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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

Translation, Bible Stories, and Empathy: The Contribution of George Steiner (1929 – 2020)

George Steiner passed away in the fullness of time at his home in Cambridge, England, at the age of 90. This blog post acknowledges and honors him for his contribution, largely previously unnoted, to the understanding and practice of empathy.

 Those who are interested in learning more about his many, many books and the

Tower of Babel: Bruegel, The Elder, 1563, under construction

Tower of Babel: Frans Bruegel, The Elder, 1563, under construction

details of his biography can consult the New York Times obituary cited below – he grew up speaking French, German, and English and claimed not to able to remember which came first and he graduated the University of Chicago after a single year in 1948.

 In so far as one of the major breakdowns of empathy is when empathic response gets “lost in translation,” George Steiner’s book After Babel: Aspects of Language and Translation (1975) is devoted to empathy and restoring it in the fact of misunderstanding. This turns out not to require the use of the word “empathy.” What is basically a Bible story and a single paragraph in Genesis turns out to be nuanced enough to sustain a five hundred page plus treatment.

 Thus, the story of the Tower of Babel from the Book of Genesis in the Bible (Genesis 11: 1–9) forms the backdrop for one of Steiner’s major contributions and, at the risk of oversimplifying his diverse and multidimensional contribution, may be the single best presentation of his life’s work.

 As you may recall, in what is basically a Babylonian, not a Hebrew, myth, which gets included in Genesis, there is a Golden Age. It consists in the earth and the peoples of the earth being “of one language and one speech.” I elaborate the point: Disagreements between people about the meaning of truth, beauty, goodness, utility, or freedom simply do not occur because there is only one language, which everyone shares.

 So misunderstandings are impossible on principle in this Golden Age. Not only does this make life very agreeable, it gives the people enormous power. You know the expression “Power to the people!” Well, such is actually the case in this story. The people are one, and the people decide that they are not going to settle for life here on earth, they are going to move into heaven. They start building a tower – the Tower of Babel – because heaven is “up there” and how else would you get there?

 Next scene. The Gods are looking down from above, as the tower is getting taller and taller. And it is not like just a few people are coming. They are all coming. The Gods are even getting a tad worried about this development – but not for long. A stratagem is needed to foil this unacceptable and obvious sin of pride. Pride goeth before the fall. The Gods “confuse the tongues,” mix up the languages, of the people. The people now become the peoples with each separate community having its own identity and manner of speaking incomprehensible to its neighbors. Before there was only one language, now there are many.

The one builder says: “Pass me the slab.” But he is now speaking a different language than his coworker, who thinks he is saying, “Pass me the mud” or even worse, thinks he is saying, “You are an idiot.” General chaos breaks out with significant aspects of paranoia, xenophobia, hostility, and aggression. Fistfights break out (not actually in the story, but “off stage”). The work on the tower is halted. The project fails. History begins. The Golden age ends; the people are scattered and become different communities (nations); history as we know it starts.

 It is a history of misunderstanding between people and peoples, resulting in border disputes, personal disputes, contractual disputes, inheritance disputes, disputes over disputes. Often attempts are made to settle such disputes with aggression, resulting in more disputes. Thus results the current situation of humanity, in which we are not only separated by different languages but misunderstandings occur even within the same language, which becomes other to itself due to ambiguity and vagueness. Not a pretty picture.

 So what has this to do with empathy? In so far as empathy lives within language, this is a story about empathy. The Golden Age was one of perfect understanding – empathic understanding. Much of history consists in human understanding getting lost – lost in translation. The result when misunderstandings occur is the current state of the relations between diverse communities – one of hostility and the risk of aggression.

 Enter George Steiner’s work: After Babel: Aspects of Language and Translations. The word “empathy” does not occur in this work, yet it is one permeated by the empathic project of overcoming breakdowns in understanding as meaning gets “lost in translation.”

 When we practice translation, we are practicing getting in touch with the world of the other person in its nuances and significance. That is top down, cognitive empathy. When we practice translation, we create a clearing for the experiential dimension of a person’s experience to emerge into a clearing in which the feeling can be communicated. That is bottom up, affective empathy.

 After Babel is a work of vast learning in which Steiner makes the case for the study of languages, especially as they occur in Sophocles, Shakespeare, Goethe, Dante, Proust, since that is what humans speak and use and live in, rather than language as such as an ideal abstract system. We quite often succeed in translating, even though our translations are far from perfect, in need of revision, and vulnerable to ambiguities of nuance and significance.

 To make the connection between translation and empathy, something that Steiner never explicitly does, we are cast upon the seas of the interrelations between different texts. Jorge Luis Borges is celebrated for his fictions that expose the deep structure of nonfictional reality. Early in After Babel (p. 70), Steiner turns to Borges’ short piece “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote” (1939).

 The title itself points to what is absurd, even logically alien in Borges’ approach, since everyone knows that Miguel de Cervantes is the author of Don Quixote. Menard’s project was not to compose another Quixote, which would be easy, but the Quixote itself (p. 71). 

 This is the empathic moment: “Far more interesting was ‘to go on being Pierre Menard and reach the Quixote through the experiences of Pierre Menard’, i.e., to put oneself so deeply in tune with Cervantes’s being, with his ontological form as to re-enact, inevitably, the exact sum of his realizations and statements.

 Here empathy is no mere psychological mechanism for the transmission of a contingent feeling, but the foundation of relatedness between persons in time and history.

 At this point Steiner quotes Borges’ quoting Cervantes’ and Menard’s texts. They are of course identical quotations from Don Quixote. The reader of Borges’ text (and of Steiner’s use of it) is left scratching his head. But then the punch line:

 To write of “history as the mother of truth” at the beginning of the 17th Century when Cervantes was authoring the work was eminently sensible. But to write this way three hundred years later, at the beginning of the 20th Century is a work of towering genius (no pun intended!). When Menard was re-enacting Cervantes’ act of authorship – i.e., transforming Cervantes’ being into his own – Menard did this three hundred years later – after William James has stated that history is not what happened but what we judged to have happened. This a work of supreme and prodigious translation: “The arduousness of the game is dizzying [….] When the translator, negator of time and rebuilder at Babel, comes near succeeding, he passes into that state of mirror [….] He does not know ‘which of us two is writing this page’” (pp. 71, 72–73).

 Strictly speaking, this could be seen as a breakdown of empathy, since it implies a merger of the two beings, but the integrity of empathy is restored when the merger turns out to be temporary and transient, preserving the distinction between self and other.

 Though Steiner makes the case for comparative literature as the lever of humanization – even while intermittently deploring the state of the humanities as a discipline – in translating back-and-forth, the idea of a logically perfect, ideal language and radical translation are never far away. Radical translation, in turn, puts us in mind of radical empathy – the progressive liberal trying to empathize with the Evangelical Christian and vice versa. How is that going?

 Translation is indeed a metaphor for the situation of human understanding, community, and the challenge of expanding empathic relatedness. But in so far as translating is also occurring literally and constantly within a given natural language whenever we ask another person what they are trying to say, even as they say something that seems meaningless, translation is virtually identical with historical existence, our way of being in the world after the fall at Babel.

 Granted the matter is devilishly complex, rather than ask what is wrong, point out what is missing – what gets lost in translation? Each of ten thousand distinctions leads to more distinctions and the “fan out” is virtually beyond calculation. Is space available for a space of acceptance and toleration and to resume work, if not on a tower, on a bridge over troubled waters?

 References

 Christopher Lehmann-Haupt and William Grimes, (2020), George Steiner, prodigious literary critic, dies at 90, February 03, 2020, The New York Times: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/02/03/books/george-steiner-dead.html

Lou Agosta, Empathy Lessons, (2018), Chicago: Two Pears Press: https://www.amazon.com/Lou-Agosta/e/B07Q4XX6PF?ref=sr_ntt_srch_lnk_1&qid=1581278312&sr=1-1-spell

George Steiner, (1975), After Babel: Aspects of Language and Translation, London: Oxford University Press (a Galaxy Book). 507pp, $4.95 (original price): https://www.amazon.com/George-Steiner/e/B000AQ1YD6?ref=sr_ntt_srch_lnk_1&qid=1581278399&sr=1-1

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