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The Limits of Empathy in Politics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

References

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

© Lou Agosta, PhD and the Chicago Empathy Project