Empathy at a distance
I’ll be in more trouble with this than I got into for publishing my thoughts on gender ideology. I don’t particularly like the word empathy. It has a self-help psychobabble vibe to it, and it covers too much ground. Pity works in one situation, compassion in another, care in another, love in another, grief in another, perhaps misericordia in another. Empathy is just some coverall, an almost medicalized abstraction. “He lacks empathy, so he’s a sociopath.” Symptom — diagnosis. Like it’s an inborn essence, not a response to a call from the other.
Once charitable feelings and actions become an essence and not a function of character, the game is on to prove one’s empathy (and superiority), not just through one’s person-to-person relations, but in one’s professed ‘belief system’ (another execrable liberal term). This becomes a kind of arms race of empathy, wherein the empathetic essence is extended to more and more people (and even the non-human) until our empathy is extended to everyone everywhere, and to be caught in a state of absent-empathy is a sign of irredeemable moral disability.
Before we do a mass patellar reflex, I’m not saying we don’t or shouldn’t bear affection or pity or love etc. toward persons . . . or even animals. I went through a terrible period of grief over the loss of our last dog, I am instantly attracted (without malice) to pretty most animals I encounter (often including spiders and snakes and such), and I’m rewarded with a kind of pleasure at even fleeting contacts with strangers that are marked by friendliness. I find babies I encounter (and most children) irresistible. On the other hand, I catch and kill fish for the table, and most times, if I encounter spiders or ants or earwigs inside the house, I’ll put them to death (quickly and humanely). If a mosquito lands on me, she dies, end of story. Hornets’ nest on the house ? Sorry, you gotta go.
Do I have empathy? Do I lack empathy?
I bring up fishing because I was chastised on Facebook one time by someone who pointed out that fish have feelings. They told me that on a computer. That was made from material extracted in mines. Sorry, I know its puerile defensiveness, but I’ll wager I know more about fish habitat and fisheries than my critic, who I’m sure felt ‘empathy’ for his idea of a fish. (Hey, Jesus ate fish for breakfast; so I think I’m okay.)
We can be trained to feel in particular ways; and we can even train ourselves to do so. There’s something to the old twelve-step suggestion that you “fake it ’til you make it.” Meaning that if one behaves as if one cares long enough, the rewards of such behavior will eventually produce genuine feelings of care. That’s why I reject therapeutic advice to “let out your anger” as a kind of steam-boiler model of psychotherapy. Letting out your anger makes one more likely to get angry in the future and to get angry more easily. It’s not popping open the pressure valve; it’s rehearsing. We’re not steam boilers. We’re intersubjective mimetic learners. We do habits.
Feeling is a set of skills. We become skilled at what we practice, in making, thinking, speaking . . . and feeling. Virtue signaling is a kind of skill, too, a performative skill as much as a feeling skill. In many cases, the virtue signaler’s original desire is not for the object of empathy, but for the approval of his or her peers — a desire to fit in, to belong, to be accepted. It’s also an expected skill in many circles, a kind of social hieroglyphic or password. What I’m describing isn’t expressive of anything originary, a word we’ll explain in a moment.
I’ve heard people say that various murderous movements — from Germany to China to Rwanda — were prepared by destroying empathy for particular groups. Bullshit! There are many millions of people I have no way of knowing — among them even people I see in public but don’t know — for whom I feel nothing. I don’t know them, or enough about them to spend my limited energy, emotional and otherwise, even thinking about them. And yet I haven’t the least desire to kill them. To provoke people to murder, one has to take a giant step beyond “lack of empathy” to active disgust and hatred (there’s too little interest in the relation between nourishing disgust and nourishing hatred). And yet there’s a liberal argumentative habit afoot to make a leap from “you don’t care” to “you don’t care=you’re allowing hatred or suffering” to “by not caring, and allowing hatred and suffering, you are thereby responsible for hate and suffering.” There are even fellow Christians who do this. Just stop.
The philosopher Edith Stein had some things to say about empathy, though she used the German word, einfühlung (origin 1858), (like empathy, also a comparatively recent invention — empathy, origin 1908) that had its roots in art appreciation. Nonetheless, her work is interpreted into English as on empathy. Stein rejected the common notions of empathy, including the essentialist account I’m harping on, and defined einfühlung as a general capacity to recognize a consciousness not one’s own. She said it was the ability to “experience a foreign consciousness in general.” Some might call it intersubjectivity, and some might make the point that it does stand for some moral baseline . . . that others are not objects. No argument there. But that’s as far as she went. Stein’s einfühlung doesn’t necessarily mean feeling like the other person. The “I” of feeling and disposition is simultaneously irreducible and always in a “momentary state” of experience. One can experience einfühlung while talking with another person while that feeling is absolutely contrary to what the other person is feeling. The main thing to notice here is co-presence. To experience (in an embodied, phenomenological way) the other person, one has to have or have had personal contact with them, close enough to smell them so to speak. Certainly, this could be extended to relations that are epistolary or even online based on many exchanges (what intersubjective psychologists would call attunement); but you get the picture. There has to be an immediate recognition of the other as the identifiable locus of an identifiable consciousnesses not one’s own. Moreover, Stein’s version of empathy does not emerge from the empathizer — like an essence — but from that other person or other existant (like a spouse, one’s child, a friend, your dog, or even a tree). Empathy, for Stein, doesn’t close the unbridgeable gap between you and me as others; it discloses it. We can never experience what the other experiences in that “primordial” or “originary” (depending on the translation) way — in our bodies.
Why does this matter?
To begin with, we’re finite beings. Finite in multiple ways. We occupy only one space at a time. We’re limited in what we can know not only by time and mental capacity, but by our reliance on specific forms of perception. We’re occupied most of the time in activities related to our personal survival and that of our immediate community. We have a limited capacity to care for others. We die in the end.
As to who you or I care about, these are emergent matters. When we had a house full of kids, if one had been injured, then our care was concentrated on that one, our feelings likewise amplified. Everyone knows this. For some, there is a loved one who requires constant care, foreclosing a number of more peripheral relations. What is perceptably central, intermediary, or peripheral in the moment fluctuates.
For each of us there is a relatively small group of others, family and friends, about whom we are always concerned; though not in a debilitating, all-consuming way. Then there are those we don’t know, but with whom we might identify for one reason or another. Struggling single moms will be quick to recognize the travails of other struggling single moms. I can quickly establish rapport with some military veterans with whom I share experiences. Someone who’s been victimized by cops will identify with others who are abused by cops. Someone who really likes snowboarding will quickly establish rapport with other avid snowboarders. Nonetheless these forms of identification and rapport aren’t as ‘close’ as our feelings for actually-known loved ones. Think of it as concentric circles, with the greatest intensity in the center and diminishing intensity as one moves outward.
Our ever-more-distant, performative empathy picks up where the personal intensity dissolves, corresponding to a shift from co-present, perceptible, primordial experience to non-primordial, imaginary experience. (Stein again.) When I imagine even those I know, but perhaps haven’t seen for a long time, I experience a little “shock of the real” when I re-encounter that person again in the flesh. My non-primordial imagination of the person is overwhelmed, drowned even, in the proprioceptive intensity of being co-present, near enough to smell. Of the real.
Again, why does this matter enough to write about it? And where am I going with it?
I’m a kind of feral scholar, I suppose, who believes that the liberal order — embryonic in the sixteenth century and senescent in the twenty-first — was and is the perverse outgrowth of Western Christendom. Ivan Illich showed me that. In the early church, those fleeting momentary recurrences of the Incarnation were to be found in personal encounters — in the unimaginable and unpredictable I-Thou relation described in the Parable about the mugged Judean and his “enemy” Samaritan savior — which Illich rightly describes as a primordial, carnal encounter wherein one man responds with a feeling in his entrails provoked by the “call” from the wounded other.
When the church was established by Constantine, church officials went on to become state lawyers of a sort, and the church — not surprisingly — took a juridical turn. It’s no accident or coincidence that the birth of liberal capitalist modernity out of Christendom was midwifed by lawyers.
Illich describes the progressive depersonalization of charity in the early middle ages which corresponded to progressive juridicalization (institutionalization). Christians once kept some bread and a cot handy in their homes for strangers who might show up begging (who might be an angel, or Jesus himself). Then the church started having pilgrims and beggars sent to the churches or rectories. Later still, the church built flophouses for them. Charity, once characterized by an I-Thou encounter with the stranger, was taken away from everyday Christians (and, Illich argues, their Christian identity with it) and gradually institutionalized. This, of course, paved the way for more and more people to become Christians without having to deal with strangers in this very personal, embodied, close-enough-to-smell kind of way.
Fast forward to today, where we have all manner of social services, and charity consists of giving money to an intermediary of one’s own class to be dispensed via experts and institutions to the ‘needy.’ It’s pretty cheap grace. And our performative empathy is now an argumentative vehicle in support of expanding social services . . . but hardly ever of directly encountering the people who’ve been reduced to clients, the targets of ‘charity,’ with a menu of clinical issues (“needs”) to be resolved.
Once again, before the politically-reductionists start hyperventilating, don’t jump to the conclusion that I’m suggesting some simple subtraction of social services from our current reality (as if that were even possible). This post is not about politics or social services directly, but about empathy.
Abortion is a hot topic lately in the wake of the US Supreme Court striking down Roe v. Wade. The unborn are a group people can advocate for easily. Not taking sides in the utterly corrupted debate about ‘abortion,’ I’m saying — as many on both sides of the question have already noted —a lot of people who have (or claim to have) ferocious feelings for unborn babies they’ll never know, lose that performative ‘empathy’ for the babies once they draw breath. Many appear to have no feelings for the unknown mass of pregnant women. I want to note, however, that this is not — as some ideologues suggest — the way all abortion opponents are. There are hypocrites on the other side of the question whose performative empathy is for ‘all women,’ but we can’t generalize about these people either.
I’m not getting at some categorical point. There are degrees and variations and idiosyncratic permutations of ‘feeling for others.’ It’s silly to think that everyone around us should experience ‘empathy’ for people who are far away, far away from their experience, and who only exist on the periphery of a very busy consciousness; and its unfortunate that virtue-signaling hypocrisy is deployed against those who are honest enough to acknowledge they have neither the time nor the inclination to ‘feel’ for people (or animals) outside their experience or span of control. Speaking for myself, I’m much more interested these days in how you or I respond to the actual people with whom we share physically co-present encounters.
I bring up animals again, and people, with two more ruminations on this business of empathy: stories and scams.
On stories, I mean narratives containing characters with whom we identify — what a freshman lit teacher would tell you. I could raise a discussion about infanticide in the abstract that would elicit one kind of reaction, outrage at any woman who killed her baby; but when you read Toni Morrison’s Beloved, you have a different experience altogether. When you add in audiovisual media, there are mini-stories which can elicit powerful emotional reactions. Think of TV charity ads for poor children in Central America or abused animals in death ‘shelters.’ They don’t appeal to abstractions; they put a face on things (maybe with background music). The narrative, with the identifiable character, begins sad, gives you a chance to become a salvific character yourself, then ends happily with aid or rescue.
On scams, I’ll talk about Haiti, a place I once knew quite well. I personally identify with things happening to Haitians I don’t know, but only because I had real friendships there through which I can imagine what might be happening to other people in Haiti. For many potential charitable givers, Haiti is a different kind of imaginary — the object of their mediated savior-complexes. In 2010, Haiti was hit with a devastating earthquake. The images were horrific; and the Red Cross used those images liberally to collect $500 million from donors to ostensibly re-erect 130,000 homes. When the money was gone, the Red Cross had built six houses. The donors felt good about themselves when they gave the money, the Red Cross officials who pocketed the lion’s share were quite content until the scandal was revealed, and the Haitians got jackshit (something they get a lot of from northern charities).
Empathy at a distance can be bankable.
The world is messy, and lately a lot messier . . . scary even. We’re witnesses, knowingly or not, to a manifold crisis within which are a knock-along clutter of subsidiary crises, like epistemic crisis, like the loss of meaning, which makes us cling the more tightly to the tatters of meanings-past. Like an old and enfeebled whitefella who sucks his thumb on reruns of Gunsmoke and Ozzie and Harriet.
Today’s popular idea of empathy, as a psychological capacity for “feeling like others” didn’t make the scene until it was theorized into psychoanalysis by Heinz Kohut in 1958. Since then, it’s been converted into pop-psychology pap and a diagnostic category (hard to distinguish sometimes) that people can meter, measure, catechize, sell . . . and perform. “Women score higher than men on empathy.” “What is an empath? 15 signs and traits.” “The top ten habits of empathetic people.” “20 things you can say that are empathetic.” “The Empathy Edge: Harnessing the Value of Compassion as an Engine for Success” (I shit you not, this is a real book!).
We’re a couple of millennia past the Parable of the Samaritan and a couple of centuries into the huckster ethos of booster capitalism. Our own primordial experience is almost barren of that mysterious I-Thou that’s pre-tainted by our immersion in a culture of all-encompassing manipulation and its objectification of the other. Even our own children have too often become objects of manipulation and projection. The inevitable failure of the expansion, this Hubble constant of empathy, stretched further and further abroad until it achieves heat death, is the misdirection of our longing for one another, foreclosed in our personal encounters by that poisonous culture of manipulation and sublimated into distant performative empathy — akin to the addiction some have to spiritual fads, shopping, or opioids. One thing the addict learns to do early on in addiction is perform. I would know, as an addict in many forms.
On the other hand, we’ve all seen the reaction against distant performative empathy (DPE), the contrary, even irascible, “fuck them!” reaction that’s so firmly the opposite of DPE that it’s obviously part of the same phenomenon, the same milieu — the hyper-masculine complement to hyper-feminine DPE, like a cranky couple confined to the same house.
And so we are at an impasse.
The most revolutionary thing left may be friendship.