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Transference and Empathy: Where Transference Was Empathy Shall Be!

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[Note: the audio is not a exact transcript and sometimes covers the same or related material using different words]

While empathy is seemingly in exceedingly short supply in the world, you do not need a philosopher to tell you what empathy is. Every mother, every teacher with students, every business person with customers, every doctor with patients, every attorney with clients, every politician with supporters, every person with next door neighbors, knows about empathy. 

We shall start with the folk definition of empathy – take a walk in the other person’s shoes, and add one additional recommendation. However, first take off your own shoes before putting on the other’s – an action that is routinely overlooked – otherwise one gets projection, not an experience of otherness. 

The title statement echoes Freud’s celebrated slogan “Where id was, ego shall be!” Neither of these statements is an “either or” proposition. The id is not going away. Freud did not propose to abolish the id with the ego. It is not even clear what that could possibly mean. The idea is to expand the influence, control, and power of the second term (ego, empathy) over the first one (id, transference). The ego expands its power, including power over primitive aggressive and sexual inclinations; likewise, with empathy. Empathy expands its power in creating an opening for effectiveness and success in fulfilling and satisfying human relationships.

Let us define our terms. Transference is the carrying across of meaning from one context, model, or paradigm to another one. It is difference than metaphor, which means a “carrying across or beyond,” but perhaps not by much. We humans have a tendency to make things mean other things. We humans are “meaning making machines,” in the sense that we are a source of acts of conscious intentionality that brings meaning to our encounters with nature and our fellow humans in community. There is indeed something mechanistic about the way we automatically go about making things mean things. We can’t seem to stop doing it, which results in innovations but also distortions and misunderstanding. We take behaviors, conversations, and circumstances and try to make sense out of them by bringing meaning to them, which sometimes applies, but sometimes doesn’t. 

This definition of transference extends into the realm of so-called behavioral health and psychoanalysis (where it was initially and innovatively defined) into the contexts of diverse forms of psychotherapy, empathy consulting, professional coaching, or community building. At the risk of oversimplification, transference takes a cognitive, behavioral, or emotional response from one context, such as childhood or circumstances in the past that one had to survive, and uses it to respond to the therapist, coach, or trainer in a similar way. Typically this introduces distortion or extraneous issues into the relationship. 

The relationship between transference and empathy is under theorized. This is the case in spite of all the great psychoanalysts from Freud onwards commenting on both subjects, albeit sometimes in widely separated contexts and conversations. There are many reasons for under development of theory, both scientific and political, but it is largely due to the nature of the phenomena themselves. Transference as a distinction is largely structural, even though its emergence and transformation unfold in time in the process of a therapeutic psychoanalysis. Empathy as a distinction is largely a process unfolding in the therapeutic relationship, even though it has structural invariants. 

Empathy and transference are the opposite of one another. How so? In empathy one takes a walk in the shoes of the other person, the better to understand the other and relate authentically to the individual. There are many definitions of empathy, but they converge on the idea that empathy is an authentic form of relatedness. Get rid of the judgments, assessments, and evaluations, and be with the other person without applying labels, categories, and prejudices. 

Now transference is the exact opposite of authentic relatedness. The narrow definition of transference says take a pattern or relating from one situation – such as childhood or an experience in another context – and apply it to the current relationship or situation. The result is a distortion of the relatedness. The result is an inauthentic way of relating. In order to bring forth an empathic relationship one has to interpret and resolve the transference distortions. 

Let us take a step back. The implications of the relationship between empathy and transference, as noted, have not been much theorized. It is true that dozens of publication address empathy and dozens of publications address transference, and some even contain discussions of both empathy and transference (e.g., Racker 1968). But the specific interactions between being empathic in the transference and getting engaged in transference in being empathic in a clinical setting have not been much engaged. 

The recommendation? Think of the relationship between empathy and transference (or perhaps you say “the transference” as if it were a single unified thing) as a dance. Sometimes the one leads and the other follows and vice versa. The implications of the dance between empathy and transference are profound, but complex and entangled.

Lest one imagine these two phenomena – empathy and transference – are inevitably at loggerheads, consider the following example of convergence:

The patient comes in and says he saw the film, Elephant Man (directed by David Lynch (1980)) and he was deeply moved. The narrative is of an individua, David Merrick, suffering from Proteus Syndrome (often confused with Neurofibromatosis), which results in disfiguring folds of tissue on the head and other pulmonary and renal abnormalities. “Deeply moved,” by what aspect in particular, I asked? After being a freak, physically disfigured, lacking humanity, David Merrick meets the doctor who acknowledges his humanity. The recognition of humanity – “I am a human being – I am a man” is the most dramatic utterance – and the empathic moment. The client reports being moved to tears and having had a satisfying cry. Without further discussion, the client then spontaneously speculates, wondering if there was a parallel with our relationship, my having recognized something in him that others had not seen. Without going into confidential details, I had seen around or though the significant blind spot that kept him insensitive to an aspect of father’s behavior which was running his life and in a destructive way, yet not acknowledged. This enabled the client to shift his relationship to his life partner (as well as his father) and move on. The parallelism – transference – the recognition of humanity – empathy. 

To try to prevent misunderstanding, one must distinguish between transference in a narrow sense and transference in an enlarged sense. At risk of oversimplification, when transference was first discovered by Freud, it seemed like an obstacle to treatment, since the patient related to Freud as an authority figure such as The Father (in the case of a male patient) or as a seductive father figure (in the case of a female patient) whereas Freud regarded himself as a kind, even empathic, listener to the patient’s neurotic suffering. 

Eventually Freud realized that the patient was relating to him (Freud) as to an important figure from the patient’s past. Regardless of how Freud tried to treat the patient, the patient treated him- or herself with transference – but responding with a transference of meaning from one area of the patient’s life to the relationship with Freud. Just as significantly, Freud discovered that the patient was doing this in other areas of his life as well – towards his lady friend, towards his superiors at work, in a hundred and one ways in his life – with problematic results that caused the individual to seek treatment for his suffering and conflicts. 

For example, when the patient was a woman, the transference was not hostile but erotic. This can be motivated. If the reader saw Vigo Morgenstern play the middle-aged Freud in the film A Dangerous Method, then you know what I mean. This guy was hot! Though unlike Carl Jung, Freud was clear about professional boundaries: “[…] [T]he patient has transferred on to the doctor intense feelings of affection which are justified neither by the doctor’s behavior nor by the situation that has developed during the treatment” [1917, Introductory Lectures on Psycho-Analysis: 440 – 441]. It is in interpreting this transference – based on behavior different than that of the original seductive parental objects and suitable verbal feedback – that the cure of the neurosis is affected: “At the end of the analytic treatment the transference must itself be cleared away: and if success is then obtained or continues, it rests, not on suggestion, but on the achievement by its means of an overcoming of internal resistances, on the internal change that has been brought about in the patient” [1917, Introductory Lectures: 453]

Since this post is part of a larger project, I take the liberty of including several definitions of “transference” by leading figures who defined it. Those readers who wish less detail may skip ahead.

Thomas Szasz (1963: 432 – 443), who was otherwise a notorious psychoanalytic “bad boy,” denouncing the “myth of mental illness,” was an classic Freudian when it came to defining transference: “Freud conceived of transference love as an illusion because the situation in treatment cannot account for the origin of such feelings” [. . . .] [I]t [transference] is considered an expression of interest ‘basically’ directed towards childhood objects, deflected to the analyst or to the figures in the patient’s current life.”

Peter Giovacchini (1965: 287) writes that: “[. . . .] [T]ransference reaction refers to a person’s reactions to an object as they are determined by infantile unconscious factors. Viewing the object in terms of archaic imagos in a primary process orientation lead to irrational attitudes and distortions.”

Carl M. Grossman (1965: 249 – 250) defines transference in a broad sense that seems to go beyond the psychoanalytic context in a narrow sense: “[. . .] [Transference is] a universal human psychological characteristic which causes the internalized representation of certain objects – such as parents or parental surrogates from one’s infantile past – to be projected onto a succession of later, ostensibly unrelated persons. The transferring person then reacts to new objects with the anachronistically habitual reaction in adult life that he had had towards the originally cathected object in infancy.”

Ralph Greenson (1967: 151 – 152) asserts: “[. . . ] [Transference is] a special kind of relationship toward a person: it is a distinctive type of object relationship. The main characteristic is the experience of feelings to a person which do not befit that person and which actually apply to another. Essentially, a person in the present is reacted with as though he were a person in the past. Transference is a repetition, a new edition of an old object relationship” (pp. 151 – 152).” {TI: 339]

Leo Stone (1961: 66 – 67) writes “[…] [Transference is limited] to that aspect or fraction of a relationship which is motivated by persistent unmodified wishes (or other attitudes) toward an actual important personage of the past, which tend to invest a current individual in a sort of misidentification [. . . ] with the unconscious image of the past personage. It is essentially in appropriate to the current situation subjectively misunderstood as to genetic origin until analyzed, and tenaciously resistive to this analysis (pp. 66 – 67).” Stone further notes: “that a nuance of the analyst’s attitude can determine the difference between a lonely vacuum and a controlled but warm human situation, which does indeed offer these gratifications, along with its undoubted rigors” (1961: 21 – 22).” 

In short, transference is what happens when human do what they cannot stop doing – trying to make sense of situations by assimilating them to patterns from key patterns and expectations based on experience. What may have been helpful in one context to enable the person to survive or even flourish is less helpful and even harmful in other situations in that distortions and misunderstandings are introduced.

There is a broader sense of “transference” that developed, in which transference becomes the entire relationship which the patient has towards the therapist. And wherever there is transference can countertransference be far away? Under this idiosyncratic and enlarged meaning, “countertransference” becomes the therapist’s way of relating to the patient. For example, according to Paula Heiman, under this idiosyncratic interpretation of the relationship, “counter- transference” covers all the feelings the analyst experiences toward the patient (see Paula Heiman, 1950. On counter-transference. International Journal of Psycho-Analysis 31: 81 – 84). 

Of course, “counter transference” can mean an unprofessional or pathological response on the part of the therapist, as when s/he behaves in a moralizing, aggressive, or seductive manner; but it can also include appropriate and positive responses such as empathic ones. In the extreme, countertransference comes to mean empathy itself. Heimann’s  thesis is “that the analyst’s emotional response to his patient within the analytic situation represents one of the most important tools for his work. The analyst’s countertransference is an instrument of research into the patient’s unconscious” (1950: 81). The transference is not empathy, but the countertransference is essential input to the empathic process, even if not quite reducible to empathy itself.

While Freud innovated decisively in decoding the meaning of dreams in The Interpretation of Dreams (1900) and the exploration of infantile sexuality, from a clinical perspective, the elaboration of transference defined the clinical encounter between patient and therapist in the context of psychoanalysis. Transference becomes co-extensive with the encounter between patient and therapist. If you can’t form a transference, since the therapy consists in interpreting and raising the transference, the therapy is not going to work. 

We now turn from transference to empathy.

Freud explicitly states that unless the physician begins empathy in engaging in psychoanalysis, that physician is headed for trouble. The issue is that nearly no one knows that Freud said that because the Strachey’s mistranslate “empathy [Einfühlung]” as “sympathetic understanding.” I must insist on the point. We are on firm group as far as Freud’s guidance is concerned. “Empathy” and “sympathetic understanding” are not the same, and what is more, in a kind of Nachträglichkeit – or retrospective consideration – we lose the opportunity to connect to Freud’s guidance (see Agosta 2014). Thus, we have the kind of empathy wars that Heinz Kohut had to fight to demonstrate that empathy had a mutative effect on the structure of the self (presumably and especially including the ego). 

When Freud demonstrated by his empathic way of relating to the patient (including by his verbal interpretations) that he was not the authoritarian or seductive parental figure of the patient’s past or trauma, the patient would often resist, deny, or offer other defensive gestures against Freud’s interventions and interpretations. But eventually the evidence would add up. Freud was not the unkind parent or the seductive uncle – the mischief was coming from the patient’s unconscious (and his circumstances), not from Freud. With this realization, the patient was reliably able to shift out of stuckness and enjoy a new beginning in his work and romantic relatedness thanks to Freud’s revolutionary new method of treatment. 

Although there are numerous definitions of empathy, most include a narrow and an enlarged use of the term. In the narrow sense, empathy is a psychological mechanism, which, in folk psychology terms, as noted, consists in taking a walk in the other person’s shoes. It is rarely pointed out that one must take off one’s own shoes before putting on those of the other or one risks the distortion/defense of projection. As a psychological mechanism, Kohut defines empathy as vicarious introspection, though he does not merely define empathy in that way.

In an enlarged sense, empathy means being present with the other person without applying judgments, labels, or moralizing assessments. When I use the expression “empathic presence,” the word “presence” inevitably invokes Nacht (1962) and Nacht and Viderman (1960), who penetrating and insightful contribution should not be underestimated. However, as I use it the word “presence” should not be understood as a source or justification for any deviations in technique or the frame. If anything “presence” means “being with” one another in a Heideggerian sense or “being” in the sense of “going on being” as Winnicott employed the term. Even though not necessarily visible, if seated behind the couch, the analyst’s listening is a strong presence. 

If one understands “transference” in a broad sense of all aspects of relatedness to the patient, then it tends to merge with an understanding of “empathy” as the foundation of relatedness. 

Anything the analyst does to influence the transference is considered an issue – the question of the background to transference – passivity? Neutrality? Empathy? but empathy is the background to transference.

One of the most enlarged uses of the terms is to be found in Kohut. For Kohut empathy defines the entire field of therapeutic interrelations and one can even give a transcendental argument to that effect

Empathy is not just a useful way by which we have access to the inner life of man – the idea itself of an inner life of man, and thus of a psychology of complex mental states, is unthinkable without our ability to know via vicarious introspection – my explanation of empathy . . . what the inner life of man is, what we ourselves and what others think and feel. (1977: 306)

In this statement, empathy is the foundation of our relations to other individuals. This is a restatement and an expansion of Kohut’s celebrated statement in his 1959 article that empathy is the method of data gathering precisely about what other individuals feel and think. In turn, this method defines the scope and limits of psychoanalysis as a therapy and discipline. The field of empathy that of psychoanalytic therapy become co-extensive. 

As noted, one individual does not directly access the mental states of the other person, but rather had a vicarious experience of the other person’s experience. In empathy one is receptive to the micro-expressions of the other person’s experience – one has an “after image” and a “vicarious” experience of what the other is experience. 

The innovations continue. Kohut innovates around transference in 1971 – the establishment of what was first called idealizing transference and transference of the grandiose self and ultimately becomes selfobject transference is a distinct phase in the history of transference and tends to live like a split off bastion – for example, is there any evidence of a selfobject transference in the Wolfman, who had aspects of the depletion and grandiosity of narcissistic personality disorder? 

The selfobject represents the function that other people have for oneself. Kohut: “[. . .] [T]he general meaning of the term selfobject [is] as that dimension of our experience of another person that related to this person’s function in shoring up [supporting the homeostatis / equilibriating] our self [. . .]” (1984: 49)

In a standard relationship people interact in such a way that they mutually regulate one another’s thoughts, feelings, and actions. This is called “friendship.” It is also the give-and-take at the foundation of many forms of interpersonal cooperation, communication, and collaboration. When one’s spouse comes home from a hard day at the office or clinic or the backroom on Zoom and you give them a good listening as they vent the frustrations, double binds and bullying perpetrated by the boss or client, then you are functioning as a selfobject. Presumably such an interaction or function did not begin with Kohut’s coining the term “selfobject,” though it was more clearly delimited out of the undifferentiated background. 

One significant difference that, unfortunately, has resulted in controversy and lack of clarity, is how Kohut’s selfobject (narcissistic) transference is sustaining to the patient during the long process of interpreting, working through, and dissolving the transference and the inevitable transference distortions. Kohut took considerable pains to emphasize (and empathize!) that confrontational and moralizing methods would unleash reactive narcissistic rage on the part of the patient and that the empathic approach was critical path. 

This lines up with and is complementary to one of Freud’s early discoveries was a later version of this phenomenon – that what seemed to be a source of resistance was actually the way forward. However, the way forward means the possibility of relatedness between internal objects (everything from the superego to hostile introjects to good breasts) and the therapist. Key term: relatedness. Thus, when there are disruptions in the relatedness between the patient and therapist that is conceptualized as a breakdown in the transference – the loss of connectedness, even if the connectedness includes distortions, misunderstandings, and conflicts. But that is usually the way it is thought of or described in the context of classical analysis where the breakdown of the transference often results in what seem like moralistic or objective medical judgments that the patient is not analyzable. 

Instead, the relationship between transference and empathy comes into its own where, in the face of a breakdown in transference, empathy is used to restore the transference relationship. 

For example, speaking of a patient with significant narcissistic disequilibrium, Kohut writes:

  • When the narcissistic transference has become disrupted, he has the impression that he is not fully real, or at least that his emotions are dulled; he is doing his work without zest, that he seeks routines to carry him along since he appears to be lacking in initiative … ((1971): 16)

The restoration of the relatedness and the transference is brought forward when the therapist, using empathic understanding, shows the analysand that the therapist “gets” how the analysand is struggling with a setback or challenge in his life that he left him emotionally disequilibriated, anxious, lethargic, depleted. When this occurs repeatedly in the course of treatment, psychic structure is built and reinforced in the areas of emotional and behavioral regulation. A cure comes into view.

Kohut (1984: 66) writes: “[. . .] [The] aim and the result of the cure – is the opening of a path of empathy between self and selfobject, specifically, the establishment of empathic in-tuneness between self and selfobject on mature adult levels. [….] …the gradual acquisition of empathic contact with mature selfobjects is the essence of the psychoanalytic cure [. . .]” Of course, one must hasten to add that “empathic in-tuneness” is unlikely, even impossible, unless the distortions and illusions of the transference have been engaged interpretively (and in an empathic way) in course of making contact with mature selfobjects in empathic relatedness  

A number of issues occur here that clearly require further research and clarification of terminology. Why would selfobject transference be considered transference at all? Here “transference” again gets used in the broadest sense of “empathic relatedness.” It represents healthy relatedness, good listening, and interpersonal well-being. Interpretation of the transference is a key bridge between empathy and transference – when the interpretation is experienced as unempathic then the aggression released is not due to a lowering or elimination of defense against the death instinct but a reactive rage at getting one’s feelings hurt at being misunderstood by one’s therapist, being re-traumatized in the transference by unempathic caretakers or disappointed parental idealizations.

If such relatedness with its significant component of a “good listening” is spontaneously constellated in the psychoanalytic therapeutic encounter, then it may at first glance seem to be pure positive transference (the analyst as “good object”) or positive nontransference reality-based relatedness. Indeed, Winnicott’s transitional object is a special case of a selfobject but shows that the selfobject is a standard part of development in which the imaginary is integrated into the rich system of conventions and symbols known as everyday life. In that sense, the family pictures on one’s writing desk are reminders of why one works, making the absent present in what is literally a picture of health. 

Where transference was empathy shall be!

References

Szasz, Thomas. (1963). The concept of transference. International Journal of Psychoanalysis 44: 432 – 443. 

Stone, Leo. (1961). The Psychoanalytic Situation. New York: International Universities Press. [TI: 239]

Reich, Annie. (1966). Empathy and countertransference. In Annie Reich, Psychoanalytic Contributions. New York: IUP Press, 1973: 344 – 360.

Nacht, S. (1962). Empathy as a psychological mechanism and empathy as presence (of course it is both). Symposium The curative factors in psycho-analysis. II International Journal of Psychoanalysis 43: 206 – 211

Kohut, Heinz. (1984). How Does Analysis Cure? Eds. Paul Sepansky and Arnold Goldberg. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Kohut, Heinz. (1977). The Restoration of the Self. New York: International Universities Press.

Kohut, Heinz. (1971). The Analysis of the Self. New York: International Universities Press.

Grossman, Carl M. (1965). Transference, countertransference, and being in love. Psychoanalytic Quarterly 34: 249 – 256. 

Greenson, Ralph R. (1967). The Technique and Practice of Psychoanalysis vol 1. New York: International Universities Press.

Giovacchini, Peter L. (1965). Transference, incorporation and synthesis. International Journal of Psychoanalysis 46: 287 – 296. 

Agosta, Lou. (2014a). Rewriting empathy in Freud. A Rumor of Empathy: Rewriting Empathy in the Context of Philosophy. New York: Palgrave Macmillan: 66 – 82. DOI:10.1057/978113746534.0009.

(c) Lou Agosta, PhD and the Chicago Empathy Project

On Guns: Historical Empathy and the Strict Construction of the US Constitution

I am sick at heart. This is hard stuff. All those kids. Teachers, too, dying trying to defend the children. Everyone cute as button. What to do about it? My proposal is to expand historical empathy. Really. Historical empathy is missing, and if we get some, expand it, something significant will shift. 

Putting ourselves in the situation of people who lived years ago in a different historical place and time is a challenge to our empathy. It requires historical empathy. How do we get “our heads around” a world that was fundamentally different than our own? It is time – past time – to expand our historical empathy. For example …

BrownBessMusket

Brown Bess, Single Shot Musket, standard with the British Army and American Colonies

When the framers of the US Constitution developed the Bill of Rights, the “arms” named in the Second Amendment’s “right to keep and bear arms” referred to a single shot musket using black powder and lead ball as a bullet. The intention of the authors was to use such weapons for hunting, self-defense, arming the nascent US Armed Forces, and so on. No problem there. All the purposes are valid and lawful.

One thing is for sure and my historical empathy strongly indicates: Whatever the Founding Fathers intended with the Second Amendment, they did NOT intend: Sandy Hook. They did not intend Uvalde, Parkland, Columbine, Buffalo, NY, Tops Friendly. They did not intend some 119 school shootings since 2018. They did not intend a “a fair fight” between bad guys with automatic weapons and police with automatic weapons. The Founding Fathers did not intend wiping out a 4th grade class using automatic weapon(s). They did not intend heart breaking murder of innocent people, including children, everyone as cute as a button. 

Now take a step back. I believe we should read the US Constitution literally on this point about the right to “keep and bear” a single shot musket using black powder and lead ball. The whole point of the “strict constructionist” approach – the approach of the distinguished, now late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, who passed away on Feb 13, 2016 – is to understand what the original framers of the Constitution had in mind at the time the document was drawn up and be true to that intention in so far as one can put oneself in their place. While this can be constraining, it can also be liberating.

Consider: No one in 1787 – or even 1950 – could have imagined that the fire power of an entire regiment would be placed in the hands of single individual with a single long gun able to deliver dozens of shots a minute with rapid reload ammo clips. (I will not debate semi-automatic versus automatic – the mass killer in LasVegas had an easy modification to turn a semi-automatic into an automatic.)

Unimaginable. Not even on the table.

This puts the “right” to “bear arms” in an entirely new context. You have got a right to a single shot musket, powder and ball. You have got a right to a single shot every two minutes, not ten rounds a second for minutes on end, or until the SWAT team arrives. The Founding Fathers did not intend the would-be killer being perversely self-expressed on social media to “out gun” school security staff who are equipped with a six shooter. Now the damage done by such a weapon as the Brown Bess should not be under-estimated. Yet the ability to cause mass casualties is strictly limited by the relatively slow process of reloading.

The Founding Fathers were in favor of self-defense, not in favor of causing mass casualties to make a point in the media. The intention of the Second Amendment is to be secure as one builds a farm in the western wilderness, not wipe out a 4th grade class. I think you can see where this is going. 

Let us try a thought experiment. You know, how in Physics 101, you imagine taking a ride on a beam of light? I propose a thought experiment based on historical empathy: Issue every qualified citizen a brown bess musket, powder, and ball. What next? 

Exactly what we are doing now! Okay, bang away guys. This is not funny – and yet, in a way, it is. A prospective SNL cold open? When the smoke clears, there is indeed damage, but it is orders of magnitude less than a single military style assault rifle weapon. When the smoke clears, all-too-often weapons are found to be in the hands of people who should not be allowed to touch them – the mentally unstable, those entangled in the criminal justice system, and those lacking in the training needed to use firearms safely.

More to the point, this argument needs to be better known in state legislatures, Congress, and the Supreme Court. All of a sudden the strict constructionists are sounding more “loose” and the “loose” constructionist, more strict. It would be a conversation worth having.

The larger question is what is the relationship between arbitrary advances in technology and the US Constitution. The short answer? Technology is supposed to be value neutral – one can use a hammer to build a house and take shelter from the elements or to bludgeon your innocent neighbor. However, technology also famously has unanticipated consequences. In the 1950s, nuclear power seemed like a good idea – “free” energy from splitting the atom. But then what to do with the radioactive waste whose half life makes the landscape uninhabitable by humans for 10,000 years? Hmmm – hadn’t thought about that. What to do about human error – Three Mile Island? And what to do about human stupidity – Chernobyl? What to do about unanticipated consequences? Mass casualty weapons in the hands of people intent on doing harm? But wait: guns do not kill people; people with guns kill people. Okay, fine.

There are many points to debate. For example, guns are a public health issue: getting shot is bad for a person’s health and well-being. Some citizens have a right to own guns; but all citizens have a right not to get shot. People who may hurt themselves or other people should be prevented from getting access to firearms. There are many public health – and mental health – implications, which will not be resolved here. There are a lot of gun murders in Chicago – including some using guns easily obtained in Texas and related geographies. The point is not to point fingers, though that may be inevitable. The guidance is: Do not ask what is wrong – rather ask what is missing, the availability of which would make a positive different. In this case, one important thing that is missing is historical empathy.

Because the consequences of human actions – including technological innovation – often escape from us, it is necessary to consider processes for managing the technology, providing oversight – in short, regulation. Regulation based on historical empathy. Gun regulation . Do it now. 

That said, I am not serious about distributing a musket and powder and ball to every qualified citizen in place of (semi) automatic weapons – this is an argument called a “reduction to absurdity”; but I’ll bet the Founding Fathers would see merit in the approach. There’s a lot more to be said about this – and about historical empathy – but in the meantime,  I see a varmint coming round the bend – pass me my brown bess!

(c) Lou Agosta, PhD

PS PS Please send this post or a version of it to your Congressional representatives in the US House and Senate.

Review: How to Think More About Sex by Alain de Botton

Review: How to Think More About Sex by Alain de Botton. New York: Picador Press, 2012; 185 pp. 

Alain de Botton is a modern-day version of Nietzsche as stand-up comic. He is a practitioner of the hermeneutics of suspicion and he manages to be funny in doing so. The title itself is funny, for sex is not something we usually want to think more  about. Either we cannot stop thinking about it or we want to stop thinking and start performing it (the sex act, that is). 

If one stops and considers the matter, for the most part, it is sex that is thinking us, not us actively thinking about it in a reflective way. However, the latter (think about sex in a reflective way) is precisely what de Botton proposes to do and he does an excellent job of it. 

The first thought is some direct talk about managing expectations. The expectation that we live in a liberated age (which we do) and therefore we should be comfortable with sex (we are not) is an illusion. We human beings are not wired to be comfortable with sex. Sex is an enormously powerful force “all but incapable of being discretely integrated within civilized society” (p. 6). “Our best hope should be for a respectful accommodation with an anarchic and reckless power” (p. 7). 

The pleasures of sex are explored in the initial chapters. In a description of an initial kiss that goes in the direction of soft-core porn and then becomes thoughtfully and alienatingly clinical, de Botton makes the point that what is great about a kiss “stems from the simple realization that someone else likes us quite a lot, a message that would enchant us even if it delivered via another medium” (p. 23). When sex goes just right it represents a reversal of the fall from paradise where Adam and Eve were punished by experiencing shame. The naked, loving couple have a breakthrough in the acceptance of themselves and each other than nakedness makes present. 

Eroticism is defined as “the feeling of excitement we experience at finding another human being who shares our values and our sense of the meaning of existence” (p. 44). De Botton notes that sex usually does not last longer than two hours “about the length of the Catholic mass.” This is not quite accurate, but funny. 

Regarding physical attraction (“sexiness”), the thinking gets going. We are not supposed to like people based on superficial appearances, but we do. Evolutionary psychology tells us that sexual attraction means we see a healthy parent for our children in the other person as a prospective mate. De Botton prefers Stendhal: “Beauty is the promise of happiness.” Then he imaginatively elaborates, associating physical features with personality states and traits. This person’s cheeks express determination; eyebrows, integrity; lips, intelligence. 

For me, one of the high points of this work is de Botton’s invoking Empathy and Abstraction  (1907) by Wilhelm Worringer, one of the defining works of the aesthetic application of empathy. The beautiful is that which we need to complete us, and we project aspects of our emotions and personality onto the environment as symbols of totality. We humans need both art and sex to make us whole (p 72). 

Since this is not a softball review, I note that de Botton properly pushes back against the overly scrupulous conscience of the sexually inhibited (most of society) when he asserts: “It’s time for the need for love and the need for sex to be granted equal standing, without the need for moral gloss [judgment]” (p. 79). He is absolutely on point in asserting that neither sex nor love should require us to lie in order to get them. Definitely tell the truth – including to yourself. Yet the way sex and love (affection) fall apart is concerning. How does when bring them together?

Here is the debate: Freud pointed out in one of his most powerful and least well known essays (probably because of its obscure title) on “The Most Prevalent Form of Degradation in Erotic Life” (1912) that some men cannot love where/when they desire (sex) and cannot desire where/when the love. They are unable to bring together sexual desire and affection for the other as a person, which unification is a mark of being a psychologically mature adult. 

This is the “whore / Madonna” complex (and mostly, but not exclusively, a guy issue) – that he says he loves the mother of his children, but she does not excite him sexually and he can get sexually excited over what is today called a [sexual] “hook up” with someone he does not know. As noted, today this is a phenomenon that is still mostly male but is expanding its occurrence among woman who aspire to use sex to get power in relationships. Note whether this tactic is effective is a further point of debate.

In the middle section under problems, de Botton covers some of the same ground as Ester Perel in Mating in Captivity (2006) including libido dampening circumstances: Marriage tends to involve “[…] the running of a household and the raising of children, tasks that often feel akin to the administration of a small business and that draw upon many of the same bureaucratic and procedural skills, including time management, self-discipline, the exercising of authority and the imposition of rules upon recalcitrant others” (p. 90). Here de Botton explicitly invokes the above-cited split between desire and affection: “Sex may sometimes be just too private an activity to engage in with someone we know well and have to see all the time” (p 92). 

The recommendation? Since most people would not be comfortable getting a third party to have sex with the spouse while they watched – the idea literally to witness about the spouse what the other finds stimulating – de Botton recommends a stay at a fancy hotel. More substantially, the recommendation is there to do to the spouse what Manet did to a lowly bunch of asparagus – see the bundle in a new way, overlooking its commonness, and making it into a work of art. Love is sublimated sexuality; sex as art. As Bob Dylan wrote, love is another four-letter word. This is hormones all the way down. 

As someone who has published extensively on empathy, this reviewer swallowed hard to read de Botton associate empathy with impotence: “Impotence had its origins in the increase in empathy attendant on the promotion of the Golden Rule (p. 109). “Impotence is at base, then, a symptom of respect, a fear of causing displeasure through the imposition of our own desires […]”  (p. 111). The solution according to de Botton? Don’t be unempathic. Don’t be unkind. Employ a psychopharm intervention. Take the Viagra, even if you have furtively to swallow it in the bathroom. You can’t make this stuff up. 

I have to acknowledge that the caveman approach to sex has significant limitations. For my part, de Botton, who rarely misses a beat, fails to mention that the real turn on is turning on one’s partner. We desire the other’s desire. I want you to want me. And for that one needs empathy. 

If the molten cauldron of libido needed to have really great sex is siphoned off by kindness, for others, the opposite is the case. Partners hurt one another’s feelings in relatively minor ways, grievances and resentments, build up, of which the individuals are barely aware. People are aggrieved at not getting the recognition, acknowledgement, dignity, respect, or empathy they deserve. No empathy; no sex. Too much empathy? Not enough empathy? Sometimes we humans just can’t get a break. Finding a balance is challenging. 

Therefore, I propose an alternative point of view to de Botton. You know how gray is the new black in fashion? Well, empathy is the new love. It is what people are really hungry for – another person who “gets you” as the possibility you authentically are. That is the ultimate turn on. Still, a wide spectrum exists between tenderness and Tarzan, between empathy and ejaculation. Therefore, if that involves putting on an animal skin loin cloth (only to take it off at the right time), definitely consider the possibility. Never was it truer, “when you’re hot, you’re hot; when you’re not, you’re not.”

The recommendation? “In a perfect world, all couples would be visited by a psychotherapist on a weekly basis […]” (p. 119). The therapy? Here we get to the title of How to Think More About Sex: “The idea persists that too much thinking might make it impossible for us to feel – as if it weren’t already quite plainly apparent that a large and constant amount of thinking may be the only thing that can keep us from destroying each other (p. 121). 

And what indeed should we be thinking? “[…] Our culture locates the primary difficulty of relationships in finding the ‘right’ person rather than in knowing how to love a real – that is, a necessarily rather unright – human being” (p, 121). 

De Botton raises the point that failure to have regular sex may not be pathological (p. 105). He Botton has little use for internet porn, and his position is clear. “The entire internet is in a sense pornographic, a deliverer of a constant excitement that we have no innate capacity to resist, a seducer that leads us down paths that for the most part do nothing to answer our real needs” (p. 133). He considers internet porn in the same category as alcohol and street drugs, undermining “our ability to endure certain kinds of suffering which we have to experience if we are to direct our lives properly” (p. 130).

Regarding adultery, de Botton tries to illuminate this blind spot of hypocrisy and broken word through a mixture of cynicism, resignation, and reverse psychology. In so many words, he says people who are able to be faithful over the long term should get a major award or at least a medal. It is a high bar, faithfulness, involving significant sacrifice for their love and for their children. Keeping one’s word is rarely easy. He does not mention that lack of real opportunity saves most people from slipping up. The fervent prayer “Lord, lead me into temptation” remains unanswered. He counsels forgiveness for those who stray from the path of faithfulness, also acknowledging how hard it can be to get to forgiveness. 

Alain de Botton’s How to Think More About Sex is a concise book of a modest 179 pages, and a quick read. It is fully buzzword compliant, covering evolutionary psychology, which gets cited as accurate enough but not that helpful interpersonally, fetishes (with reference to Richard Krafft-Ebing Psychopathia Sexualis (1886)), evolutionary psychology, Michelangelo Caravaggio’s “Judith beheading Holofernes” (1599), Freud, Masters and Johnson on Human Sexual Inadequacy (1970) (with an illustration of a penis), and a draft of a deeply Schopenhauerian marriage contract (p. 162). (By the way, Schopenhauer never married.)

De Botton blames the bourgeois ideology that the best and only reason to get married is for love. And he counsels changing the vows: “I promise to be disappointed by you and you alone. I promise to make you the role repository of my regrets, rather than to distribute them widely through multiple affairs and a life of sexual Don Juanism [the male-centric perspective is hereby noted]. I have surveyed the different options for unhappiness, and it is you I have chosen to commit myself to” (p. 162). In case of the breakdown of adultery, the betrayed partner may justifiably complain: “I was relying on you to be loyal to the specific variety of disappointment that I represent” (p. 162).  Finally, with Alain de Botton’s How to Think More about Sex, I did. I also both laughed and cried, and you will too.  

(C) Lou Agosta, PhD and the Chicago Empathy Project

Left stranded when the music stops: What to do about the shortage of talk therapists actually available

An article in the Washington Post by Lenny Bernstein: “This is why it is so hard to find mental health counseling right now” (March 6, 2022) struck a chord with many readers.[1]

The article begins by describing an individual in the Los Angeles area who said she was willing to pay hundreds of dollars per session and called some twenty-five therapists in the area but was unable to find an opening. The person willingly shared her name in the article. Be careful not to blame the survivor or victim – the report is credible – and she maintained a spreadsheet!

One of the main points of the article is that after several years of pandemic stress prospective clients and patients are at the end of their emotional rope and providers (therapists) are over-scheduled and burned out too. No availability. 

The problem is systemic. There seems to be no bottom in sight as regards the opportunistic behavior of insurance companies, the lack of behavioral health resources, and the suffering of potential patients. The WP article goes on to document other potential patients with significantly less resources who cannot even get on a wait list. The article documents third party insurance payers whose “in network” providers are unwilling to see prospective patients due to thin

Wait listed? Therapy delayed is therapy denied

reimbursements from the payer – once again, the individual is unable to get on a wait list or get help urgently needed; supply side shortages are over the top in the programs that train psychiatrists, a specialty in medicine. Psychiatrists, when available, are most often interested in lucrative fifteen-minute medication management sessions, but unless they are “old school” and were psychoanalytically trained in the “way back,” they are rarely available for conversations. This all adds up to a crisis in the availability of behavioral health services. 

This leads to my punch line. Often time depression, anxiety and emotional upset are accompanied by negative self-talk, shaky or low self-esteem. One reaches out and asks for help but instead has an experience of powerlessness that is hard to distinguish from the original emotional disequilibrium. The conversation spins in a tight circle – “maybe I deserve it – no I don’t – this sucks – I suck – help!” The person resigns himself to alife of gentile poverty, thinking she or he is not worthy of financial well-being. The prospective patient is left aggrieved. This grievance is accurate and real enough in context, but it is hard to identify what or who can make a difference. Nevertheless, there is no power in being aggrieved. One still has to do the thing the person in distress or with shaky self-esteem is least inclined to do – invest in oneself because one is worth it!

I have spoken with numerous potential and actual clients who pay a lot of money for health insurance. However, when they want to use the insurance for behavioral health services, they find the insurance is not workable. Not usable. The service level agreement is hard to understand, and having a deductible of a couple of thousand dollars is hard to distinguish from having no insurance at all. If the client goes “in network,” the therapists are unresponsive or inexperienced. If the client goes out of network, the therapists are often more experienced and able to help, but onerous deductibles and copays rear their heads. Why don’t the experienced therapists go in network? There are many reasons but one of them is that the insurer often insists the therapist accept thirty cents on the dollar in compensation, and some therapists find it hard to make ends meet that way. In short, as a potential patient, you think you have insurance, but when it comes to behavioral health, you really don’t. 

My main point is to provide guidance as to some things you can do to get the help you need with emotional or behavioral upset and do so in a timely way. Turns out one has to give an informal tutorial on using insurance as well as on emotional well-being. I hasten to add that “all the usual disclaimers apply.” This is not legal advice, medical advice, insurance advice, cooking advice or any kind of advice. This is a good faith, best efforts to share some brain storming and personal tips and techniques earned in the “college of hard knocks” in dealing with these issues. Your mileage may vary. 

Nothing I say in this article should be taken as minimizing or dismissing the gravity of your suffering or the complexity of this matter. If you are looking for a therapist or counselor, it is because you need a therapist or counselor, not a breach of contract action against an insurance company. You want a therapist not a legal case or participation in a class action law suit, even if the insurance contract has plenty of “loop holes.” For the moment, the latter is a rhetorical point only.

When a person is anxious or depressed or struggling with addiction or other emotional upset, being an informed assertive consumer of behavioral health services is precisely the thing the person is least able to do. “I need help now! Shut up and talk to me!” 

Notwithstanding my commitment to expanding a rigorous and critical empathy, here’s the tough love. Without minimizing your struggle and suffering, the thing you least want to do is what you are going to have to try to do. If one is emotionally upset, the least thing you want to do is be an assertive consumer of services designed to get you back your power in the face of emotional upset or whatever upsetting issues you are facing.

The recommendation is to speak to truth to power and assertively demand an “in network” provider from the insurance company or invest in yourself and pay the private fee for an experienced therapist whom you find authentically empathic, then you already be well on the way to getting your power back in the face of whatever issues you are facing. 

If your issue is that you really don’t have enough money (and who does?), then you may need to get the job and career coaching that will enable you to network your way forward. An inexpensive place to start is The Two Hour Job Search by Steve Dalton. Highly recommended. Note the paradox here – the very thing you do not want to do keeps coming up. You definitely need someone to talk to. Once again, the very things with which you need help are what re stopping you from getting help  

The bureaucratic indifference of insurance companies is built into the system. The idea of an insurance is a company committed to making money by spreading risk between predictable outcomes and a certain number of “adverse” [“bad risk”] events. It is not entirely fair (or even accurate) but by becoming depressed or anxious (and so on), you are already an adverse event or bad risk waiting to happen. You may expect to be treated as such by most insurance companies.

In a health insurance context, the traditional model for the use of services is a broken arm or an appendicitis (these are just two examples among many). You definitely want to have major medical insurance against such an unfortunate turn of events. Consider the possibility: Buy major medical only – and invest the difference saved in your therapy and therapist of choice.

But note these adverse medical events are relatively self-contained events – page the surgeon, perform the operation, take a week to recover or walk around in a sling for awhile. The insurance company pays the providers (doctors and hospitals) ten grand to thirty grand. That’s it. With lower back pain, headaches, irritable bowel syndrome, autoimmune disorders, it is a different story. These are notoriously difficult to diagnose and treat. Yet, modern medicine has effective imaging and treatment resources that often successfully provide significant relief if not always complete cures for the patient’s distress in these more complex cases. 

Consider similar cases in behavioral health. Start by talking to your family doctor. Okay, that is advice – talk to your family doctor for starters. Front line family doctors have the authority – and most have the basic training – needed to prescribe modern antidepressants (so called SSRIs), which also are often effective against anxiety, to treat simple forms of depression and anxiety due to life stresses such as an ongoing pandemic, job loss, relationship setbacks. 

Even though I am one of the professionals who has consistently advocated “Plato not Prozac,” I acknowledge the value of such psychopharmacological interventions from a medical doctor to get a person through a rough patch until the person can engage in a conversation for possibility and get at the underlying cause of the emotional disequilibrium. Note this implies the person wants to look for or at the underlying dynamics. This leads us to the uncomfortable suggestion that it is going to take something on the part of the client to engage and overcome the problem, issue, upset, which is stopping the client from moving forward in her or his life.

There is a large gray area in life in which people struggle with relationship issues, finances, career, education, pervasive feelings of emptiness, chronic emotional upset, self-defeating behavior in the use of substances such as alcohol and cannabis (this list is not complete). 

A medical doctor or other astute professional may even provide a medical diagnosis when the interaction of the person’s personality with the person’s life falls into patterns of struggle, upset, and failure. Insurance companies require a medical diagnosis. One thinks of such codable disorders as adjustment disorder or personality disorders (PD) such as narcissistic, histrionic, schizoid, antisocial, or borderline PD. These are labels which can be misleading and even dangerous to apply without talking to the person and getting to know them over a period of time. It’s not like the Psychology Today headline – top three ways to know if you are dating a narcissist. I am calling “BS” on that approach. 

Nevertheless, if after a thorough process of inquiry, some such label is appropriate (however useless the label may otherwise be except for insurance purposes), then the cost will be right up there with “fixing” an appendicitis – only you won’t be able to do it in a single day – and it won’t be that kind of “fix”. An extended effort and of hard to predict duration must be anticipated, lasting from months even to years. This is not good news, but there are options. 

My commitment is to expanding a rigorous and critical empathy in the individual and the community. I consider that I am an empathy consultant, though at times that is hard to distinguish from a therapeutic process and inquiry into the possibilities of health and behavioral well-being. Therefore, and out of this commitment, I have a sliding scale fee structure for my consulting and related empathy services. People call me up and say “I make a lot of money, and want to pay you more.” Of course, that is a joke. I regularly hear from prospective clients whose first consideration is financial. They do not have enough money. I take this assertion seriously, and I discuss finances with them. Between school debt and the economic disruptions of three years of pandemic, people are hurting in many ways including financially. One must be careful NEVER to blame the victim or survivor. 

The best way for such financially strapped individuals to go froward is to find an “in network” provider. Key term: in network. But we just read the Washington Post article that furnishes credible evidence such networks are tapped out, in breakdown, not working. Those that are working well enough often deal with the gray area of emotional upset and life challenges by moving the behavioral health component to a separate corporate subsidy at a separate location to deal with all aspects of behavioral health. (See above on “bad risk.”) When I had such an issue years ago, I had to search high and low to get the phone number, web site, or US postal address. You can’t make this stuff up. This is because ultimately, the issues that come up are nothing like an appendicitis or even hard to diagnose migraines. Moving the paying entity to a corporate subsidy is also a way that the insurance company can impose a high deductible and/or copay by carving out that section of the business and claims processing. There are other reasons, too, but basically, they are financial. 

You may be starting to appreciate that many health insurance contracts are not really designed to provide behavioral health services (e.g., therapy) the way they are designed to address a broken leg or appendicitis. There is a way forward, but it is more complex (and expensive in terms of actual dollar, though not necessarily time and effort). I will address this starting in the paragraph after next, because, sometimes in the case of behavioral health, people who have insurance do not  really have useable, workable behavioral health insurance. For all intents and purposes, they think they have insurance, but, in this specific regard, they have a piece of paper and a phone number that is hard to find. I hasten to add I am not recommending going without major medical health insurance, inadequate though it may be in certain respects.

This brings us to those individuals who decide to go without insurance. What about them? Such individuals choose to take the risk. They are living dangerously because if they do break an arm or incur an appendicitis, then they are going to have another $30K in medical debt [this number is approximate and probably low], along with a mountain of school debt, credit card debt, and bad judgment debt (this list is not complete). These good people need insurance, not so much to get therapy – because, as the accumulating evidence indicates, it really doesn’t work that way – as to be insured against a major medical accident. Many people are not clear on this distinction, but I would urge them to consider the possibility. 

I spoke with this one prospective client who began with a long and authentically moving narrative that she did not have enough money and could not afford therapy. This is common and not particularly confidential or sensitive. As part of a no fee first interview to establish readiness for therapy, I acknowledged her courage in strength in reaching out to someone she did not really know to get help with her problems. I acknowledged that one of her problems was she did not have enough money. A bold statement of the obvious. I asked if there was anything else she wanted to work on. It turns out that she was a survivor of a number of difficult situations and would benefit from both empathy consulting, and talk therapy – and I might add job coaching. Here’s the thing – when a person is hurting emotionally, they do not want to look for another job – or a better job that pays more money. But one just might have to do that, at least over the short term, with someone who can provide that kind of guidance to those who are willing. I encouraged her to be assertive with her insurance company and I heard she found someone in network at a low rate. 

And if you are a therapist who believes such job coaching compromises the purity or neutrality of the therapy, I would agree. However, never say never. In the aftermath of World War I, when the victorious allies maintained a starvation blockage on Germany and Austria even into 1919, Freud (that would be Sigmund) was reportedly seeing a client in exchange for a substantial bag of potatoes. I have no facts – none – but I find it hard to believe they were discussing matters pertinent to individual and collective survival. So far no one has offered me a bag of potatoes (I am holding out for a quantity of olive oil and basil to make pesto), but see the above cited article from the Washington Post

We circle back to where we started. If the individual named in the Washington Post article has not yet found a therapist, then I believe there are many in the Chicago area would welcome the opportunity to make a difference for her. She has a budget for therapy, she says. If you have a budget, the work goes forward. It can be confronting and difficult to contemplate, but if you were buying a car, you would look at your budget. If you were planning a vacation, you would think about your vacation budget. If you were thinking of going back to school, you would look at your education budget. You get the idea. What is your budget for empathy consulting, counseling, talk therapy, cognitive retraining, life coaching, or medication management services (this are all distinct interventions, appropriate in different circumstances)? Zero may not be the right number. Just saying.  Of course, if the client is in LA and the empathy consultant is in Chicago, it would be a conversation over Zoom. That starts a new thread so I may usefully clarify that I prefer to meet with people in person – the empathy is expanded in person – but the genie is out of the bottle and online can be good enough in some circumstance. (See my peer reviewed article “The Genie is Out of the Bottle”: https://bit.ly/37vxJ0L.)

The insurance system is broken as regards behavioral health (as evidenced by the WP article). There is a vast gray area of people with modest emotional disregulation who genuinely need help. These are not only the “worried well,” but people whose understandable lack of assertiveness in navigating an indifferent (and it must be said unempathic) bureaucracy leaves them high and dry with their moderate but worsening emotional, spiritual, and behavioral upsets. These people deserve help, and are entitled to it even under the specific terms of their insurance contracts. Indeed they are entitled to help even if they do not have insurance, though the revenue model is simpler in that case, though not less costly. 

The insurance company has been unable to make money off of this gray area – therefore, the insurance company does what it does best – it turns to making money off of you. But you need health insurance against a major medical event or accident. You want a therapist, not a breach of contract case in small claims court (where the small claim often goes up to $100k). Therefore, it does little good to document having called ten or twenty-five in network providers with no result. Or does it? You – or a class action attorney firm – have a case for breach of contract. Go out of network and forward the invoices to the payer by mail with a tracking number, requesting that the full therapy fees be treated “in network” for purposes of reimbursement, and, therefore, no or low deductible and copay. Of course, one would have to have funds for that upfront, and lack of money is where this circle started. Back to expanding one’s job search skills?

This is crazy – and crazy making behavior – though only as a function of a system that is crazy. You see the problem. I’ll bet dollars to donuts that the insurance payer, when confronted with an actual summons to small claims court, would then find you a therapist – of course, the therapist might be relatively inexperienced or someone who (how shall I put it delicately?) is less motivated than one might hope. Thwarted again! 

As I wrap up this post, it occurs to that while it would be crazy for an individual to seek legal redress – it might even be “acting out,” there might be a basis for an enterprising law firm to establish a system wide “class action” for breach of contract. This will not solve your  problem of getting help in the next two weeks, but it might be a necessary step to benefit the community. You know the insurance company has the money! 

As noted above, your grievance in being over sold unworkable behavioral health insurance may be [is] accurate and real. Nevertheless, I am sticking to my story: the guidance: there is no power in being aggrieved. You still have to do the thing the person in upset or with shaky self-esteem is least inclined to do – dig down, including into your pockets, and find self-confidence – or enough self-confidence for the moment – and invest in yourself because you are worth it!

The one minute empathy training – runtime is actually five minutes, but a personal introduction is included: https://youtu.be/747OiV-GTx4


[1] https://www.washingtonpost.com/health/2022/03/06/therapist-covid-burnout/

Empathy in Time of War – Red Team, Red Team!

Empathy in time of war means two words – Red Team. 

In time of war or threat of war, the power of empathy consists in putting yourself in the shoes of the enemy, thinking like the enemy, and thereby anticipating and thwarting the enemy’s moves. 

“Red Team” also happens to be the title of an eye opening, engaging book by Micah  Zenko, Red Team: How to Succeed by Thinking Like the Enemy (New York: Basic Books, 2015: 298 pp.). Though it has been around for seven years, it is very timely – and, in many ways, a page turner. Time to catch up on our reading. 

“Red Team” is a drill first developed by the US military to fight simulated war game battles in the Persian Gulf or western Europe during the Cold War. In the simulation, Blue Team is the US – “the good guys.”. Red Team is the other side. Zenko tells how the head of the Red Team really was named “Paul Van Riper.” He was.

Zenko narrates Van Riper’s assertiveness in questioning assumptions and how he brought forth the power of the Red Team in conducting asymmetrical battle, refusing to fight on the enemy’s terms, and acting unpredictably. Van Riper also spoke truth to power in calling out the improprieties of going outside the chain of command to “order” the Red Team not to shoot down the Blue Team aircraft. When the simulation was replayed with more equitable rules in place, the results were eye opening. Red Team was winning – decisively. The “authorities” decided to stop the simulation because the Red Team’s successes were getting to be embarrassing to the “good guys.”  

Zenko provides engaging background on Red Team training and thinking at the University of Foreign Military and Cultural Studies (UFMCS). Instructors and participants are taught how to distinguish the traps of social conformity and the “mind guards” and “blockers” who enforce it. The idea is to find and shed a spotlight on one’s blind spots beforeencountering the enemy. Zenko writes:

Students are taught the basics of cultural empathy and semiotics (i.e., the philosophical study of signs and symbols), without which a red teamer cannot identify and understand the values and interest experienced by those within a targeted institution [in the simulation] [. . . .] The four pillars that UFMCS curricula are based upon are critical thinking, groupthink mitigation, cultural empathy and self-awareness (pp. 38. 39).

Each of these pillars maps to a dimension of empathy or a breakdown in empathy (my view, not Zenko’s). Critical thinking counters the breakdown in empathy described as emotional contagion. Groupthink is the above cited conformity that blocks empathic understanding of what is possible for the other group (“side”). Self-awareness is not specific to empathy and is always relevant to understanding others, enabling an empathic response based on the context, not preconceptions. Cultural empathy is precisely taking a walk in the other’s shoes with the cultural appreciation of differences.

Such top-down cognitive empathy is not limited to the military, but is highly relevant to business, sports, and any situation in which information asymmetries exist in a context of zero sum game competition. Business is an obvious application. Most executives think of themselves as intrinsically better than their rivals. Such commitment to being right is all-too-human and, in certain ways, may even contribute to success – for a while. Thus, we generally find it extremely difficult to understand or empathize with rivals (p. 168). Zenko writes some things that are not flattering to executives;

Virtually all of the research that has been conducted on business decision-making finds that executives are distinctly uncreative, deeply myopic, and overconfident both in themselves personally, and also in their company’s ability to beat its competitors (p 235).

While it is easier said than done, the recommendation to perform red teaming promotes the leader as a fearless skeptic with finesse and a willingness to hear bad news and act on it. As a leader, if you don’t mind problems but really hate surprises, then red teaming is the way forward. Another way of saying that is to have your surprises simulated in a Red Team exercise rather than on the battle field, in the market place, or while trying to land the airplane.

Let us take a step back because, with a title such “Empathy in Time of War,” the reader may expect calls “to bind up the […] wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan ~ to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace.” And, to be sure, one can do worse than quote Lincoln’s second inaugural address delivered in 1865 at the end of the American Civil War. Still, this was delivered at the end of the war. The 600,000 were already deceased, and it would soon be 600,001 when Lincoln himself was assassinated. 

Empathy has many dimensions, four to be exact, in both times of war and peace. Different dimensions of empathy come to the foreground in different situations. This discussion looks at all dimensions of empathy, but the one most relevant is that of putting oneself in the other’s shoes. This is the folk definition of empathy – perspective taking – with the other’s motives and context, insofar as one has access to them. Take a walk in the other’s shoes – in this case, the shoes of one who is out to do you no good – the enemy. (An enemy is defined as an individual or institution that is committed to behaving in such a way as to do, enact, or cause physical, emotional, moral, developmental, or spiritual harm to another person or group.) 

Speaking personally, I cannot believe that anyone would try to force a choice between empathy and compassion. The world needs more of each. Why would that celebrity psycholinguist from Yale try to force a choice? (And if you do not know his name, you will not read it here.) Still, if as a thought experiment, one had to choose, go with empathy.

Let us consider a use case. The NY Times reports that Russia has a list of prominent Ukrainian intellectuals, journalists, business persons, politicians, and government officials to be killed or detained as Russian forces sweep across the country.[1] The Red Team empath who takes a walk in the opponent’s shoes knows what he is dealing with – mafia style totalitarianism. What do you do when assassination is central to your opponent’s business model? Don’t expect any mercy. Man the barricades!  The compassionate person may still use the rational part of cognitive ability (and perspective shifting) to arrive at the same conclusion, but the compassionate Red Team decision maker doesn’t really know what to say, at least not from the perspective of compassion. The Russians love their children too (to quote Sting)? It is only a small segment of the Russian regime that proposes to kill everyone in sight? Even psychopaths have a soft spot for children and pets (except that they do not)? This is not a zero-sum game? Actually it is a zero sum contest if the Russian team is attempting to “de capitate” the Ukrainian government. 

It is quite possible that compassion, rational or otherwise, is just not a good fit for certain types of conflicts unless one can rework the situation so it is not a zero-sum game. Once the first stone flies or the first bomb goes off, both compassion and empathy are a lot less useful. Yet never underestimate the power and pertinence of empathy. That is the point of the Red Team initiative – empathy helps one survive in a hostile environment into which one is thrown due to circumstance and live to fight another day. 

It really does seem that Putin and his generals did not Red Team the invasion of the Ukraine, now in its third day (2/25/22)  thing very well, which, of course, does not mean that the Russian forces cannot still flatten Kyiv with artillery barrages. 

Let us consider another use case. Russia threatens to invade the Ukraine – this is prior to Russia’s actual invasion. The Ukrainian team conducts a war game playing both sides. Since the Ukrainians are outnumbered, out gunned, have limited air power, and limited air defense, they are not expected to win. This is of course the reverse of the war games conducted by the US Military where the “blue team” is the USA, and the other side is generally outgunned, which of course why it was so surprising when Paul Van Riper and his red team scored a knock out. In the war game, the Ukrainian Blue Team allows the Russians to enter the country, since they cannot stop them. Then the Ukrainians blow up the bridges behind the Russian Red Team. The explosives need to have been set in advance (which seems not to have occurred in real life). 

The Russians resupply struggles and some of their units run out of gasoline. These are set upon by small units equipped with antitank weapons that were hiding out in decommissioned ICBM siloes. Note that Ukraine was briefly the world’s third largest nuclear power before surrendering their nuclear weapons in 1996 in exchange for security assurances from Russia and The West. (Big mistake. But that is another story.) However, the Ukrainians still have hardened infrastructure, including bunkers, and siloes, albeit empty of missiles. They use this infrastructure to allow the Russians to drive buy, then pop up from the rear and inflict damage. The Ukrainians are defending their homeland, their families, and their lives. Red teaming takes such factors into consideration. Of course, the Russians have elite special forces, but the Russians are also relying on conscripted twenty somethings who have been told that they are going for training but are actually being sent off to war. You can’t make this stuff up. Under this scenario, the Russians expected to accept the Ukrainians surrender in three days. The Russians have enough fuel and resupply for nine days. If the Ukrainians can hold out for ten days, they win.

Update: This just in (12:30 PM CDT 2-27-2022). Unconfirmed reports state that some teenage Russian conscripts (soldiers) are surrendering in tears. Ukrainian authorities are allowing them to borrow cell phones to call their mothers, who are reportedly already lobbying Putin to stop the madness. The power of mothers should not be underestimated! Stand by for update. Meanwhile,,,

Empathic interpretation is a redescription of cognitive, top-down empathy. Engaging the empathic process as cognitive empathy is especially usefully and powerful in the Red Team situation of thinking like the enemy. But do not stop there. Even if one does not have enemies, if one gets stuck and does not have a good feel affectively as to what is going on with the other person, say one’s best friend, then mobilizing an intellectual operation to shift perspective cognitively can free up one’s possibilities for relating and interacting. If I find another person distant or emotionally remote or “on the spectrum,” one may usefully consider what one knows about what the other person had to survive or the challenges the person is facing or what one knows about the person’s role or aspirations or history. All this become grist for the mill of “jump starting” empathic relatedness where relatedness is missing. 

Earlier in the discussion, empathy was described as having four dimensions and the third dimension (3) of empathic interpretation, taking a walk in the other person’s shoes was called out. The other three dimensions include (1) empathic receptivity – be open the feelings and thoughts of the other as a vicarious experience that distinguishes self and other (2) empathic understanding – engage the other as a possibility in his shared humanity (4) empathic responsiveness – acknowledge the other in a form of language or gesture that recognizes the other’s struggle, contribution, or issue. One can easily appreciate how the “bottom up” aspects of affective empathy become less relevant or useful in the context of war. Less relevant, but not completely irrelevant, since, as Lincoln pointed out in the opening quote, even long wars eventually have an outcome and the healing properties of empathy (and compassion) return to the critical path. 

This is highly relevant to psychotherapy, psychiatry, empathy consulting, and life coaching. Only here “the enemy” is not the client, but the person’s disorder, diagnosis, or blind spot. It is truly a “love the sinner but hate the sin” moment (to mix in a spiritual metaphor with the clinical one). Here one must work to form an alliance with the client against an aspect of himself that keeps him attached to his own suffering. Though the suffering is real, it can be sticky and becomes an uncomfortable comfort zone.

It is not appropriate to diagnose public figures based on their crazy statements and behavior, nor do I propose to do that here. Yet there is a concerning parallelism between delusional behavior and the political fabrications (i.e., lies) and fake news of demagogues, fanatics, and fellow travelers of the Big Lie. Politicians as a class have never been known for their rigorous integrity in honoring their word, yet the success that some demagogues have in persuading the people to follow them – often off a cliff – must give one pause. 

Such influence often comes from the would-be charismatic “leader” believing his own lies and fakery. It does lend a force to the fanatic’s message and comes to resemble, without however being the same as, the delusional person’s self-delusion. Though there is too much suffering to bear between where the world is at right now (2/25/22) and some end point = x, the most likely outcome is Putin is finished. Putin is done – a shell of a human being, ravaged by the neurological consequences of power and Covid. We do not know how suicidal he is – think of Hitler in his bunker. Not a comforting thought. The question is whether Putin decides to take the rest of the world with him in a nuclear holocaust, and whether saner minds in the Kremlin can stop him. Red Team that!


[1] https://www.nytimes.com/2022/02/20/world/europe/us-russia-ukraine-kill-list.html

The Empathy Diaries by Sherry Turkle (Reviewed)

Read the review as published in abbreviated form in the academic journal Psychoanalysis, Self, and ContextClick here

The short review: the title, The Empathy Diaries: A Memoir (Sherry Turkle New York: Penguin Press, 2021, 357 pp.) reveals that empathy lives, comes forth, in empathy’s breakdowns and failings. Empathy often emerges in clarifying a lack of empathy. This work might have been entitled, less elegantly, “The Lack of Empathy Diaries.” I found the book to be compellingly written, even a page-turner at times, highly recommended. But, caution, this is not a “soft ball” review.

As Tolstoy famously noted, all happy families are alike. What Tolstoy did not note was that many happy families are also unhappy ones. Figure that one out! Sherry’s answer to Tolstoy is her memoir about the breakthroughs and breakdowns of empathy in her family of origin and subsequent life.

Families have secrets, and one was imposed on the young Sherry. Sherry’s mother married Charles Zimmerman, which became her last name as Charles was the biological father. Within a noticeably short time, mom discovered a compelling reason to divorce Charles. The revelation of his “experiments” on the young Sherry form a suspenseful core to the narrative, more about this shortly. 

Do not misunderstand me. Sherry Turkle’s mom (Harriet), Aunt Mildred, grand parents, and the extended Jewish family, growing up between Brooklyn and Rockaway, NY, were empathic enough. They were generous in their genteel poverty. They gloried in flirting with communism and emphasizing, in the USA, it is a federal offense to open anyone else’s mail. Privacy is one of the foundations of empathy – and democracy. Sherry’s folks talked back to the black and white TV, and struggled economically in the lower middle class, getting dressed up for Sabbath on High Holidays and shaking hands with the neighbors on the steps of the synagogue as if they could afford the seats, which they could not, then discretely disappearing.

Mom gets rid of Charles and within a year marries Milton Turkle, which becomes Sherry’s name at home and the name preferred by her Mom for purposes of forming a family. There’s some weirdness with this guy, too, which eventually emerges; but he is willing and a younger brother and sister show up apace. 

In our own age of blended families, trial marriages, and common divorce, many readers are, like, “What’s the issue?” The issue is that in the late 1950s and early 1960s, even as the sexual revolution and first feminist wave were exploding on the scene, in many communities divorce was stigmatizing. Key term: stigma. Don’t talk about it. It is your dark secret. The rule for Sherry of tender age was “you are really a Turkle at home and at the local deli; but at school you are a Zimmerman.” Once again, while that may be a concern, what’s the big deal? The issue is: Sherry, you are not allowed to talk about it. It is a secret. Magical thinking thrives. To young Sherry’s mind, she is wondering if it comes out will she perhaps no longer be a part of the family – abandoned, expelled, exiled. 

Even Sherry’s siblings do not find out about the “name of the father” (a Lacanian allusion) until adulthood. A well kept secret indeed. Your books from school, Sherry, which have “Zimmerman” written in them, must be kept in a special locked cupboard.  How shall I put it delicately? Such grown up values and personal politics – and craziness – could get a kid of tender age off her game. This could get one confused or even a tad neurotic. 

The details of how all these dynamics get worked out make for a page turner. Fast forward. Sherry finds a way to escape from this craziness through education. Sherry is smart. Very smart. Her traditionally inclined elders tell her, “Read!” They won’t let her do chores. “Read!” Reading is a practice that expands one’s empathy. This being the early 1960s, her folks make sure she does not learn how to type. No way she is going to the typing pool to become some professor’s typist. She is going to be the professor! This, too, is the kind of empathy on the part of her family unit, who recognized who she was, even amidst the impingements and perpetrations. 

Speaking personally, I felt a special kinship with this young person, because something similar happened to me. I escaped from a difficult family situation through education, though all the details are different – and I had to do a bunch of chores, too!

The path is winding and labyrinthine; but that’s what happened. Sherry gets a good scholarship to Radcliffe (women were not yet allowed to register at Harvard). She meets and is mentored by celebrity sociologist David Riesman (The Lonely Crowd) and other less famous but equally inspiring teachers. 

Turkle gets a grant to undertake a social psychological inquiry into the community of French psychoanalysis, an ethnographic study not of an indigenous tribe in Borneo, but a kind of tribe nonetheless in the vicinity of Paris, France. The notorious “bad boy” Jacques Lacan is disrupting all matters psychoanalytic. His innovations consist in fomenting rebellion in psychoanalytic thinking and in the community. “The name of the father” (Lacan’s idea about Oedipus) resonates with Turkle personally. Lacan speaks truth to [psychoanalytic] power, resulting in one schism after another in the structure of psychoanalytic institutes and societies. 

Turkle intellectually dances around the hypocrisy, hidden in plain view, but ultimately calls it out: challenging authority is encouraged as long as the challenge is not directed at the charismatic leader, Lacan, himself. This is happening shortly after the students and workers form alliance in Paris May 1968, disrupting the values and authority of traditional bourgeois society. A Rashomon story indeed. 

Turkle’s working knowledge of the French language makes rapid advances. Turkle, whose own psychoanalysis is performed by more conventional American analysts in the vicinity of Boston (see the book for further details), is befriended by Lacan. This is because Lacan wants her to write nice things about him. He is didactic, non enigmatic amid his enigmatic ciphers. Jacques is nice to her. I am telling you – you can’t make this stuff up. Turkle is perhaps the only – how shall I put it delicately – attractive woman academic that he does not try to seduce. 

Lacan “gets it” – even amid his own flawed empathy – you don’t mess with this one. Yet Lacan’s trip to Boston – Harvard and MIT – ends in disaster. This has nothing – okay, little – to do with Turkle – though her colleagues are snarky. The reason? Simple: Lacan can’t stop being Lacan. Turkle’s long and deep history of having to live with the “Zimmerman / Turkle” name of the father lie, hidden in plain view, leaves Turkle vulnerable in matters of the heart. She meets and is swept off her feet by Seymour Papert, named-chair professor at MIT, an innovator in computing technology and child psychology, the collaborator with Marvin Minsky, and author of Mindstorms: Children, Computers and Powerful Ideas. Seymour ends up being easy to dislike in spite of his authentic personal charm, near manic enthusiasm, interestingness, and cognitive pyrotechnics. 

Warning signs include the surprising ways Sherry have to find out about his grown up daughter and second wife, who is actually the first one. Sherry is vulnerable to being lied to. The final straw is Seymour’s cohabitating with a woman in Paris over the summer, by this time married to Sherry. Game over; likewise, the marriage. To everyone’s credit, they remain friends. Sherry’s academic career features penetrating and innovative inquiries into how smart phone, networked devices, and screens – especially screens – affect our attention and conversations. 

Turkle’s research methods are powerful: she talks to people, notes what they say, and tries to understand their relationships with one another and with evocative objects, the latter not exactly Winnicott’s transitional objects, but perhaps close enough for purposes of a short review. The reader can imagine her technology mesmerized colleagues at MIT not being thrilled by her critique of the less than humanizing aspects of all these interruptions, eruptions, and corruptions of and to our attention and ability to be fully present with other human beings. 

After a struggle, finding a diplomatic way of speaking truth to power, Turkle gets her tenured professorship, reversing an initial denial (something that rarely happens). The denouement is complete. The finalè is at hand. 

Sherry hires a private detective and reestablishes contact with her biological father, Charles. His “experiments” on Sherry that caused her mother to end the marriage, indeed flee from it, turn out to be an extreme version of the “blank face” attachment exercises pioneered by Mary Main, Mary Ainsworth and colleagues, based on John Bowlby’s attachment theory. The key word here is: extreme. 

I speculate that Charles was apparently also influenced by Harry Harlow’s “love studies” with rhesus monkeys, subjecting them to extreme maternal deprivation (and this is not in Turkle). It didn’t do the monkeys a lot of good, taking down their capacity to love, attachment, much less the ability to be empathic (a term noticeably missing from Harlow), leaving them, autistic, like emotional hulks, preferring clinging to surrogate cloth mothers to food. Not pretty. 

In short, Sherry’s mother comes home unexpectedly to find Sherry (of tender age) crying her eyes out in distress, all alone, with Charles in the next room. Charles offers mom co-authorship of the article to be published, confirming that he really doesn’t get it. Game over; likewise, the marriage. 

On a personal note, I was engaged by Turkle’s account of her time at the University of Chicago. Scene change. She is sitting there in lecture room Social Science 122, which I myself frequented. Bruno Bettelheim comes in, puts a straight back chair in the middle of the low stage, and delivers a stimulating lecture without notes, debating controversial questions with students, who were practicing speaking truth to power. It is a tad like batting practice – the student throws a fast ball, the Professor gives it a good whack. Whether the reply was a home run or a foul ball continues to be debated. I was in the same lecture, same Professor B, about two years later. Likewise with Professors Victor Turner, David Grene, and Saul Bellow of the Committee on Social Thought.

On a personal note, my own mentors were Paul Ricoeur (Philosophy and Divinity) and Stephen Toulmin, who joined the Committee and Philosophy shortly after Turkle returned to MIT. Full discourse: my dissertation on Empathy and Interpretation was in the philosophy department, but most of my friends were studying with the Committee, who organized the best parties. I never took Bellow’s class on the novel – my loss – because it was reported that he said it rotted his mind to read student term papers; and I took that to mean he did not read them. But perhaps Bellow actually read them, making the sacrifice. We will never know for certain. 

One thing we do know for sure is that empathy is no rumor in the work of Sherry Turkle. Empathy lives  in her contribution.  

(c) Lou Agosta, PhD, and the Chicago Empathy Project

A Rumor of Empathy in Brené Brown’s Atlas of the Heart (Reviewed)

Review: Brené Brown, (2021). Atlas of the Heart: Mapping Meaningful Connection and the Language of Human Experience. New York: Random House, pp. 304. 

This is three books in one. It is a psychology “how to” book filled with tips and techniques about how to identify and name emotions, feelings, affects, and their triggers and consequences. This inquiry is engaged in order to build connections and community. It works.  People who are able to name their emotions and feeling experience expanded power in getting what they want and need from other people. They also get expanded power in contributing to building meaningful connections and community. 

Second, the Atlas is a research report on what might be described as “crowd sourcing” (my term, not Brown’s) what emotions were important to some 66,625 persons in Brené Brown’s massive online classes in 2013/14. 

Comments and narratives were solicited from the participants. This input was anonymized, color coded, aggregated, filtered, subjected to expert selection as to which emotions and emotion-related experiences were significant in promoting “healing.” The terms were then defined using 1500 academic publications. What falls out of this complex and interesting, though not entirely transparent process, are emotions, emotional triggers, emotional consequences, experiences, lots of experiences, and, well – an atlas of the heart. Readers are all the richer for it. 

Cover art: Atlas of the Heart by Brené Brown

Finally, Atlas is an art book. The text on high quality paper is interspersed with color photos, cartoons, and enlarged quotations of key phrases such as one would find on social media. Take a tip or technique and using large and colorful type, put it on a page by itself: “I’m here to get it right, not to be right [p. 247. Note: there is no close quote. Is that a typo or poetic license?] 

I especially liked the photos of Brown’s hand written journal (or college essay?), saying “throughout our lives we must experience emotions and feelings that are inevitably painful and devastating” (October 9, 1984). Early on, Brené showed promise, and she movingly shares her struggles and what she had to survive in her family of origin. The photo of the dog with the guilty, “hang dog” expression, next to the torn up upholstered chair was genuinely funny. Never let it be said that dogs don’t experience emotions! The artistic aspects will be deemphasized in this review, but the book definitely has possibilities for placement on the “coffee table” to invite browsing and conversation prompts.

The book succeeds in all three of its aspirations, though to different degrees. 

At this point, an analogy may be useful. People are not born knowing the names of colors. Children applying to start kindergarten are quizzed on such basics as the names of the letters (ABCs), their address and phone number, and the names of the colors. The spectrum from red through orange, yellow, green, blue, to violet is indeed a marvelous thing. But no one assumes anyone knows what these distinctions are called without guidance. Why then is it that children (and of all ages) are assumed to know the difference between basic emotions fear, anger, sadness, high spirits, much less more subtle nuanced feelings such as envy, jealousy, resentment, shame, guilt, and so on? 

This is the first challenge that Brené Brown addresses with her book. She provides a guide, an atlas of the heart, to people struggling to identify the emotions and emotion-ladened experiences they are feeling, sensing, or trying to express. Even though Sesame Street, Mister Rogers, and Mary Gordon’s Roots of Empathy, have taken decisive steps to put this aspect of emotional intelligence – x identifying and naming the emotions – on the school curriculum map, large numbers of people of all ages struggle with the basics. What is this feeling that I am feeling? What is this emotion, if it is an emotion, that I am experiencing?

Brown begins with a nod to the innovative body of work on the emotions by Paul Ekman (e.g., Emotions Revealed. New York: Owl (Henry Holt), 2003). Ekman put facial micro-expression on the map as the key to emotions with a seven year plus study resulting in his Facial Action Coding Scheme. According to Ekman, a relatively small set of some seven basic emotions are universal, evolutionarily based, and part of a biological affective program that is “hardwired” into our mammalian biology. These basic emotions (sadness, anger, agony, surprise, fear, disgust, contempt, and maybe enjoyment) get elaborated and transformed in a thousand ways by social conventions, community standards and cultural pretenses. 

The human face is an emotional “hot spot,” according to Ekman. The micro-expressions are the “tells” that disclose a person’s underlying feeling or attitude, regardless of the facial expression the person may be adopting for social display purposes. Thus, a person may smile to express agreement with his friends, but his eyes do not participate in the smile (also called a “Duchenne smile”) and something looks not quite sincere. More concerning, the would-be suicide bomber puts on a calm, happy face, but a micro-expression of contempt momentarily steals across his face, expressing his hatred for the system he is about to try to destroy. Notwithstanding Ruth Ley’s penetrating and trenchant critique of loose ends in Ekman’s approach (see Ley, The Ascent of Affect. Chicago: University of Chicago press, 2017), his approach remains today the dominate design in emotion research. Enter Brené Brown’s contribution. 

For example, Brown’s first constellation of emotions engaged include “stress, overwhelm, anxiety, worry, avoidance, excitement, dread, fear, vulnerability” (p. 2). She quotes the American Psychological Association Definition of anxiety (so we know where that definition came from!): “an emotion characterized by feelings of tension, worried thoughts and physical changes like increase blood pressure” (p. 9). 

Worry and avoidance, not exactly emotions as such, are ways of dealing with the painful aspects of anxiety. Excitement seems to be the physiological aspects of anxiety given a positive spin, valence, or trajectory. Add “negative event approaching” and “present danger” and you’ve got dread and fear. Stress and overwhelm are the again physiological aspects of anxiety, elaborated, for example, by having to be a waitress in a restaurant at its busiest (as was Brown while working her way through college). “Stressed is being in the weeds; overwhelm is being blown.” 

For Brown, vulnerability is a key emotion, since it initially shows up as a weakness to hide, but has the potential, when approached with a willingness to embrace risk, to be transformed into courage, accomplishment, and what people really want from inspirational speakers – inspiration. Never was it truer, our weaknesses are our strengths. Dialectically speaking. 

At this point, I am inspired by Brown’s contribution, and will not split hairs over what is an emotion and what an emotional fellow traveler. Vulnerability is the perception and related belief, thought, or cognition, whether accurate or not, that the person is able to be hurt whether physically or in social status. Keep your friends close but your enemies, including your near enemies such as flatterers and people who ask you to lend them money, closer?

This is a good place to point out that if you really want to “get” the emotions, you may usefully engage with Brown. Definitely. But do not overlook Paul Griffiths, What Emotions Really Are (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997). Emotions may not even be a natural kind. A mammal (for example) is a natural kind, emotions arguably are not. Emotions are a “kludge” cobbled together by the scientific community from an evolutionary affective program, moral sentiments such as righteous indignation in the face of social injustice (a strategic, energetic, passionate reaction to enforce the social convention of promising among distrustful neighbor), and social pretence such as romantic love. 

In a famous one line statement in Martin Heidegger’s magnum opus, Being and Time (1927: H139), he says that the study of the moods, affects, and emotions has not made a single advance since Book II of Aristotle’s Rhetoric (347? BCE). He then proposes that anxiety is the way the world is globally disclosed as a limited finite whole. It is tempting for purposes of being collegial to write, “Finally an advance on Aristotle, Brené!” but she would surely be the first to acknowledge that would indeed be a high bar. Suffice to say, Brown’s contribution is significant and in many ways, impressive. Aristotle is still Aristotle. (See Agosta 2010 in the References.)

Since this is not a softball review, and in spite of saying a lot of interesting things about love, it is not defined in Brown’s book. I applaud Brown’s decision to leave the definition of love to the poets and artists, whether intentionally or by omission. Anyone who tries to define love is likely to end up with more arrows in the back than Cupid has in his quiver.

A definition would be something like Freud’s statement: Love is aim-inhibited sexuality. Or Aristophanes narrative that love is the search for one’s other half and the joining with that half if/when one finds it. Or Bob Dylan’s “love is just a four letter word.” No inhibition here; just hormones all the way down. 

The research challenge present here is how to finesse the canonical interpretation of the data by her team of experts, assembled from her extensive network of colleagues, which data after all is highly survey-like yet without controls, randomization, or rigorous sampling dynamics. The outer boundary of the demographic respondents seems to be the 66K plus followers who signed up for her massive online courses. 

Other features of the book that became wearing for this reviewer were the seemingly endless rhetoric of stipulation, how inspiring to her has been everyone else’s research from which she liberally borrows, always with a slew of well-crafted footnotes, and an epidemic of near enemies to authenticity and courage. This is perhaps inevitable when one has to give 87 definitions. 

Still, the question invites inquiry: Where after all did the definitions of these 87 emotions and experiences really come from? I cannot figure it out. My best guess is “the team” made it up based on reading 1500 research articles and extensive input from the “lead investigator,” Brené Brown. To be sure, Brown is generous with her recognition and acknowledgements of a long list of thinkers, mentors, scholars, spiritual guides, and researchers. She really lays it on thick with how much she has learned from her friends and colleagues; and it indeed must be thrilling to have one’s name called out by a celebrity academic. I am green with envy – not one of the positive emotions – that I am unlikely to make the short list with my seven books on empathy, especially given this review. 

Still, Brown’s contribution is a strikingly original synthesis of existing ideas. I have been known to say, “Research also includes talking to people.” Yet the risk is scientism. The air of scientific authority without the fallibility of human subjectivity and idiosyncrasy. It may not matter. The value lies in the tips and techniques that can be used to build community and connection. If it is scientism, then it is scientism at its best. 

Once again, since this is not a softball review, I join the debate about one of the most troubling of emotions, anger. Brown properly raises the issue of whether anger is fundamental or derivative. Anger often seems to be a front for something else = x, such as shame, guilt, jealousy, humiliation (this list is long). In spite of the dramatic display of being angry, there is something inauthentic about anger. Anger is a burden to those who experience it, and this burden often gets discharged in maladaptive and self-defeating ways by acting out aggression and violence. Brown’s position is a masterpiece of studied ambiguity. I agree. 

My take on this? If you want to see or make people angry, then hurt their feelings. If you see an angry person, ask: Who hurt the person’s feelings and/or did not give the person the respect, dignity, or empathy that the person deserves or to which the person feels entitled. You see here the problem? Entitlement, legitimate or otherwise. 

This was Heinz Kohut’s point: When people don’t get the empathy they need and deserve, they fragment emotionally – and one of the fragments is narcissistic rage (extreme anger). From this perspective, empathy is not a mere psychological mechanism but the foundation of community, connection and intersubjectivity. Donna Hicks makes the same point in Dignity (New Haven and London: Yale University press, 2011). If you see anger in the form of conflict, substitute the word “dignity” for “empathy” – someone has experienced a dignity violation, a breakdown, a loss of dignity, which loss must be restored to have any hope of resolving the conflict (whether in Northern Ireland or the bedroom). 

As regards empathy, Brown engages it along with compassion, pity, sympathy, boundaries, and comparative suffering. Like many psychologists, Brown regards empathy as a psychological mechanism not empathy as a way of being and the foundation of community. For the latter, the foundation of community, like a good Buddhist, she privileges compassion. Nothing wrong with that as such. Heavens knows, it is not an either-or choice – the world needs both expanded empathy and compassion. 

Another point of debate. When Brown says that taking a walk in the other person’s shoes is a myth that must be given up, she is rather overthinking what is a folk saying. Key term: overthinking (occupational hazard of all thinkers and academics). 

“Talking a walk in the other person’s shoes” is the folk definition of empathy. Consider the situation from the perspective of the other person, especially if that individual is your critic, opponent, or sworn enemy. Especially if the latter is the case. 

This is folk wisdom and appreciating the point requires a folkish charity. Key term: charity. It is uncharitable to take a saying and read it in a way that willfully distorts or makes it sound implausible or stupid. Ordinary common sense is required. This is what Brown properly calls a “near enemy” – for example, the way “pity” is the “near enemy” of empathy – a way of dismissing it. 

Therefore, when one says take a walk in the other’s shoes, this is not a conversation about shopping therapy or shopping for shoes. It is a conversation about taking the other person’s perspective with the other’s life circumstances in view in so far as one can grasp those circumstances. If one wants to unpack the metaphor, the idea is to get an idea where the other person’s shoe pinches or chafes. One might argue that the metaphor breaks down if one uses one’s own shoe size. It does. It breaks down into projection, which would be a misfiring or breakdown of empathy. In being empathic, I do not want to know where the shoe pinches me, but rather where it pinches the other individual. 

And that is a useful misunderstanding – as noted, what Brown elsewhere calls a “near enemy.” Empathic interpretation breaks down, fails, goes astray as projection. If I do not take into account differences in character and circumstances, then one is at risk of attributing one’s own issue or problem or emotion to the other person. It may be that we have to dispense with the word itself. “Empathy” has become freighted with too much semantics and misunderstanding. That is okay – as long as we double down and preserve the distinction empathy as a way of being in community and authentic relatedness, what Brown elsewhere calls meaningful connectivity. Still, the word “empathy” has its uses, and if the reader substitutes “empathy” for “meaningful connection” the sense is well preserved in both directions. Okay, keep the word. 

If you have seen Brené Brown’s Netflix presentation (The Call to Courage”), then you know this woman is funny. Not standup comedy funny, she is after all an academic who broke out of the ivory tower into organizational transformation and motivational speaking. She knows how to tell a good story, often in a funny self-depreciating way, that makes one laugh at one’s own idiosyncrasies. Like packing three books for a vacation with the kids at Disney World. Who is one kidding, once again, except perhaps oneself? This approiach does not translate as well into print as one might wish. No one is criticizing Brown for not being Dave Barry, but, unless you are familiar with her “in person” routine, much of the humor is lost in translation. The author is sooo compassionate, that by halfway through the work, I was actually starting to experience compassion fatigue.

However, notwithstanding Brown’s aspiration to rigorous science, and she does have a claim to “big data.” For me, this is not the most valuable part of her contribution. I have been known to say, “We don’t need more data, we need expanded empathy.” The good news is that Brown displays both in abundance. As noted, one could substitute the word “empathy” for her uses of “connection” and “meaningful connection,” the topics of her dissertation and research program, and not lose any of the impact, meaning, or value. Empathy is no rumor in Brené Brown. Empathy lives in Brené Brown’s contribution. 

References

Lou Agosta. (2010). “Heidegger’s 1924 Clearing of the Affects Using Aristotle’s Rhetoric, Book II.” Philosophy Today, Vol. 54, No. 4 (Winter 2010): 333–345. [Download paper: https://philpapers.org/rec/AGOHC-2 ]

© Lou Agosta, PhD and the Chicago Empathy Project

Empathy: Top Ten Trends for 2022

A new year and a new virus variant? Being cynical and resigned is easy, and the empathy training is to drive out cynicism and resignation – then empathy naturally comes forth. If given half a chance, people want to be empathic. The prediction is that with a rigorous and critical empathy (and getting a very high percent of the population vaccinated), we are equal to the challenge.

Setting priorities is an art, not a science. It is clear that empathy is a priority, not a mere psychological mechanism, a practice and a way of being in the world, creating a safe space of openness, acceptance and toleration. In the face of a contagion of Omicron, we need a contagion of empathy. Empathy is contagious. This is one you want to give to someone else, especially someone who seems to need some – all the while being clear to set firm boundaries against bullying, delusional thinking, and compassion fatigue. Keep in mind this list is a top ten “count down,” so if you want to know what is #1, fast forward to the bottom.

Here are my choices and predictions for the top ten trends in empathy for the year 2022.

(10) Delays in the empathy supply chain continue to thwart the expansion of empathy in the community.

This does not  refer to the distribution of cat food or toilet paper. Empathy is available. There is enough empathy to go around, but the empathy is poorly distributed due to politics, in the pejorative sense. For example, most medical doctors are empathic and they become MDs because they want to make a difference in relieving human suffering. But the corporate transformation of American medicine means they are given onerous “capitation” quotas – they must see thirty patients a day. The coaching and push back is based in empathy: It is a breach of professional ethics not to give a given patient the time and attention s/he deserves, and there is only time to see twenty two patients a day. 

(9) Republicans and Democrats will start conducting Empathy Circles where they get together and listen to one another and respond empathically.

And if you believe this, I have a famous bridge in Brooklyn to sell to you. Yet the key to expanding empathy is to drive out cynicism and resignation. Be open to the possibility: On a more realistic note, the responsibility of leadership, whether in the political or corporate jungle, requires teaching critical thinking. Critical thinking includes skills to analyze conflicting articles in the press, chasing down media reports to their sources and assessing the sources for reliability. Most importantly, critical thinking includes temporarily taking the opponent’s point of view, which is a version of cognitive empathy. One does this not to agree with the opponent, but to have a productive disagreement. Empathy brings workability to political, business, and personal relations. It is like oil to reduce friction and produce results that benefit the entire community. (Edwin Rutsch and The Culture of Empathy are going to like that one!).

(8) Being empathic is hard within the Patriarchy. This does not go away.

The dystopia of Patriarchy (systematic unspoken sexism) crushes the empathy and compassion out of all of us. This is an issue because: in the face of so much gender violence (the vast majority of which is men perpetrating boundary violations against women), can we find or recover a shred of our humanity? I do not need to say “shared humanity,” because “unshared humanity” is not humanity.

It gets worse: the company formerly known as Facebook re-launches as Meta and the Metaverse, a virtual reality world. A quote from the New York Times (12/30/2021): “But as she waited, another player’s avatar approached hers. The stranger then simulated groping and ejaculating onto her avatar, Ms. Siggens said. Shocked, she asked the player, whose avatar appeared male, to stop.” He shrugged as if to say: ‘I don’t know what to tell you. It’s the metaverse — I’ll do what I want,’” said Ms. Siggens, a 29-year-old Toronto resident. “Then he walked away.””  (I do not want to give Metaverse its own trend.) [https://www.nytimes.com/2021/12/30/technology/metaverse-harassment-assaults.html] A specific proposal includes: establish a Desmond Tutu style Truth and Reconciliation commission in the Metaverse where perpetrators can tell the survivors what they did and ask forgiveness. Another proposal: establish empathy circles in the Metaverse (Edwin Rutsch and The Culture of Empathy are going to like this one too!).

Recall that instead of a civil war, South Africa and the late Desmond Tutu innovated a Truth and Reconciliation program for the perpetrators of apartheid to tell the truth about what they did to the victims and to ask forgiveness. The survivors then got to say if and/or what they could see there to forgive. That would be a practical, albeit utopian response. I am no fan of forgiveness, which I consider overrated. But I bought Tutu’s book based on the title, No Future Without Forgiveness. How can there be? It both requires empathy and expands empathy. Empathy is both the cause and the effect. I hasten to add that it does not mean being nice; it means establishing firm boundaries. It does not even mean going in with a forgiving attitude, but actually striving for actual truth and reconciliation tribunals, seeing if the truth on the part of the perpetrator(s) can show forth some shred of humanity and maybe, just maybe, highly unlikely though it is, point to a future of cooperation, communication, and community in which both parties flourish. I am not looking for moral equivalence, clever slogans, or easy answers here, I am looking for expanded empathy!

(7) Along the same lines as (8), the so-called “incel” (“involuntary celibate”) gets empathy, backs away from the ledge, gets in touch with his inner jerk and stops being one. (What the heck is an “incel”?)

Now I hasten to add that as soon as a person, whether incel, Don Juan, or one of the Muppets, picks up a weapon, a date rape drug, or proposes to act like the incel and mass killer Elliott Roger, that is no longer a matter for empathy, but for law enforcement.  (For more on what is an incel – this is genuinely new – see the blog post and book review: The Holocaust of Sex: The Right to Sex  by A. Srinivasan (reviewed) (https://bit.ly/3EACv7W).

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. 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.[3] Now I do not want to make light of anyone’s suffering and incels are definitely suffering. Yet it is tempting to enjoy a lighter moment. The incel’s dystopian life points to his utopia, which consists in two words: “Get laid.”  I would add: this applies to consenting adults, and don’t hurt yourself!

(6) Burned out MDs, teachers, flight attendants dealing with delusional angry unvaccinated and sick people don’t get no empathy – how does empathy make a difference?

Set boundaries with and against bullies.  At least initially, establishing boundaries is not about having empathy for the bully; it is about being firm about damage control and containing the bullying. Ultimately the bully benefits even as the community is protected from his perpetrations; but more in the manner of a three year old child, who, having a tempter tantrum, benefits from being given a time-out in such a way that he cannot hurt himself or others. 

Without empathy, people lose the feeling being alive. They tend to “act out”—misbehave—in an attempt to regain the feeling of vitality that they have lost. Absent an empathic environment, people lose the feeling that life has meaning. When people lose the feeling of meaning, vitality, aliveness, dignity, things “go off the rails.” Sometime pain and suffering seem better than emptiness and meaninglessness, but not by much. People then can behave in self-defeating ways in a misguided attempt to awaken a sense of aliveness.

People act out in self-defeating ways in order to get back a sense of emotional stability, wholeness and well-being—and, of course, acting out in self-defeating way does not work. Things get even worse. One requires expanded empathy. Pause for breath, take a deep one, hold it in briefly while counting to four, exhale, listen, speak from possibility.

(5) Nursing schools and schools of professional psychology and medical schools begin offering classes in empathy. 

Yes, it is a scandal you cannot take a course entitled “Empathy Dynamics” or “Empathy: Concepts and Techniques” in any of these schools. I know, because I checked the catalogs [Q3 2021]. I even got hired once or twice to fill in because they could not get anyone else to do it. You may say, “Well, every course we have teaches empathy” and in a sense, it does – or at least ought to. But that is mainly wishful thinking – if you don’t practice empathy, you don’t get it right or wrong – and if you don’t get it wrong, at least occasionally, you don’t expand the skill. 

(4) Combine empathy with critical thinking – the result is a rigorous and critical empathy. 

I got this distinction – a rigorous and critical empathy – from Xavier Remy, who I hereby acknowledge. What does that mean? You think you are being empathic – think again. It may be empathy or it may be narcissism or rational compassion or pity or self-congratulations or a whole host of things related to empathy, but not empathy. How do you tell? Empathy tells you what the other person is experiencing – be open to their experience, understand the possibility – take a walk in their shoes – acknowledge the shared humanity. Empathy tells what the other person is experiencing – critical thinking tells you what to do about it.

(3) Empathy builds a bridge over the digital divide and encounters resistance to empathy online and in-person.

With the pandemic of 2020, many in person services such as psychotherapy, life coaching, empathy consulting, and others went online. When the provider is having a conversation, then an online session is often good enough – and is definitely better than ending up in the hospital on a ventilator. 

As the pandemic wanes and virus variants (hopefully) actually become more like a bad case of the flu (which indeed kills the most vulnerable), the issue becomes when to stay online, meet in person (with fully vaccinated clients), and how to tell the difference? 

The disturbing trend that I see amongst (some) behavioral health professionals is that online “better than nothing” becomes “better than anything.” Going online is very convenient, and since, as the saying goes, inertia is the most powerful force in the universe, providers prefer to stay home rather than risk being vulnerable in creating a space of acceptance and tolerance in being personally present physically. The latter is a definition of empathy in the expanded sense – being fully present with the other person – in person and unmediated by a screen. 

Now when I call out this conflict of interest, generally based in financial and time considerations (and time is money), most providers acknowledge that the commitment is not to online versus in-person, but rather to client service, delivering empathy, and making a positive difference for the client. 

Clients whose mental status is “remote” even in-person in a physical, shared space present a challenge to the therapist’s empathy and are not initially a good choice to work with remotely online. However, after a warming up period the empathic relatedness migrates quite well to the online environment.

“Better than nothing” versus “better than anything” is a choice that needs to be declined: both online and in-person physical therapy coexist and help clients flourish using empathy to bridge the digital divide.

(2) Empathy and climate change. Empathy is oxygen for the soul – individually and in community. 

In a year when the lead off comedy is about the destruction of the Earth by a killer comet – and a metaphor for global warming – empathy is oxygen for the soul. This is supposed to be funny (think of the film Dr Strangelove (1964)), in both cases, featuring an arrogant clueless President, played by Meryl Streep (instead of Peter Sellers). Empathy builds ever expanding inclusive communities – empathy is oxygen for the soul – and the planet.

“Beggar thy neighbor politics, economics, and behavior do not work.” They did not work in the Great Depression of 1929 – they did not work in the Great Recession of 2008. Do not take a bad situation and make it worse. Take a pandemic – now fist fights break out on airplanes, hospital emergency rooms, and retail stores. Hmmm. 

It is a common place that empathy is oxygen for soul. If the human psyche does not get empathy, it suffocates in stress and suffering. Climate change makes the metaphor actual. If we do not drown as the Greenland and Antarctic ice fields slide en masse into the oceans, we are surely doomed to suffocate as the levels of carbon dioxide and heat overwhelm temperate habitats. Most people are naturally empathic and they an expanding appreciation of empathy suffuses the community. 

The problem is that this eventuality does not live like an actual possibility for most people, who cannot imagine such an outcome – for example, just as in December 2019 no one could envision the 2020 pandemic. The bridge between the gridlocked present and a seemingly impossible-to-imagine future is empathy. The empathic moment is an act of imagination. That is the interesting thing about empathy. It may seem like a dream; but the dream lives. It is inclusive. Lots more work needs to be on this connection. For purposes of this list of tasks, this “shout out” will have to suffice. For specific actionable recommendations, see David Attenborough’s A Life on Our Planet, now streaming on Netflix: https://www.netflix.com/title/80216393

And, [drum roll] the number one empathy trend for 2022 is: – 

(1) There is enough empathy to go around – people get vaccinated, boosted, and – get this – people get what seems like a version of the common cold – the pandemic “ends,” not with a bang but a whimper. 

This relates to issues with the empathy supply chain, but deserves to be called out on its own. Granted, it does not seem that way. It seems that the world is experiencing a scarcity of empathy – and no one is saying the world is a sufficiently empathic place. Consider an analogy. You know how we can feed everyone on the planet? Thanks to agribusiness, “miracle” seeds, and green revolution, enough food is produced so that people do not have to go hungry? Yet people are starving. They are starving in Yemen, Africa, Asia – they are starving in Chicago, too.

Why? Politics in the pejorative sense of the word: bad behavior on the part of people, aggression, withholding, and violence. The food is badly distributed. Now apply the same idea to empathy.

There is enough empathy to go around – but it is badly distributed due to bad behavior, politics and interpersonal political in the pejorative sense. The one-minute empathy training? Drive out the aggression, bullying, shaming, integrity outages, and so on, and empathy naturally comes forth. (For further particulars, see the video cited in the References.) People are naturally empathic, and the empathy expands if one gives them space to let it expand. 

Empathy is not a mere psychological mechanism (though it is that too), but is an enlarged concern for the other person – one’s fellow human being on the road of life. Empathy has been criticized for working better with one’s own family than with strangers – but these critics do not know my family – okay, joke – but, even if accurate, the solution to lack of empathy for strangers is expanded empathy. Be inclusive. Be welcoming. Expand the community of inclusiveness. All of this is consistent with people with underlying medical conditions needing to take extra precautions. In that sense, people who get vaccinated, boosted, and mask up, are doing it to keep their neighbors from getting sick. And, so, out our concern for others – our fellow humans – we get vaccinated, boosted, masked-up, and the pandemic ends – but – aaahhh, cooh! – the common cold continues to live on. 

References / Notes

[1] Harlow, H. F. (1958). The nature of love. American Psychologist, 13(12), 673–685. https://doi.org/10.1037/h0047884

“The One-Minute Empathy Training” [https://youtu.be/747OiV-GTx4: May I introduce myself? Here is a short introduction to who i am and my commitment to empathy, including a one-minute empathy training. Total run time: about five minutes. Further data: See http://www.LouAgosta.com]

(c) Lou Agosta, PhD and the Chicago Empathy Project

The holocaust of sex, entitled: The Right to Sex by Amin Srinivasan (Reviewed)


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 Srinivasan 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.[1] 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?[2] 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 “EkelEkelEkel [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.[3]

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. 


[1] Davidson, Donald. “On the Very Idea of a Conceptual Scheme.” Proceedings and Addresses of the American Philosophical Association 47 (1973): 5–20. https://doi.org/10.2307/3129898.

[2]  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]

[3] Harlow, H. F. (1958). The nature of love. American Psychologist, 13(12), 673–685. https://doi.org/10.1037/h0047884

(c) Lou Agosta, PhD and the Chicago Empathy Project

Empathy and the Novel by Suzanne Keen (Reviewed)


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