I have in the past written that I am “against empathy.” Because the world is full of dishonest people and stupid people — such as New York Times columnists and their readers, respectively — I sometimes have to explain that “empathy” is not a synonym for “sympathy,” “kindness,” or “compassion.” Words mean things. That’s what makes them useful.
To the extent that empathy is anything other than a literary device, it’s a shallow response to emotional stimuli, no more meaningful than a flinch. Sympathy requires an active mind, because it requires understanding not only of a particular moment of suffering but also its context. Sympathy requires a little work from us. Empathy is a moral get-out-of-jail-free card, which is why the people who most loudly advertise their “empathy,” like those who boast of their compassion, are generally the most vicious and hate-driven people you ever will have the misfortune to meet. And also the most ignorant, e.g., political neophyte Taylor Swift.
(N.B., New York Times readers: “Ignorant” is not a synonym for “stupid.”)
Taylor Swift, possibly the most famous woman in the world and hence one of the most powerful, issued a savage attack on Marsha Blackburn, a Republican Senate candidate from Tennessee. This was not merely a case of policy disagreement: Swift accused Blackburn of being a racist and a bigot who countenances discrimination against people based on race, sex, and sexual orientation, a figure who “appalls and terrifies” her, who is callous toward rape and domestic violence.
Swift’s claim is based on the fact that Blackburn has voted against some legislation. She voted against the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act and a bill purporting to abolish sex discrimination in wages. A person acting in sympathy might ask: “Why did Blackburn oppose these bills?” Blackburn wasn’t alone: The ACLU, back when it was an actual civil-liberties organization rather than another Democratic-party front, opposed VAWA at the time it was first under consideration, partly out of concerns that the bill would provide for the extended detention of people who had been neither charged with nor convicted of a crime, that it mandated HIV testing for people who had not been convicted of any offense, and that it imposed excessive penalties. (The ACLU has since changed its mind.) The Supreme Court found part of the act unconstitutional. Some Republicans later opposed reauthorization of the act on a number of grounds, including a provision that would have given temporary visas to illegal aliens who claimed to have suffered certain crimes, creating incentives for abuse. Perhaps the concerns of the ACLU and congressional Republicans do not seem persuasive to you — they are nonetheless good-faith objections. Is it impossible to imagine that there are many other good-faith objections to these laws and to similar ones? No, but that requires some work, and some sympathy.
Ignorance is always dangerous. Ignorance combined with power — and in these weird times, pop stars have real power — is a powerful weapon. Swift has real power, and she has used it to hurt a real person, and has done so in a way that is unfair and entirely lacking in the quality that she claims to prize.
Taylor, why you gotta be so mean?
Sometimes, the people on the opposite side from us politically really are monsters. Our friends at the New York Times did morally culpable propaganda work for the Soviet Union, which murdered millions in the gulags and starved millions to death to make a political point in the Ukraine. But, mostly, disagreements are just disagreements. No one on either side of the Violence Against Women Act debate was in favor of domestic violence or date rape, but there was some disagreement about whether those crimes are better handled at the state level or the federal level, about their effects on a wide range of federal policy questions (illegal immigration was just one of them), old-fashioned concerns such as due process, etc. It is a slander to suggest that Blackburn and others who took a view different from that preferred by Taylor Swift are indifferent to rape, violence, abuse, or discrimination. To slander someone in that way, reflexively and unthinkingly, and to use the great heavy cudgel of colossal celebrity to strike the blow, is vicious, cruel, and indefensible.
But that won’t stop Swift and others like her from lecturing us about their great compassion. The pity is that even if they knew enough to be properly ashamed of themselves, they probably wouldn’t. There is no hatred like the one based on “empathy.”