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Empathy as presence – online and in shared physical space

Review: Gillian Isaacs Russell, (2015), Screen Relations: The Limits of Computer-Mediated Psychoanalysis and Psychotherapy. London: Karnac Books: 206 pp.

Granted in-person physical meetings are impossible when the health risks become prohibitive, that is no longer the case (Q3 2021), at least temporarily. Therefore, the debate resumes and continues about the trade-offs, advantages and disadvantages, of online telecommunication (“Zoom”) mediated therapy sessions versus physical in-person work.[1]

Gillian Isaacs Russell’s book in a powerful and important counterforce to trending technological optimism that online therapy is the wave of the present and of the future. This optimism compels those of us who are digital immigrants to align with digital natives in privileging screen relations over physical presence in the same space in engaging in psychoanalysis and psychotherapy. By definition, “digital immigrants” were educated prior to the explosion of the Internet (and world wide web on) or about the year 1999 and “digital natives” came up with “online everything” such as pouches for their smart phones in their parents’ baby strollers. 

The cyber rush to judgment is slowed if not stopped in this hard-hitting critique of online screen relations. Isaacs Russell wisely asserts skepticism that meeting online (even in a pandemic) and meeting physically in person are “the same.” One may eventually go ahead with online therapy in many situations (especially in a pandemic), but if you are hearing “they are both the same” that is reason for a good healthy skepticism that the purveyor of the online approach is being straight with you. One also needs to be skeptical as online therapy starts out being “better than nothing” only quickly to slide in the direction of “better than anything.” As usual, the devil – and the transference – is in the details, and Isaacs Russell provides insight in abundance to the complex issues. 

Speaking personally, in my own work on empathy, published in 2015, the same year as Isaacs Russell’s book, my Preface concludes with the ontological definition of empathy as “being in the presence of another human being without anything else added” – anything else such as judgment, evaluation, memory, desire, hostility, and the many factors that make us unavailable to be in relationship (Agosta 2015; see also 2010). Though Isaacs Russell uses the word “empathy” in a specific psychological sense, I would argue that her work on “presence” is consistent with and contributes to an enlarged sense of empathic relatedness that builds community.   

Isaacs Russell has interview psychoanalysts, clients (clients), over several years and reports in a semi-ethnographical style on the trade-offs between online mediated relations and those which occur in the same physical space, such as a therapist’s consulting room. Her arguments and narratives are nuanced, charitable, and multi-dimensional. The reader learns much about the process of dynamic therapy regardless of the framework. 

What she does not say, but might usefully have called out, is that the imperative is to keep the treatment conversation going, whether online or physically present in person. When someone I am meeting with in-person asks for an online session, after controlling for factors such as illness of a child at home or authentic emergencies, then my countertransference may usefully consider the client’s resistance to something (= x) is showing up. In contrast, when an online client asks to come into the office, one may usefully acknowledge that the individual is deepening his commitment to the work. In neither case is this the truth with a capital “T,” but a further tool and distinction for interpretation and possibility in the treatment process. 

Isaacs Russell makes the point (and I hasten to add) that no necessary correlation exists between the (digital) generation divide and enthusiasm (or lack thereof) for online screen relations of baby boomers versus millennial or gen-Xers. Some digital immigrants are enthusiastic about online therapy, whether for authentic professional reasons, including economic ones, or to prove how “with it” they are, and growing numbers of digital natives are becoming increasingly skeptical about the authenticity of online relations, craving physical presence without necessarily being able to articulate what is missing. 

Isaacs Russell provides an informative and wide-ranging briefing on developments in baby watching (child development research). Child development is a “hands on” process of physically relating to another emerging human being. Her point (among many) is that we humans are so fundamentally embodied that in some deep sense we are out of our element in reducing the three dimensional, heat generating, smell-broadcasting mammalian body to a cold two-dimensional video image. Though she does not do so, Isaacs Russell might usefully have quoted Wittgenstein: The human body is the best picture of the soul (1950: 178e (PPF iv: 25)). As the celebrity neuroscientist A. Damasio notes: [We need] “the mind fully embodied not merely embrained.” What then becomes of the relatedness when the body becomes a “head shot” from the shoulders up on a screen?  

The answer is to be found in the dynamics of presence. Key term: presence. Physical presence becomes tele-presence and the debate is about what is lost and (perhaps) what is gained in going online. The overall assessment of Isaacs Russell is that, not withstanding convenience and the abolition of distance, more is lost therapeutically than gained. 

Although Isaacs Russell does not cite Wittgenstein, Heidegger, Husserl, and Merleau-Ponty loom large in her account of the elements of presence. Much of what Isaacs Russell says can be redescribed as a phenomenology of online presence, including the things that are missing such as smell, the ability to physically touch, aspects of depth perception, and the privileging of “on off” moments over against gradual analogical transitions. The above-cited philosophers were, of course, writing when the emerging, innovative, disruptive technology was the telephone, and Heidegger himself went “off the grid” physically (and morally!) with his semi-peasant hut in the Black Forest near Freiburg, Germany. But even though they never heard of a mirror neuron, the distinctions these thinkers lay down about relatedness are fundamental for work in communications and human understanding.

Isaacs Russell gives the reader a generous tutorial in breakthrough developments in neuroscience, including the discovery or mirror neurons in Macaque monkeys and a neurologically-based mirroring systems in humans, which account for key aspects of empathy, intersubjectivity, and human social-psychological relatedness. 

Since this is not a softball review, I must inquire, following detailed descriptions of embodied cognition, the primacy of movement in empathic relatedness, faces as emotional hot spots (which nevertheless incorporate full-bodied clues as to the exact emotion), kinesthetic and proprioceptive feedback: do we need a psychoanalysis or rather do we need an aerobics class (okay, at least a class in Tai Chi, moving meditation)? The point is that both participants may indeed “forget” about the computer-mediated relation, but the unconscious does not. The (unconscious) transference is also to the technology and needs to be engaged, interpreted as such. Isaacs Russell provides the distinctions to do so, which is what makes her contribution so valuable, even if one disagrees with her ultimate skepticism that online is the wave of the future. 

Amid many useful distinction and nuances, as noted above, the key-differentiating variable for Isaacs Russell is presence. She connects this closely to D. W. Winnicott’s seminal work on enabling the client to recover the ability to “go on being” in integrity and individuality, even in the presence of another person. The model for this therapeutic process is the young child’s breakthrough in individuality as the child is able to be alone (e.g., playing) in the presence of the mother (or care-taker). 

This process of becoming an individual being gets operationalized and tested when the client tries to destroy the therapist and the therapist [demonstrates that s/he] survives. Here “destroy” is a technical term, though it does indeed invoke hatred and the possibility of aggression. The paradigm case is that the client expresses hostility – even hatred – towards the therapist and the therapist does not retaliate. The therapist “takes it,” metabolizes the aggression and responds appropriately setting an empathic boundary in the relationship. This advances the treatment, expanding the integrity, autonomy, and individuality [mostly] of the client. 

According to Isaacs Russell, this is the key moment – the differentiator: “In ‘screen relations’, the client can never really test the analyst’s capacity to survive” (p. 37). 

Why not? Isaacs Russell quotes an astute client (in so many words) that without being in the same shared space the potential for the client or therapist “to kiss or kick” the other is missing. The potential for physical desire or aggression has been short circuited. Since the treatment must engage with these variables, the treatment is stymied and deprived of essential enriching possibilities of transformation.

Isaacs Russell is adamant that the ability of the therapist to survive, in Winnicott’s sense, cannot be test in the online context. If it could be significantly tested, then much of what she writes about the inadequacies of online presence would be invalidated or at least significantly reduced in scope. As noted, Isaacs Russell makes much of the potential to “kiss or kick” the other person in the same physical space; and it is true that such acting out rarely occurs but what is needed is the potential for its occurring. 

However, what has been overlooked is such acting out bodily is not the only way of testing the separation and survival of the therapist. Many examples exist in which the client tests the limits by means of a speech act – seductive or aggressive language. Speech is physical and would not occur with the sound waves impacting the biology of the ear. This is not merely a technical point. Tone of voice, rhythm, and timing are physically available. 

The distinction “speech act” is one that is critical path in any discussion of the talking cure, even if the latter is understood in an enlarged sense to be the encounter of two embodied (not merely “embrained”) talkers and listeners. Speech act theory includes pragmatics that allow for the illocutionary and perlocutionary force of speech.  Speech does not merely describe things – it performs things, building connections and relations. People get other people to do things – change the physical environment – by speaking to them: close the door! Pick up the kids at soccer! Persons invested with certain kinds of conventional authority, powerfully change relationships and other aspects of the human world. For example: “I now pronounce you man and wife” spoken by the officiating authority at the wedding. This is a new reality – in so many ways. The empathic response of the therapist, spoken to the struggling client, is another such example. 

Language is powerful, and we humans both wound and heal through our words. Heidegger, who is usefully quoted by Isaacs Russell as inspiring the work of Merleau-Ponty regarding physical spatial dynamics also noted, “Language is the house of being.” That is, presence – physical, mental, poetical, historical – emerge in the conversation that we have individually and in community in language.  

Recall that Winnicott’s point is that when the client acts out – in this case verbally – the therapist demonstrates his survival skill by not retaliating. Thus, s/he remains in integrity as a “good enough” partner in empathic relatedness and becomes independent. This likewise rebounds to the expanding integrity and independence of the client. 

If the therapist does retaliate – say by moralizing or withdrawing or blaming or becoming aggressive or seductive – then the possibility of treatment in the relationship is short-circuited. Absent significant repair, the relationship ends, even if the conversation continues in an impasse for awhile longer. 

Speaking personally, and omitting confidential details, I recall an instance online where, being clumsy with a relatively new online client, who was vulnerable in a way that I did not appreciate, I triggered a challenge to my survival. I triggered a combination of panic, retraumatizing flashback, and panic, in the client that resulted in an extended and seemingly automatic combination of verbal abuse. It threatened me professionally and the safety of the client such that I seriously thought of sending emergency services to the client’s address. The screen is always the screen, in this case, but the screen was no protection against the impact of the hate. It is a further question whether the same thing might have happened if my clumsiness had occurred in person. Perhaps the client would have kept quiet and never returned. We will never know. 

So while the client might not effectively have been able to throw a pencil at me (to use Isaacs Russell’s example), the individual would have been able to inflict self-harm in a way that would do more damage to me than a kick in the shins (another Isaacs Russell example). Never underestimate the ability of clients to innovate in acting out around the constraints of an apparently firm therapeutic framework. 

The good news is that, without making any commitments I couldn’t keep, by a combination of soothing statements, placating statements, self-depreciating humor, apologetic words, and deescalating inquires and suggestions, I kept my wits about me, and was able to restore the integrity of the therapeutic process. S/he agreed to continue the conversation. I survived and so did the relationship. It actually was a breakthrough, and, without everything being wonderful, the client demonstrated capabilities that had not previously had going forward. 

Thus, the counter-example: Survival was tested online, not by physically throwing a pencil, but in reciprocal speech acts and the enactment of presence in speech, a physical media not to be underestimated. One learns that the environment is safe when safety breaks down. To Isaacs Russell’s point, the potential for non-survival also includes non-survival as an actual enactment and outcome – and neither online nor physical presence has a privilege in that regard. 

In a real world emergency – a credible threat of self-harm – there is a difference between sending emergency services to the client location and summoning them to one’s own office. But perhaps not that much. The point about survival, safety, and containment (different but overlapping issues) and their respective breakdowns is the same. Many distinctions exist between an online and physical encounter, but the risk of survival or non-survival occurs in each context. 

One may argue back that the risk of a meltdown is less extreme in the warm and cozy confines of one’s own office, but maybe you never met a borderline client like this particular one or a client as suspicious or deeply disturbed. If the client takes out a box knife on camera and starts to carve up her or his inner thigh (or threatens to do so), one may fervently wish that s/he kicked one in the shins instead.

Thus, in answer to the potential for “kicking or kissing,” the answer is direct: Oh, yes the client can – can indeed test the capacity to survive and do so online. The example “kiss or kick” is not a bad example, but many counter-examples exist that provide useful evidence to the contrary as cited above. 

Positively expressed, plenty of evidence is available that the analyst’s survival can indeed be tested in an online session and s/he may survive or not. Ultimately even “kiss and kick” can be enacted as verbal abuse on line, perpetrating boundary violations with hostility or seduction that can be grave and survival threatening, either in imagination or reality, including the survival of the therapist as a professional and the therapy itself. 

To give the devil his (or her) due, it is true that there are some cases that are decidedly unsuited for an online engagement. Marion Milner engaged in a celebrated analysis of a deeply disturbed and regressed client, in which the client was silent for long periods of time.[2] The client finally was able to recover significant aspects of her humanity in producing hundreds of drawings and sketches that expressed a therapeutic process of pre-verbal recovery. It is true that, though these were visual artifacts, and presumably might have been communicated remotely, the client herself was already so “remote” from reality that another layer of virtuality was not going to work (nor was it possible mid-20th century).

Heinz Kohut has a celebrated example that he presented in an lecture made a few days before his death. Kohut was working with a deeply regressed and suicidal client (client) in years gone by. In a desperate moment, Kohut offered to let the client, lying on the couch behind which he was sitting in his customary straight-backed wooden chair, hold two of the fingers of his hand. The point of this potentially life saving (and boundary testing) gesture was Kohut’s association to the client’s desperate grasp with her hand being like that of a toothless infant sucking on a nipple. An empty nipple or a life giving one? Powerful stuff, which of course, would never be possible online. Far be it for me to be the voice of reality, nevertheless, these two cases of Milner and Kohut are outliers, albeit deeply moving one, that are completely consistent with the sensitive and dynamically informed application of online analysis and dynamic therapy.[3]

Though the uses of extended moments of online silence should not be underestimated or dismissed, Milner’s and Kohut’s cases were ones that privileged physical presence. It in no way refutes the power or potential of online engagement. What are missing are criteria for telling the difference. No easy answers here but the rule of thumb is something like: do whatever is going to further the treatment in the proper professional sense of the words. What is going to sustain and advance the conversation for possibility in the face of the client’s stuckness? Do that. Winnicott has been mentioned frequently, and rightly so. He spoke of the “good enough” mother. Here we have the “good enough” therapeutic framework including the online one. 

Another part of the narrative that was particularly engaging was Isaacs Russell’s discussion of ongoing online psychoanalytic training with the colleagues in China. There are few psychoanalysts in China, so in addition to significant culture and language challenges, such remote work would not be possible without online analytic therapy sessions and supervision. The nearly unanimous consensus is this is valuable work worth doing. The equally unanimous consensus, about which one may usefully be skeptical, is that this work is “functionally equivalent” or in other ways “just the same as” work done physically in person. 

The author provides examples, whether from the Chinese colleagues or other contexts is not clear, where neutral observers are asked to evaluate transcripts of sessions where the online versus physical feature and descriptive details have been masked. The result? They can’t tell them apart. What more do we need to say?

Apparently much more. With dynamic psychotherapy and related forms of talk therapy if you can tell the difference between an online and an in person meeting (other than comments about traffic or Internet connections), then you are probably doing it wrong or there is some breakdown that interferes with the process (in either case). Abstinence is easier online – no hugs. But if we are talking boundary violations, maybe some people – exhibitionists? – are tempted to take off their clothes on camera. (This has not happened to me – yet.) Anonymity – just as one’s office has clues as to one’s personal life, so too does the background on camera. Neutrality – being on camera suddenly causes one to adopt a point of view on social media or politics or nutrition or economics or education? Perhaps but I am not seeing it. 

However, what Isaacs Russell does not discuss is the “other” transcript – the unwritten one, which is only available as a thought-experiment. There is another transcript different than the verbatim account of what was said or even what a web cam could record. It is a transcript that is just as important as the recoding of the conversation, and why verbatim recordings of the conversation are less useful than one might wish. Both participants may “forget” that the session is being recorded, but the unconscious does not. There is the transcript of what the people are thinking and experiencing, but remains unexpressed or expressed indirectly. Such an aspect of the counter-transference or thought transcript is harder to access and includes the therapist’s counter-transference. 

One thing is fundamental: When the context of the encounter between people is an empathic one, then both an in-person encounter in the same physical space and an online encounter via a video session are ways of implementing, applying, and bringing forth empathy. 

The online environment and the imaginary thought transcript present new forms of client resistance and therapist counter-transference, and it is these that now are the main target of the discussion of this essay. 

Moving therapy to online opens up a new world of symptomatic acts, parapraxes, “Freudian” slips, and acting out. 

I had one online client who stands up in the middle of a session to check on what this individual had cooking in the oven, carrying her camera-enabled device with her. Was I amazed? Indeed. 

I acknowledged to the client that clients sometimes have mixed feelings about their therapists, and nothing wrong about that as such. Yet I was wondering did she believe I was perhaps half-baked? Key term: half-baked. Further discussion occurred of whether this individual was expressing her unconscious hostility towards me – while, of course, also preparing a baked dish. 

The breakdown in empathy may be a thoughtless remark by the therapist, a mix up in the schedule, or a failure of the computer network. The empathy – and transmuting internalization working through it – LIVEs in restoring the wholeness and integrity of the relatedness. Empathy lives as spontaneous relatedness, a form of transference and vice versa. This is not limited to psychoanalysis versus psychodynamically informed psychotherapy. This is not limited to online versus physical therapy. 

Other than candidates for psychoanalytic training, few people are calling up practitioners are saying: “I want the most arduous, rigorous, time-consuming, expensive treatment known – I want a psychoanalysis!” I tend to agree with Isaacs Russell that the possibilities for doing full-blown remote psychoanalysis are – how shall I put it delicately? – remote, but not necessarily due to any features of the online environment.

After all the dynamics and debates are complete, Isaacs Russell ends her book with a masterpiece of studied ambiguity. She gives an account of a conversation in an online session with a client in London, UK. Isaacs Russell has relocated to Boulder, CO, USA. Having worked together in physical presence, the client misses her and Isaacs Russell misses the client – yet the therapeutic conversation continues. One cannot help but agree with the sentiment – there is something missing – and yet the conversation continues. Thus, we roundly critique cyber therapy – and go off to our online sessions.


[1] Acknowledgement: This reviewer first learned of Gillian Isaacs Russell’s penetrating and incisive engagement with all matters relating to online psychoanalysis and psychotherapy from my friend and colleague Arnon Rolnick in Q2 2021 as the 2020 covid pandemic was waning, at least temporarily. Thus, I am catching up on my reading.

[2] Marion Milner, (1969), The Hands of the Living God: An Account of a Psycho-analysis. London: Routledge, 2010.

[3] Charles Strozier, (2001), Heinz Kohut: The Making of a Psychoanalyst, “Gentle into that Good Night,” New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux: 376–377.

References

Lou Agosta, (2010), Empathy in the Context of Philosophy. London: Palgrave Macmillan.

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

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

Review: Empathy and the Historical Understanding of the Human Past by Thomas A. Kohut

Review: Thomas A. Kohut. (2020). Empathy and the Historical Understanding of the Human Past. London and New York: Routledge: (Taylor and Francis).Routledge (Taylor and Francis). (155 pp.)

Thomas A Kohut’s book is an important one, even ground breaking, for several disciplines including history, philosophy, psychoanalysis, and psychology. However, the book is an even more important one for – empathy. 

Kohut’s book is a small masterpiece. It is penetrating, incisive, well-argued, wide ranging, thorough, scholarly, and ground breaking in its validation of empathy as a practice relevant to historical studies and research. History writing will never be the same after this work, which is why it needs to be better known. 

Though this reviewer is not a historian, I have published widely on empathy, and Kohut’s is the book I wish I had written. Empathy is no rumor in Kohut’s Empathy and the Historical Understanding of the Past. Empathy lives  in this book, and those who engage with it will be enriched historically and empathically.

Kohut properly begins by calling out the suspicion and skepticism of historians in relation to empathy. Empathy is fraught. Debates about the meaning of the term itself are legion. 

In the face of these issues, Kohut’s definition of empathy is a rigorous and

Cover Art: Paul Klee, The Magic Mirror (1934)

critical one. Empathy is a mode of observation that gives one access to the thoughts and feelings of other human beings as subjects. Key term: subjectivity. Empathy is the foundation of intersubjectivity and that intersubjectivity has a temporal horizon extending from the past into the future. 

In Kohut’s overview of the many definitions and debates about empathy, he distinguishes three approaches. They are: Theory of mind, simulation theory, and phenomenology of the Husserlian (and Edith Stein) flavor plus an admixture of Max Scheler. Without going into the details here, Kohut makes good use of the debate around the discovery in the mid-1990s of mirror neurons in monkeys and the implications of a parallel neurological mirroring system in humans, even if it is not exactly mirror neurons. 

Kohut, the historian, is a trained but not currently practicing psychoanalyst. He learns from psychoanalytic practice in a historical context by deploying vicarious introspection – a short version of the definition of empathy. More on that shortly. 

The innovation: Empathy is not only empathy of identity and similarity but even more importantly empathy is an empathy of differences. As the historian encounters otherness or alterity, the differences in experience call forth empathy. Empathy has a profound impact on historical thinking and experience, and, in a space of presence to humanity, enables a translation of meaning of affect and thinking. Ultimately this empathic engagement with other individuals and communities expands our historical understanding of humanity and deepens our own humanity. 

Human beings are complex. They are notoriously self-deceived. We humans have blind spots about what are our motivations and incentives – Marx’s false consciousness, Sartre’s bad faith, Freud’s unconscious. 

This means that even if the historian (or psychoanalyst) has access to another individual’s consciousness through their free associations (not available to the historian), journal entries, expressions in historical documents, art, artifacts, and traces of human life, as historians we may really be knowing how these individuals and groups have deceived themselves subjectively, not what authentically motivated them or how they experienced their life and predicaments intersubjectively. Yet such subjective and intersubjective data are of the essence. History often consists precisely in engaging with the unanticipated consequences of self-deception. 

Individuals and entire communities and nations subscribe to ideologies and interpretations that are breathtakingly inaccurate, of questionable morality, or just plain confused, with profound consequences for their neighbors and historical successors. While not a therapeutic practice in the narrow psychoanalytic sense, the study of history humanizes – it expands and deepens our humanity. This is so even if it sometimes appalls and disappoints us as to what human beings are capable of perpetrating. 

Kohut’s innovation is to assert that “empathy…recognizes and appreciates difference, even while attempting to know and understand it” (p. 41). 

Since both empathy and ethics emerge simultaneously out of the differences of the encounter with other individual and groups, empathy can be used for both good and evil. Empathy tells me what the other person is experiencing; ethics tells me what to do about it. Thus, the Nazis attached sirens to their dive bombers, the better to get inside the heads of the innocent civilians they are bombing and terrify them. 

The good news is that for the most part, civilized human beings use empathy to create a clearing of acceptance and tolerance for compassion, generosity, and prosocial affects to come forth and empathy training can expand such a clearing; but there is nothing intrinsically prosocial about empathy as such. At least, such is the position of Kohut the historian and psychoanalyst, as I read him. 

Kohut has many fellow travellers and teachers in empathic history writing. Elizabeth Lunbeck and John Demos deserve mention for their empathically attuned history writing. Kohut endorses Dominick DaCapra’s distinction of “empathic unsettlement,” which is “the historian’s pervasive experience of difference even while attempting to know and understand it” (p. 43). 

At another level, the authority of the past over us in the present is a strong motivator for Kohut’s approach. Kohut answers to the postmodern historian’s critique of Eurocentric history, is direct. High political history and dead white male leaders (p. 18) may have monopolized the empathic conversation, but it need not be that way. Marginalized peoples and oppressed individuals who make an empathic claim on us – as historians – to engage, articulate, and call out the experiences of alterity and otherness. 

The use of empathy in cultural history is pervasive and provides further evidence that the role of empathy requires rehabilitation and extension. 

But what of history written from the so-called objective observational perspective, which tends to emphasize broad trends and sweeping generalizations about politics and society – Antiquity, the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, Modernity, the Nuclear Age, post Modern Society – in which individuals and entire countries are caught up? 

Kohut acknowledges that such history is wide spread and is a paradigm that contributes to historical understanding. What it does not do is give us a sense of what it was like to be alive in such times. When done badly, such writing is little different than reading a rail road time table, and, even at its best, entails the risk of sending us down a deterministic labyrinth that produces problematic narratives.  When done well, such sweeping, broad historical panoramas can and do enrich our humanity, but precisely by deploying and applying empathic methods. And that is a point that Kohut drives home: historians are unwittingly – and thus uncritically and rigorously – employing empathy and they may usefully take their method up a level and do so explicitly, rigorously, and critically. 

I do not know if Kohut would agree with me, but I was inspired by him to assert that there are at least two kinds of non-empathic history writing. Non-empathic history can be a chronology. Names and dates. This is important and a foundation, and not a trivial matter, to be sure, yet not ultimately what makes a difference in terms of meaningful human understanding and development. 

Alternatively, if one is unambiguously committed to deterministic trends in history such as in certain caricatures of Marxism, then one goes down the causal dead end as determinism is regularly refuted by experience when the inevitable deterministic outcome fails to show up. History has come to an end so many times only then to demonstrate in the ongoing course of events that the ending of one individual or group’s history is the beginning of another’s. 

The third alternative is that, yes, such sweeping, broad trends may indeed be significant, even indispensable, but if you read the historical text carefully, empathy is richly present intermittently and all-too-often on a scattershot basis. But that is what makes the text come to life. Perhaps not present on every page, but there is inevitably a report of an individual or a personal anecdote or an imaginative experiment by the historian; and it is precisely those moments and passages that act like a lightening rod to bring vitality and aliveness to the narrative. The sweeping history of historical trends without empathy lacks vitality and human significance.  It is empty of humanity. It is like plate tectonics or geology – nothing wrong with plate tectonics as such – but as a model of history writing, it lacks relatedness to human meaning or value. 

This speaks directly to Kohut’s point that historians frequently use empathy but they use it implicitly and unconsciously. It is wroth repeating: Kohut’s intervention is to urge that the historians must take their practice up a level and be explicit about when they are deploying empathy or not. Under Kohut’s skillful treatment, empathy becomes a rigorous and critical empathy. 

Meanwhile, the shadow of the tribal falls over the historical. The use of empathy that seems to affirm structures of domination and false consciousness (e.g., Foucault) only gets traction if one’s definition of empathy is restricted to that of an empathy of identity. Though not called out by Kohut, Ian Hacking’s notion of historical ontology belongs here, inspired as it is by such thinkers as Nietzsche, Foucault, and Willard Quine. However, if one allows for an empathy of differences, empathy is the encounter with the other individual or community who is different than I am and who one grasps in the other’s alterity [othrness], then the objection of tribalism fails to get traction and falls way. 

This speaks directly to Kohut’s point that historians frequently use empathy but they use it implicitly and unconsciously. It is wroth repeating: Kohut’s intervention is to urge that the historians must take their practice up a level and be explicit about when they are deploying empathy or not. Under Kohut’s skillful treatment, empathy becomes a rigorous and critical empathy. 

Meanwhile, the shadow of the tribal falls over the historical. The use of empathy that seems to affirm structures of domination and false consciousness (e.g., Foucault) only gets traction if one’s definition of empathy is restricted to that of an empathy of identity. Though not called out by Kohut, Ian Hacking’s notion of historical ontology belongs here, inspired as it is by such thinkers as Nietzsche, Foucault, and Willard Quine. However, if one allows for an empathy of differences, empathy is the encounter with the other individual or community who is different than I am and who one grasps in the other’s alterity [othrness], then the objection of tribalism fails to get traction and falls way. 

Since this is not a softball review, I suggest that Kohut bends so far backwards to accommodate tenuous objections to empathic practices that he sometimes unwittingly ends up underestimating and being unfair to the powers and importance of a rigorous and critical empathy. 

Kohut is generous and gracious in addressing every imaginable objection – possibly from some hair-splitting reader or editor – generous to a fault. Yet once a thinker (not Kohut!) embraces a Cartesian fragmentation of human relatedness by locking the historical individual up in the warm room with Descartes sitting alone by fire, yet without relating to him, all the paradoxes about how to build a bridge back to the other consciousness come forth. 

One point that is flat out missing from Kohut’s is a treatment of retrospective grasping or understanding (Nachträglichkeit) – “afterwardness” – a key distinction in Freud and the understanding of the past. This is important because empathy is needed to grasp the change of meaning between what the event meant in the past and what it comes to mean at a different, later time. 

For example, a child of tender age is exposed to adult sexuality, whether accidently seeing the parents engaging in such or through a boundary violation such as molestation. The child does not grasp what happened, and does not like it, but is not traumatized. Years later the child becomes an adolescent, remembers the incident, and then falls ill with hysteria or an obsessional neurosis. Did the child experience the boundary violation in the sense that the child was present in the room? Yes. Did the child fall ill at that time. No. What happened? Retrospective understanding!

Likewise, in history, the Nazis systematically and with malice of forethought exterminate – slaughter – murder – some six million Jewish people, including some homosexuals, gypsies, handicapped, socialists, and so on. Years later one of the architects of the genocide, Adolph Eichmann, is captured, put on trial, and executed for the crime. The killing of the six million is redescribed as the Holocaust during and shortly after the trial. Were the people killed? Yes. Did “Holocaust” exist as a distinction in language or reporting before Eichmann’s trial? Not as far as we know. What happened? Nachträglichkeit! The description is grasped and validated retrospectively. 

Meanwhile, as noted by Kohut, the result of “cultural Cartesianism” (p. 119) is that the shadow of tribalism falls upon the historical. Consciousness encompasses but is not reducible to its expressions such as historical documents, works of art, architecture, and traces of all kinds of peoples’ marks upon the land. 

Anything that qualifies as an expression of the life of a human subject and gets embodied in a fixed form and survives in a transmittable form becomes the raw material for empathically processing the thoughts and feelings that are embodied in the resulting historical narrative. The result is a narrative that imaginatively enlivens the artifacts with empathic vitality and evokes the world that generated them.

Kohut’s is a slim volume (a pervasive problem in publishing in this post hard copy era), and he does not have the word count to lay down his obvious commitment to rigorous historical practice in any detail. He repeatedly suggests that those who go to the archives may usefully [must] bring their empathy with them. That is one of Kohut’s recurring themes: Explicitly bring your empathy. Archives, documents, ruins, artistic artifacts, archeological digs, etymological traces in language, dusty old bones with hatchings in museums, and all manner of expressions of human life, form the basis for the historical narrative and interpretation that becomes the rigorous study of history and humanity. 

Anything that qualifies as an expression of the life of a human subject and gets embodied in a fixed form and survives in a transmittable form becomes the raw material for empathically processing the thoughts and feelings that are embodied in the resulting historical narrative. The result is a narrative that imaginatively enlivens the artifacts with empathic vitality and evokes the world that generated them.

Kohut’s is a slim volume (a pervasive problem in publishing in this post hard copy era), and he does not have the word count to lay down his obvious commitment to rigorous historical practice in any detail. He repeatedly suggests that those who go to the archives may usefully [must] bring their empathy with them. That is one of Kohut’s recurring themes: Explicitly bring your empathy. Archives, documents, ruins, artistic artifacts, archeological digs, etymological traces in language, dusty old bones with hatchings in museums, and all manner of expressions of human life, form the basis for the historical narrative and interpretation that becomes the rigorous study of history and humanity. 

Empathy is called forth by the expressions of human life whether in the presence of a person in the same room just now or the artistic and documentary artifacts left behind. It is a tactical advantage in the theory of knowledge (epistemology) that one can ask such a present person, “What do you mean by that?” However, absent a four-year psychoanalysis, she is not going to have any better access to her blind spots, self-deceptions or ambivalences than the person writing in her diary a century ago. Extra data is remarkably useful; yet sometimes more data is just more data. Empathic interpretation is needed to bring it to life and make it speak and contribute to our understanding. 

Kohut is the professional’s professional. He relegates to the footnotes his disagreement with Rudolf Makkreel, whose monumental (re)construction of Wilhelm Dilthey’s “Critique of Historical Reason” relies on an innovative reading [Makkreel’s reading] of Kant’s Third Critique. But, once again, since this is not a softball review, I have no such constraints (or footnotes).

Notwithstanding Makkreel’s substantial contribution, he is the one who is responsible for throwing empathy “under the bus” in the context of Dilthey, denying an entire generation of scholars an appreciation of Dilthey’s highly empathic methods. Though, admittedly, Dilthey never uses the word “Einfühlung [empathy],” Dilthey is a preeminent historian and philosopher of empathy, and Kohut properly treats him that way. 

Curiously “Einfühlung [empathy in German]” is now an English word. German historians and self psychologists having translated “empathy” back into German as Empathie. Curious also the vicissitudes of translation: the process of translation itself becomes a metaphor for empathic relatedness. The point is that Kohut’s command of the intricacies of translations (from the German) is second to none and his clarifications are penetrating and incisive. 

Dilthey’s invocation of Nacherleben [vicarious experience] and Nachleben [vicariously experience life or vicarious life] capture the process of empathic receptivity while Dilthey’s commitment to Verstehen [(human) understanding] do the work of [cognitive] empathic understanding as opposed to causal explanation [erklären].  So much for Makkreel, who seems to have forgotten to read Max Scheler.

Kohut makes the case that our relationship to the past is a dynamic one, and the dynamo – the driver – of the dynamic is empathy. The historian brings his methods and requirements to the past, but the astute historian soon realizes that the past also has requirements of him. Under the skillful treatment of Kohut, history becomes a kind of psychological transitional object or selfobject, infused and imbued with the shared humanity that connects us across time as psychoanalytic transference calls forth the meaning of the past for the present. Though Kohut properly plays it close to the vest, I think we have more than a little of that here. 

Kohut provides many examples of empathic history writing including his own work with the history of the Weimar Republic, the Wannsee Conference of the Nazis as well as John Demos’s research on witches, being kidnapped and raised by native Americans, and more. In every case, the facts are the facts, the trends are the trends, the debates are the debates, but it is empathy that brings to life the moving and frequently shocking realities of futures past and past futures. 

By the way, Kohut makes good use of Reinhart Koselleck’s (1974) distinctions of the horizon of experience and horizon of expectations [of the past]. Tom also makes good use of the ground breaking work of his father, Heinz Kohut, MD, who I would describe as a towering practitioner of empathy and who put empathy on the map and in the psyche of entire generations of psychoanalysts, psychiatrists, humanists, and thinkers, but not historians – until now. It is often not easy to be the offspring of an individual who invents an entirely new discipline, Self Psychology in the case of Heinz. For example, consider the struggles of Freud’s children and grand children – but Tom Kohut seems to have done just fine, thank you, to his credit – and Heinz’s.

History writing sometimes lacks empathy or is ambivalent about its empathy. However, without rigorous and critical empathic practices, as endorsed by Kohut (Tom), history goes off the rails as an anachronism – attributing to the past distinctions and ideas (e.g., childhood) that did not exist and could not even be imagined by the peoples of past times. 

Likewise, the past had distinctions (e.g., witchcraft) that we do not have or, more precisely, do have without experiencing the distinction similarly, and we have distinctions that were unknown in the past. Historical peoples had distinctions that we now know only as an abstract concept empty of the influence and experience the distinction had for inhabitants of the past world. 

Empathy comes into its own as an essential method in accessing a world lit only by fire (to recall William Manchester’s empathically attuned title), in which demons and spirits were abroad in the land, impacting everyday life in ways we can hardly imagine. With Kohut’s Empathy and the Historical Understanding of the Human Past, the reader’s imagination – and empathy – are expanded in his stimulating engagement with the uses of empathy for historical understanding. 

References

Reinhart Koselleck. (1974). Futures Past: On the Semantics of Historical Time, tr, and intro., Keith Tribe. Columbia University Press, 2004.

Lou Agosta. (2015). A Rumor of Empathy: Resistance, Narrative, Recovery. London and New York: Routledge (Taylor and Francis), 2015. 

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