Magazine | December 17, 2012, Issue

Against Empathy

(Roman Genn)
America’s pain, Barack Obama’s gain

Just before the election, the Washington Post fluttered about what it described as “Barack Obama’s empathy edge.” The equally hardboiled reporters at Psychology Today pondered: “Is Obama empathetic to a fault?” The Empath-in-Chief himself has said that empathy rather than such bewhiskered qualities as constitutional scrupulousness is his main concern when choosing Supreme Court justices, of whom he demanded that they have “the empathy to recognize what it’s like to be a young, teenaged mom, the empathy to understand what it’s like to be poor or African-American or gay or disabled or old. And that’s the criteria by which I’m going to be selecting my judges.” During the ensuing debate over the elevation of self-described “wise Latina” Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court, unwise Caucasian George Lakoff fumed: “We cannot let conservatives get away with redefining empathy as irrational and idiosyncratic personal feeling. Empathy is the basis of our democracy and its true meaning must be defended.” But of course a “personal feeling” is precisely what empathy is, and “irrational and idiosyncratic” covers a great deal of empathy’s lexical ground, a fact that any expensively tenured professor of linguistics at Berkeley might learn from one of those terribly useful books with all the words in them.

Professor Lakoff is a credentialed scholar of language and purports to be an analyst of politics. He might be interested to know that the word “empathy” is a product of the 20th century, while American democracy dates from the 18th, meaning that the former is an unlikely basis for the latter. Perhaps he is under the impression that empathy is one of those preexisting conditions now covered by an assortment of federal mandates — if we can insure people against events that already have happened, then surely a word coined in 1910 to describe a concept from the 1890s can be the basis for a republic founded in 1776. Or perhaps Professor Lakoff simply does not know what the word means or what its origins are. Before the true meaning of “empathy” can be defended, it must be apprehended.

There are many words in President Obama’s vocabulary that he apparently does not understand, “enormity” and “unprecedented” prominent among them. Many people who misuse “empathy” treat it as a doubleplusgood version of “sympathy,” the same way that many an innocent “center”has been tarted up and styled “epicenter,” a word that not only does not mean center but in fact means not the center, or, more precisely, over the center. (When Agence France-Presse calls Nevada “the epicenter of the U.S. foreclosure crisis,” it is saying that the source of the subprime meltdown is buried somewhere deep within the earth directly beneath Las Vegas, which surely is not the case.) “Empathy,” as noted, is a recent coinage, but “sympathy” has an ancient and honorable history going back to Plato. It may be that people just get tired of using the old, right words and substitute new, wrong ones. But I believe the president is using “empathy” here correctly: He really does desire to place upon the benches of the highest courts in the land jurists who abjure impartiality and elevate irrational and idiosyncratic personal feelings over the law. That would account for the nomination of a mediocrity such as Sonia Sotomayor. Unlike “sympathy,” “empathy” suggests an act of complete substitution — of one party’s feelings for another’s — and Obama’s description of his criteria for court nominees also suggests an act of substitution — of one party’s feelings for the law. “Empathy” requires immersion; “sympathy” leaves room for independent thought.

What “empathy” really means in the president’s vocabulary is: “My people get their way.” All of the fine talk about emotional identification is misdirection: There are, after all, two sides to every legal dispute, and even President Obama’s ideal justices cannot very well exercise empathy on behalf of both of them at the same time. Beneath the mushy emotional talk lies the old-fashioned, muscular exercise of power.

Putting the feeling over the fact is precisely the president’s method of government, as when he averred that he would seek to raise taxes on wealthy people, even if doing so provided no economic benefits, simply because doing so makes him feel good, and makes the sort of people who vote for him feel good, too. Which is to say, tax hikes are a teething ring for the Left. Remember Stanley, the “adult baby” who slept in a giant crib, was fed from a bottle, and wore a diaper recreationally? Translate his eccentric personal habits into a political ethic and you have a pretty good approximation of the exercise in national infantalization that is the Obama administration. Babies, of course, are famously empathetic: One of them gets crying and the others will join in, like dogs barking. Normal human beings grow out of that, and the rest are committed to various kinds of institutions, such as Congress.

#page#Like many irritations derived from psychotherapy, the word “empathy” and the idea it represents are of German origin: einfühlung,a term associated with thetheory of aesthetics developed by Rudolph Lotz and Wilhelm Wundt in the late 19th century and rendered into English as the neologism “empathy” by one of their students in a 1910 translation. Einfühlung is one of those slippery German words that do not quite translate into English: “feeling into” in a transitive sense. To experience einfühlung is to project one’s sensory apparatus into an inanimate object, such as a painting or a sculpture, experiencing directly its aesthetic qualities and establishing a communion between art and observer. The English “empathy” retains that sense of the word: “The attribution of one’s own feelings to an object,” says American Heritage Dictionary, Second College Edition. (That particular dictionary, a copy of which I received as payment for the first piece of writing I published, includes an introductory essay by William F. Buckley, making the case for a traditional prescriptive approach to lexicology.) This was later broadened to include the direct sharing of human feeling, which is where the lunacy comes in: “the capacity for participating in or a vicarious experience of another’s feelings, volitions, or ideas, and sometimes another’s movements to the point of executing bodily movements resembling his,” a personal feeling that is nothing if not irrational and idiosyncratic.

The classical literary treatment of the phenomenon of empathy is the story of the Corsican brothers, Lucien and Louis, conjoined twins who were surgically separated but nevertheless continued to experience one another’s physical sensations. As Lucien explains:

We were obliged to be cut asunder. So that, you see, however distant we may be, we have ever the same body, so that any impression, physical or moral, which one may receive is immediately reflected in the other.

As a certain big creep once said: I feel your pain.

Being erudite readers of National Review, you no doubt first encountered the empathetic Corsican brothers in the novella by Alexandre Dumas père quoted above. I first encountered them in Cheech and Chong’s The Corsican Brothers, but there have been at least six other film adaptations, including one by pioneering filmmaker George Albert Smith in 1898 and a 1941 feature starring Douglas Fairbanks Jr. The Cheech and Chong version includes the most literal and physical kind of empathy: One brother drinks, the other gets drunk. When they quarrel, one repeatedly stabs himself in the hindquarters with a rapier to punish his twin. Wonderfully juvenile stuff — but the stuff of fiction, including science fiction, which is full of empaths such as Star Trek’s sexed-up Betazoids, for whom the Federation manufactured special uniforms with plunging necklines. People who literally experience others’ feelings are either characters in novels or nuts. Empathy is either an affectation, a literary device, or a delusion. Political empathy usually is an affectation, a pose assumed to mask nakedly political ends.

Whereas “empathy” (einfühlung) means feeling into, “sympathy” (mitfühlung) means feeling with, and what a difference a preposition makes. To empathize is to experience feelings of one’s own; to sympathize is to imagine another’s feelings or situation, and to be concerned for him. Properly understood, true empathy is just one more bar in the prison of the self. As Allison Barnes and Paul Thagard put it in “Empathy and Analogy,” “sympathy is performed with altruistic ends, but empathy may or may not be motivated by good intentions. Indeed, one may empathize solely with narcissistic ends.” The psychologist Lauren Wispé put it this way: “In empathy, the self is the vehicle for understanding, and it never loses its identity. . . . The object of empathy is understanding. The object of sympathy is the other person’s well-being.” Empathy is directed inward, but sympathy is directed outward. Sympathy is about the other guy — and empathy is all about me and my precious feelings. That is its main appeal to the Left, which is after all very little more in its American expression than infantile spoon-banging organized into voting blocs. When the inner big baby screams “I want!” empathy provides a megaphone.

And that is why President Obama and those in sympathy with him prize empathy. Empathy, or the imitation of empathy, entirely negates the need for argument in a great many circumstances. Take the case of same-sex marriage: There are homosexual couples who wish to be married, they are frustrated and hurt by their inability to be so, and if we are sufficiently empathetic, their frustration and pain becomes our frustration and pain, the only remedy to which is the legal grafting of gay marriage onto the body politic. It is true that any of us would experience pain if the law prevented us from marrying the one we loved. It is also true that any of us would experience pain if hanged for murder, but that fact says nothing about the wisdom of setting murderers loose instead. The empathetic response to that argument is: “How dare you compare gay people to murderers!” even though that says precisely nothing. Gay-marriage proponents simply do not want to hear the argument, and empathy demands that the argument not be heard. Empathy means never having to say . . . anything. At least anything in the form of a sensible argument. One might have a great deal of sympathy for the situation of devoted same-sex couples, and that sympathy might lead us in any number of directions: toward gay marriage, toward civil unions or other legal tools that help same-sex couples dispose of their own affairs, etc. It might lead us, after careful examination, in the opposite direction. Sympathy demands consideration, thought, and analysis — empathy precludes them.

#page#Empathy is a gateway to the most vulgar and intellectually indefensible kind of identity politics, for example the endlessly reiterated observation that because men do not experience pregnancy, they should be circumspect in their opinions on abortion. That is not an argument, notice, but something more like an empty hole in the shape of an argument, an impression left over after the content has been removed, i.e., the classical appeal to empathy. One can — and one should — have sympathy for women in the very difficult circumstance of an unwanted pregnancy, but that does not make dismembering children the right course of action. Empathy renders us willfully blind. It is a curious feature of the abortion debate that the religious camp has the science firmly on its side — the literal biological facts of life involving a living human organism at an early stage of development — while the secular side must take refuge in metaphysics, in this case the legal device of “personhood.” But empathy gets what empathy demands, in this case the negation of thought and the annihilation of tens of millions of human beings apparently unworthy of our concern, empathetic, sympathetic, or otherwise. Empathy is of course applied with the greatest selectivity: You will not hear Barack Obama calling for empathy with the people he intends to loot.

The president, who gives the impression of being none too careful a thinker, says he believes that having “the empathy to recognize what it’s like to be a young, teenaged mom” might illuminate the political questions surrounding abortion, but he never says why he believes that. People who have made the same mistakes as we have can be useful teachers — or they can be bad influences and enablers of destructive habits. Teenaged mothers could learn a great deal from women who did not become teenaged mothers, even if the lack of common experience left those women with little in the way of what the president calls “empathy.” For that matter, those young women could learn a great deal from responsible and mature men, a fact that surely must have occurred to President Obama, who is the father of two daughters.

Why should poor people or disabled people need politicians who know what it is like to be poor or disabled? They already know what it is like to be poor or disabled. (It stinks.) Who would be more useful to an unemployed man: a man who knows what it is like to be unemployed, through long personal experience, or a man who never has been unemployed, because he built a business and employed himself? The main problems of the poor and unemployed do not include a shortage of people able to commiserate with them — their problems are a shortage of money, a shortage of jobs, a shortage of marketable skills, a shortage of economic growth, etc. Scarcity is real, and it cannot be empathized away. Similarly, the very last thing people suffering from addiction, illegitimacy, illiteracy, abuse, violence, or poverty need is our empathy — you’d think four years of high unemployment, growing poverty, and soaring dependency rates, all accompanied by great gobs of empathy, would have taught us that. What they need is our sympathy, which sometimes causes our hearts to direct our heads to communicate certain hard truths, including the facts about the sorts of decisions that can lead one into poverty and misery — or out.

Americans say they reelected Barack Obama for his empathy. As ABC News put it: “Barack Obama neutralized Mitt Romney on the economy, beat him on empathy, and again turned the curve of America’s demographic change to Democratic advantage.”  He, too, feels our pain — and voters ignore the fact that his policies are an important source of it. So the president does in fact have an “empathy edge.” His empathy and 43 nickels will get you a cup of coffee, but nickels are in short supply these days and Starbucks has been raising prices.

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