‘Empathy is at the heart of progressive thought,” according to George Lakoff, the linguist best known for authoring Don’t Think of an Elephant. He argued in 2009 that empathy is “the capacity to care, to feel what others feel, to understand what others are facing and what their lives are like.”
Some progressives, however, practice a highly selective form of empathy. Writing for Time magazine after a Missouri grand jury’s decision not to indict Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson in the shooting death of Michael Brown, Darlena Cunha asked, “In such a case, is rioting so wrong?” No, she quickly concluded. Rioting is merely “the legitimate frustration, sorrow, and pain of the marginalized voices . . . spilling out into our streets.” Cunha invoked, as an encouraging precedent, the 1992 Rodney King riots in Los Angeles, never mentioning the 53 people killed during that riot, much less empathizing with them and their families.
The New York Times’ brand of empathy is also not without harsh idiosyncrasies. Hours before the grand jury’s decision about the Michael Brown shooting was announced, the paper reported that Darren Wilson had gotten married the previous month. In the service of no journalistic purpose made clear at the time or put forward by the paper subsequently, the story included the name of the street and city where the Wilsons reside, along with the helpful information that their home was located “about a half-hour drive from Ferguson.”
The quest to subordinate empathy to the furtherance of political ends culminates in the principled refusal to feel one’s own pain. A Georgetown University senior recently went to extraordinary lengths to demonstrate how closely he has been listening to lectures on white privilege. His article for the campus newspaper, “I Was Mugged, and I Understand Why,” contends that being robbed at gunpoint at 2 a.m. is a predictable, justifiable fate for someone who lives “in the most privileged neighborhood within a city that has historically been, and continues to be, harshly unequal.” After all, “who am I to stand from my perch of privilege, surrounded by million-dollar homes and paying for a $60,000 education, to condemn these young men as ‘thugs’?”
Calling out the self-serving belief that “rules are for other people” is the obvious way to make sense of, and condemn, such progressive empathizers. While hypocrisy does explain part of the phenomenon, leaving the matter there suggests that unhypocritical, consistent empathy would set things right. In fact, the fundamental flaw is not departing from but adhering to the moral logic of empathy, which guarantees arbitrary, incoherent, destructive outcomes.
The words “empathy” and “compassion,” used interchangeably in our time, always extol something characterized as surpassingly good and vital. Thus, the Oxford English Dictionary defines compassion as the “feeling or emotion, when a person is moved by the suffering or distress of another, and by the desire to relieve it.” This aligns with Lakoff’s description of empathy as “the capacity to put oneself in the shoes of others . . . especially those who are in some way oppressed, threatened, or harmed.”
It’s clear why a spontaneous emotional response to others’ suffering is politically potent. Politics is centrally concerned with addressing grievances, and compassion is the most direct way for the aggrieved to find allies among those not subject to a particular affliction.
The quality that makes compassion politically forceful, however, also makes it politically unreliable. Left to its own devices, the spontaneous emotion of compassion is likely to leave us moved by any and all sufferers: outraged rioters and the owners of looted stores; blacks who fear the police and policemen who live in hiding for fear of vigilantes. But because politics is about taking sides, wayward, random empathizing turns out to be ill-suited to the activity Henry Adams described as “the systematic organization of hatreds.”
If compassion is to be made to do its duty, to be strong and dependable, politics must be, conversely, the systematic organization of empathies. This organizing requires narratives of oppression and hierarchies of victimhood, which will impart the lesson that not all suffering is created equal. Let’s not lose sight of who’s the real victim here, empathetic partisans always say.
Thus, some sufferers deserve our total, unqualified compassion. For American liberalism, the moral of the civil-rights movement is that in any conflict the darker-skinned people are presumptively aggrieved and the lighter-skinned presumptively culpable. This framework made opposition to South Africa’s apartheid regime obvious and imperative but reduced the Clinton administration to impotent hand-wringing in 1994 when equally dark Hutus and Tutsis killed one another by the thousands in Rwanda.
Others who suffer as a result of efforts to aid the real victims may leave us feeling regretful, but the hierarchy of victimhood requires us to view their troubles as eggs broken in order to make omelets. So, in keeping with their master narrative, liberals simply shrug about the way affirmative-action programs diminish educational and career opportunities for whites and Asians. Seventeen years after he had the temerity to protest, all the way to Supreme Court vindication, his race-based exclusion from the University of California, Davis, medical school, Allen Bakke could read in the New York Times that he hadn’t “set the world on fire as a doctor.”
At the bottom of the hierarchy of victimhood, empathetic progressives not only tolerate but demand suffering in the name of compassion. This proclivity is older than justifying riots or giving navigational assistance to vigilantes. It is older, indeed, than American liberalism. Jacobins encouraged the descent of the French Revolution into Terror with the demand “For pity, for the love of humanity, be inhumane!” Such war cries, Hannah Arendt argued in On Revolution, “are neither accidental nor extreme.” They are, instead, “the authentic language of pity,” which, “taken as the spring of virtue, has proved to possess a greater capacity for cruelty than cruelty itself.” Little wonder — and little comfort — that one writer’s rebuke to the Ferguson “riot shamers” was, “if you still think a few looted shops ‘distract from the message,’ wait until you see the guillotines.”
— William Voegeli, a senior editor of the Claremont Review of Books, is author of The Pity Party: A Mean-Spirited Diatribe Against Liberal Compassion.