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Failing the Empathy Exams

Empathy is a weapon of the downtrodden, and we need it in our arsenal

There’s been a lot of talk about empathy lately. Most of this talk, though, has been disastrously misguided. Many on the beleaguered American left have been vehemently pushing back against mainstream calls to empathize with Trump supporters since the election. With swastikas appearing all over America, the “alt-right” rising, and increased violence toward marginalized groups, it’s easy to repudiate empathy as it has been defined in popular political discourse. But it’s much harder to rationalize how many on the left side of the political spectrum have willfully accepted this as the only definition of empathy without exploring the other ways it can potentially be used, the other things it can do.

One of the flash-points in this debate was Colby Itkowitz’s interview of Professor Arlie Russell Hochschild in the Washington Post, bearing the title, “What Is This Election Missing? Empathy for Trump Voters.” Hochshild details some of her experiences venturing into rural Trumpland and conversing with red-blooded folks on the “other side.” Her remarks were in the same general emotional register as that “Black Jeopardy!” sketch on SNL that many cultural progressives liked so much. Hochschild shows that not all Trump supporters are neo-Nazis, that many of them experience the same anxieties, fears, and joys that the rest of America does, and that they feel like they’ve been forgotten, even persecuted. The Hochschild interview turned out to be the prelude in a small post-election land rush in conspicuous elite liberal empathy. Mark Zuckerberg yacked on at some self-serving length on the subject as he faced criticism over Facebook’s laissez-faire malpractices in handling the fake news epidemic, and the New York Times offered a suggested reading list for understanding Trump’s win, which focused overwhelmingly on the plight of white working class Americans with precisely zero titles dealing directly with American racism, sexism, xenophobia, etc.

A litany of rebuttals to this sentiment soon flooded the internet (like this one, this one, or this, or this), mostly in direct or indirect response to the sentiments aired in Itkowitz’s Hochschild interview. Some of these rebuttals make much stronger cases than others, but taken as a whole, they expose the deeply flawed logic of calling on the rest of us, especially those of us who have been put at greater risk on account of Trump, to give his supporters more of a fair shake. “It is not our lack of understanding that is the problem,” Donyae Coles writes in the Daily Progressive. “This one-sided empathy is the problem.” Kali Holloway asks, “Where are these appeals for us when we protest or riot against the systemic inequality we live with? Where are all the calls to recognize and understand our anger?”

Moreover, as Tom McKay also notes, these pleas to empathize with Trump’s white working-class base are, rhetorically speaking, a dangerous red herring. The empathy appeal perpetuates the synecdoche fallacy of taking Trump’s white working-class appeal for the whole, while conveniently overlooking Trump’s coalition of Wall Street bros and one-percenters, middle class whites, small business-owners, etc.

The common refrain running through these rebuttals is that, especially for those of us who, in different and intersecting ways, have faced uphill battles against the oppressive historical forces Trump has harnessed and embodied, empathy is the last thing we need. We don’t need understanding because we already know all we need to know about Trump supporters, their “economic anxiety,” the cultural fallout of deindustrialization, etc. We also know about patriarchy, racism, discrimination, etc., and the people who perpetuate them. Even if many Trump supporters are good people at heart, they still played their part in enabling these vicious forces, and we “shouldn’t have to explain that” to them. We sure as hell shouldn’t feel like it’s our “duty” to empathize with them when they clearly haven’t done the same for us.

Here’s the thing, though: some of us may know all we need to know. Some of us may have a clear, rigorous, and experiential understanding of how oppression works, why it succeeds, and how to fight it. Some of us may, but “we” clearly don’t. If we did, Trump wouldn’t be headed to the White House. (The we here, by the way, is less of a descriptive we and more of an interpellation of those who are being called or forced to fight against Trump.)

Trump has been more effective at mobilizing these demons than we have been at defeating them.

To be clear: I’m not trying to add to the shit pile of these tone-deaf calls for empathy by also proposing now that Trump’s ascent is all our fault. To say we clearly don’t know everything we need to isn’t about placing blame, but mounting a defense against the demons Trump has mobilized. Because the blunt fact of the matter is this: Trump has been more effective at mobilizing these demons than we have been at defeating them. And if we’re truly going to figure out how to counter them, we will need our strongest faculties. This is not merely a question of stanching the bleeding while Trump is in office, but more critically, the hard work of erecting viable political alternatives on a mass scale that can reach beyond the quagmire of the two current parties. And in this struggle, empathy is one of the strongest assets we have. Because, in the darkest of times, empathy is much more than a virtuous social trait—it is a means of survival, it is a weapon.

What I’m urging here is resistance to the terms that the current debate about empathy pushes us to accept. Like so many other refrains in the forty-years’ American culture war, the “I know you are, but what am I?” moral posturing of the current appeals for empathy tempts us in the battered and aggrieved ranks of the Trump resistance to throw out the value of empathy altogether. This posturing operates on the deceitful presumption of a level playing field where all social actors are equal while simultaneously downgrading the genuine social value of empathy into a matter of personality—a perhaps admirable but ultimately dispensable quirk of character, like kindness or patience. And the individualist cast of the post-election empathy debate similarly renders those admirable souls who choose to practice it as loftier-than-thou level heads—more noble and open-minded than your standard-issue partisan brawler. But everyone who is currently experiencing the rage and unfairness of the empathy double-standard already knows this is bullshit. This is a very specific notion of empathy that has been historically passed down by the more powerful to pacify those below them while also allowing them to congratulate themselves for their philanthropy.

The empathy we need is different and incredibly hard. It requires deeply uncomfortable work and endless trying. It demands open communication, patience, discernment, and the ability to work around disagreements in order to find softer tissue that can be either exploited or used to build stronger coalitions. Empathizing with a person doesn’t mean you have to like them or care deeply about them. That may be a byproduct of empathy, but it isn’t the thing driving it. Empathy does not mean the same thing as sympathy. It is, at the most basic level, the struggle for a more clinical, measured, and rigorous effort to understand both why people do things, and how they make sense of the world. It also strives to understand what the logic and contradictions of their beliefs are and how people adapt those beliefs to changing historical conditions. At the level of political persuasion, meanwhile, empathy crucially signals the search for weak spots, for wiggle room and lines of flight—and for more convincing ways to stitch together people’s feelings, biases, etc. to achieve certain ends.

Empathy is the sixth sense of those who have developed a greater capacity for understanding because they’ve had to.

This is what I mean by insisting that empathy is not a matter of personality, but survival. It is not the “duty” of equal citizens, but a necessity for those who are and have less. Empathy is the sixth sense of those who have developed a greater capacity for understanding because they’ve had to. They’ve found it indispensable as a way to navigate a world that inordinately places more obstacles in their way—and a way to connect with and mobilize greater numbers of people because their individual power has historically counted for less. Our political struggle against hate, fear, inequality, and discrimination is always played out on a skewed board. We’re always playing from behind. This is why we need empathy, this is where it comes from.

Again, some may feel that they’ve already empathized enough, that they already know all they need to, and perhaps that’s true. But all current evidence shows that these selective achievements in knowing haven’t been enough. Trump, climate change, gross levels of inequality, the persistence of discrimination, and the lack of a politically viable leftist opposition are proof enough that we have, all of us, far more work to do. And no one, no matter how enlightened they are or how justified they are in their anger and fear, is exempt. It’s a burden forced on us, and the only way we can respond to it is with more empathy, more discerning, more collaboration and action, more solidarity, more open communication and fewer reflexive visitations of stigma on others. Not because it’s “nice,” but because it’s necessary. We shouldn’t have to do this, but what other choice do we have? Everything depends on it.

Many who stand to become even more vulnerable in Trump’s America have roundly rejected calls to empathize more with the people who un-empathetically voted for a walking, talking threat to their very safety and livelihoods. They shouldn’t have to exercise empathy for those who clearly are not willing to do the same for them, and there is absolutely a double-standard in asking them to do so. But this is, sadly, the point. What we need to realize is that this, in fact, is a truly shitty yet permanent aspect of what it has historically meant to be oppressed, to be vulnerable.

Empathy is simultaneously the greatest and most demanding weapon in the arsenal of the oppressed. It is the survival tactic of first resort for those forced to ask “Why do you harm me?” as opposed to a philanthropic duty born from the humanistic evolution of those enlightened enough to wonder “Should I not harm them?” Indeed, it’s a telling testament to the systematic bid to de-politicize the historically necessary instruments of the oppressed that we’ve been conditioned to understand empathy chiefly as a moral appeal, an admirable personal choice, and a good-natured “responsibility” holding together some whitewashed pretend-version of an equal and tolerant society. If all things were truly equal, though, there’d be no need for empathy—everyone’s own experience would be a sufficient source for understanding the experiences of others. Empathy is, in fact, a mutated sense developed to confront persistent inequality and heterogeneity, which is why we absolutely need it to help us navigate what’s coming.

It’s a testament to the systematic bid to de-politicize the historically necessary instruments of the oppressed that we understand empathy chiefly as a moral appeal.

And that’s why the scattered, demoralized ranks of the Trump resistance shouldn’t succumb to the temptation of discounting empathy. We need instead to reclaim it, and to restore its radical potential. Karl Marx painstakingly practiced empathy to better understand capitalism and the bourgeoisie so as to know better how to break them at their most contradictory pressure points. Martin Luther King led a revolt against the centuries-long scourge of racism at the sticky heart of America not by distancing himself from the country’s racist history, but by teaching himself, out of necessity, to know the inner workings of the hate-riven American heart, by empathizing with it so totally that he could effectively expose the groundless presuppositions of its most deeply held beliefs. Gloria Anzaldúa, James Baldwin, bell hooks, Audre Lorde, and others have joined that select group of literary masters who have summoned forth an enduring inner fierceness and beauty by reaching far beyond their grasp into the darkest and loneliest and most paranoid spaces of a world that did not extend the same courtesy to them. Because, deep down, they knew it wasn’t a “courtesy” at all. They knew the empathy double-standard was both a terrible burden and a way out. They knew that the opposite of empathy, the banality of forced ignorance, was the very thing that enabled monstrous forces to perpetually justify their domination—but it was also the very thing that kept those forces from knowing what the oppressed and downtrodden are truly capable of.