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Review: Politics of Empathy by Anthony Clohesy

The Politics of Empathy by Anthony M. Clohesy is a compellingly original and innovative engagement with empathy in a political context. 

[Anthony M. Clohesy. (2013). Politics of Empathy: Ethics, Solidarity, Recognition. Oxon, UK: Routledge. 160 pp.]

I begin by expressing my admiration and enthusiasm for Clohesy’s contribution. Encountering this straight up, occasionally understated, frequently dense, work was thrilling. For me it was a page turner, albeit in a scholarly way.  I saw old things in new ways. This book changed my thinking. At the risk of a military metaphor, Clohesy’s work is like two inbound cruise missiles: the first blows off the door of conventional political thinking, the second, blows up the bunker. Not for the faint of heart. 

Clohesy’s big idea is that empathy is about identity and similarity, but it is just as fundamentally about differences. Key term: empathy of differences. This provides a powerful angle on that vexing issue of empathy and ethics, which has the frustrating aspect of being a chicken and egg dilemma. Does empathy found ethics, which seems too “touchy feely”; does ethics found empathy, leaving us with the counter-intuitive sense that the “bad guys” sometimes use empathy; or do empathy and ethics develop separately, leaving us with a non-empathic ethics or a non-ethical empathy? The matter starts to spin.

Clohesy’s idea (continued): the challenging relation between ethics and empathy is that they both emerge

The threat of violence: pushing that boulder up the hill and fearing it is going to slip down again – and it does!

simultaneously in the encounter with difference –  the encounter with the other individual – and the result is – politics. 

I now try to motivate the discussion of this innovation of an empathy of difference and recognition from an eventual encounter with the other individual. Key term: the event of an encounter.

Speaking in the first person, when I encounter an individual who is different than I am, then I have an experience of otherness. However, every person I encounter, without exception, is different than I am, even if there are many similarities between us. The other is different. Period. And, here is the punchline, without the other individual there is no empathy. Empathy is born in otherness. Empathy is a function of otherness. Empathy emerges from and in otherness. Without the other individual there is only myself – oneself – all alone. Empathy is the one thing you cannot do all alone. 

The empathy of differences emerges in encountering the other individual, who resists one’s spontaneity, initiative, and one’s action, pure and simple. This resistance creates a boundary between self and what is other. The attempt to traverse this boundary and overcome the resistance requires an expenditure of effort, force, energy. This dynamic of effort and resistance, strictly speaking, is different than violence, but resembles the “violence” of Sisyphus pushing that boulder up the hill (in the myth), only to have it slide down again. 

Clohesy does not use the term “resistance” and he may not agree with it, but I find I need to get to the key role in Clohesy of “violence,” which is not standard violence. This expenditure of effort, energy, or reaction to resistance, is experienced as a kind of violence. 

As I read Clohesy – and he is extremely subtle on this point – the encounter with otherness inevitably turns violent in some metaphysical and even mystical sense. Or more precisely was already violent. The encounter with otherness thus entails a struggle with otherness. Otherness shows up as resistance to my will.  

Clohesy denies that he uses “violence” in the ordinary sense of the word as to kill someone: “My use of the term “violence” should not be misunderstood. It does not refer to how we kill and oppress each other [….] Rather, it refers to how the fragile interiority of our lives is constituted and sustained by power” (p. 85). 

Clohesy writes: “My central claim is that empathy is important, not because it can eradicate our inherited capacity for violence and cruelty, or reconfigure the deep structural forces that inhibit a transition to a more ethical world, but because it can make us more aware of our violence and cruelty. Thinking of empathy in this way is important because it allows for the emergence of a space in which more ethical relationships between us can develop” (p. 67).

I agree and align: empathy expands our awareness. But if that is all, then we are in even more trouble than we imagine because we humans are an aggressive species, highly territorial, intermittently over- or under-sexed, now armed with weapons of mass destruction. Heavily armed. Absent an intervention, this is not going to go well – indeed it is not going well. Where to go from here?

Clohesy comes into his own with an empathy of recognition. With an empathy of difference, instead of identity politics, we get a politics of recognition. Though we are different, our interests, experiences, and aspirations as human beings are recognized. Our possibilities converge instead of conflict. Our opportunities align instead of clash. We are able to cooperate instead of obstruct one another. We are able to build instead of tear down. 

Talking a walk in the other person’s shoes yields an empathy of differences. One discovers the otherness of the other. The shoes rarely fit right. One discovers where the shoe pinches – but the other’s shoe almost inevitably pinches at a different spot than it pinches one’s own foot, because the other foot is slightly different – longer or shorter than one’s own. 

Clohesy traces the empathy of identity and difference (recognition) through nature, religion, and culture. He invokes and critiques “otherising”: the act of essentializing the identity of others. He cites Kathleen Taylor: we are hardwired for contamination – to experience contamination or a sense thereof from contact with the othered other (p. 8). 

 According to Clohesy, empathic experience of difference allows us to recognize others. This is the encounter with difference: feeling into the life of another person as culture (p. 30).

On a good day, the way we engage with “others” is sufficiently empathic to understand the reasons why their values, norms and practices are often so different from our own. Clohesy is clear that “understanding” is not confused with “condoning” or “agreeing” or “approving.” We must deploy a rigorous and critical empathy that challenges practices and values with which we have issue or divergences. 

Nature brings with it an empathy of identity – essentializing differences which makes them difficult if not impossible to overcome.

With nature, the shadow of tribalism falls over politics – and empathy. The empathy of identity is ultimately that of proximity to family, tribe, local community. There is nothing wrong with that. It is excellent. We would be less than human without it. But it is ultimately derivative and incomplete without an empathy of difference. 

Empathy of identity gives us communalism, which provides a strong internal empathy towards family and friends and those near and dear, but does not recognize the otherness of those remote – does not acknowledge the otherness of those not proximal (those who are remote) – they are not other – they are invisible – pre-other – we may think of them but we think of them in the way of not thinking of them 

Clohesy properly cites evolutionary psychology as to how our first instinct is to favor those of our own tribe, those we see as ‘our own’ (p. 47).  Yet when seen in the context of empathy, the violence of nature requires that we humans must engage with strangers in a spirit of recognition and solidarity, rather than distancing ourselves from them.  Clohesy does not cite Martin Luther Kind but I do: “Learn to live together as brothers or perish together as fools.” Easier said than done. 

Perhaps religion can help. Regarding transcendence, Clohesy’s argument is that we can and should recognize the importance of religion without necessarily having conventional beliefs about it. He makes good use of Karen Armstrong:  Religion “works” when it is appreciated in the context of myth or when it is seen in the context of unknowing. Logos could not undo, assuage, or cure human grief or find meaning in life’s suffering. For that, people turned to mythos or myth. 

What then of myths? Clohesy’s is a slim volume with limited word count, but the religious and political myths are legion – mostly as echoes and allusions. The time of the mythical violence of Hobbes’s “war of all against all” or Rousseau’s State of Nature or Rawls’ Original Position. The struggle of Hegel’s master-slave dialectic, Freud’s band of brothers murdering the tyrant father and inventing an early version of the blessed Eucharist, Cain and Abel, are one-and-all echoed mystically. 

Then there is the matter of The Event. One needs an encounter with The Other to get empathy started. This encounter takes on the quality of a logical reconstruction and even mythical Event. It is like the Big Bang in cosmology. It does not make sense to ask what happened before this Event, because the before/after distinction itself did not exist prior to the Big Bang, which is when time itself emerged, time being the source of the before/after distinction. Clohesy has a lot to say about the Event in the context of empathy and politics (cosmology does NOT come up, but maybe it should). 

It’s not like there is a temporal sequence at this point. The other already has always been a synchronous aspect of oneself. If there is a myth, it is that human beings are unrelated. We are always already related. Definitely.  

At this point, we (and Clohesy) are in mystical or metaphysical time (as near as I can figure out). Empathy is one thing one cannot an individual cannot do all alone. One may be the creator of one’s entire universe – life is literally but a dream – until one encounters the other – then one wakes up to the reality of the resistance of the other – the otherness of the other. I would rewrite certain passages using “resistance” rather than “violence,” but I do not claim this is the truth with a capital “T.”

For many people, life is experienced as pushing a boulder up a hill at which point the boulder slides down and has to be pushed up again (think about Camus and the Myth of Sisyphus). One works all month to put food on the table for the family and pay the rent, then next month one has to start over and do it again. For people who are born rich life is easier, and yet at some point everyone has the experience of pushing that boulder up the hill. 

When pushing the boulder up the hill, it is hard to empathize with the boulder. It is easy to hate the boulder. But that hatred is already a form of negative empathy with the boulder. But in a mythical context one might discover that the boulder was made by the other or is itself the ultimate other.

Though Clohesy does not explicitly say so, I believe he would agree that empathy is the foundation of community, that is, the political community. But it is an empathy of difference, not one of identity. If you go with an empathy of identity, the result is tribalism. “I get you, man, and you get me, bro, because we are [mostly] alike.” But then there are all these different tribes – Democrats, Republicans, Progressive, Conservatives, Christians, Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, Confucians, Quakers, all 193 member nations of the United Nations – not to mention the Chicago Cubs Baseball team. 

Once again, though Clohesy does not explicitly say so, tribalism itself sets in motion a dialectic whereby each individual can belong to multiple tribes with multiple identities and affiliations. Even you get enough tribes and enough overlap between tribal identities, the notion of identity starts to dissolve into a kind of melting pot of  multiculturalism or ecumenical spirituality or market place of competing political ideologies. Even if the melting pot never completely melts, it can at least become a colloidal suspension – cosmopolitanism – where the identities and differences are fine-grained enough not to subvert individual diversity or the aspiration to universally shared values. 

But absent such a dialectic – for example, in traditional societies or insular communities – the empathy within the communal group works well enough but breaks down at the boundaries.

Clohesy’s response to the breakdown of the empathy of identity? He asserts that the protection of culture and the recognition of difference require an account of cosmopolitanism (informed by an empathy of difference). In turn, cosmopolitanism “is able to subvert essentialist conceptions of difference … the most toxic enemy of the politics of recognition” (p. 43).  

Clohesy endorses a cosmopolitanism that recognizes others as equals and opposes committing arbitrary  violence against others in a context of values disclosed to us by the empathic experience of difference (p. 44). Presumably nonarbitrary  violence would be a police man stopping a home invasion by the bad guys. Presumably non-arbitrary violence would align with Max Weber’s definition of the state as having a monopoly over the legitimate use of force. 

The mythico-metaphysical ontological aspects of Clohesy’s contribution emerges with his innovative application of Alain Badiou’s distinction of the Event, itself perhaps inspired by Heidegger’s Vom Ereignis. “Or, to put it differently, our constitution as ethical subjects requires experience of an Event in the form of the empathic encounter with difference” (p. 92). “…[E]mpathy is important in this respect because the experience of difference it makes possible to give form to our ethical lives by allowing us to emerge as beings aware of our finitude, but also aware that we are condemned to commit violence to realize that which is impossible” (p. 93). What could be clearer or more transparent?

Since this is not a softball review, it msut be said, this is as clear as mud – and yet there is something extremely original and powerful going on here. I can make some sense out of it in terms of a rational reconstruction of the encounter of the self and other, in which the other offers resistance to the self thereby bringing the intersubjective world of conditional possibilities and impossibilities into existence. 

Another word of caution: Clohesy’s is work of significant scholarship, and merely well-educated readers without an academic background may find parts of it to be a challenging read, though a valuable one. I think Clohesy has read everything – okay, almost everything, relevant to politics and empathy. An impressive accomplishment. 

My most significant concern is with his use of the term “violence.” As quoted above, Clohesy does not mean “killing” – I believe he means a kind of struggle or resistance or encounter with the otherness of the other than deteriorates into the violence that creates what Hegel called the butcher bench of history. 

Clohesy writes of arbitrary violence. Presumably when Cain slays Abel it is arbitrary violence, but when David slays Goliath that is nonarbitrary? When Pharaoh or King Herod slaughter the First Born that is arbitrary violence? But when Yahweh takes the first born Egyptians that is non arbitrary? How about when Burnham Wood come to Dunsinane, and McDuff kills Macbeth, the tyrant? How about when the posse chases down the John Wilkes Booth, the assassin of Abraham Lincoln, and burn down the barn in which he is hiding? 

In this regard, Clohesy might have done well to deploy Hannah Arendt’s fundamental distinction between violence and power. When political power of a state or regime goes down, then out come the riot police, the tear gas, the rubber (and lead) bullets. “Power down, violence up” – Arendt’s proposal – is as predictable as night following day. 

In conclusion, Clohesy asserts his use of empathy opens the articulation of an account of politics that promotes and reflects a sustainable vision of the good life. He  claims that the relationship between empathy and politics can and should be understood in the context of reciprocity or as elements within a virtuous circle. Clohesy further claims that, because empathy provides use with a sense of our duties to others, it allows us to see politics as something that is enabling, necessary, noble and ethical (102). 

References

Anthony M. Clohesy. (2013). Politics of Empathy: Ethics, Solidarity, Recognition. Oxon, UK: Routledge. 160 pp. 

© Lou Agosta, PhD and the Chicago Empathy  Project

The Limits of Empathy in Politics

If freedom of expression and free speech are flourishing, but no one is listening, then empathy becomes a tree that falls in the forest when no one is present. Empathy does not make a sound – or a difference. 

Even in politics empathy is always empathy. However, politics brings along a whole new set of questions, issues, and challenges by with which empathy is confronted and to which empathy gets applied. The political becomes personal, unsettlingly so at times.

What then is the limit of empathy in politics? This is the limit: the practice of empathy does not work well with bullies, sociopaths, psychopaths, QAnon style delusional thinkers, the criminally insane, and [some] autistic children. 

The prevalence of bullying in the school playground and politics is widespread and toxic; and one should never underestimate the power of empathy. Never. Yet, if your political opponent is behaving like a bully, empathy is not going to be enough. You will need to find supplementary methods – empathy alone will not work on her or him. These hard cases literally will not “get it.” They will not perceive the empathy. They will not experience your empathy. 

Worse yet, some bullies and psychopaths will accept your empathy and turn it against you, the better to control, manipulate, and dominate you. If the practice of empathy is not the way forward, how then does one deal with bullying without becoming a bully oneself?

The answer is direct: set limits. Set boundaries. Thus, far and no further! Stay in your own lane. Get back into your own corner. Stay in your own space. Keep your hands to yourself! In so far as empathy is all about firm yet flexible boundaries between the self and the other, a rigorous and critical empathy is engaged here; but until the boundary is reestablished, empathy cannot come into its own. Indeed once boundary violations occur and safety or security is at risk, the issue is no longer an empathic one – call for backup, implement self-defense measures, or escape and continue the struggle on another day.  

The FBI hostage negotiating team understands that empathy reduces rage and upset; and they use empathy in context for that purpose, though, as far as I know, they do not use the word “empathy” as such. Yet once the bullets start flying, the time for empathy has passed. Send in the swat team. For an illuminating article on the margins of empathy see Elizabeth Bernstein on “Advice From a Hostage Negotiator” (WSJ.com 06/14/2020) [https://on.wsj.com/3ajoYon]. Law enforcement gets empathy. Bad guys watch out. Once again, never underestimate the power of empathy. Never. 

In so far as empathy is all about respecting the boundaries between self and other, one group and another group, boundary setting is relevant to politics and empathy. So if one can reestablish a boundary, then empathy can be reintroduced, gradually, to guide us in how to cross back and forth across the boundary without submitting to bullying, provoking a temper tantrum, or getting stuck in breakdown. 

Yet the shadow of the tribalism falls over empathy in politics. Empathy gets a bad rap because empathy is often limited in contemporary political debates to empathy of identity. However, empathy – and that is the innovation here – empathy is also empathy of differences. Key terms: empathy of identity and empathy of difference.

With an empathy of differences, in addition to identity politics, we get a politics of recognition. 

Empathy shows up when one person encounters the other person and recognizes his or her differences. I hasten to add no one is asking anyone to give up or devalue his or her identity. The suggestion is that the Empathy of Differences lets identities flourish in a space of acceptance and toleration created by empathic recognition. The empathic recognition in turn creates a political arena where people can debate and compromise and get things done. 

Talking a walk in the other person’s shoes yields an empathy of differences. One discovers the otherness of the other. The shoe rarely fits exactly right. One discovers where the shoe pinches – but the other’s shoe almost inevitably pinches at a different spot when it pinches one’s own foot, because the other foot is slightly longer or shorter than one’s own. 

Though we are different, our interests, experiences, and aspirations as human beings are recognized.

Illustration of Republican presidential candidate Abraham Lincoln debating his opponent Steven Douglas in front of a crowd, circa 1858. (Kean Collection/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Our interests and aspirations have areas of overlap – for example, we want our children to flourish; we want to be able to make a contribution to the community; we want to be secure in our private lives and preference. With goals pursued along different paths, our possibilities converge or diverge without conflict. Our opportunities align in parallel or intersect at right angles instead of clashing. We are able to cooperate and embrace workability instead of obstructing one another. We are able to build instead of tear down. 

Once again, there is nothing wrong with the empathy of identity, but something is missing. What is missing is difference. The empathy of identity is ultimately that of proximity to family, tribe, and local community. As noted, there is nothing wrong with that. It is excellent. We would be less than human without it. But the empathy of identity is ultimately derivative and incomplete without an empathy of differences. 

If one is limited to an empathy of identity, the result is tribalism. “I get you, man, and you get me, bro, because we are alike.” No one is proposing to try completely to abolish tribalism, but tribalism is definitely limiting and constraining.

All these different tribes sets in motion a trend, which arguably is tribalism’s own undoing, dissolving its identity – Republicans, Democrats, Progressive, Conservatives, Libertarians, Christians, Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, Confucians, Quakers, all 198 member nations of the United Nations – not to mention the Chicago Cubs Baseball team. So many identities – so many tribes. If one gets and belongs to enough of them, identity starts to dissolve. 

Tribalism itself sets in motion a dialectic whereby each individual can belong to multiple tribes with multiple identities and affiliations. If you participate in enough tribes and enough overlap between tribal identities, the notion of identity starts to dissolve into a kind of melting pot of multiculturalism, communalism, or ecumenical spirituality, market place of competing political ideologies. Even if the melting pot never completely melts, it can at least become a colloidal suspension – cosmopolitanism – where the identities and differences are fine-grained enough not to subvert individual diversity or the aspiration to commonly shared values. 

But absent such a dialectic of dissolution into a melting pot of identities– for example, in traditional societies or insular communities – the empathy within the communal group works well but breaks down at the boundary at which one encounter the other individual and group and their differences.

The innovative point here – to emphasize once again – is that empathy is about identity and similarity, but it is just as importantly about differences. 

Speaking in the first person, when I encounter an individual who is different than I am, then I have an experience of otherness. However, every person I encounter, without exception, is different than I am, even if there are similarities. The other is different than I am. But without the other individual there is no empathy. Empathy is born in otherness. Empathy is born in the difference. Empathy is born in the difference of otherness and in the otherness of difference. 

If that starts to spin, enjoy the ride.  At least you are not alone – as the practice of empathy is the one thing you cannot do all by yourself. Empathy is a function of otherness. Without the other individual, there is only myself – oneself. 

Solipsism is the philosophical position – the illusion – there the entire universe consists of oneself very alone – hence, solus ipse. One is the creator of one’s entire universe – life is literally but a dream – until one encounters the other – then one wakes up to the reality of the resistance of the other – and the resistance of the other emerges from differences – the otherness of the other. You need an other – and the other individual’s differences – to get empathy started. 

Being open to the other person’s feelings, affects, experiences, beliefs, and resonating in tune with the other individual, yields inevitably both the similarity and differences of those feelings, affects, experiences, and beliefs. That is the empathic moment: I realize we are different and that difference lives and becomes accessible in the space of acceptance and toleration between us. 

This brings us again to the limit of empathy in politics. Thus, the fundamental political question for a rigorous and critical empathy in politics is what to do politically with individuals and groups that one cannot stand. 

What to do with individuals and groups who arouse a visceral dislike and antipathy that are acknowledged to be irrational? What to do with individuals and groups with whom one disagrees on policy, practices, perspectives, procedures, customs, or spiritual practices? The tribalism of the empathy of identity is not going to get you of this impasse. 

The reduction to absurdity of the empathy of identity is humorist Tom Lehrer’s satirical song,  “National Brotherhood Week”:  “Shake the hand of someone you can’t stand.” 

Humor and empathy are closely related. One crosses a boundary between self and other in both cases. In humor one crosses the boundary with aggressive or sexual innuendo; in empathy one crosses the boundary with gracious permission and generosity. 

Lehrer predictably succeeds in being wickedly funny, though deeply cynical, as he sings an upbeat tune: “…The rich folks hate the poor folks and the poor folks hate the rich folks. All of my folks hate all of your folks – it’s American as apple pie! But during National Brotherhood Week – Sheriff Clarke and Lena Horne are dancing cheek-to-cheek.” Note that Clarke was a notoriously committed racist and segregationist during the early Civil Rights struggle of the 1960s and Lena Horne was a celebrated African-American singer of romantic smoky ballads – not a likely match up on anyone’s dating site.

While shaking the hand of one’s sworn opponent (or an elbow bump in a pandemic) is always a good start, it is ultimately incomplete. Unless an empathic context of toleration and acceptance is established for the hand shaking, the risk of shaking hands with someone you can’t stand is that one will end up despising the other even more. 

Lehrer’s song ends by expressing the unexpressed elephant in the room “…[Be] nice to people who are inferior to you / It’s only for a week so have no fear / Be grateful that it doesn’t last all year.” 

As the song implies, absent additional training in and work on empathy and critical thinking, the hypocrisy and prejudice live on. The practice of empathy becomes the practice of a rigorous and critical empathy. 

The disciplined practice of a rigorous and critical empathy is on the path to well functioning political community and successful engagement with one’s political opponents and rivals. A rigorous practice of empathy requires critical thinking to guide it, and, in turn, critical thinking requires empathy to open the space of relatedness, acceptance, and toleration of differences. 

This rigorous and critical empathy includes critical thinking. Critical thinking includes such skills as questioning in the sources of one’s facts and beliefs, examining and questioning one’s assumptions, assessing conflicting reports in the media, looking for hidden assumptions and biases, examining one’s own for conflicts of interest, recognizing one’s own mistakes and cleaning them up at once, basic listening skills, taking turns, and seeing if one’s conclusions are actually implied by one’s facts and reasoning from these facts. These are all important. But the number one skill of critical thinking is putting oneself in the place of one’s opponent, competitor, or colleague and considering the alternative point of view – cognitive empathy. Such empathy becomes a priority in a political context.

In conclusion, when empathy becomes a rigorous and critical empathy, then the limits of empathy in politics are the limits of politics, not the limits of empathy.

References

Tom Lehrer, National Brotherhood Week [performed]: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aIlJ8ZCs4jY

© Lou Agosta, PhD and the Chicago Empathy Project

Top 10 Empathy Trends for 2021

“The Year 2020 in review: One Star – definitely would not recommend!” Good things to say about 2020? As Dave Barry quipped, nobody got killed by the murder hornets. Many of my empathy trends for 2020, prepared in December 2019, were blown up on the launch pad by February 2020 as the pandemic accelerated. “Empathy interrupted!”  I acknowledge that I did not see it coming.

The year 2020 was not an ordinary year in any sense. Obviously. The really tough thought gradually dawns on us: “Ordinary” will never  mean the same thing again in quite the same way.

The fundamental meta-trend of trends is to process that there is no going back to the way things were in exactly the way they were in December 2019. 

I ask your understanding, dear reader, in that the pandemic features prominently in the first few trends, but since this is in the nature of a top ten list and the pandemic touches almost everything indirectly, significant trends stronger than the immediate pandemic issues get pushed towards the bottom of the list leading up to #1. So feel free to scan and skip ahead. 

(10) It’s gettin’ crowded under the bus – make room for your neighbor. Empathy as a practice and as a distinction is knocked back on its heels by the pandemic, fights back, and recovers – gradually. We confront the paradox of “embracing” our socially distanced neighbor. There is something about humans that makes us want to breathe on one another. Empathy? Don’t try and hold your breath – even though expanding neighborliness is the ultimate empathy trend. 

Any trends, activities, practices that required getting close to another person physically were under stress if not banned in 2020: breaking bread together in person, hugging your grandma or neighbor, hug therapy [there actually was such a thing – before the pandemic], shaking hand(s) with someone you can’t stand [as Tom Lehrer quipped in his satirical song “National Brotherhood Week”], engaging with the kindness of strangers, dating, occupying the middle seat (or any seat?) on an airplane or bus, participating in person in artistic or sporting activities, in short, breathing with people in close quarters, sharing oxygen with them. All these and more were unceremoniously thrown under the bus in 2020 by the requirement for social distancing. The thing is – it’s getting crowded under the bus. 

Any action, behavior, or practice that takes into account the dignity or well-being of the other person or community expands and empowers empathy. A silver lining: empathy is already “action at a distance,” as I know the experience of the other person because I too experience the experience.

Empathy trends for 2021: how long can you hold your breath?

Empathy in the age of Covid-19 really does mean wearing a mask, practicing social distancing, getting the vaccine (subject to availability). To quote Noah Lindquist: “Wear a mask – think of someone other than yourself, it’s all we ask – get your head out of your [bleep] – no, the mandates aren’t malicious; your conspiracies are fictitious; try not to be so grouchy have some faith in Fauci!” – to be sung to the tune of Disney’s “Be my guest” from The Beauty and the Beast. The part about “thinking of someone other than yourself” is the cognitive empathy moment, which is especially challenging in the face of pandemic fatigue. 

The New York Times (https://tinyurl.com/y9tczw8c) points out that, as President Trump’s trade war with China escalated, the administration all but eliminated the public health partnership with Beijing that had begun after the debacle of the SARS epidemic and was intended to help prevent potential pandemics. 

By pulling out, current and former agency officials say, Washington cut itself off from potential intelligence about the virus, and lost an opportunity to work with China against it. President Trump is voted out of office, while Mr Chairman Xi of China is handing out bonuses and deciding which scientists stay under house arrest.

As my friend David Cole astutely observed, “If you live mostly by yourself in the country, you can afford think about yourself a lot; if you live in the big city, you are forced to think about others.” He did not say “presumably because some of the others might be muggers,” but maybe he didn’t have to. Granted that thinking about others is top down, cognitive empathy, not the full package, still it provides useful training in perspective taking of different points of view and walking in the shoes of others, even if the others can be decidedly un-neighborly.

In terms of creating and expanding inclusive communities, the pandemic has been a significant set back. Empathy is all about being inclusive – take your in-group and reach out to outsiders and include them. The pandemic has made doing that problematic. It is hard to distinguish between being inclusive and a super spreader event such as we in the USA saw over the summer of 2020 with the ten day Sturgis motor cycle rally, which reportedly spread contagion across the upper Midwest. The recommendation is review Robert Pirsig’s influential  Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance prior to the next event.

 (9) Empathy continues to expand its political footprint. Empathy inhabits politics, even when empathy is conspicuous by its absence. Regardless of what one thinks of the individual candidates or economic platforms, the messaging of decency and cooperation reliably gets more votes than bullying and chest thumping. 

The bridge between the political present and a seemingly impossible-to-imagine future is empathy. The empathic moment is an act of imagination. That is the engaging thing about empathy. It may seem like a dream; but the dream lives. It is inclusive. It is consistent with social distancing. Nor does it require agreement. 

Different viewpoints are available with regard to anyone’s action, including that of the one with whom one is least likely to agree. This is not the narrow psychological mechanism of empathy in which one simply reverses perspective with another person. Political engagement is the  attempt to take on the multiplicity of standpoints represented in a given community. Historical empathy is trending, too (see Kohut 2020). 

The greater variety of perspectives that one has present in one’s mind on the present and past while one is engaging a given issue, and the better one can imagine how one would think and feel if one were in their place. This brief note to point to more discussion in the coming year. 

The politics of rage are abroad in the land. When people are spoken to using ethnic or racial insults, they get enraged. When people feel their values and commitments are not respected, they are aggrieved – and they get enraged. Dignity violations are experienced as breakdowns of empathy – and that causes people to get angry; and the anger often escalates into rage. It gets worse – and more ambiguous.

Demagogues tell their constituents that other groups do not respect them, are out to get them. Demagogues take advantage of people’s sometimes legitimate grievances. The result is that the rage is displaced onto those groups. This becomes especially problematic when the dignity violation is imaginary such as a non-existent Pizzagate Conspiracy. 

The emotional contagion that precedes mob action is a demonstrable breakdown of empathic receptivity. The communicability of negative emotions such as fear, anger, and panic are aroused and the humanity of one’s neighbors is denied. The comparison of the intended victims to insects is a distressing symptom of the denial of empathy, followed by dehumanization, followed by violence. 

The first step in eliminating any natural inhibitions on violence is to deny empathy to the intended victims that accompanies their humanity. Wherever one’s opponent is described in devaluing and dehumanizing language, the red flag is out. Get ready for human rights violations. 

Once called forth, rage can be channeled in a number of different directions. If it is channeled into burning down one’s own neighborhood, that is the self-defeating response to breakdowns in empathy. If it is channeled into a lynch mob, it is an appalling human rights violation that must rally people everywhere to the cause of justice. If it is channeled into righteous indignation and civil disobedience, that is an approach with potentially better outcomes. 

The empathy lesson? An empathic response on the part of the authorities will deescalate the rage and interrupt the potential for violence. People in the community use their empathy as a way of data gathering to determine if the authorities initial empathic responsiveness is the real deal or just more propaganda. 

(8) “USPS, yes!” from a song by The Bobs entitled “Drive by Love.” Add logistics and supply chain genius to the list of “unsung heroics” of empathy. It takes something to “get” that on-time delivery is actually a form of empathic responsiveness. 

Neither rain nor sleet nor snow nor dead of night – nor pandemic – stopped the US Post Office from delivering the mail – which included many mail-in ballots. Hats off to the unsung heroes – there are so many of them – in this case, the logistical accomplishments of forwarding the US mail. What happened once the mail got there is – predictably – more politics. 

Yes, of course, the nurses and doctors and first responders are eminently worthy of our recognition. Of course they are heroes – heroes of restoring health and well-being, cheating death, and survival, even as we also acknowledge that the need for so many heroes is a troubling sign that significant social systems are in breakdown. So do not forget to add to the list the unsung heroes of the solution to the pandemic – the supply chain men and women – the logistics guys. I do not just mean the actual delivery folks driving the trucks as in the song “UPS, yes!” I mean the logistics required to distribute two shots of the first approved vaccine at – what? – 90 degrees below Fahrenheit. No trivial accomplishment.

(7) Empathy is distinguished from simulated empathy (again). People will continue to try to listen to one another, and, by practicing listening, will make progress in distinguishing simulated (“fake”) empathy from empathy – gradually. The matter is complex – and troubling.

Social networking platforms (e.g., Facebook in its current form (Q1 2021)) are unmasked as the ultimate training ground for simulated empathy, a synonym for fake empathy and un-listening. 

In the section late in Shoshana Zuboff’s book (The Age of Surveillance Capitalism (Hachette Press)) on “Homing to the Herd,” Zuboff writes: 

“[Facebook’s] operations are designed to exploit the human inclination toward empathy, belonging, and acceptance. The system tunes the pitch of our behavior with the rewards and punishments of social pressure, herding the human heart toward confluence as a means to other’s commercial ends.” 

I would spit hairs and say, “simulated empathy.” However, the basic point is valid. The user ends up “over sharing” personal information in a kind of tranquilized state of semi-hypnotic psychic numbing similar to that induced in gambling casinos by blinking lights and bells. On FB, you are not the customer – you are the product. 

As bad as that may be, it gets worse. The damage to one’s humanity is already done when one’s personal experience is treated as raw material for the surveillance capital’s revenue model. Facebook and Google users – you and me – are not customers; we are the raw material. The customers are the advertisers, corporations with services and goods, whose selling requires a guaranteed outcome. Machine intelligence operating on big data at hyper-scale has within view behavioral modification the results of which B. F. Skinner, wizard of operant conditioning, can only have dreamed. You do not so much search Google as Google searches you. With that in mind, the next up trend is –

(6) Big brother is overtaken by Big Other without, however, decisively expanding empathy. Empathy scores [some] points against Big Other’s fake news, alternative facts, dangerous half truths, total nonsense, and simulated empathy, but the back-and-forth continues. 

The opponent is no longer “Big Brother” (as in Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984) but “Big Other” (first identified by S. Zuboff in her book (The Age of Surveillance Capitalism (Hachette Press)). Millions of Americans and their representatives in the US Congress subscribe to the fake news promoted by Big Other that the 2020 election was “rigged”; but millions more reject alternative acts, dangerous half truths and total nonsense. 

While fake news is perhaps as old as the Trojan horse in Homer’s Iliadand the warning about Greeks bearing gifts, social networking takes the risks and damage to a new level. Fake news aligns in detail with surveillance capitalism (see Zuboff cited above), because fake news maximizes social conflict, controversy, and most importantly – clicks.

Big Other is itself a Trojan horse appearing to be free search and free digital services. However, without advance in listening skills – i.e., the “free-ness” is illusory. It is more like the first settlers handing out blankets that were used to swaddle small pox patients to the indigenous peoples.

Just as the science of physics and engineering enabled industrial capitalism to master nature, a vision of socialphysics (Alex Pentland’s book of the same name features prominently) is being implemented in big data and machine intelligence to implement behavior modification. Thus Zuboff: “Social media is designed to engage and hold people of all ages, but it is principally molded to the psychological structure of adolescence and emerging adulthood, when one is naturally oriented toward the ‘others,’ especially toward the rewards of group recognition, acceptance, belonging, and inclusion.”

Big Other can mimic empathy, all the while capturing and aggregating the responses such that the predictive modeling can suggest targeted advertisements. Freedom of speech and self-expression continue to flourish. No one is listening.

As noted, social media provide the appearance of connectedness and intimacy – a simulated empathy – while actually perpetrating the equivalent of gossip, social climbing, narcissistic self promotion, and out-and-out deception. Ultimately the idea is to get you to engage in a transaction to buy, use, and consume Big Other’s product or service.

The proper function of education is to promote training in perspective taking (empathy), critical thinking, argumentation, distinguishing fact and fiction, assessing the reliability of reportage in the media, assumption questioning, and how to quote facts in context. These get traction in 2021 and play an expanded role in the school curriculum(s), even as in-person learning makes an all-too-slow comeback. 

(6a) True Believers (TB) are moved by empathy, not the facts, to abandon their illusion(s). The illusion/delusion holds the personality together; sp it is impervious to facts or arguments. Try some empathy? The story that one tells to other people is nothing in comparison with the story that one tells oneself. (Here “story” equals “belief system” or even “fiction.”)

You know the TB as the one who Doubles Down on his illusion when things do not go his way. Key term: Double Down. For example, when the space ship does not arrive from Alpha Centauri to take the TBs to the promised land (or your candidate does not win the election), does the TB inquire: Maybe I was mistaken about some of my facts? Maybe I made a wrong assumption? Or perhaps my messaging was a tad off? No! The TB doubles down. “We musta bin cheated!” “We was robbed!” 

No marshaling of facts, no amount of logical argument, whether overwhelming or debatable, makes a difference. It does no good – it makes no difference – to take the belief system away from the True Believer. The True Believer is not engaging any alternative point of view. Why not?

The answer is direct: the story, belief system, or ficiton is what is holding the True Believer’s self, his or her personality, together. Take away the belief system and the personality falls apart. The person experiences emotional fragmentation, anxiety, and stress. This is why the True Believer becomes angry, starts to shout, escalates to rage in the face of countervailing arguments and facts. The TB experiences a narcissistic injury that threatens the coherence of the TB’s personality. 

The secret of empathic relating to the True Believer is not agreeing or disagreeing, undercutting or sidestepping, antidepressants or antipsychotics, the secret is the relationship the empath has to his own inner True Believer. If you can find an area in which you really are a True Believer, then it is likely you can relate to a True Believer in a conversation for possibility in which both individuals are left in integrity, whole and complete. It does sometimes happen that when the True Believer gets the empathy he or she needs to feel whole and complete, the TB is able to “stand down,” “back away from the ledge,” and rejoin the diverse space of acceptance and tolerance of multiple points of view. It happens, but it takes a lot of work. 

(5) Empathy goes online – and stays there. This is one of the few trends from 2020 that were on target – and the trend continues. Here “empathy” refers to the gracious and generous listening that occurs in therapeutic counseling, behavioral health, life coaching, and empathy consulting, to individuals and organizations.

In particular, while nothing can substitute for an in-person conversation for possibility to shift out of emotional stuck-ness, after two people get to know one another, an online conversation is a good option in case of relocation, bad weather, unpredictable scheduling dynamics – or an especially infectious pandemic. The genie of online therapeutic conversations is out of the bottle, and not going back in. 

Psychotherapy invokes a virtual reality all of its own – even without cyber space. This is especially the case with dynamic psychotherapy that activates forms of transference in which one relates to the therapist “as if” in conversation with a past or future person or reality, the latter not physical present. Indeed, with the exception of being careful not to step in front of a bus while crossing the street on the way to therapy, we are usually over-confident that we know the reality of how our relationships work or what people mean by their communications 

Think about it: Those who complain about the lack of reality in a conversation over Zoom may usefully consider the amount of fiction and fantasy in any psychodynamic conversation, full stop. Never was it truer that meaning – and emotions such as fear – are generated in the mind of the beholder.

(Note: This trend is in part an excerpt from: Lou Agosta’s article “Empathy in Cyberspace: The Genie is Out of the Bottle” in Theory and Practice of Online Therapy: Internet-delivered Interventions for Individuals, Groups, Families, and Organizations edited by Haim Weinberg and Arnon Rolnick. London and New York: Routledge: To learn more about the complete book, click here: Theory and Practice of Online Therapy [https://tinyurl.com/yyyp84zc])

(4) Empathy in law enforcement. The police struggle with policing themselves – succeeding in many cases, failing dramatically in others – and, as a result, we all struggle. I acknowledge the dedication, commitment, and hard work of first responders. And yet the police [need to] do a better job of policing themselves. Expanded empathy training gets traction.

The trend to train the police in empathy to deescalate potentially violent situations continues to get traction – and is making a positive difference in many communities – but the list of people of color that end up dead after an encounter with the local constabulary also continues to grow. Disturbing – verrry disturbing. More progress is needed. 

This is definitely a “hot button” issue. A coherent position is hard to find amid the shouting. I am a radical moderate. I am an extreme centrist. If my house is being burglarized or on fire, I am definitely not  going to call a hippie. Heck, a couple already live there [okay, a bad joke].

However, the trend is to promote accountability – and prevent defending – I almost said “defunding” – and in the case(s) of a few “bad apples” by eliminating organizational obstacles. It lacks credibility that a police union would never  expel one of its members for violating the human rights of a citizen according to the union’s own code of police conduct. The union has a code of conduct that aligns with promoting human rights, right? I acknowledge: The problem is that one person’s bad apple is another’s dedicated professional. However, when unarmed civilians end up taking bullets fired by the police, I assert that we can all tell the difference. 

This is not primarily a public relations problem – it is a human rights one. The police struggle to police themselves, and so, absent expanded empathy in the community with the community for the community, we all struggle.

Communities will benefit from expanded empathy on the part of the law enforcement. However, there is another reason that indicates this trend has traction. The public does not always hear about the multi-million dollar financial settlements that municipalities are required to pay for wrongful death or excessive use of force, because these agreements come with rigorous confidentiality clauses. 

Police who lack training turn out to be extraordinarily expensive to the taxpayers. In this context, “lack of training” does not mean insufficient time taking target practice. It means the need for practice in putting oneself in the other person’s shoes and considering possibilities for conflict resolution, de-escalation, and community building. In short, empathy is an important part of the gear deployed by law enforcement as the warrior cop, who will still be needed in extreme situations, gives way to community policing. Really, is there any other kind?

(3) Expanded empathy in the struggle against domestic violence. Men will find their voice and speak out even more loudly and provide leadership against domestic violence to those of their own gender who just do not get it. Victims and survivors of intimate partner violence face expanded risks if they have to “shelter in place” in the pandemic with the perpetrator(s). 

This is grim – beyond grim. Once again, this is not new news but has been just beneath the surface and underreported because it is so confronting. While women have provided the leadership and will continue to do so, powerful men will step up and provide guidance to their fellow about proper boundaries and respect for them in relationships. This is ongoing. What is new: powerful men step up and speak out and provide leadership among men in establishing respect for boundaries in creating communication, affection, and affinity.

For data- and empathy-based innovations that have occurred in the past year in the fight against domestic violence see No Visible Bruises: What We Don’t Know About Domestic Violence Can Kill Us, New York: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2019. Some sixty percent of domestic violence (DV) victims are strangled at some point during an abusive relationship (p. 65): Big red flag that the perpetrator is escalating in the direction of homicide/Femicide. 

Turns out that only some 15% of the victims in one study had injuries visible enough to photograph for the police report (p. 66). Most strangulation injuries are internal – hence, the title. Good news/bad news: The Fatality Review Board is an idea that is getting attention with law enforcement and the local states attorney function. More progress and action is needed in this area. 

(2) A rumor of empathy in Big Pharma. The rumor is validated. After the debunking of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) completed by Chris Lane (2007) and the disappointing DSM 5th edition (2013), Big Pharma has a real opportunity to redeem itself in the eyes of the community. There is probably no other group of organizations on the planet that can do it. A crash project. High risk. Utterly urgent. The Covid-19 vaccine gets into people’s arms. Vaccine deniers say: “Oh, how I wish I were already experiencing the minor side effects of the shot!”

No, not a new psychotropic intervention for shyness, social anxiety, or hording. A vaccine(s) against Covid-19. The stakes are high, and it actually required [procedural] innovations at the FDA, CDC, and the US Congress (a high bar indeed) to enable treatments to be trialed without the usual ten-year plus long protocols (which are usually appropriate but not in this case). Fingers crossed (as of this writing 12/2020). Seems to be working – albeit gradually. Here me say it again (tongue in cheek): Don’t be so grouchy; have faith in Fauci! We are all most beholden’.

(2a) Empathy intersects with the struggle over climate change. 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. 

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

(1) Remove the obstacles to empathy such as cynicism and bullying—and empathy comes forth. Remove the resistances to empathy and empathy naturally and spontaneously expands. Most people are naturally empathic and they an expanding appreciation of empathy suffuses the community. 

The one-minute empathy training is trending: Eliminate the obstacles to empathy and a space of acceptance and toleration spontaneously emerges.

Most people do not sufficiently appreciate this: people are born with a deep and natural capacity for empathy, but they are also born needing to learn manners, respect for boundaries, and toilet training. Put the mess in the designated place or the community suffers from diseases. People also need to learn how to read and do arithmetic and communicate in writing. But there is a genuine sense in which learning to conform and follow all the rules does not  expand our empathy or our community. It does not help the cause of expanded empathy that rule-making and the drumbeat of compliance are growing by leaps and bounds.

The work at hand? Remove the blocks to empathy such as dignity violations, devaluing language, gossip, shame, guilt, egocentrism, over-identification, lack of integrity, inauthenticity, hypocrisy, making excuses, finger pointing, jealousy, envy, put downs, being righteous, stress, burnout, compassion fatigue, cynicism, censorship, denial, manipulation, competing to be the biggest victim, insults, injuries to self-esteem, and narcissistic merger—and empathy spontaneously expands, develops, and blossoms. Now that is going to require some work!

Teaching empathy consists in overcoming the obstacles to empathy that people have acquired. When the barriers are overcome, then empathy spontaneously develops, grows, comes forth, and expands. There is no catch, no “gotcha.” That is the one-minute empathy training, pure-and-simple. 

Selected Bibliography

Shoshana Zuboff, 2019, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight For the Human Future at the New Frontier of Power. New York: Public Affairs (Hachette).

Tom Kohut. (2020). Empathy and the Historical Understanding of the Human Past. London: Routledge (T&F). 

Louise Snyder. (2019). No Visible Bruises: What We Don’t Know About Domestic Violence Can Kill Us, New York: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2019.

Lou Agosta. (2012). A Rumor of Empathy at Apna Ghar, the Videohttps://tinyurl.com/y4yolree [on camera interview with Serena Low, former executive director of Apna Ghar about the struggle against DV] 

Lou Agosta. (2015). Chapter Four: Treatment of Domestic Violence in A Rumor of Empathy: Resistance, Narrative and Recovery in Psychoanalysis and Psychotherapy. London: Routledge.

Lou Agosta and Alex Zonis (Illustrator). (2020). Empathy: A Lazy Person’s Guide. Chicago: Two Pairs Press.

Okay – have read enough and want to order the book Empathy Lessons to learn more about expanding my empathy: I want to order the book HERE.

© Lou Agosta, PhD and the Chicago Empathy Project

Empathy and the True Believer

Empathy is going to do what it always reliably does: listen. So when empathy encounters the True Believer, empathy is going provide a gracious listening. 

As empathic listeners, we start with an extreme case. We are listening to a narrative about how the space ship was supposed to arrive from Alpha Centauri to take the members of the group (or cult) to the Promised Land; but it did not arrive. As empathic listeners, we find ourselves listening to a narrative about how an election was stolen. However, so far, the recounts fail to surface the theft. We are listening to a narrative of how some racial or ethnic minority stabbed the nation of citizens in the back; but the supposed perpetrators are noticeably without power or influence consistent with such an action or result. We are listening to a discourse about how prayer makes us whole and faith fulfills our aspirations; but we experience prayers as unanswered (as if no one was listening) and faith as indistinguishable from the outcome of our own persistent efforts in a probabilistic universe of random events. 

It does no good – it makes no difference – to take the belief system away from the True Believer. No marshaling of facts, no amount of logical argument, whether overwhelming or debatable, makes a difference. The True Believer is not engaging  any alternative point of view. Why not? 

The answer is direct: the belief system is what is holding the True Believer’s self, his or her personality, together. Take away the belief system and the personality falls apart. The person experiences emotional fragmentation, anxiety, and stress. This is why the True Believer becomes angry, starts to shout, escalates to rage in the face of countervailing arguments and facts. He experiences a narcissistic injury that threatens the coherence of his personality. 

The work of empathy in the face of the True Believer consists in standing for an inquiry into one’s belief systems. If empathy is a belief system, then we inquire into that system too. Such a belief system – if we may tentatively call it that – opens out into a space of acceptance and tolerance. It is a belief system which is skeptical about belief systems. It is a belief system committed to inquiry. Key term: inquiry. Never stop questioning. Never stop listening. 

Empathy creates a commitment to acceptance, toleration, and the ability to walk in the other person’s shoes. The True Believer is committed to a belief system, conformity, and marching together in step. 

Since it would require an entire book to define The True Believer, I will just give a definition by example. It is a high probability you are dealing with a True Believer when, in the face of a setback to the Belief System (whether religion, political party, social movement, or spiritual cause) the adherent to the cause Doubles Down. Key term: double down. 

For example, the end of the world does not arrive on the predicted date as predicted by the leader, the prophet, and the belief system. The space ship does not arrive from Alpha Centauri to take the True Believers to the promised land. You know the authentic True Believer when he experiences a set back to the movement, cause, and belief system to which he is devoted. Do the adherents of the belief system say: Oops, we might have overlooked something – some facts or alternative point of view; we might have made a miscalculation; or some of our assumptions require improvement? We might have made a mistake or two or overlooked a crucial detail? No! The True Believers double down. 

What went wrong? Sometimes the fault is internal. The faith of the True Believer was not strong enough. We must confess our sins. Preferably, we must confess our failings in a public show trial and be martyred. However, preferably the fault is external. Outside agitators, the unwashed masses from a foreign land, a racial or ethnic minority stabbed us in the back. 

Alternative facts, dangerous half-truths, and total nonsense are marshaled to account for the setback. “We was robbed!”  “Betrayal!” The vote count shows we lost by five million votes; but those votes were invalid votes, stolen votes, non-existent votes, and, therefore, irrelevant. Anything except the simple fact, we screwed up (but how?) or our game plan did not survive the encounter with the real world situation at a given time and place. Thus, the definition by example of the True Believer.

You, dear reader, can see where this is going. How does empathy or an empathic person engage with the True Believer? If the True Believer takes a position that rules out an inquiry into the advantages and disadvantages, the benefits and draw backs, of one’s own or competing belief systems, then the conversation does not get going. How to get the conversation going?

Rarely is empathy irrelevant but there are some situations in which empathy is less (or more) useful than other situations. For example, if someone is throwing rocks, then understanding the rock throwing person is expressing his sense of grievance in a bad way is less useful than stopping them from throwing rocks. 

Things such as self-defense, security, safety, basic well being are necessary aspects of the situation for empathy to make a difference. The True Believer is different from the bully, the psychopathic, the psychotic, or the fanatic, whether religious or political – but sometimes not that much different. 

The guidance from empathy in the face of bullying, psychopathic manipulations, or rock throwing is to set limits. Likewise, with the True Believer. Key term: limit setting. Empathy is useful in deescalating aggression, hostility, violence, and other forms of acting out; but once the first rock flies through the air, the situation is no longer one about empathy. It is about reestablishing safety, security, and a space of acceptance and tolerance where empathy can actually make a difference. As noted, empathy is going to give the True Believer a good listening.

It is sometimes said that there is a little bit of larceny in all of us. That little bit of larceny is useful in empathizing with the bad boy or girl. That little bit of larceny is useful in figuring out what might have motivated a given individual’s antisocial behavior. 

The same idea applies to empathizing with the True Believer. If you can relate to your own inner True Believer, then you might be able to engage with the True Believer’s in the community to understand what makes them tick. 

The challenge is that in relating to your inner True Believer, you are not really relating to an individual, you are relating to a belief system, some of the principles of which may be useful and sensible, others less so.

The secret of empathic relating to the True Believer is not agreeing or disagreeing, undercutting or side-stepping, antidepressants or antipsychotics, the secret is the relationship the empath has to his own inner True Believer. If you can find an area in which you really are a True Believer, then it is likely you can relate to a True Believer in a conversation for possibility in which both individuals are left in integrity, whole and complete. 

How shall I put it delicately? An authentic patriot can be willing to die for his [or her] country and yet not be a True Believer. But can he be willing to kill for his country without being a true believer? This is hard to finesse. When challenged, True Believers escalate in the direction of a fanaticism of hostility and aggression, even if they stop short of the death penalty. 

I hasten to add that national defense is a valid function of the national armed forces, and I honor service men and women, first responders, and those committed to homeland security. Following orders to shoot the enemy on command of the commanding officer does not make one a True Believer. But it does make one a cog in a mechanism of defense, which in most cases requires a therapeutic recovery process to regain lost aspects of one’s humanity upon discharge from the armed forces. 

Is the True Believer like the bully, the psychopath, or the perpetrator of domestic violence, for whom the more expanded empathy you give the person, the more ways the True Believer has to manipulate and abuse you?  Some of the best parts of empathy – reduced stress, emotional regulation, self soothing – do not get deployed because empathy must put all its energy into setting limits to the boundary issues and violations. 

The fall back position of empathy – which paradoxically ceases to be empathy – is to have compassion or even pity for the misguided soul who needs such a delusional system to feel or maintain a grip on reality. Absent successful boundary setting using empathy, the recommendation is to dial 911 and summon emergency services to restore order and tranquility (a desperate measure indeed, given that the police may arrive with guns out – how is that serving and protecting?).

I anticipate an objection at this point. The devil’s advocate says: But, Lou, are you not a True Believer in empathy? The answer is direct: No. I am committed to undertaking an inquiry into empathy. Empathy has strengths and weaknesses. It can misfire or it can succeed. It is susceptible of improvement in many situations. I hasten to add that I am also committed to using empathy to benefit people and organizations in the community. I am a shameless and unabashed promoter of the value of empathy. I will go to the matt on this one. 

However, even if you do not believe in empathy, are persuaded that empathy is over-rated, or prefer rational compassion, I will still try my best to give you a good listening and to use empathy to make a positive difference in our relationship. No doubt more needs to be written about empathy and the True Believer. The politics of empathy is deep and complicated. There is a lot at stake. Literally.

This may indeed be a “love the sinner but hate the sin” moment. But such a moment is the positive part of empathic spirituality without which fanaticism causes spirituality to go off the rails and burn people at the stake. So if you find yourself or your neighbor gathering kindling for a bonfire, make sure it is to roast one’s own idols, pretensions, and vanities, not your neighbor. 

Bibliography

Eric Hoffer. (1951). The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements. New York: Harper Perennial.

(c) Lou Agosta PhD and the Chicago Empathy Project