
Meanwhile, Miguel’s bosses asked him to put relatively short term financial results ahead of team building, retaining the best people, entrepreneurial informality, and, like a good leader, he made it work—for a while. He made it work until the bosses decided they did not want him to do that anymore. Surprise! Then they told him, “Fix it or you’re gone!” Miguel’s listening—a key component of empathy—was operating at an advanced level. He listened well; and he gave his superiors back precisely what he got from them—and what they asked of him. It turns out his superiors didn’t like it as much as they thought they would.
It does put one in mind of the example of George M. Pullman, who is no longer the model for employer-employee relations. Pullman ordered the workers fired when they presented him with a petition in protest of a 25% reduction in wages.[v] Pullman as Miguel’s boss? Miguel’s superiors changed their minds, having gotten the benefits of the “rank and yank” approach. Boards are allowed to change their collective mind (and minds), and were now looking for a CEO more like Walt Disney, Marshall Fields, perhaps Warren Buffet or Sam Walton, after the latter had made their first billion dollars, and could afford to throttle back a notch, cultivating a kinder, gentler image.
My redescription of events? While it is accurate that Miguel was innovating with his own version of Neutron Jack, Miguel was also on the receiving end of the breakdown in empathy. He could not give what he did not get, and, by the time his corporate superiors figured out what they wanted, Miguel had perfected his version of the Roman invasion of Britain. The surviving Brits were reported to have said: “The Romans ‘make peace’ by creating a desert.” The Brits were not referring to an “empathy desert,” but the idea is similar. McKee’s case history is a nice narrative and a useful cautionary tale. However, the tale lacks credibility and confronts us with the next challenge, empathy: capitalist tool.
“The Lone Ranger” is a vanishing breed in today’s corporation. Modern work, from the upper echelons of the corporate hierarchy to the bottom levels of the lowest cubicle, requires empathy.
Whether sales person, software developer, accountant, or business leader, one has got to be “a team player,” “willing to go above and beyond the call of duty,” spend long hours on business travel, and be cheerful about it. One has got to get in touch with one’s empathy; and use one’s empathy to satisfy customers, teammates, stake-holders, and superiors.
In short, empathy is now a capitalist tool. Managers need to apply ample empathic skills. Managers are required to keep workers contented so that the workers can be productive. Managers are now coaches, facilitating employees feeling valued, so employees are emotionally invested in contributing to the team, team spirit, and the long hours and frequently uninspiring routine work required as a project hits “crunch time.”
Both managers and line employees must be able to turn empathy “on” for customers; “on” for team work; “on” for co-workers; but “off” for the competition; “off” for efficiency and discipline; and “off” for compliance and rule following. This ability to turn empathy “on” and “off” implies an approach that this book has questioned in arguing that empathy is a dial or tuner rather than an “on-off” switch. However, even if, for the sake of argument, we imagine empathy as an “on-off” switch, this calls for a level of skill in regulating empathy in which most people lack practical skill.
Consider. Customers pay their good, hard earned money for products and services, and it is a low bar to say that customers are entitled to be listened to, treated with dignity, and responded to empathically by a corporation and its representatives. The empathic engagement with and treatment of customers is demonstrably a rewarding investment.
How about employees? As a person moves into the work force, he is empathic because those in authority advocate for it as a form of team building. It is important that one be empathic in addressing the issues and concerns of co-workers, customers, and stake-holders.
Employees who feel that they are “gotten as a possibility” by their company are emotionally invested in the success of the company. They are inspired to go the extra mile to deliver value on their agreements, make extra effort for the team, and see their personal contribution in terms of the big picture. They are not just stone cutters banging away at a rock with a hammer; they are building a cathedral.
Neither the employee nor the manager “above” him have been trained in empathy, and it is not a part of their job description, at least in any explicit way. Though there are dozens of training firms in everything from compliance to conflict resolution, the number of individuals and firms in North American and the European Union delivering empathy training can be counted on the fingers of one hand. While that may be changing, expecting CEO’s to give empathy when they are not in touch with their own empathy, makes no sense. Nor is it fair either to the leader or would-be recipient. Welcome to the age of Machiavellian empathy!
Niccolò Machiavelli (1469–1527) was famous for saying that it would be best if the leader—the Prince, in his day—was loved, but it is essential that he be feared.
Machiavelli never actually said that the ruler, the Prince, must be perceived to be empathic, even as he ruthlessly wields power behind the scenes. But that is what he implied. In the context of politics, Machiavellian empathy refers to politicians who present themselves as being empathic while manipulating, spinning alternative facts, double dealing, and so on, behind the scenes. Machiavellian empathy shows up in business, too. If managers are not in touch with their empathic abilities, they are counseled to “fake it till you make it.” Many never “make it” and continue “faking it.”
Whether or not one authentically understands the experience of the other person is less relevant to the Machiavellian Empath than scoring points on a check list of concerned behavior.
Is this then the ultimate cynical moment? Is this the ultimate easy way out? Is this the reduction to absurdity of empathy? If empathy is about setting boundaries, where is the boundary? While not a complete response, one distinct limit to Machiavellian empathy is Lincoln’s famous saying, “You can’t fool all the people all the time.” Ask Travis Kapernick, Bernie Madoff, or Harvey Weinberg.[vi]
Strictly speaking, Machiavellian empathy takes nothing away from empathy’s intrinsic benefits and uses. Even if one wants to present the appearance of being empathic for propaganda (i.e., marketing) purposes, while continuing to operate with dubious business practices behind the scenes, reality has a way of catching up with appearances. Amazon said it was a wonderful place to work. Then the New York Times got some employees to comment on the record about “mean” behavior.[vii] Uber was disrupting the disrupters and creating the Gig Economy, which supposedly set us free. Then a driver, who was not in touch with that supposed freedom, unwittingly interviewed the CEO, Travis Kapernick, on camera.[viii]
So far as we can tell at this writing, neither of these breakdowns has resulted in breakthroughs. There is no guarantee that the Machiavellian Empath will slip up and document his or her own inauthenticity for us; it rarely happens rapidly enough; but it happens.
Empathy deserts grow: Woe to those that harbor empathy deserts!
Capitalism organizes empathy along with workers and production processes. Under capitalism, empathy is a means, not an end dedicated to the satisfaction of human needs, aspirations, and demands. (When the word “demand” is used, think “supply and demand” for products and services in a market.) Some workplaces are empathy deserts in spite of the appearance of mangers with published “open door” policies.[ix] Key term: empathy desert. After a day at the office, people often feel as if their personality had been erased. One’s humanity withers in the desert. So if you find yourself feeling dehumanized by your job, maybe you work in one of those, regardless of the prevailing rhetoric.
Instead of the industrial supervisor shouting orders to his workers, who curse under their breath and conform to the orders, today’s managers employ therapeutic strategies to create a convivial environment of trust, relatedness, sociality, loyalty, and care. Happy people sell. Happy people write more software code with fewer bugs. Happy people deliver projects on time, on budget. Value creation in the late capitalist economy is a function of the exchange of emotion and empathy.[x]
The way “empathy” is used in the business media today, it means that corporations innovate in providing benefits to their employees. Many of these benefits enable employees to get away from the job and restore aspects of their humanity that are hard to maintain in the “corporate jungle” (or desert). It means that firms return to their employees some of the revenues that the employees earn for the firm by providing services. Such a proliferation of meanings may be a phase that empathy has to go through before we can really grasp how it essentially makes a difference.
For example, Procter & Gamble offers a personal leave of absence, which the employee can use to engage in a “life project.” Up to three months off without pay—but with continued benefits—allows the employee to pursue a personal “life project,” and, P&G to retain valuable talent, since the employee returns to work after the sabbatical.[xi] Though Human Resources (HR) has to approve the project, the benefit can be used to: complete writing a PhD or masters thesis that requires dedicated time on task for writing and research; design and implement a database tracking system for a social justice issue for Amnesty International or Doctors Without Borders; trek to Nepal and attempt to climb an 8K meter high mountain; sail around the world.
At Google (Alphabet) parental leave is a benefit: Moms get up to 18 weeks of paid leave; Dads get six. The company also pays “baby bonding bucks” to help with initial expenses such as formula and diapers.
Prudential Financial is addressing the employee challenge of being a care-giver for a parent or relative by providing adult care in an employee or loved one’s home. The company provides referrals to geriatric care services as well as elder law and adult care-giving seminars.
IBM contracts with an educational firm to provide a “get into college coach” for its employees with children applying to college. They will not write the admissions essay for the children, but provide detailed guidance as to what different colleges are looking for, test scores, grade point average, and cultural preferences. All these are valuable in reducing parental (i.e., employee) stress. Note this is one corporate benefit that does not require the employee to leave work. Sensibly enough, the worker continues to work, presumably to pay college tuition, while “out sourcing” some of the elaborate, complex project planning needed by the student actually to get into college. Win-win all around.
While my work has repeatedly emphasized that there is enough empathy to go around, empathy is not uniformly distributed. How could it be? Executives who are talented at dealing empathically with customer issues may be less skilled at dealing empathically with employees; and those skilled at dealing empathically with employee issues may be less skilled at dealing empathically with union negotiations, the press, or business partners and competitors (who may be one and the same).
Arguably, empathy flows from those with more power towards those on the front line engaging with customers. However, if the customer is big enough, for example, contemplating buying a fleet of jets or a global enterprise software system, the ultimate sales person turns out precisely to be the CEO or her close colleagues. The executive suite is now on the front line. But who trained those leaders—or any one—in empathy? If we gave the executive (or front line help desk person) the kind of empathy exam described above by Leslie Jameson, in which an actor learns a script, portrays a client with a problem, in effect being a “secret shopper,” what would be the grade (see p. 121 above)? While we may never know for sure, I predict that the grade will be lower than if the executive fills out a self-assessment in which one can pick out the “right answer” based on common sense and an appreciation of kindness. Thus, the case for expanding empathy through training.
[i] McKee, Annie. (2016). If you can’t empathize with your employees, you’d better learn to, Harvard Business Review, November 16, 2016.
[iii] Ibid, Jack Welch, Wikipedia
[iv] Ibid, Jack Welch, Wikipedia
[vi] Meanwhile, more breaking news, as this book goes to press, some 49 men stand accused of sexual misconduct in various workplaces extending from Harvey Weinstein’s Hollywood production company (from which he was fired) through venture capital to restaurant businesses:
https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2017/11/10/us/men-accused-sexualmisconductweinstein.html?_r=0. The problem is that, while it is good that this abuse is finally coming out, it has been hidden in plain for years and years. See Harry Markopolis’ (2010) statement in a different context above, “no one would listen.” Where is Lord Acton when we need him? Lord Acton said: “Power corrupts; and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
[vii] Kantor and Streitfeld 2015..
[viii] Seyluk 2017.
[ix] Roman Krznaric (2104) quoted in Belinda Parmar (2014) The Empathy Era: Woman, Business and the New Pathway to Profit, London: Lady Geek: 91. Parmar does not cite a page in Krznaric.
[x] Tristam Vivian Adams. (2016). The Psychopath Factory: How Capitalism Organises Empathy. London: Repeater Books: 56–77.
[xi] Matt Krumie. (2016). Ten companies putting empathy into action, Cornerstone On Demand: https://www.cornerstoneondemand.com/rework/10-companies-putting-empathy-action [checked on July 03, 2017].
(c) Lou Agosta, PhD and the Chicago Empathy Project
Listen to podcast on Spotify or via Anchor: https://anchor.fm/lou-agosta-phd/episodes/Empathy-Capitalist-Tool-Part-1-The-Empathy-Deficit-in-Business-is-Getting-Attention-e18tlcn
Children and parents get it. Nurses and doctors get it. Teachers and students get it. Couples get it. Consultants and clients get it. Neighbors get it. What about business people? Do they “get it”—that empathy produces results? Practicing empathy is a neglected opportunity in business. The qualities, practices, and behaviors that help a person build a business sometimes work against expanding the person’s empathy.
An executive’s ego, opinion, expertise, and attachment to being right raise the bar on empathizing with others, who may have diverging mind sets. Hard charging entrepreneurs find it hard to let go of their status or set aside the lessons learned as they came up through the ranks. Executives and managers lose touch with the experiences, perceptions, and perspectives of customers, employees, and stake-holders.
The urgent drives out the important. Management effort and time are monopolized responding to competitive pressures, compliance issues, legal challenges, and solving technology problems.[i] For example, according to a report from Businessolver, a human resources and talent consultancy, some 60% of executives believe that their organizations are empathic, whereas 24% of their employees agree.[ii] An empathy deficit?
The stress of operating the business—deadlines, financial issues, staffing crises, software breakdowns, competition, litigation—drive out empathy and a deep appreciation that a commitment to empathy is good for business. The disconnect is substantial between perceptions in the executive suite and in the cubicles of workers and the front line, customer-facing staff.
Ironically, the empathic practices such as the receptive, interpretive, and responsive processes described in detail in this work (as opposed to compassion) are what are most urgently needed in dealing with customer demands, employee crises, negotiations with competitors, vendors, clients, and one’s own budgeting authorities and board, optimally resolving conflicts with reduced cost and impact.
When I ask business leaders what is their budget for empathy training, the response is often a blank stare. Zero. However, when I ask the person what is the budget for expanded teamwork, reduced conflict, enhanced productivity, commitment to organizational goals, taking ownership of outcomes, product and service innovations, then it turns out that budget exists after all. Empathy makes a difference in connecting the dots between business skills and performance. Empathy contributes to results in a powerful way by engaging the staff’s energies and commitments at a fundamental level.
While every business has its own distinct commitments, in many ways, the basic empathy training in business is the same as empathy training in every other context.
The training consists in surfacing and driving out the cynicism, denial, shame, implicit threats, and pressure that many business people experience in their communications. Empathy then spontaneously comes forth and expands the space of possibilities to do business. This does not mean that businesses do not have their own blind spots when it comes to empathy. They do. Therefore, let us take a step back and look at what it is going to take.
An appreciation of the value of empathy to promote breakthrough results often starts in sales. In business, the sales people get it. Developing empathy with customers is good for business.
Even the cynical sales person recognizes that putting oneself in another person’s shoes is a good method of selling them another pair.[iii] The sales person gives the prospect some empathy. Shazam! The customer calls you to close the deal. Wouldn’t it be nice?
Yet the basic idea is straightforward. When the customer appreciates that the sales person is interested in the customer’s requirements, that the sales person is listening, then the customer is likely to open up and candidly share what is stressing him—budget, deadlines, internal politics, market dynamics, or the competition.
When the prospective customer feels that the sales person has understood him, the chance is significantly expanded that he will prefer to purchase the product or service from the empathic representative. Once the customer feels the sales person is listening, the customer will share details about his needs, vulnerabilities, and shortcomings, including those about which he might otherwise be defensive, enabling the sales person to position the product or service as a solution to the perceived problem.
This is not “new news.” In 1964, in the Harvard Business Review—not exactly an obscure, backwater publication—David Mayer and Herbert M. Greenberg called out the two basic qualities that any good sales person must have: empathy and ego drive. These authors define “empathy” as the central ability to feel as other people feel in the context of selling them a product or service.
In Mayer and Greenberg’s article, the sales staff were trained to interrupt themselves when they found that they were reacting defensively to customer complaints, whether legitimate or not, whether solvable or not. Stop—hit the pause button before responding. Instead of reacting to the complaint, the sales person was trained to “get” the complaint and to communicate back to the customer that he “got it,” namely, that the customer was upset (or whatever the customer was self-expressed about).
The sales person was trained to acknowledge that a breakdown had occurred. Key term: breakdown. The sales person was trained to acknowledge the complaint by calling it out: “This is a break down!” Even if the customer is inaccurate or wrong in his complaint about some detail, the customer is always—the customer.
By definition, the breakdown in the product or service occurs against the expectation of customer satisfaction. The relationship between the buyer and seller is itself in breakdown against the expectation of satisfaction. This does not rule out the possibility that additional training is needed on the part of the customer about product features or the service level agreement; but such training is substantially different from a defensive reaction.
The next step is repairing, fixing, or at least managing the cause of the complaint: the respondent then solicits additional feedback and details as to the complaint, i.e., what went wrong. The empathic response includes what one is going to do about the breakdown and by when.
The committed listening, that is, empathy, creates a clearing for communication, improving the sales process, and restoring authenticity to the relationship when integrity has gone missing. While there are no guarantees, customers treated in such a way tend to stick. Repeat business, maximizing revenue over the lifetime of the relationship, is one of the outcomes. [iv]
Development Dimensions, Intl., (DDI) identifies empathy as one of the critical success factors in executive leadership. One of the leading talent development corporations in the market, DDI’s report on High Resolution Leadership identifies empathy as an emotional quotient (EQ) “anchor skill.”
Empathy provides the foundation for interpersonal leadership skills such as developing subordinates, building the consensus for action, encouraging engagement, supporting self-esteem, and taking responsibility.[v]
In the DDI study, listening and responding with empathy were demonstrated by 40% of executives profiled (as opposed to 71% whodemonstrated taking responsibility or 54% who demonstrated building agreement on actions to take).
The conclusion is that, as regards empathy, the majority of leaders have room for expanding their performance. The good news is that, using interventions designed to expand empathy, the empathy skills needed to drive business results are within reach. [vi]
Thus, the empathy deficit in business is getting attention. Empathy is moving to the foreground. The role and contribution of empathy to business results is penetrating the awareness of leaders, managers, staff, and stake-holders.
Closely related to the challenge of closing the empathy deficit in business is the challenge that “economic man” is significantly different than man as such. Let’s define our terms.
The person who conducts transactions in the market is defined in business school as economic man—homo economicus. The latter is significantly different than man, the human being as such. The person (man) in the economic theory is rational, selfish, and her or his tastes do not change.
Business practices assume the organization is engaging with customers, employees, stake-holders, and leaders who fit the model of economic man. Human beings, on the other hand, do not. Most people in business do not know anyone who fits the description of economic man. Why then are we so busy trying to do business with him when he does not even exist?
Unlike the person described in economics in business schools, humans are limited in their reasonableness. Humans are diverse and inconsistent in their preferences. Humans are even limited in their selfishness, being generous and compassionate in unpredictable ways.
The issue? Nobel Prize winning economist Gary Becker’s rational choice theory (preference theory) in economics has been extended to many other aspects of life. Becker’s rational choice theory has been extended to areas as diverse as marriage, crime, and discrimination.
Generalizations from rational choice theory to the social sciences at large have been a growth industry in the social sciences. From the rich mixture of inconsistencies and contradictions that most people really are in life, the human being was translated into a function of rational, self-interested, and allegedly consistent preferences. The human as such has been simplified and redescribed as a rational, calculating engine of human behavior.[vii]
People are supposed to be consistent in their preferences and tastes. People are supposed to be logical and consistently obey the rules. But finding counter-examples is easy.
For example, if a person prefers coffee to hot chocolate and the person prefers hot chocolate to tea, then, according to this logic, the person is supposed to prefer coffee to tea. [Think: coffee > hot chocolate > tea; therefore, coffee > tea, according to the transitive rule, in which “>” means “prefers.”] But, no, it doesn’t work that way. Given all these personal preferences as indicated, the person still chooses tea instead of coffee. The person just prefers tea to coffee. The individual is from London!
Nothing inherently illogical exists in preferring coffee to hot chocolate and tea to coffee while also preferring hot chocolate to tea. Nothing unless one insists on making a dynamic network into a transitive sequence. So much for rational choice theory.
The lesson? Empathy as well as logic are required to understand decision making. Without allowing for the possibility of empathy, economics produces some strange results. People are not natural born statisticians, logicians, or gamblers, though the discipline of economics sometimes seems to assume so.
Still, testing a person’s decisions and preferences using probabilities, bets, and lotteries is an engaging exercise, and nothing is wrong in doing so. However, unless one also adds empathy to the mixture of economics and logic one misses something essential—the person!
Now, I apologize in advance to the reader for the technical terms, but in economics the chance of winning a bet is expressed as an “expected utility.” “Expected utility” is technical talk for “satisfaction” or “happiness.” (But nothing more than arithmetic is needed to get this. )
For example, in economics the expected utility of a 10% chance of winning a million dollars is $100K [.10 x 1,000,000 = 100,000] [note: K = 1,000]. If Jack and Jill both end up with a million dollars, they should enjoy the same expected utility, no? Remember, Jack and Jill are supposed to be rational, selfish, and consistent in their preferences. Now consider a counter-example:
Today Jack and Jill each have a million dollars.
Yesterday Jack had zero and Jill had two million dollars.
Are they equally happy? (Do they have the same utility?)
You do not need an advanced degree to know that today Jack is very happy and Jill is in despair. Yesterday Jack had zero; now he has a million dollars. Hurrah! Yesterday Jill had two million dollars; now she has only one million. Ouch!
We must be able to put our ourselves in the shoes of Jack and Jill and get a sense of their expectations. Sounds familiar?
These expectations, in turn, constrain their experience of satisfaction (i.e., happiness). To grasp the outcome in terms of their individual experiences, we need an empathic anchor or reference point in their expectations from which they begin. Empathy gives us access to an anchor point in their respective experiences.
Our empathy shows that outcomes are linked to feelings about the changes of one’s wealth rather than to states of wealth. The experience of value depends on the history of one’s wealth, not only the current state of it.
Yet another bold empathy lesson: People are strongly influenced by hope and fear. Empathy indicates that people attach values to gains and losses, and these are weighted differently than logical probabilities in decision making. This is not just saying that people are irrational, though that may be true enough at times, too. This says that people (and their behavior) frequently do not conform to the pattern of rationality, selfishness, and consistency in preferences.
Still, the matter is not hopeless for those committed to pattern matching in economics. People are frequently surprising, but sometimes in predictable ways. People are sometimes inconsistent, but one can sometimes predict those inconsistencies if one learns one’s empathy lessons.[viii] For example:
(1) People are risk averse due to fear of disappointment and regret. The empathy lesson is that people try to avoid risks even in situations where taking a risk is a good bet. “A good bet” is determined according to the probability calculation.
Consider: if a person had a 90% probability of winning a million dollars, he ought to accept $900K as a “sure thing” settlement, which settlement is logically equivalent to a 90% probability of winning the million dollars [.9 x 1,000K = 900K]. The 10% probability of not winning is an unlikely outcome, but still possible. The “unlikely outcome” often determines the result.
For example, law suits in cases of accidents and contract disputes produce settlements in trial law indicating that people will “settle for” $800K or even $750K for the possibility of knowing the outcome with certainty. For most people that is still a lot of money, and the possibility of having to live with the regret of missing the pay-off due to an unlikely outcome gets most people out of their comfort zone. They decide to settle.
Empathic receptivity to the possibility of disappointment and regret may usefully “override” the rational, self-interested, and consistent preferences that the purely economic person brings to the negotiations.
(2) People are risk seeking in the hope of getting an even larger gain instead of accepting a modest settlement.
This is why people bet on the state lottery where the chance of winning is vanishingly small. Such a bet is illogical, but common. We need expanded empathy to get a clue what is going on here.
The empathy lesson indicates that people are not buying a chance to win a big pot of money. Rather people are buying a chance to dream of the possibility of winning the big jackpot. “We are such stuff as dreams are made of,” said Shakespeare. The value is in the dreaming, that is, precisely in the possibility of the big jackpot, not the jackpot itself. That such a dream would more likely be the dream of a poor person rather than an affluent one is a further problem that invites attention.
If one looked rationally at the odds, one would not buy the ticket. No way. Clearly lotteries are popular, especially with the poor and “have nots.” The possibility of escaping from poverty is being manipulated in a cynical way by the establishment, and we citizens have all become “addicted” to the revenue stream.
The lottery budget and effort would be better devoted to job training and instruction in basic financial management, except now lotteries have become a source of revenue for local government and education. This is a breakdown in empathic understanding, which gives us our possibilities. It is hard not to become a tad cynical in considering that the poor are paying for education through lottery revenue, though they are often unprepared to benefit from or hindered from accessing the educational opportunity.
(3) People are risk seeking in the hope of avoiding a loss in situations in which simply stopping a project altogether would enable cutting their losses (rather than incurring additional likely losses). Defeat is difficult to accept. The empathy lesson is that people are attached to an ideal, in this case a losing cause, for reasons extending from perseverance, egoism, greed, risk aversion, fear of the unknown, all the way to idealism, romance, blind hope, and just plain stubbornness.
People (and businesses) facing a bad outcome manage to turn a survivable (but painful) failure into a complete meltdown. Desperate gambles often make a bad situation worse in exchange for a small hope of avoiding the loss at all. Businesses, individuals, and even countries, continue to expend resources long after they should blow the bugle, lower the flag, and leave, implementing an orderly retreat. Instead people (and organizations) persist in a lost cause until a rout becomes inevitable.
Business accounting teaches the basic idea of a “sunk cost.” Suppose Octopus, Inc., (OI) is building a new software system for $100 million dollars. OI has already spent $150 million. The project is over-budget. It is estimated to take another $55 million to complete the job. Suppose further that evidence of a new, breakthrough technology really exists. It would enable OI to develop the system from scratch for $25 million. What should OI do? The money already spent is a “sunk cost.” It should not influence the decision. Given the evidence that the new technology really works, the OI project leader should throw away the over-budget system and build the new one from scratch, spending $25 million and saving $30 million against the projected completion cost of the project. However, that is not what most project leaders would do.
Due to a sense of ownership of the over-budget project and a fear of the unknown in engaging the new technology, many project leaders double down on the investment in a losing proposition. In a breakdown of empathic interpretation, they continue to project their hopes and fears onto the old technology and, as the saying goes, throw good money after bad.
(4) People are risk averse due to a fear of a large loss and may rationally and usefully bet on a small chance of (avoiding) a large loss. This is why people buy insurance. The empathy lesson is that people are not merely buying protection against an unlikely disaster; they are buying peace of mind, the ability to get a good night’s sleep. If the negative event would have catastrophic consequences, creating a risk pool, in which everyone participates, spreading the risk in a manageable way, makes compelling sense. Note that certain risks such as war and civil insurrection (or a giant asteroid hitting the earth) are uninsurable. Insurance is a calculation, not a gamble against undefined odds. In general, the insurable risk must relate to individuals or subgroups and the occurrence of the risk should not destroy the infrastructure of the entire community, which needs to be intact to cover the insured risk.
Insurance was a brilliant business innovation that emerged at about the time of the European Renaissance as traders in the Netherlands—those frugal Dutch—were sending valuable but fragile ships to fetch precious cargo in far away lands. The risks and rewards were great. How to even out the odds? Insurance was born.
In our own time, one can see the irrationality, the unempathic response, and gaming of the system by special interests in health insurance in the USA where attempts were made to exclude the sickest people from the insurance pool through penalties for preexisting illnesses, combined with charging monopoly rents to the healthiest participants.
Insurance is often a “good bet” when an outcome that is highly unlikely but catastrophic can be managed by everyone (or a large group) incurring a small cost to spread the risk. But how to get everyone at risk into the pool? When told that people have no health insurance, some politicians are supposed to have said: “Let them pay cash!” In another context, in one the most spectacular breakdowns in empathic responsiveness in modern European political history, the French Queen, Marie Antoinette, was told that the people had no bread, and she is supposed to have said: “Let them eat cake!” Same idea?
Saying that the purpose of business is to make money is like saying the purpose of life is to breathe. Keep breathing—and make money—by all means. But the purpose of life is to find satisfaction in one’s work, raise a family, write the great American novel (it’s good work if you can get it!), experience one’s efforts as contributing to the community and making a difference.
Likewise with business. Business is about delivering human value and satisfying human demands and goals, whether nutrition, housing, transportation, communication, waste disposal, health, risk management, education, entertainment, and so on. Even luxury and conspicuous consumption are human values, which show up as market demands.
In conclusion, business people “get it”—empathy is good for business. Profit is a result of business strategy, implementation, and operations, not “the why” that motivates commercial enterprise. And if profit shows up that way (as the “the why”), then you can be sure that, with the possible exception of index derivative hedging, it is a caricature of business and a limiting factor. Business prospers or fails based on its value chain and commitment to delivering value for clients and consumers. However, as noted, some of the things that make people good at business make people relatively poor empathizers.
Business leaders lose contact with what clients and consumers are experiencing as the leaders get entangled in solving legal issues, reacting to the competition, or implementing the technologies required to sustain operations. Yet empathy is never needed more than when it seems there is no time or place for it. This is a challenge to be engaged and overcome.
What to do about it? Practice expanded empathy. Empathy is on the critical path to serving customers, segmenting markets, positioning products (and substitutes), psyching out the competition—not exactly empathy but close enough?—building teams and being a leader who actually has followers. Empathy makes the difference for contributors to the enterprise at all levels between banging on a rock with a hammer and building a cathedral. The motions are the same. When the application of empathy exposes and strengthens the foundation of community, then expanding empathy becomes synonymous with expanding the business. Building customer communities, building stakeholder communities, building teams that work, are the basis for product innovation, brand loyalty, employee commitment, satisfied service level agreements, and sustained or growing market share. Can revenue be far behind? Sometimes leaders don’t need more data, leaders need expanded empathy, though ultimately both are on the path to satisfied buyers, employees, and stakeholders. If the product or service is wrappered in empathy, has an empathic component as part of the service level agreement, gets traction in the market, and beats the competition’s less empathic offering, then we have the ultimate validation of empathy. We do not just have empathy. We have empathy Capitalist Tool!
[i] Katja Battarbee, Jane Fulton Suri, and Suzanne Gibbs Howard. (2012). Empathy on the edge: Scaling and sustaining a human-centered approach in the evolving practice of design, IDEO:
http://liphtml5.com/gqbv/uknt/basic [checked on 03/31/2017].
[ii] William Gentry. (2016). Rewards multiply with workplace empathy, Businessolver: http:// http://www.washingtonpost.com/sf/brand-connect/businessolver/rewards-multiply-with-workplace-empathy/ [checked on 03/31/2017].
[iii] Roman Krznaric. (2014). Empathy: Why It Matters, and How to Get It. New York: Perigree Book (Penguin): 120.
[iv] C.W. Von Bergen, Jr. and Robert E. Shealy. (1982). How’s your empathy? Training and Development Journal, November 1982: 22–28: http://homepages.se.edu/cvonbergen/files/2012/11/Hows-Your-Empathy.pdf [checked on 03/31/2017].
[vi] William Gentry, Todd J. Weber, Golnaz Sadri. (2007). Empathy in the workplace: A tool for effective leadership, http://www.ccl.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/04/EmpathyInTheWorkplace.pdf [checked on 03/31/2017].
[vii] Bernard E. Harcourt. (2015). Exposed: Desire and Disobedience in the Digital Age. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
[viii] Daniel Kahneman. (2011). Thinking, Fast and Slow. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux.
(c) Lou Agosta, PhD and the Chicago Empathy Project
This is a transcript of the talk.
The recommendation? Listen to the podcast: https://anchor.fm/lou-agosta-phd/episodes/Empathy-and-LIterature-Grand-Rounds-Presentation-at-Rush-Medical-University-October-13–2016-e177nvv
or watch the Youtube video: https://youtu.be/sYJvplP5cKo
Howard Kravitz, MD: Welcome to the partner psychiatry gran realms this morning is my pleasure to introduce the speaker dr. Lou Agosta got his PhD in philosophy at the University of Chicago with a dissertation entitled empathy and interpretation and running with that as his career scholarly activity ever since he’s an assistant professor of psychology at the Illinois School of Professional Psychology and Argosy University and instructor of philosophy at the University to call the Graham School of adult education and director of research at other gang psychotherapy services in Chicago he also as a psychotherapy practice in the Chicago community who specializes in making empathy present in his storytelling and listening – he’s committed to a gracious and generous listening based on empathy which I personally experienced a meeting with him this summer to talk about his idea for Grand Rounds – as an educator he teaches empathy in the history of and systems of psychology program at the Illinois School of Professional Psychology and Argosy University – he has published three scholarly academic books on empathy entitled – empathy in the context of philosophy – a rumor of empathy: rewriting empathy in the context of philosophy – and a rumor of empathy: narrative and recovery – he also undertook training as a psychodynamic therapist at the Chicago Institute for Psychoanalysis – however did not complete the program when he was summarily dismissed for asking publicly “is anyone beside me aware of a lack of empathy?” – so with that I will turn the program over to him
Lou Agosta [LA]: Well thank you so much dr. Kravitz for that introduction – so the challenge is to make empathy present – will we be able to do that in the next 45 or 50 minutes? I begin by acknowledging your empathy – you all are going to be doing some listening and I appreciate that and recognize that and acknowledge it – and I want to be concise and allow time for questions in interaction at the back end – some logistics and housekeeping make sure you have the color handout – if you don’t it’s in the back on the left side – there it says how empathy functions – 2-sided copying ladies and gentlemen – and then how empathy breaks down – so sometimes we can create a breakthrough based on a break down – and one of the results of the conversation that we’re going to have today among others is a short history of the distinction empathy – in fact the secret underground history of empathy – we’re going to define empathy –
Lou Agosta [LA]: we’re going to look at some examples of empathy through literature – so rather than clinical examples I’m going to ask you to take it up a level – the guidance is and with all due respect don’t be too concrete don’t be too literal let’s get our metaphorical transference thinking caps on and look at empathy of [in] some examples of world literature and then I’m going to make time – I’m going to say a few things about how empathy is teachable trainable – in fact that’s so important i am going to give you the answer right up front – basically people are naturally empathic – if we remove the obstacles to empathy, then empathy shows up – in other words, the obstacles to empathy are the such things as: denial, resistance, cynicism, bullying, aggression, bad language –
LA: I have a great Dilbert cartoon here -[make sure you] don’t get inside of a Dilbert cartoon – [it is] hilariously funny – closely related to empathy – [drive out] denial, cynicism, guilt, shame, and the like – remove the obstacles to empathy and it [empathy] naturally comes forth – so that’s the answer – what’s the question? – how do we train everyone ? – so we’re gonna circle around and return to this at the back end – we’re going to begin with a short secret underground history of empathy – so this is going to be blazingly concise –
LA: this is the part which you may find somewhat academic [but important] and there as you look at it in the upper left hand corner a man named David Hume [ who published] A treatise of human nature 1739 – [in the year] 1739 the word empathy in the English language was not even invented [it was not invented] until 1895 when a Cornell University psychologist – a man named Edward Bradford Titchenner was translating some of the works of Vilhelm Vundt [Wilhem Wundt] – I have to get my best German accent on there – it comes across as empathy – he [Titchener] makes up the word [empathy] – okay – meanwhile […] that’s why we have a secret underground history of empathy – Hume is writing and has at least five different definitions of sympathy – I say close enough – you have the hand out – the complete deck is on the URL on the lower left hand corner [see the youtube video for the slides] – I’m not going to speak slowly enough for you to take notes –
I’m going to tell you what the five different definitions of sympathy – they’re there and you can go back and get them – he never a stickler for consistency – the philosopher Hume divides sympathy as (1) emotional contagion – he defines sympathy as (2) suggestibility – the power of suggestion – (3) he defines it in a somewhat technical way as a double representation of a vicarious experience of another person combined with the idea of the other that matches closely to a modern definition of empathy that we find in psychology (4) he also defines sympathy as a delicacy of sympathy and taste and this matter of substituting a certain kind of sympathy in the experience of the work of art – this is the secret underground history of empathy – we relate to other people on a good day as if they were works of art – that is without use value – without manipulation – without knowing something – without categories – without argument – and [on] a less good day we struggle like everybody else – and finally as (5) benevolence – he defines sympathy as compassion or benevolence –
LA: and so we’ve got all these definitions – what the heck is it [empathy] – what is this definition so I sent the class [I was teaching at the time] out [to do research by asking people on the street] – I have everybody in the class – several classes – each student asked five people what they think empathy is – not members of your family people – you know moderately well – not really close – you know – but people you might work with or run across at the club or at the gym or something – so there’s a trend – so sometimes I go around saying we don’t need more Data we need expanded empathy – I’ve been known to say that – and nevertheless we need both data and empathy […] -I say more empathy – it’s like there’s something missing rather than something wrong – let’s expand – the languaging is significant as well – this is in the realm of tips and techniques- okay – so anyway – so the people go out and ask them and so here’s the trend: most people think empathy is something like compassion – they tell the story about altruism – they tell a story about charity – they tell the story about doing good – they tell the story about making difference – they tell a story about being nice and heavens knows ladies and gentlemen, the world needs more niceness – [yet niceness] it is distinct from empathy – we’re going to say a little bit more about that but first I want to very concisely touch on – as you look at the picture in the upper right hand corner – Immanuel Kant – he died in 1804 – he had the distinction between putting oneself in the position of the other person – he said enlarged thinking – think as the other [people] think and feel – so that’s top down – in effect we take that as the folk psychology definition of empathy – we take a walk in the other person’s shoes – where does the shoe pinch – where does the moccasin chafe – and then he also he once again interestingly and controversial enough in the context of a theory of art and beautiful nature he talks about the communicability of feeling – art is impossible without the communicability of affect – feeling – that’s stage one of empathy – now if you stop, [then] there you get emotional contagion – you get suggestibility – you get a certain kind of shared mutual enthusiasm – and there’s nothing wrong with that if there’s further processing upstream and downstream that’s going to occur – nevertheless it’s right there and then [we are going] around the circle –
LA: and this is why this is the secret underground history: on the bottom left – a man named Theodore Lipps – remember the movie Amadeus ?where you know Mozart is slaving away and the most famous man of his day a musician named is Antonio Salieri who today except for the movie Amadeus nobody would have ever heard of Antonio Salieri – I mean he’s not played – or they’ll give attention occasionally now because of the movie – right – and today Mozart – everybody knows Mozart’s music is played widely and nobody’s ever heard of Salieri until you come across the movie – well Lipps is Salieri to Freud’s Mozart – Lipps wrote several volumes in which he gives currency in the German language to the word Einfühlung [empathy] – he [Lipps] in effect replaces the distinction aesthetic taste judgment of a feeling of pleasure or displeasure with Einfühlung [empathy] – and he [Lipps] is significant because seven volumes of Lipps work are in the Freud Library – Freud encountered empathy by reading Theodore Lipps –
and [Freud] footnotes Lipps explicitly in Freud’s works on jokes and the relation to the unconscious – and the number of his aesthetic works – so moving right along there are twenty-two mentions of empathy in 24 volumes of the Freud Library as Harry Trosman MD and Simmons – our colleagues over at the analytic Institute – have done the scholarly work – here’s the point – almost every one of them [references to empathy] is mistranslated – freud says in so many words in his 1913 [year published] recommendations for physicians beginning psycho analytic treatment: you will go wrong if you begin with any other method besides empathy – quote end quote – it’s there and that gets mistranslated as sympathetic understanding – the Strachies [translators] will have a few other devaluing things to say about the word empathy so that’s the secret […] – the rest is history which we’re not going to do in the necessary detail – we’re going to move right along –
so most people think that empathy is compassion – and heavens knows the world needs more compassion – yet [compassion] it is not empathy – so what then is it ? Well basically we’re gonna have about two or three different definitions but the main definition which you have in front of you is to the effect – I know what the other person is experiencing because I experienced it also – not as a merger but as a vicarious experience – note vicarious experience contains the word Vicar which means representative – the etymology right as it actually works in this case if that is the the bishops representative to the community – the Vicar of something or other – and in any case combined with the distinction Other – and so basically here’s the distinction – empathy tells me what the other person is experiencing – and my good upbringing, my morals, my values, tell me what to do about it – and so that’s the compassion part – it’s in and its distinct – so having said that now here’s the most controversial slide I want you to pick up on this because it could be a controversial –
and I want – to quote to Jodi Halpern and I’m gonna wave Jodi’s book at you [entitled From detached concern to empathy: humanizing medical practice – Jodi Halperin – this is [published] 2001 so this has been around for a while and you know if we’re gonna have lunch afterwards – if you want to take a picture of the cover – I’ll bring it [the book] along with me and you can check it out but basically she says – the field of medicine empathy is a mode of understanding that specifically involves emotional resonance so it’s not just top down – it’s also bottom up – I’m getting some kind of a vicarious experience – this may or may not be the case – this may or may not be the case […] and so you know nevertheless she puts a stake in the ground and she is actually a psychiatrist – she has some stories
and I turn now to the explicit definition of empathy which we’re going to work with here and there are four phases to it – and that’s the handout – […] you get the handout – it’s on the left there – in the back table – so you want to be on the side: how empathy functions – […] so we’re gonna go around in a circle – we’re gonna go around in the circle here that would be actually counterclockwise – I’m open to the other person – I’m receptive – I have mirror neurons – and here’s where one can insert the underlying physiology – the underlying neurology – that’s not visible – here us mammals – we seem to resonate together – something is going on – we’re attached – it’s a myth that we aren’t related – we are related – physiologic\ally, biologicall,y and so [that is] phase one […]
phase two that creates a potential space for interaction – what’s possible in the relationship – do I relate to the other person as a means or end – do I relate to the other person as a possibility as a potentiality – we’re going to see an example of that and then actually you have to jump across so that gives us empathic receptivity- empathic understanding and empathic interpretation is the third aspect of empathy and that is the folk psychology of empathy – I take a walk in the other person’s shoes – I imaginatively change places with you – now that’s easier said than done because I don’t know you and nine times out of ten if I don’t, [then] I’m going to attribute to you aspects of my own character traits – Who I am – what I’m up to and that’s the challenge – right? – that’s not going to be and it’s going to be a psychological mechanism called projection which has its uses and is of interest – nevertheless is once again not empathy – and so get a view from over there but that does especially when I come up short I don’t know who you are – where you came from – then I go to the cognitive imaginative projection – and that’s very useful – and finally empathy can be a tree that falls in the forest without anybody being there – does it make a sound? does it make a difference? I have to say something I have to do something – a gesture- an aspect of behavior to let the other person know whether or not I have gotten what their experience is and sometimes that’s called empathic listening – that’ll work – good gracious listening – that maybe it is self sufficient but sometimes it’s not especially if I don’t know the other person – it may we’re highly verbal – you know there’s a lot of words and sometimes it’s necessary for me and so empathic responsiveness – so we’ve got receptivity – understanding – interpretation – and responsiveness –
I take the other person’s experience and give it back to them in such a way in such a form that the other person recognizes the experience as their own – on a good day that’s how it works – that’s the aha moment – that’s what I was going through – it’s sometimes it could be the very words but often it’s not – often it’s I’ve got inside the movie of your life for a little while – now each of these [four moments of empathy] breaks down in an interesting way and we’re going to therefore look at the breakdown – so this summarizes something interesting and which I think I do want to say it’s always useful to know the order in which one has one slides but basically this is the matter of so we’re gonna, you know, this [talk] is front end loaded – I acknowledge this presentation is somewhat front and loaded because there are several important ideas I want to get into the space and on the table so that we can mix it up about it – but basically so this is the compassion fatigue the burn out moment – heavens knows, occupational hazards – professional challenges – if I may say so – here’s the guidance – this may be for the easier said than done but nevertheless it must both be said and done – and insofar as humanly possible: if I’m interacting with somebody who is suffering, it is highly probable that I am going to suffer – the recommendation, the guidance is, that I have a vicarious experience of that suffering – if I am suffering in such a way that I am in breakdown or upset, [then] I’m doing it wrong
That’s the easier said than done – if I’m overwhelmed by the suffering – as strange as it may say sound to say: I should suffer but not too much – and so this points to the matter of a granularity – to the receptivity – there’s a filter there – right – I mean this all hypothetical – interesting to engage – nevertheless I may want to make the filter more granular and do things to take a little distance so it is not an on/off switch – the takeaway here – not an on/off switch – more like a rheostat – more like a dimmer on a light switch and this is where training and practice make the difference – so I mean we may or may not come back to that – but I want that [statement] in the space so that we can work with it as we get to these examples we’re going to look at – so am I going in the right direction here […] I see we’re just on time –
we look at three or four examples – here I may cut this short because I want to say a little bit more about the training aspect but we’re going to look at Thomas Mass – Thomas Mann is a storyteller – this story got told on or about the year 1900 – it’s about a family the name of Buddenbrooks – they’re a business family – right – and the context is Thomas Buddenbrooks – so here’s the inside skinny – here’s the Birdseye low down on this Buddenbrooks caper – Thomas Buddenbrooks is an artistic type – he’s very artistic – and his father passes away in an untimely way and he – Thomas – goes into the family business to pay the bills – you know, one can understand why one would do this – he gives up his artistic career – his artistic aspirations – and instead of pursuing an artistic career, he marries one – her name is Gerda – she’s an artistic type – we’ll see a picture of her later – […] – she’s playing the violin – she’s a virtuoso violinist – playing passionate virtuoso violin duos with her talented father – it’s so great to have a great relationship […] it’s a very good thing and they have a son – Johann – Hanno, for short – he’s an artistic type – he’s portrayed by Mann as being on sickly – I mean, he’s got bad teeth – this is going to be an issue because this is 1900 – you know dental science – oh my god this has to be interesting –
LA: [ …] some people are already squirming in their seats – it’s working – the mirror neurons are going off even if they don’t exist – this might be a good point to digress – the myth of mirror neurons – professor – C[Jean] Decety – he’s got the MRI machine down at Gates Blake – he recommended this book by Gregory Hitchcock- there’s an underlying neurological mechanism, ladies and gentlemen – it does [or doesn’t] have to be mirror neurons – how about Association? – have you considered a good old-fashioned association? – there’s some implementation mechanism – it’s highly interesting and controversial – I’ll keep the book handy – it’s a scholarly academic debunking […] but what isn’t debunked is our physiological relatedness – even if they [mirror neurons] don’t exist, we’re physiologically related – that’s interesting so and not in the way you might have thought – okay – so anyway you know the dentist – we’re gonna have a trip to the dentist here thanks to Thomas Mass and I’m actually going to read it to you – the paragraph long quotation – so Hanno has bad teeth – in Mann bad teeth are a sign of artistic sensibility – in the case of Hanno he’s kind of sickly – kind of small – he gets bullied by the straggling Nordic types down at school – you know they push him around – it’s not a pretty picture – and his father becomes [a book camp dad] [the father, Thomas] he’s kind of badly compensated – I would say and he’s this hail-fellow-well-met – my son – give me your mathematical multiplication tables – and Hanno knows his tables – he just can’t perform – he breaks down – it’s pathetic – you know but he’s like seven years old – wa, was [crying sounds] – buck up my son – Thomas is boot camp dad and it’s not working – okay – so meanwhile there’s a bit of orality – you know, we can do the oral symbolism – Hanno needs to vigorously suck on the nipple of life and he’s really struggling to engage
[Meanwhile] – off to the dentist doctor – the dentist is already upon dr. brecht – a pun – it’s broken – so I’m gonna read you this slowly –
‘The bad thing about Dr. Brecht was he was nervous and dreaded the tortures he was obliged to inflict – we must proceed to extraction – he would say growing pale – Hanno himself was in a pale cold sweat with staring eyes incapable of protesting or running away – in short, in much the same condition as a condemned criminal – he saw dr brecht’s sleeve and the forceps bending over him and noticed that little beads were standing out on his bald brow and that his mouth was twisted – when it was all over and Hanno, pale and trembling, spat blood into the blue basin at his side dr brecht had to sit down and wipe his forehead and take a drink of water”
LA: So what’s going on here is a breakdown – this is a breakdown in dr. Brecht’s empathic receptivity – he’s overly empathic – one might argue – compare and contrast – the description itself gives us access to the phenomenon – right – both both are sweating – brecht’s mouth is twisted – interesting, the mirror neurons are going off – [brecht’s] his mouth is twisted [so the mirror neurons are going off] – so what’s the recommendation? this is the time for a bad joke – right – he should have gone into ophthalmology – forgive me – okay so back that one out – okay pause for laugh – but anyway it’s a serious insignificant group here – so here’s the breakdown and so what’s the recommendation? – given that empathic receptivity is breaking down on the part of dr. brecht […] – to get some distance from the tortures he inflates – given what is 1900 Dental Science – oh my god – it’s hard to think right and so he has to increase the granularity of the filter – easier said than done but practice practice practice practice what does that look like because he’s providing a useful service – […] I mean, it’s like it’s misery – there’s all kinds of mystery – okay – so you know I pause for breath at this at this point – I would ever take questions even at this point about the example – you know it’s not like this is a quiz and I don’t you know you’re eager for me to move along but don’t be shy raise your hand – okay, so we will move to the next example and that if you think of anything we can circle back around – so remember the set up – Thomas Buddenbrooks gives up his artistic career and he marries someone who is very artistic – Gerda – and she is artistic and she has to move and locate because the Buddenbrookss live in a different town than her father – so she’s no longer playing violin duo’s with her father – she’s got nobody to play with – one might say – so she meets this lieutenant who happens to be a talented violinist in addition to his military aspirations – so they’re upstairs playing passionate violin duo’s and Thomas’s office is downstairs and he’s listening to the violin music – and that’s not the problem – there’s nothing wrong with that – then the music stops – then there’s silence – there’s more silence – there’s even more silence – Thomas is going crazy – Is he going to become the caricature of a jealous husband? – that would be to throw the guy [lieutenant] out – that would be a scandal – that would indeed be a caricature – right – so he’s wandering around pacing back and forth – so he is pacing back and forth and he runs into Hanno in the hallway next quotation –
“His father did not seem to be listening – he held Hannes free hand and played with it absently, consciously fingering the slim fingers and then Hanno heard something that had nothing to do with the lesson at all – his father’s voice in a tone he had never heard before – low distressed almost imploring – Hanno, the lieutenant has been more than two hours with Mama – little Hanno opened wide his golden brown eyes at the sound and they looked as never before clear large and loving straight into his father’s face with his red and eyelids under the light brows its white puffy cheeks and long stiff moustaches – God knows how much he understood – but one thing they both felt in the long second when their eyes met – all constrained coldness in this understanding melted away – Hanno might fail his father in all that demanded vitality energy and strength but where fear and suffering were in question, there they were as one empathic understanding –
Hanno [saw] something that he had not previously perceived – this father was boot camp dad – multiplication tables right – the time goes by – Oh God now he sees – so what’s the word? vulnerability – that’s one possible description – this bootcamp dad is vulnerable – he’s suffering- Hanno does not get it – what does it mean – playing violin duos and then silence -Hanno’s seven or eight years old – right? – so their eyes meet – that is the moment of empathic receptivity embedded in empathic understanding – the father who was so inaccessible in his hail-fellow-well-met and boot camp-style cross-examination of Hanno about his lessons becomes vulnerable and accessible in his suffering – Hanno gets it – his father’s suffering is a possibility – the possibility of his humanity – they share a human moment – the possibility of relatedness emerges in which both are human beings and an emotional connection with one another – this had not been available to Hanno before – for whom his father was this strong demanding taskmaster – now he sees his father’s vulnerability and it humanizes both of them – this is also an example of empathic understanding that works to an extent but ultimately the father remains [in] the role and the story goes along […] What you want to get here is just a picture of the lieutenant and Gerda – they are practicing the violin – she’s giving a master class in practicing the violin – and so let’s do a reality check here – I want to leave both enough time for questions and answers and say something about a little bit more about training
So I’m going to fast-forward through interpretation – if you get the deck you can get some detail and move on to the Glass Menagerie [by] Tennessee Williams who is a formidable psychologist – so the story in brief: Amanda is the mom – Laura is the frail, fragile keeper of The Glass Menagerie – she lives in the back room – she is the daughter – she has a brother, Tom, who has a friend, Jim – Amanda, the mother, had many gentleman callers in her youth – she was popular – we could do with the song from Wicked [the broadway play] at this point but perhaps we won’t – we can we splice that in later – but as she was popular – now she’s fading – the bloom is off the rose – off the flower in the years nineteen fifties – and she so badly wants a date for Laura – to get a date – she wants her to have a gentleman caller caller so she pressures her son, Laura’s brother, Tom, to bring somebody from down at the factory and finally Tom invites Jim, his friend – there’s other information asymmetries in the story – Jim’s already engaged – get ready – you don’t necessarily know that at this point [in the story] but look is to follow along so the invitation is accepted – at last a gentleman caller! – the problem is Jim thinks it’s just a casual dinner with his friend Tom but in fact he then meets Laura who know Jim from grammar school – they went to grammar school together! – it’s small world and Jim sees her and and he says two words: blue roses – blue roses – and Laura is taken aback – she had many childhood illnesses including pleurisy – fluorosis – and when the teacher this was the day when the teacher would say why you weren’t in school well she’s got fluorosis or pleurisy – nobody knew what that meant anyway but Jim hears that as “blue roses” so here’s the part we’ll cut to the chase – Laura also has another childhood disease which leaves one of her legs slightly shorter than the other – polio- and as she walks down the aisle her experience of herself as that she’s making this enormous clomp clomp thumb clomp clomp as she walks down the aisle that everybody must know about it –
of course Jim didn’t even perceive it [it is so soft] and so we have here an example of what amounts to empathic responsiveness – he [Jim] gives her back his experience of who she is for him – for Jim, Laura is “blue roses” – something beautiful even if kind of melancholy – she’s got this melancholy aspect to her which makes her all the more attractive of course – […] and whereas she experienced herself as clunk clunk clunk thunk – the asymmetry there is very powerful – it’s very nice – I think Williams is a brilliant psychologist – I mean – and unfortunately – I mean – he’s also pretty depressed himself and it ends badly – nevertheless we’re going to enjoy the moment – the emotional devastation [is powerful art] – okay, so having so you know that’s three out of four examples – now we’re just on time
I’m going to talk and to tell you about an exercise rather than do the exercise – I call this exercise: I can’t hear you because my opinion of what you are saying is so loud – I’m going to be disarmingly with candid – so you know there I am walking down the street – and I am ashamed of myself – the author of three books on empathy – [and i am thinking devaluing thoughts] – how did that person get to be that way – I’m judging and evaluating – there’s these thoughts – what happened to you man? – wherever it comes, from it’s not authentically Who I am – you want to take this and apply it as appropriate and to yourself: there I can’t hear you because the opinion of what you are saying is so loud in my own thinking – so this is an exercise, not how to listen better, but how to expand one’s listening – right – stop and so actually this is where the the [Dilbert] cartoon comes in handy –
[…] there’s an exercise here that this is how to train for empathy – what does it mean to train empathy – remove the obstacles such as cynicism, categorizing people, labeling, pigeon holing, and so on – I’ll read this to you just so some of you are picking up on it – [in the Dilbert cartoon]: now so there’s the pointy headed boss [and he says] “from now on all teams will be formed on the basis of myers-briggs personality test types” “if you do not have a personality, one will be assigned to you by Human Resources [dept]” – okay, laughter at this point, [this] is deeply cynical […] this is what not to do – right? – and then the final [statement of the cartoon] “we need a quiet dumb guy to pair with an extroverted thinker” – well here the cynicism is what gets in the way of empathy – now that is not to say that it is not abroad in the land of the corporation [and it] goes off the rails – so what I invite – what the exercise consists of doing is going inward and realizing that if one goes inward far enough, one encounters the other – so we actually are going to take literally a half a minute and do the exercise –
So I’m going to ask you to be quiet and listen to yourself […] now there may be papers going off so just include that because this is after all a hospital – […] but listen to what is there – okay are you ready – any questions before they do the exercise? – it is it clear what I’m asking you to do ? please say if it’s not clear […] so you’re just gonna listen to whatever is there okay ready set go
[pause for thirty seconds]
Okay – that’s 30 seconds […] now you might have heard something like “what is he talking about?” “where did this guy come from?” “What voice?” “What conversation?” That’s the one – that’s the one [we are talking about]! – it’s not who I authentically am – and [yet] that is a source of empathic understanding -I am in relationship with the other and I’m going to have judgments, opinions, evaluations, philosophical arguments, categorizations, labels and so on – there isn’t anything wrong with those – those thoughts occur – they are inevitable – you can’t – ladies and gentlemen, you can’t stop thinking those – you can’t prevent it – what you want to do is get some distance from it and realize when it’s useful and when it’s less useful and so with that said we’re going to have some time for questions –
The one final thought I leave you with – and it’s a direct consequence of this little exercise – to listen to oneself, when all the labels are removed, when all the categories are removed, when all the philosophical arguments are removed, when all the cynicism, hostility, affectation, even compassion, sadness, fear, guilt, shame – when all these things are removed, [then] empathy consists in being in the presence of another human being
LA: what are your questions?
LA: The lady in the back – I’ll repeat the question – go ahead –
Do you think you can teach empathy?
LA: The short answer is yes […] so I’m going to repeat the answer – I just [asserted] we’re naturally empathic – remove the cynicism, denial, shame, guilt, and empathy naturally shows up – train the trainer now that’s not considered the possibility […] there other tips and techniques – this is the realm of tips and techniques: my reaction to you tells me something about both of us and a lot about myself which I then parlay forward to understand the relationship
[….] The challenge to create a context in which empathy can show up – right that’s not a trivial things – it’s a lot of work – and of course teaching is information transfer – I put information in your bucket – you bring a bucket or a basket and the teacher puts information in it – there’s nothing wrong with that – we need that – […] the world doesn’t work without information and there’s also the other aspects – dimensions – especially to our humanity and what happens in the context of a conversation – so you know there’s some work to be done on creating [possibility] and that’s what I think [why] literature has its uses in creating a context for a conversation that’s why I find it useful other questions? so I mean feel free to challenme
Individuals have been in some tough spots in the trenches for a while and become hardened – I think you use that word and how does one recover from that? – so I would also put on the list compassion fatigue – burnout – this is a significant occupational hazard – I mean – take some time off for self-care – this is the case for self-care – that one has to find some things where one can restore one’s emotional energies if you will – that we have something like emotional energy – and because being burned out – being compassion fatigued – I ain’t doing nobody any good much less myself – right? – so sometimes one has to get some supervision – I mean now leaving aside matters of such as vacation and that is where I find humor which is closely related to empathy – this Dilbert is deeply cynical right? – but –
in both empathy and humor one traverses a boundary – in the case of humor, one can say look at the boss is an idiot and it’s funny – Human Resources says a personality will be assigned to you – it’s hilarious, right? […] it’s the reduction to absurdly right? – so philosophically, it’s a reduction to absurdity – so one can use humor […] so this is the case for one’s own psychotherapy – I mean that the therapist him or herself may usefully encounter at some point in their development something like whatever this thing is – therapy h- aving a conversation with oneself – journaling – it may become a self-sustaining process – I get a lot out of journaling – I mean some people do and some people don’t – the world is not generous in the matter of certain things such as empathy – put it on the list with compassion as well right? – and so one has to find some resources to recharge one’s empathy – oftentimes it’s family – speaking personally, coming up, I experienced the lack of empathy so I actually started writing about it – and that was how I approached it and I kind of symbolically created something for myself […] – one final question…
LA: we are out of time – one final question?
what is the triad that sustains the therapeutic process? Warmth, accessibility, what else?
LA: okay well the concise answer is the Triad is – empathy empathy and empathy and warm and accessible is also useful – on a good day the other individual will show you who she or he is – if I am present without categories, distinctions, labels – on a good day they’ll reveal their soul – on a less good day we will struggle like everyone else – thank you so much
I heard there was some lunch – I don’t know if there is – I heard it was are up on six – I’m gonna go up there and check it out
(C) Lou Agosta, PhD and the Chicago Empathy Project
Review: Gillian Isaacs Russell, (2015), Screen Relations: The Limits of Computer-Mediated Psychoanalysis and Psychotherapy. London: Karnac Books: 206 pp.
Granted in-person physical meetings are impossible when the health risks become prohibitive, that is no longer the case (Q3 2021), at least temporarily. Therefore, the debate resumes and continues about the trade-offs, advantages and disadvantages, of online telecommunication (“Zoom”) mediated therapy sessions versus physical in-person work.
Gillian Isaacs Russell’s book in a powerful and important counterforce to trending technological optimism that online therapy is the wave of the present and of the future. This optimism compels those of us who are digital immigrants to align with digital natives in privileging screen relations over physical presence in the same space in engaging in psychoanalysis and psychotherapy. By definition, “digital immigrants” were educated prior to the explosion of the Internet (and world wide web on) or about the year 1999 and “digital natives” came up with “online everything” such as pouches for their smart phones in their parents’ baby strollers.
The cyber rush to judgment is slowed if not stopped in this hard-hitting critique of online screen relations. Isaacs Russell wisely asserts skepticism that meeting online (even in a pandemic) and meeting physically in person are “the same.” One may eventually go ahead with online therapy in many situations (especially in a pandemic), but if you are hearing “they are both the same” that is reason for a good healthy skepticism that the purveyor of the online approach is being straight with you. One also needs to be skeptical as online therapy starts out being “better than nothing” only quickly to slide in the direction of “better than anything.” As usual, the devil – and the transference – is in the details, and Isaacs Russell provides insight in abundance to the complex issues.
Speaking personally, in my own work on empathy, published in 2015, the same year as Isaacs Russell’s book, my Preface concludes with the ontological definition of empathy as “being in the presence of another human being without anything else added” – anything else such as judgment, evaluation, memory, desire, hostility, and the many factors that make us unavailable to be in relationship (Agosta 2015; see also 2010). Though Isaacs Russell uses the word “empathy” in a specific psychological sense, I would argue that her work on “presence” is consistent with and contributes to an enlarged sense of empathic relatedness that builds community.
Isaacs Russell has interview psychoanalysts, clients (clients), over several years and reports in a semi-ethnographical style on the trade-offs between online mediated relations and those which occur in the same physical space, such as a therapist’s consulting room. Her arguments and narratives are nuanced, charitable, and multi-dimensional. The reader learns much about the process of dynamic therapy regardless of the framework.
What she does not say, but might usefully have called out, is that the imperative is to keep the treatment conversation going, whether online or physically present in person. When someone I am meeting with in-person asks for an online session, after controlling for factors such as illness of a child at home or authentic emergencies, then my countertransference may usefully consider the client’s resistance to something (= x) is showing up. In contrast, when an online client asks to come into the office, one may usefully acknowledge that the individual is deepening his commitment to the work. In neither case is this the truth with a capital “T,” but a further tool and distinction for interpretation and possibility in the treatment process.
Isaacs Russell makes the point (and I hasten to add) that no necessary correlation exists between the (digital) generation divide and enthusiasm (or lack thereof) for online screen relations of baby boomers versus millennial or gen-Xers. Some digital immigrants are enthusiastic about online therapy, whether for authentic professional reasons, including economic ones, or to prove how “with it” they are, and growing numbers of digital natives are becoming increasingly skeptical about the authenticity of online relations, craving physical presence without necessarily being able to articulate what is missing.
Isaacs Russell provides an informative and wide-ranging briefing on developments in baby watching (child development research). Child development is a “hands on” process of physically relating to another emerging human being. Her point (among many) is that we humans are so fundamentally embodied that in some deep sense we are out of our element in reducing the three dimensional, heat generating, smell-broadcasting mammalian body to a cold two-dimensional video image. Though she does not do so, Isaacs Russell might usefully have quoted Wittgenstein: The human body is the best picture of the soul (1950: 178e (PPF iv: 25)). As the celebrity neuroscientist A. Damasio notes: [We need] “the mind fully embodied not merely embrained.” What then becomes of the relatedness when the body becomes a “head shot” from the shoulders up on a screen?
The answer is to be found in the dynamics of presence. Key term: presence. Physical presence becomes tele-presence and the debate is about what is lost and (perhaps) what is gained in going online. The overall assessment of Isaacs Russell is that, not withstanding convenience and the abolition of distance, more is lost therapeutically than gained.
Although Isaacs Russell does not cite Wittgenstein, Heidegger, Husserl, and Merleau-Ponty loom large in her account of the elements of presence. Much of what Isaacs Russell says can be redescribed as a phenomenology of online presence, including the things that are missing such as smell, the ability to physically touch, aspects of depth perception, and the privileging of “on off” moments over against gradual analogical transitions. The above-cited philosophers were, of course, writing when the emerging, innovative, disruptive technology was the telephone, and Heidegger himself went “off the grid” physically (and morally!) with his semi-peasant hut in the Black Forest near Freiburg, Germany. But even though they never heard of a mirror neuron, the distinctions these thinkers lay down about relatedness are fundamental for work in communications and human understanding.
Isaacs Russell gives the reader a generous tutorial in breakthrough developments in neuroscience, including the discovery or mirror neurons in Macaque monkeys and a neurologically-based mirroring systems in humans, which account for key aspects of empathy, intersubjectivity, and human social-psychological relatedness.
Since this is not a softball review, I must inquire, following detailed descriptions of embodied cognition, the primacy of movement in empathic relatedness, faces as emotional hot spots (which nevertheless incorporate full-bodied clues as to the exact emotion), kinesthetic and proprioceptive feedback: do we need a psychoanalysis or rather do we need an aerobics class (okay, at least a class in Tai Chi, moving meditation)? The point is that both participants may indeed “forget” about the computer-mediated relation, but the unconscious does not. The (unconscious) transference is also to the technology and needs to be engaged, interpreted as such. Isaacs Russell provides the distinctions to do so, which is what makes her contribution so valuable, even if one disagrees with her ultimate skepticism that online is the wave of the future.
Amid many useful distinction and nuances, as noted above, the key-differentiating variable for Isaacs Russell is presence. She connects this closely to D. W. Winnicott’s seminal work on enabling the client to recover the ability to “go on being” in integrity and individuality, even in the presence of another person. The model for this therapeutic process is the young child’s breakthrough in individuality as the child is able to be alone (e.g., playing) in the presence of the mother (or care-taker).
This process of becoming an individual being gets operationalized and tested when the client tries to destroy the therapist and the therapist [demonstrates that s/he] survives. Here “destroy” is a technical term, though it does indeed invoke hatred and the possibility of aggression. The paradigm case is that the client expresses hostility – even hatred – towards the therapist and the therapist does not retaliate. The therapist “takes it,” metabolizes the aggression and responds appropriately setting an empathic boundary in the relationship. This advances the treatment, expanding the integrity, autonomy, and individuality [mostly] of the client.
According to Isaacs Russell, this is the key moment – the differentiator: “In ‘screen relations’, the client can never really test the analyst’s capacity to survive” (p. 37).
Why not? Isaacs Russell quotes an astute client (in so many words) that without being in the same shared space the potential for the client or therapist “to kiss or kick” the other is missing. The potential for physical desire or aggression has been short circuited. Since the treatment must engage with these variables, the treatment is stymied and deprived of essential enriching possibilities of transformation.
Isaacs Russell is adamant that the ability of the therapist to survive, in Winnicott’s sense, cannot be test in the online context. If it could be significantly tested, then much of what she writes about the inadequacies of online presence would be invalidated or at least significantly reduced in scope. As noted, Isaacs Russell makes much of the potential to “kiss or kick” the other person in the same physical space; and it is true that such acting out rarely occurs but what is needed is the potential for its occurring.
However, what has been overlooked is such acting out bodily is not the only way of testing the separation and survival of the therapist. Many examples exist in which the client tests the limits by means of a speech act – seductive or aggressive language. Speech is physical and would not occur with the sound waves impacting the biology of the ear. This is not merely a technical point. Tone of voice, rhythm, and timing are physically available.
The distinction “speech act” is one that is critical path in any discussion of the talking cure, even if the latter is understood in an enlarged sense to be the encounter of two embodied (not merely “embrained”) talkers and listeners. Speech act theory includes pragmatics that allow for the illocutionary and perlocutionary force of speech. Speech does not merely describe things – it performs things, building connections and relations. People get other people to do things – change the physical environment – by speaking to them: close the door! Pick up the kids at soccer! Persons invested with certain kinds of conventional authority, powerfully change relationships and other aspects of the human world. For example: “I now pronounce you man and wife” spoken by the officiating authority at the wedding. This is a new reality – in so many ways. The empathic response of the therapist, spoken to the struggling client, is another such example.
Language is powerful, and we humans both wound and heal through our words. Heidegger, who is usefully quoted by Isaacs Russell as inspiring the work of Merleau-Ponty regarding physical spatial dynamics also noted, “Language is the house of being.” That is, presence – physical, mental, poetical, historical – emerge in the conversation that we have individually and in community in language.
Recall that Winnicott’s point is that when the client acts out – in this case verbally – the therapist demonstrates his survival skill by not retaliating. Thus, s/he remains in integrity as a “good enough” partner in empathic relatedness and becomes independent. This likewise rebounds to the expanding integrity and independence of the client.
If the therapist does retaliate – say by moralizing or withdrawing or blaming or becoming aggressive or seductive – then the possibility of treatment in the relationship is short-circuited. Absent significant repair, the relationship ends, even if the conversation continues in an impasse for awhile longer.
Speaking personally, and omitting confidential details, I recall an instance online where, being clumsy with a relatively new online client, who was vulnerable in a way that I did not appreciate, I triggered a challenge to my survival. I triggered a combination of panic, retraumatizing flashback, and panic, in the client that resulted in an extended and seemingly automatic combination of verbal abuse. It threatened me professionally and the safety of the client such that I seriously thought of sending emergency services to the client’s address. The screen is always the screen, in this case, but the screen was no protection against the impact of the hate. It is a further question whether the same thing might have happened if my clumsiness had occurred in person. Perhaps the client would have kept quiet and never returned. We will never know.
So while the client might not effectively have been able to throw a pencil at me (to use Isaacs Russell’s example), the individual would have been able to inflict self-harm in a way that would do more damage to me than a kick in the shins (another Isaacs Russell example). Never underestimate the ability of clients to innovate in acting out around the constraints of an apparently firm therapeutic framework.
The good news is that, without making any commitments I couldn’t keep, by a combination of soothing statements, placating statements, self-depreciating humor, apologetic words, and deescalating inquires and suggestions, I kept my wits about me, and was able to restore the integrity of the therapeutic process. S/he agreed to continue the conversation. I survived and so did the relationship. It actually was a breakthrough, and, without everything being wonderful, the client demonstrated capabilities that had not previously had going forward.
Thus, the counter-example: Survival was tested online, not by physically throwing a pencil, but in reciprocal speech acts and the enactment of presence in speech, a physical media not to be underestimated. One learns that the environment is safe when safety breaks down. To Isaacs Russell’s point, the potential for non-survival also includes non-survival as an actual enactment and outcome – and neither online nor physical presence has a privilege in that regard.
In a real world emergency – a credible threat of self-harm – there is a difference between sending emergency services to the client location and summoning them to one’s own office. But perhaps not that much. The point about survival, safety, and containment (different but overlapping issues) and their respective breakdowns is the same. Many distinctions exist between an online and physical encounter, but the risk of survival or non-survival occurs in each context.
One may argue back that the risk of a meltdown is less extreme in the warm and cozy confines of one’s own office, but maybe you never met a borderline client like this particular one or a client as suspicious or deeply disturbed. If the client takes out a box knife on camera and starts to carve up her or his inner thigh (or threatens to do so), one may fervently wish that s/he kicked one in the shins instead.
Thus, in answer to the potential for “kicking or kissing,” the answer is direct: Oh, yes the client can – can indeed test the capacity to survive and do so online. The example “kiss or kick” is not a bad example, but many counter-examples exist that provide useful evidence to the contrary as cited above.
Positively expressed, plenty of evidence is available that the analyst’s survival can indeed be tested in an online session and s/he may survive or not. Ultimately even “kiss and kick” can be enacted as verbal abuse on line, perpetrating boundary violations with hostility or seduction that can be grave and survival threatening, either in imagination or reality, including the survival of the therapist as a professional and the therapy itself.
To give the devil his (or her) due, it is true that there are some cases that are decidedly unsuited for an online engagement. Marion Milner engaged in a celebrated analysis of a deeply disturbed and regressed client, in which the client was silent for long periods of time. The client finally was able to recover significant aspects of her humanity in producing hundreds of drawings and sketches that expressed a therapeutic process of pre-verbal recovery. It is true that, though these were visual artifacts, and presumably might have been communicated remotely, the client herself was already so “remote” from reality that another layer of virtuality was not going to work (nor was it possible mid-20th century).
Heinz Kohut has a celebrated example that he presented in an lecture made a few days before his death. Kohut was working with a deeply regressed and suicidal client (client) in years gone by. In a desperate moment, Kohut offered to let the client, lying on the couch behind which he was sitting in his customary straight-backed wooden chair, hold two of the fingers of his hand. The point of this potentially life saving (and boundary testing) gesture was Kohut’s association to the client’s desperate grasp with her hand being like that of a toothless infant sucking on a nipple. An empty nipple or a life giving one? Powerful stuff, which of course, would never be possible online. Far be it for me to be the voice of reality, nevertheless, these two cases of Milner and Kohut are outliers, albeit deeply moving one, that are completely consistent with the sensitive and dynamically informed application of online analysis and dynamic therapy.
Though the uses of extended moments of online silence should not be underestimated or dismissed, Milner’s and Kohut’s cases were ones that privileged physical presence. It in no way refutes the power or potential of online engagement. What are missing are criteria for telling the difference. No easy answers here but the rule of thumb is something like: do whatever is going to further the treatment in the proper professional sense of the words. What is going to sustain and advance the conversation for possibility in the face of the client’s stuckness? Do that. Winnicott has been mentioned frequently, and rightly so. He spoke of the “good enough” mother. Here we have the “good enough” therapeutic framework including the online one.
Another part of the narrative that was particularly engaging was Isaacs Russell’s discussion of ongoing online psychoanalytic training with the colleagues in China. There are few psychoanalysts in China, so in addition to significant culture and language challenges, such remote work would not be possible without online analytic therapy sessions and supervision. The nearly unanimous consensus is this is valuable work worth doing. The equally unanimous consensus, about which one may usefully be skeptical, is that this work is “functionally equivalent” or in other ways “just the same as” work done physically in person.
The author provides examples, whether from the Chinese colleagues or other contexts is not clear, where neutral observers are asked to evaluate transcripts of sessions where the online versus physical feature and descriptive details have been masked. The result? They can’t tell them apart. What more do we need to say?
Apparently much more. With dynamic psychotherapy and related forms of talk therapy if you can tell the difference between an online and an in person meeting (other than comments about traffic or Internet connections), then you are probably doing it wrong or there is some breakdown that interferes with the process (in either case). Abstinence is easier online – no hugs. But if we are talking boundary violations, maybe some people – exhibitionists? – are tempted to take off their clothes on camera. (This has not happened to me – yet.) Anonymity – just as one’s office has clues as to one’s personal life, so too does the background on camera. Neutrality – being on camera suddenly causes one to adopt a point of view on social media or politics or nutrition or economics or education? Perhaps but I am not seeing it.
However, what Isaacs Russell does not discuss is the “other” transcript – the unwritten one, which is only available as a thought-experiment. There is another transcript different than the verbatim account of what was said or even what a web cam could record. It is a transcript that is just as important as the recoding of the conversation, and why verbatim recordings of the conversation are less useful than one might wish. Both participants may “forget” that the session is being recorded, but the unconscious does not. There is the transcript of what the people are thinking and experiencing, but remains unexpressed or expressed indirectly. Such an aspect of the counter-transference or thought transcript is harder to access and includes the therapist’s counter-transference.
One thing is fundamental: When the context of the encounter between people is an empathic one, then both an in-person encounter in the same physical space and an online encounter via a video session are ways of implementing, applying, and bringing forth empathy.
The online environment and the imaginary thought transcript present new forms of client resistance and therapist counter-transference, and it is these that now are the main target of the discussion of this essay.
Moving therapy to online opens up a new world of symptomatic acts, parapraxes, “Freudian” slips, and acting out.
I had one online client who stands up in the middle of a session to check on what this individual had cooking in the oven, carrying her camera-enabled device with her. Was I amazed? Indeed.
I acknowledged to the client that clients sometimes have mixed feelings about their therapists, and nothing wrong about that as such. Yet I was wondering did she believe I was perhaps half-baked? Key term: half-baked. Further discussion occurred of whether this individual was expressing her unconscious hostility towards me – while, of course, also preparing a baked dish.
The breakdown in empathy may be a thoughtless remark by the therapist, a mix up in the schedule, or a failure of the computer network. The empathy – and transmuting internalization working through it – LIVEs in restoring the wholeness and integrity of the relatedness. Empathy lives as spontaneous relatedness, a form of transference and vice versa. This is not limited to psychoanalysis versus psychodynamically informed psychotherapy. This is not limited to online versus physical therapy.
Other than candidates for psychoanalytic training, few people are calling up practitioners are saying: “I want the most arduous, rigorous, time-consuming, expensive treatment known – I want a psychoanalysis!” I tend to agree with Isaacs Russell that the possibilities for doing full-blown remote psychoanalysis are – how shall I put it delicately? – remote, but not necessarily due to any features of the online environment.
After all the dynamics and debates are complete, Isaacs Russell ends her book with a masterpiece of studied ambiguity. She gives an account of a conversation in an online session with a client in London, UK. Isaacs Russell has relocated to Boulder, CO, USA. Having worked together in physical presence, the client misses her and Isaacs Russell misses the client – yet the therapeutic conversation continues. One cannot help but agree with the sentiment – there is something missing – and yet the conversation continues. Thus, we roundly critique cyber therapy – and go off to our online sessions.
 Acknowledgement: This reviewer first learned of Gillian Isaacs Russell’s penetrating and incisive engagement with all matters relating to online psychoanalysis and psychotherapy from my friend and colleague Arnon Rolnick in Q2 2021 as the 2020 covid pandemic was waning, at least temporarily. Thus, I am catching up on my reading.
 Marion Milner, (1969), The Hands of the Living God: An Account of a Psycho-analysis. London: Routledge, 2010.
 Charles Strozier, (2001), Heinz Kohut: The Making of a Psychoanalyst, “Gentle into that Good Night,” New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux: 376–377.
Lou Agosta, (2010), Empathy in the Context of Philosophy. London: Palgrave Macmillan.
Lou Agosta, (2015), A Rumor of Empathy: Resistance, Narrative, Recovery in Psychoanalysis and Psychotherapy. London: Routledge.