THE EMPATHY TRAP: PROGRESSIVES AND THE PERILS OF COMPASSION

by Richard King

CleanEnergyMarch-4-1470306_(28436260852)It's the first week of winter here in Australia. Time to move the herbs to a sunnier spot; to fetch the heater up from the shed; to throw an extra blanket on the bed … And, of course, to dig out the jackets and jumpers from the walk-in robe, and stow the colourful summer gear: the sarongs, the short-sleeved shirts, the shorts, the beachwear, the Political Lace …

Sorry? You've not heard of Political Lace? Oh but it's the latest thing, and very, very beautiful! It's what's known in the fashion world as “a wearable” – part art, part garment, part technology. And it's lace, you see, but political. Hence the name: “Political Lace”.

But perhaps I'm not explaining this well. I'll let the cool-hunters at PSFK expand:

A wearable can do more than just catch your eye – it can start an important conversation.

Wearables continue to make their way into conversations about innovative fashion. Just recently, they made appearances at both New York Fashion Week and Paris Fashion Week. But beyond their aesthetic appeal, wearables can serve as a way to discuss important issues. Curator, artist and creative technologist Melissa Coleman wanted to find “the most minimal way to represent data” related to women's rights.

Using data from a UNICEF report, Coleman found that the number of “girls dying in childbirth every year due to preventable circumstances” meant one woman was dying every 7.5 minutes. The result: Political Lace, a fashion piece that lights up every 7.5 minutes to symbolize another death.

Coleman explained more about the thought process behind the piece in an email:

“I thought: if you only have one LED, what can you say? I realized the most powerful thing you could do with it is count lives, which was perfect for representing a political cause. I am passionate about women's rights, so the piece became about the sad intersection of poverty, youth and education that results in teenagers dying in childbirth all around the world.”

Political Lace starts a discussion through its visual nature – the wearer would stand out in virtually any situation or location with the piece. When strangers ask about the nature of the piece, it creates a way for the wearer to discuss an ethical and political issue in an unexpected way.

So, there you go. Want to look like a million bucks and “start an important conversation” about women and girls who die in childbirth? Then treat yourself to some Political Lace, “a fashion piece that lights up every 7.5 minutes to symbolize another death”. Classy!

No, I didn't make this up. And yes, it is self-satirising – such that it puts itself beyond real controversy. (It's highly unlikely we'll ever see anyone actually wearing this ludicrous garment, save for the agonised adolescent on PSFK's “creative intelligence platform”.) But as with Kendall Jenner and that Pepsi commercial, I find myself asking how on earth it was that this thing came to exist at all. How is it that Political Lace found its way into a designer's head, let alone into an uncritical article in The Guardian? From what combination of cultural brassicas did such a brainfart emerge? And what political atmospherics permitted it to linger long enough to be noticed?

No doubt the rather limited circles in which fashionistas move is part of it. That industry, after all, is superficial by definition. But there's something deeper going on here: something about the flimsiness (or laciness) of our approach to politics. It has to do with empathy, I think, and the store that contemporary society sets by it. Channelling “awareness” and ostentation, Political Lace is the reductio ad absurdum of what we might call “instrumental compassion”.

Melinda gatesTo glance at contemporary politics, especially progressive politics, is to see empathy invoked at every turn. Whether it's Bill and Melinda Gates urging students at their Stanford commencement to expand their empathetic powers, or Barack Obama waxing rhetorical about “the empathy deficit” in modern life, or placards reading “Love Trumps Hate”, compassion and empathy are the go-to concepts for those who desire to change the world, to make it a happier, more equal place. Look at these pictures, listen to these stories, nurture your innate compassion, and together we can overcome …

Nor are such sentiments limited to vacuous speeches and political slogans. In The Empathetic Civilization (2009) Jeremy Rifkin argues that the only way our species will avoid environmental and economic collapse is through the evolution of “global empathy”. Similarly, philosopher Roman Krznaric argues, in Empathy: A Handbook for Revolution, that ours is an “Age of Introspection” and that what is needed is an “Age of Outrospection”. “Homo self-centricus” must come to appreciate that s/he is really “Homo empathicus”. We need to be mindful of the Cheyenne proverb, “Do not judge your neighbour until you walk two moons in his moccasins.”

Love_Trumps_Hate_(32451179905)Such views identify the principal problem of politics as a lack of empathy, or what Professor Simon Baron-Cohen, in The Science of Evil, calls “empathy corrosion”. There is something about modern life, it is argued, that is unconducive to empathy, and its absence is the unhealthy soil in which the weeds of indifference take root and spread. In Australia, this contention is most often encountered in the debate about our appalling regime of mandatory offshore detention of unsolicited asylum-seekers, a regime that is widely assumed to stem from a lack of official (and community) compassion. In his closing address to the 2011 Melbourne Writers' Festival, “The Australian Disease: On the Decline of Love and the Rise of Non-Freedom”, novelist Richard Flanagan put the case in unequivocal terms:

Numerous psychological studies have demonstrated how human beings can be desensitized to the sufferings of others, how empathy can be eroded to the point where otherwise reasonable people can inflict great suffering in good conscience. Australia over the last two decades has been one vast psychological study in which our leaders have desensitized a nation to the plight of others.

There you have the argument in a nutshell: “the empathy deficit” as the root of the problem; compassion, or “love”, as moral herbicide.

No one does empathy like novelists, of course, and Flanagan's elevation to the status of public intellectual is itself a sign of the high esteem in which that quantity is held by liberals. (His lecture is now published as a little book and is something of a reference point in progressive circles.) But there is something deeply wrong with this picture. And not just wrong but counterproductive. The more compassion and empathy are invoked, the more they are revealed as politically ineffective.

First, let's accept that human beings are, so to speak, hardwired for empathy. Recent research in primatology, and the discovery of “mirror neurons“, suggest that empathy is a natural trait of the human animal and its closest relatives: that, contra the right-libertarian bore cluttering up the saloon bar, humans are not the solitary brutes of Thomas Hobbes' imagination. Nor were Thatcherism and Reaganomics the unvarnished projection of human nature into the sphere of political economy. It is the genius of capitalism to have harnessed the acquisitive instinct to the (uneven) functioning of a global economy – the genius, and the tragedy. But to characterise the competitive aspects of human nature as definitional traits is to misunderstand the human animal. We are already “Homo-empathicus”.

But the idea that a lack of empathy is necessarily A Bad Thing, and that a surfeit of it is A Good Thing, is problematic. For example, and as the psychologist Paul Bloom has argued in Against Empathy (2016), it is far from clear that a lack of empathy is as central to, say, psychopathy as is generally, and often lazily, assumed. Yes, psychopaths lack affective empathy (not cognitive empathy, by the way: they're very good at “reading” people's emotions). But this want of affect is to be found across the psychopathic personality – such that the lack of emotional empathy may be just one facet of a more general malaise. Conversely, people with Asperger's or autism who score low on cognitive and emotional empathy, often have strong moral codes and are not unusually manipulative. So, perhaps empathy isn't the panacea Flanagan et al. assume it to be.

Womens-March-MadisonWI-Jan212017-25Moreover, empathy is “innumerate and biased” (Bloom). Not only are we more likely to feel empathy for those who tend to look like us – a fact not always conducive to the universalism in which calls for more compassion often come couched – but we also tend to lavish our empathy on what's called the “identifiable victim“: not the hundreds who may have been killed in a drone attack, but the engineer kneeling in front of the jihadi, his ashen face the picture of fear. In this way empathy cuts across (political) morality and may often come into conflict with it. For example there will be circumstances in which it is necessary to deny someone a job – a job in mining coal, say – in order to secure the future happiness and health of people not yet born. In such a scenario empathy can be an obstacle; it can lead us to make the wrong decision. Krznaric writes that empathy could have prevented the conflagration in Iraq; but the stories of Saddam Hussein's brutality, and the deep emotions such stories stir, might also have prepared the ground for it. As for mandatory offshore detention: the conservative case for that system is made through reference to the countless souls who have drowned trying to get to Australia's shores. Notwithstanding that such arguments may be advanced in bad faith, one can see how empathy is often a bad guide to questions of political policy.

It follows from this that your capacity for empathy is, to put it brutally, beside the point. Of course, I wouldn't be writing this article at all if I didn't care about the world; nor would you be reading it. But if all I gave you was empathy and compassion you'd accuse me (rightly) of wasting your time. So: let's agree that most of us care, but accept that our caring is largely irrelevant to what we demand of, or deny to, power.

HomelessParis_7032101That we treat empathy as a virtue in itself is a symptom, I think, of political confusion, especially on the progressive side of the line, where a politics of conspicuous compassion serves as both the remedy for the erosion of societal solidarity and as a stand-in for the political solidarity that declined with the shrinking of the labour movement. If our society seems to lack compassion, then that has to do with the kind of society we have, not the shortcomings of the atomised souls within it. It isn't a lack of compassion that results in homelessness or poverty; it's the system in which wealth is created socially and appropriated privately, and in which overproduction does not just coexist with these evils but actually causes them. To say that our lack of compassion is the problem is to privatise a public ill, and, in so doing, reproduce the logic of the system that necessitates our disgust. The marvellous Australian commentator Helen Razer makes this point frequently: that in railing empathetically against the system and its deep unfairness we create the conditions for its reproduction.

Little wonder, then, that like everything else in contemporary capitalist society our compassion can be packaged, commodified, and that the charities ask us, increasingly, not merely to care, but to show that we care: to pin the awareness ribbon to our lapel, or slip the empathy band on our wrist. It isn't the charity's fault, of course: it isn't their job to worry about how they relieve us of our loose change or banking details; they just want to help victims of natural disasters, or give African children back their sight. No, it's us who invite this kind of attention, who make a point of signalling our virtuous compassion, such that our empathy threatens to become a species of self-absorption: our encounter with another person's pain becomes another way of experiencing ourselves. And, again, when it comes to problems like homelessness or poverty or depression, it may be that our conspicuous compassion is a symptom of the very system that led to the problem we seek to address.

What I'm saying is that this empathy shtick is of a piece with progressive politics more generally, a politics in which (it is increasingly obvious) a “trickledown” model of social change is at work. Raise awareness, end the stigma, use the right words, avoid the wrong ones, congratulate businesses when they set the right tone, tell them off when they fail to do so, and, above all, show you care, and entreat others to care as much as you. Do all of that, and slowly, but surely, we will arrive at the Just City.

Except of course that we haven't, and won't. And it's not because empathy and compassion are unimportant: they are, and they are part of our material nature. No, it's because empathy isn't advocacy and compassion isn't politics. The Australian philosopher Peter Singer advocates “effective altruism“, and that's a step in the right direction. But not until we understand, and are prepared to challenge, the system itself will we rid ourselves of its (inherent) evils.

In short, and to paraphrase an old revolutionary: keep the heart on fire and the mind on ice.

And the Political Lace in the walk-in robe.

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Visit me at The Bloody Crossroads.

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