Sep 18, 2020

Against fostering empathy for solidarity

In this blog I have repeatedly pointed to how problematic it is to foster empathy (in the sense of I feel your pain, I know what it is like to be you) in the hopes of thereby fostering solidarity with people who are distant and/or different. It is not surprising then that I really appreciated the book Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion, by psychologist Paul Bloom. He never talks about solidarity per se, but much of it is relevant. Psychological studies can be so odd, but I do think it's useful to know that they find that "our empathic reactions reflect prior bias, preference, and judgement" (p. 70). We are more likely to feel that sort of empathy with people we are already close to or already see as more like us, in attitude, language, appearance, etc (p. 91). Indeed, Bloom argues that this sort of empathy can actually do harm, and even motivate us to hurt those who are different if we see them as hurting those like us (and connected to us) that we are more likely empathizing with (a point also made in this fascinating talk about the neuroscience of conflict resolution by Emile Bruneau). Bloom argues that biased empathy with those suffering is more likely to tilt us to violent action than to peace (p. 193).

What Bloom calls cognitive empathy is something different, and he describes it as the ability to understand other people's psychological states without inhabiting them along with them. This is the sense in which nonviolent communication uses the term empathy, to describe a very particular four step process for understanding not just what another person is feeling, but what the met or unmet needs are that are leading to that feeling - not by pretending to be the other person and feel their feelings but through a particular inquiry process. I continue to find the NVC process useful both in my life and in the college classroom for difficult discussions, and I highly recommend the videos at cup of empathy for learning or deepening NVC skills. I think it would be less confusing if NVC used this term cognitive empathy. 

But to come back to Bloom, he engages with Elaine Scarry's article "The Difficulty of Imagining Other People" where she argues that imaging the lives of others is not enough motivation to elicit even kindness - and so one imagines much less so solidarity though that term is not used (p. 106). Her skepticism is based on how hard it is to imagine the feelings of a close friend as vividly as your own experience of yourself, and that it is that much harder to do so for large numbers of strangers. Scarry suggests that instead of making other people's lives weigh as much as our own, we should make our own lives less weighty! Bloom agrees, and argues for depersonalization as a tool for wise policy, giving as examples systems for fostering impartiality such as blind reviewing and blind auditions. It's hard to see that as a tool for fostering solidarity, but he also argues for compassion as part of rational decision making, arguing that we can thereby more effectively not just care about but act to foster the thriving and end the suffering of others. Empathy, in the sense of seeing ourselves AS others, he argues, leads to less than rational and less than effective decision making.

Does it also lead to less effective solidarity? In this blog my complaints about that sort of empathy have generally been that it is appropriative, and that it is a patronizing and colonial dynamic to think that I can pretend to BE you, and feel your feelings, and that this is what will inspire me to take action with you. So it was interesting to me to read these other arguments against it by Bloom. Not only does he argue that it leads to less effective action, he says that it is exhausting and is more likely to lead to burnout. Compassion, in the sense of care and concern for another and motivation to improve their well-being, he argues can be sustained for longer (p. 138). I would agree, in my experience it is more sustainable (and realistic and ethical) to feel for than to attempt to fully feel with the other.

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