When empathy is a lie: This will be intellectual and political #richardarmitage
Lots of great discussions since yesterday in the blogosphere in response to Richard Armitage’s statement for Cybersmile yesterday. In addition, there are two or three things I’ve been thinking about since then. One of them I’m unlikely to discuss (how exercising too much empathy has harmed me in life, and why I don’t recommend it without true self-awareness of what one is doing and understanding of its limits) and one would be worth more discussion (why telling young women to be more empathetic without considering context can be debilitating advice), but one I’m going to talk about today is something I’ve observed repeatedly in numerous contexts, and that is how we use empathy to deceive ourselves (either consciously or unconsciously) not just about things that happen on the Internet, where misunderstandings are rife, but about things that happen right in front of our faces, in conversations with people we know.
Disclaimer: This post disagrees with Richard Armitage. Anyone is allowed to voice reasoned disagreement with Armitage. Like Perry, I do not question his good will. The fact that one means something from the heart, however, does not prevent one from being wrong, and disagreeing does not mean I assign malevolence to the person with whom I disagree. And since I just read, again, that fans who disagree with Armitage should be silent about it and need to be shouted down, let me remind all readers that not all statements, behaviors, or arguments I dislike personally are bullying (even by CyberSmile’s capacious but flimsy definition), and that I, like Armitage, am personally invested in this issue.
Vignette 1: Inability to empathize with the concerns of fellow fans
I talked about this common problem with regard to homophobia last week. Certain groups are not considered worthy of empathy or not easily empathizable with from the perspective of the mainstream, and thus their problems or questions are written off as not worthy of public consideration. But if I believe that all humans are created equal (hard to be an American and avoid thinking that — even if the execution of the principle has been unsatisfactory), and entitled to the equal protection of the laws, then I have to consider the possibility that all other concerns are equally valid to mine.
I’m not equating being an intellectual with being gay, but it is a fact of life that academics and former academics discuss things at length and in detail. Now I read from another fan that I’m “overthinking” it. I put it to that fan that this is a failure of empathy on their part, since they are unable or unwilling to put themself in the situation of someone who has the attitude toward thinking that I have. Devoting examination to something is evidence that I care. Not examining things I care about — for me — is tantamount to saying they’re not important or worthy of the effort. Just because you wouldn’t think about something as much as I like to, doesn’t mean that I shouldn’t.
I’m reminded of a vacation I took with exSO during a very hot summer. I kept making him drink. He finally said to me, “I don’t have to drink more just because you are thirsty.” I put myself in his shoes and tried to act in a caring way — but I forgot to take the me out of myself and so his shoes didn’t fit me.
Note: I’m not saying that other fans should empathize with me or my concerns. Or that even if they do empathize, that they must agree. I myself do not consider every person on the planet deserving of empathy, and I can experience empathy for people without agreeing with what they are arguing. I’m just pointing out why empathy is a problematic strategy: because most people are generally only willing to consider extending empathy (to varying degrees) with people who are fundamentally already like themselves. If it’s an act of imagination, most people’s imagination stretches only so far.
We could then also get into the question about who deserves more empathy based on their life situation. There are probably people we might try harder to empathize with because they are less powerful or privileged or more vulnerable or weak economically, politically, physically, and so on. For this reason, because people who get involved in a debate with me occasionally feel outmatched, I usually don’t broach arguments with those who don’t like to argue. This is a sympathetic or ethical rather than an empathetic decision on my part, though, since I don’t really understand what it’s like not to enjoy debating things. I accept that this is a state of mind that exists among many people, but it is not the norm either in my family / original context or my professional world, and so it puzzles me.
Vignette 2: Structural obstacles to empathy
I’m sitting in my office about a year ago counseling a student about how to deal with a bureaucratic situation at the university that is preventing them from registering. The student is in the right, but a number of university offices are not communicating with each other effectively. I’ve been in a similar situation myself back in the day (one term in grad school, I couldn’t get my fellowship till I registered, couldn’t register till I paid library fines, and couldn’t pay library fines till I got the fellowship check).
I told the student, “This is what you have to do to get yourself registered” and detailed the steps. The student looked discouraged. I said, “I know this is unpleasant and will take about two days to resolve, but it’s the solution to your problems. How about you just start with this one office today?” The student looked like they were going to say something and I said, “So what’s on your mind?”
The student said, “I just can’t do that. I’ll have to sit out this semester.”
I sat still for a minute and thought about the student. I said, “Hmm, let me look through your records and see if there is another solution.” I started flipping computer pages and noticed — aha. I ask to confirm, “Where did you go to high school?” The student named a high school that is located, charitably put, in a slum. Only 10 percent of students at that school are currently reading at grade level. I keep reading through the file. I asked further, “Are you receiving a Pell Grant?” Answer was yes, the student receives the maximum grant. And the switch flips on.
Because the Pell Grant is underfunded, only the poorest of students receive it. Combined with the high school information, it becomes clear to me that the student has low SES. I didn’t notice it right away, because the student was white, had excellent grades, was neatly dressed, and very well-spoken. In short — apparently like me when I was that age. Except not.
“Just a sec,” I say to the student, and flip the computer to my calendar. I’m about to break for lunch. Excellent. “Would you have time go there right now?” I ask. The student hems and haws. I say, “OK, great. Come on. I was going to walk past the student commons anyway for a sandwich, so on my way, I’ll walk over to the first office with you and help you talk to them.” I’m technically not supposed to do this — one of the things I am supposed to be teaching in this job is self-reliance, particularly for students who have been helicoptered and lack resilience, but due to low SES, this student may not yet be at the proximal level of development where they feel able to negotiate for themselves with large, anonymous systems. This student has possibly been learning for twenty years that bureaucracy frequently functions to deny them basic needs and that bureaucrats don’t listen and only enforce rules. Their entire life may have taught them that rules rarely bend for anyone. That they are even enrolled at this university and sitting in my office is already a minor miracle. They don’t need lessons in resilience; rather, they need to develop some more cultural capital.
So what did I do wrong? I put myself in the student’s shoes. I had, indeed, been in the student’s shoes. But I still didn’t take myself out of the equation. I grew up with moderate SES and was inculcated with the belief that I am allowed to negotiate and ask questions to get what I want from bureaucracies. To me, bureaucracies are a hassle — but not a closed door.
I began to function better for the student in this situation when I stopped acting empathetically and asked myself: what will solve this problem? I don’t know what it’s like to be another person, let alone a poor student from a violence-ridden area who somehow has pushed himself onto a relatively safe space that must appear at times like another planet. If I had stuck with my empathetic reaction and followed the recommended method for dealing with the situation, I would have been deceived as to the real issue, and as a consequence, the student might have sat out the semester.
It might be argued that in this situation, I showed compassion. But empathy actually got in the way of that initially. They are not the same thing. Because I was empathetic, I concluded initially that the student could deal with the problem on their own. This is a problem that has concerned political theorists since approximately the late 1980s — in debates about subaltern politics, it became clear that different cultural groups in our societies voice their interests and subject positions differently, often times in ways that are incomprehensible to those who don’t share those positions.
Vignette 3: When empathy facilitates condescension
It’s April 2008 and U.S. President Barack Obama is beginning his re-election campaign, speaking at a fundraiser in San Francisco, and trying to explain a fundamental conundrum in U.S. politics to his very liberal audience — that some socio-economic segments of the population consistently vote against their own economic interests. They are suffering from so-called “false consciousness.” Measured purely from the standpoint of what would benefit them more economically, it is at least arguable that large numbers of poor Americans who currently vote for the GOP (the focus typically falls on poor, rural whites) should not be doing so. Whether this is true or not is another question — but a lot of time has been devoted in the party, among political theorists, and in the press to trying to assess why it happens.
Obama had spent a week in the part of the country he was talking about, talking to voters, and his remarks show that he had obviously taken some time to think about why it might be that these voters don’t vote for the Democratic Party. His statement, which was widely quoted in the press, went as follows:
You go into these small towns in Pennsylvania and, like a lot of small towns in the Midwest, the jobs have been gone now for 25 years and nothing’s replaced them. And they fell through the Clinton administration, and the Bush administration, and each successive administration has said that somehow these communities are gonna regenerate and they have not.
And it’s not surprising then they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy toward people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.
The president was widely excoriated in the press when this remark became known, and although I voted for the man twice, in my opinion he deserved it. In his attempt to put himself in the shoes of people fundamentally unlike himself in almost every way, he again failed to take himself out of the equation. He ended up implying that people’s concerns about religion or undocumented immigration are not in themselves real. If only they had a healthy economy, he seems to argue, they wouldn’t be religiously conservative. They would ignore the very real issues that have arisen in this country around undocumented immigration. They would abandon what is only emotional and not mistaken principled support for second amendment rights.
He couldn’t take himself out of the equation. If he had experienced these economic problems, his method for dealing with it would be to cling to an illusory belief that would soothe his frustrations. Or at least, he thinks so. He’s a cosmopolitan person for whom all of these ideas he doesn’t like are unthinkable. He doesn’t know what it’s like to grow up with those ideas and really believe them. His statement suggests that he can’t really conceive of that possibility. Or that it might be an informed position, among a population in an economically depressed part of the country, to oppose free trade agreements.
His notion: Beliefs that I don’t like are not real in themselves and have some other cause. The result of an honest attempt at putting himself in someone else’s shoes. He didn’t mean to condescend. But if we don’t put ourselves in other people’s shoes on their terms (rather than ours), that is always the result.
Someone complimented me last week for not condescending to readers. I don’t know if that’s true — but I think I am being much more respectful of people if I take them at their word and assume that they are equal interlocutors than if I try to empathize with them. That way I’m arguing with people — and not with my idea of those people.
One of the serious problems in this blog, I think, is that when I disagree with Richard Armitage, I’m ultimately disagreeing with an idea of him. I try to build the idea accurately based on evidence available, of course. Some people think I’ve built the wrong idea. But when they agree with him, they are also only agreeing with an idea. The problem of extrapolating from missing evidence affects every single fan.
Vignette 4: When empathy prevents understanding
So this gets me to the current situation in the U.S., because what liberals say about Trump voters mirrors what Obama said about people in rural Pennsylvania in 2008. To be fair, an entire century of political science, sociology, and historical research has come to similar conclusions: proto-fascist, populist, nativist individuals and movements in democracies often arise at moments of severe economic dislocation or perceived economic dislocation.
I think this is not entirely wrong, but it is reductionist. It assumes that the most important thing to all voters is a certain level of economic security. In essence, I think this is a class-based standpoint. It priorities a fear in the social groups that control the research that the most troubling thing about being poor to poor people is the economic aspect of poverty. Note that I’m not asserting that poor people are not troubled by their lack of financial stability. I’m simply saying that not every manifestation of what poor people think and say, whether politically or otherwise, is primarily determined by the fact of their economic problems.
I think the kneejerk reaction of liberals is that racism in the U.S. is the position of evil, narrow-minded individuals. When we try to empathize with their position, we say, oh, it’s because these groups of people feel insecure and economically displaced and threatened by the outside world. I think that both of these explanations — one based on an emotional reaction, the other based on empathy — are increasingly untenable. But the insistence that we have to be empathetic with the people who hold these positions is now masking any attempt to understand what is really going on, why racism in the U.S. persists, and what might be done about it. And in assuming — based on our vaunted, condescending empathy — that we know better than these people what they think and feel and what is going on their own lives — we become ridiculously arrogant. Thinking in this way is totally valid as a way of doing research. But in dealing with other humans, it fans, rather than soothes, political antipathy.
Vignette 5: Acting, empathy, and self-deception
Coming back to Richard Armitage for a moment — I know that actors don’t like this description, but from the outsider standpoint, what actors are doing is “pretending to be someone other than themselves in a credible way for the purposes of art and entertainment.” In one of his earlier CyberSmile statements, Armitage called this activity “imagining” and termed it one of the reasons that the profession was attractive to him. That is a totally legitimate perspective for an actor to have on his profession, but not only that. It’s obviously such an important thing for actors to be doing that artists have theorized for at least a century that I’m aware of about the best way to accomplish it (“the Method,” for instance). One cannot successfully “play” or “be” someone else even temporarily without a high level of capacity to attempt to assume not just another perspective, but indeed another identity.
Some of those acts of imagining are more comfortable than others, one imagines — again speaking as an outsider. It’s probably not pleasant to be imagining to be a serial killer, for instance, at least for the average person. This is a category of person for whom people typically think empathy should be limited. But that’s part of my point in this long serious of examples of largely well-intentioned empathy failures. I feel discomfort at imagining I were a serial killer (I use the subjunctive intentionally there to make a point). But a serial killer doesn’t feel the same kind of discomfort, presumably; that is part of what differentiates him from me. To empathize with a serial killer, I hypothesize that I would need to come to a point of imagination where I am not only not bothered by the idea of killing a victim violently and ritually, I might even be attracted to it, feel compelled to do it, or crave doing it. Perhaps Richard Armitage got to that point in his preparations to play Francis Dolarhyde, but I doubt it. Fans are frequently afraid he is doing it, though — hence the periodic fan confession that some fan is afraid Armitage will engage in some dangerous activity or another in order to prepare for a role, and harm himself in the process.
It’s an extreme example — but I think it is more widely applicable. Understanding “why” someone behaves the way they do (or thinking that I do) does not necessarily mean assimilating it in a meaningful way. Tout comprendre n’est pas tout pardonner, to challenge with a common proverb; even empathizing with someone’s position will not cause me to agree with it automatically. In fact, I can imagine that I am another person, whether one I admire or one I despise or even a person sitting across from me. But even if I am mostly or partially successful at editing my own subject position out of my conclusions, I will never be that person. When I imagine I am someone else, I then talk to the person I imagine, who is not the real person, and create the real risk that I am talking only to myself and not listening to the real person who is there in front of me. In the worst case, it can actually exacerbate problems insofar as I have created a species of empathy for someone that condescends to and humiliates them.
That sort of temporary self-deception is fine for an actor in a role, because in playing a role, the actor also talks to other figments of imagination. It’s okay to lie to yourself about who you and other people are in this setting. It’s not fine for real people, though, and in my opinion — not just in the political word, but in the fan world — we are much better served by talking to each other as we are.