Empathy is required for democracy
Written on 28 Nov 2020
As humans, we’re fundamentally “selfish”, for lack of a better term, as our own feelings and experiences are our baseline. We’re also fundamentally empathic, which is why most of us aren’t assholes.
It’s fairly easy to be empathic with people close to you: your family, friends, coworkers, and other people you directly interact with. You’re aware of their feelings, and much of the time you adjust your views and behaviour accordingly. In my observation a lot of conflicts that happen – fights with your spouse, coworker, etc. – are a failure of empathy: you don’t fully understand the other person’s feelings and perspective. Some people have a structural failure of empathy and we call those people assholes.
Empathy gets harder the further you go away from your immediate circle. To be empathic towards people you’ve never met or whose lifestyle is radically different from you requires some amount of effort; you need to be aware of their circumstances and feelings to emphasize with them. This is one reason why fiction is quite important: it trains empathy.
The current political situation seems to be spiralling out of control in the United States; but it’s hardly just the US where this is happening, I see it in all other countries where I’m reasonably familiar with the politics as well: the Netherlands, Belgium, and the UK. It’s just more extreme in the US, which is mostly due to how the political system works.
There is a lot that can be said about all of this this, but one of the most important core reasons is a structural failure of empathy. This is something I’ve seen on all sides of the political spectrum, it just takes different forms.
Empathy comes in two forms: you can have emotional empathy, “I understand why you feel like this”, and intellectual empathy, “I understand why you could hold such a viewpoint (even though I don’t agree)”. Both are important; people don’t feel angry for no reason, and they don’t vote a certain way without reasons either. For a democracy to function there needs to be some form of genuine understanding – or empathy – across the population.
On the right you see things such as “BLM is just a terror organisation”. Framing it like this “inoculates” people against developing empathy. I mean, would you care to listen to Osama Bin Laden to develop empathy for him? Probably not.
On the left, anyone who is opposed to BLM or affirmative action is a racist. It’s a massive failure of empathy to frame things like that, and just as most people wouldn’t pay much attention to what a terrorist has to say, most people also wouldn’t pay much attention to what a racist has to say.
There are plenty of stories of former neo-Nazis apologizing with tears in their eyes for their past actions. Some people really are just bad, and some people are just good. Most of us? Somewhere in between and a complex mix of both. Our environment matters a lot. European, Chinese, or Indian people are not fundamentally different from Americans as human beings, yet their attitudes, behaviour and societies are. I’ve lived in a bunch of different countries over the past few years, and the differences are quite striking, even within neighbouring countries in Europe.
Germany went from being a democracy to Nazi Germany and back to being a democracy all in the span of just 15 years. This is a particularly striking example and entire books have been written about the sequence of events that made this happen, but it’s an important lesson to not underestimate external influences on people’s actions.
There are a few factors that come in to play here: the rise of partisan mainstream media is an important part. This is definitely something where things are worse on the right with stuff like Fox News, The Daily Mail, spurious claims of “liberal bias”, “fake news CNN”, and so forth. This also exists on the left, but less so.
While Vox seems concerned about how Chapo Trap House will hurt Sanders’ chances, and relativities the content as “mockery”, “insults”, and “conventional punditry and political analysis leavened by a heavy dose of irony”. But if you look at the actual content then that seems like a rather curious take on things. Does “haha, that was only ironic” sound familiar to you? And this isn’t some obscure podcast no one heard of, it’s one of the biggest ones out there.
I got permanently banned from /r/FuckTheAltRight a few years ago for pointing out that a “punch Trump” protest was misguided and pointless under rule 1: “No Alt-Right/Nazis”.
Overall, I feel things are in pretty bad shape. It’s pointless to argue which side is worse or who started it. It’s really bad everywhere, and because “the other side is worse” is an absolute piss-poor defence for tolerating – or even doing – the same thing on your side. People love to throw “false equivalence” around as some sort of defence, and that’s just missing the bigger picture.
How did we get here? I think there are a few reasons for this. When a large group of people do something very clearly wrong then there is almost always something more going on than just “there is a problem with those people on an individual level”, because the baseline of “bad people”, so to speak, just isn’t that large.
Some of the reasons include:
The media landscape changed significantly, and people get stuck in “echo chambers”.
I don’t really like the term “echo chamber” as it’s misused so often. There is nothing wrong with engaging on a Donald Trump community or a socialist community. It’s normal and natural to want to talk to like-minded people without having to explain and defend your views every other comment. However, if all you do is engage with like-minded people and never hear anything else … yeah, then there’s a problem. The increasing partisan nature of media, as well as social media, are a big factor in this. I’ll expand on this in another post later this week.
Certain actors encourage a lack of empathy for personal gain; Donald Trump is an obvious example of this, as are his stooges in the form of Tucker Carlson and the like. Tucker Carlson is not an idiot, I have every reason to believe that he knows exactly what he is doing: adding more drops to the empathy inoculation for personal gain, because if you make sure people distrust – even hate – the other side then they’ll remain loyal to you.
No one wants to be seen as a racist or sexist, so calling people you don’t like racist is a simple way to “win” an argument, shut people up, and get an audience with some outrage-driven piece. “Standing against racism” is a noble cause, but just because you have the appearance of doing so doesn’t mean you’re actually doing it.
A lot of regular people feel let down and forgotten; I don’t think it’s a coincidence that in 2008 Obama – generally seen as a bit of an “outsider” candidate – got elected on a campaign of “Change”, and that Trump – another outsider – got elected in 2016 on a campaign of “Make America Great Again”. These seem like the same message to me, just phrased differently. I see the same pattern in other countries, where people vote on similar-ish candidates and parties (it’s largely due to the differences in political systems that makes the US situation so extreme).
I don’t think there is anything wrong with the basic idea of capitalism, but in its current incarnation it’s letting a lot of people down. Almost any good idea driven to its extremes is stupid, and capitalism is no exception. Yet over the past few decades the moderations to file off capitalism’s sharp edges have slowly eroded. This, again, is more extreme in the US, but it’s happened everywhere.
I’m not sure how to get out of this mess, since a lot of the problems are complicated without easy solutions. Essentially, a lot has to do with the breakdown of out democratic and economic institutions. These are not simple problems.
But an active effort to understand and empathize with people needs to happen first, instead of treating everyone you don’t exactly agree with as an enemy. A democracy only works if everyone acknowledges everyone’s legitimacy, otherwise it just becomes bickering over small issues.