Jon of All Trades

Empathy

Jon March 29, 2017 Blog, Rants No Comments on Empathy

Seeing as increasing empathy in the world is basically the entire foundational reason I started my show and continue with it three years later, you can imagine my surprise and disappointment upon scrolling through LinkedIn (which, I know, what?), and found this piece trending.

Is empathy overrated?

By Paul Bloom

Oh Christ. Here we go. That clickbait headline. That casual defiance of a generally held principal or belief. That inflammatory proposition. And that’s even before I decided to torture myself by reading it. Then I read it, and oh God, it’s not only as bad as that headline would indicate, it’s worse.

I’m getting that old time feeling. The one I used to feel regularly at the Cru Jones Society Love Lounge. The one that led me to eviscerate some Boston troll from the Westword, whom I inexplicably became friends with after the fact. That’s right, it’s time for a fisking.

Since this thing is long as shit, I’ll be skipping around a bit, but the original text is in block quotes, and my comments follow.

Does empathy make the world a better place? It certainly looks like it. After all, empathy drives people to treat others’ suffering as if it were their own, which then motivates action to make the suffering go away.

They say use a strong opener, and while explaining a principle even a kindergartner seems to get isn’t the way I’d go, I suppose we’re all on the same page to start, which is something.

I see the bullied teenager and might be tempted initially to join in with his tormentors, out of sadism or boredom or a desire to dominate or be popular, but then I empathize — I feel his pain, I feel what it’s like to be bullied — so I don’t add to his suffering. Maybe I even rise to his defense.

And we’re off the fucking rails already. Seriously? You might be tempted initially to join in with his tormentors? Who the fuck is this sociopath? This is not how my mind works, and it seems unlikely others work this way either.

Hey, there’s a kid over there getting bullied. Let’s go kick his ass with those cool kids!!!

[starts walking over]

Waitaminute, what about empathy?!?! … Darn it. I better not.

So apparently those first two sentences were not actually for us, they were a reminder for Mr. Bloom himself as evidently his first instinct is, when conflict arises, to join the side of evil. I’m so happy he’s writing this article about empathy with this understanding right up front.

Empathy is like a spotlight directing attention and aid to where it’s needed.

But spotlights have a narrow focus, and this is one problem with empathy. It does poorly in a world where there are many people in need and where the effects of one’s actions are diffuse, often delayed, and difficult to compute, a world in which an act that helps one person in the here and now can lead to greater suffering in the future.

So true. I know when I help someone or give money to a charity, my immediate next thought is about how much this help is ACTUALLY going to hurt them in the long run. That’s just common sense.

Further, spotlights only illuminate what they are pointed at, so empathy reflects our biases… Intellectually, a white American might believe that a black person matters just as much as a white person, but he or she will typically find it a lot easier to empathize with the plight of the latter than the former. In this regard, empathy distorts our moral judgments in pretty much the same way that prejudice does.

No, Paul. This isn’t empathy’s fault, this is what’s referred to as a culture of both subtle and overt institutionalized racism that’s existed since the very formation of this country and even longer. It’s only been through a concerted and sustained effort over decades and decades of people reaching out to one another, learning about people dissimilar from themselves and further humanizing them that we have any societal progress at all. It’s the exact opposite of what you’re describing. Empathy is a fucking bridge, not a river, you douche.

Empathy is limited as well in that it focuses on specific individuals. Its spotlight nature renders it innumerate and myopic: It doesn’t resonate properly to the effects of our actions on groups of people, and it is insensitive to statistical data and estimated costs and benefits.

Ok, I disagree, but you seem to be going somewhere with this, so I’mma let you.

To see these weaknesses, consider this example: the murders of 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, in 2012.

I immediately regret my decision to see where this is going.

This is horrible, but the toll from these mass shootings equals about one-tenth of 1 percent of American homicides, a statistical nonevent. (That is, if you could wave a magic wand and end all mass shootings forever, nobody looking at the overall homicide rates would even notice.)

Complete and utter horseshit. This assumes all shootings happen in a vacuum, and we’re all robots looking at a spreadsheet of murder rates instead of, y’know, engaging with the world in a sophisticated way. And what truly kills me is what he writes in the very next paragraph.

Actually, in the year of the Sandy Hook killings, more schoolchildren were murdered in one American city — Chicago — than were murdered in Newtown, and yet I’ve never thought about those murdered Chicago children before looking up that figure, and I’m not likely to think about them again . . . while my mind often drifts back to Newtown. Why? Part of the answer is that Sandy Hook was a single event. The murders in Chicago are more of a steady background noise. We’re constituted so that novel and unusual events catch our attention and trigger our emotional responses. But it’s also in large part because it’s easy for people like me, a white professor and father from Connecticut, to empathize with the children and teachers and parents of Newtown. They’re so much like those I know and love.

JESUS FUCKING CHRIST, DID YOU NOT EVER RE-READ THIS TO SEE HOW FUNDAMENTALLY FLAWED YOUR ARGUMENT IS????

This is so goddamn stupid, we need to unpack it one point at a time.

  1. The mass shooting in Newtown at Sandy Hook Elementary was horrific and unusual. Using the basic tenets of journalism that any undergraduate in a journalism class can recite, the unusual and horrific generally warrants an outsize portion of journalistic attention. This has inherent limitations, but it’s the system we’ve had for eons, so let’s use it.
  2. A normal person empathizes with those affected by tragedy and uses those feelings to propel them to action. In the case of Newtown, many of those feelings were ones of “What can I do personally to help ensure this never happens ever again?” Some advocated for stricter gun laws. Others vouched for increasing the presence of a “good guy with a gun.” Which of those proposals (or others) you prefer and which would be most effective are certainly up for debate, and inform the very nature of a democratic society.
  3. If you’ve ever been to literally any charity gala, you know that the highlighting of a personal success story is ALWAYS one of main parts of the evening. The charity shows someone who succeeded in whatever program you’re attending to benefit, and then they immediately segue into the pass the hat portion of the evening. And we thank Tonya for sharing her personal journey. There are so many more like Tonya who are at risk, so won’t you open your hearts and checkbooks to help x number of families avoid whatever? And why? It’s because personal anecdote helps people relate to the abstract concept of greater good via empathy, which then translates directly to tangible action, which, if you’re following along, equals positive change. I cannot believe I am having to waste words explaining this extremely elementary concept.
  4. And you prove this point in your very next sentence. Thinking about Newtown caused you to think about the constant drumbeat of homicides in Chicago to the point of LOOKING UP STATISTICS meaning empathy is not inherently narrow, and, in fact, leads one to use the immediacy of tragedy to think about the world more broadly and, in this case, the tragedy of gun violence specifically. How do you not get that, and why am I forced to explain it now?
  5. An empathetic response does not happen in isolation, and in fact, becomes the catalyst for greater societal action which is where empathy morphs from mere psychological discomfort and a desire for changing the world – TO ACTION THAT CHANGES THE WORLD.
  6. Again, using this example in microcosm, and to underline it a time or two because that seems warranted, would a change in gun policy not only immediately salve some of the permanent scars of those affected by the Newtown tragedy knowing that perhaps this type of thing wouldn’t happen again (a demonstration and function of future and hypothetical empathy) and their suffering wouldn’t be in vain, but also have a net positive impact on the seemingly endless cycle of murders in Chicago?

I’m skipping a cynical paragraph where Mr. Bloom essentially guffaws at the good, albeit misdirected, intentions of people who continued to inundate Newtown with an outpouring of gifts because if I spend too much time thinking about it, blood will shoot out my eyes. If you don’t have a good enough angry lather all worked up, go ahead and read it yourself. So let’s move ahead.

Now one reasonable reaction to this is that empathy isn’t to blame for this sort of irrational and disproportionate response. The real problem is that we don’t have enough empathy for other people. We should empathize with the children and families of Newtown, but we should also empathize with the children and families in Chicago. While we’re at it, we should empathize with billions of other people around the world, in Bangladesh and Pyongyang and the Sudan. We should empathize with the elderly who don’t get enough food, the victims of religious persecution, the poor without adequate health care, the rich who suffer from existential angst, the victims of sexual assault, those falsely accused of sexual assault . . . But we can’t.

Hi, welcome to Rhetoric & Argumentation 101. This is what’s called a Slippery Slope fallacy, and Paul Bloom has demonstrated it perfectly.

And for the record, empathy is not a limited quantity in this way, you twit. Caring about gun violence does not preclude you from caring about other things, too.

I think it bears mention at this point that Paul Bloom is a Professor of Psychology at Yale. And yet, amazingly and dispiritingly, he doesn’t seem to understand that the human brain can care about and pay attention to more than one thing at a time.

Intellectually, we can value the lives of all these individuals; we can give them weight when we make decisions. But what we can’t do is empathize with all of them. Indeed, you cannot empathize with more than one or two people at the same time. Try it.

Ok, I just did. I do it all the time. All I have to do is think about it. I empathize with the survivors of sexual assault, a cause to which I give money. I also empathize with those struggling with addiction recovery, another cause to which I give money.  I also currently empathize with those advocating for transgender rights who recently suffered a setback at the Capitol. And finally, I empathize with my mom, who recently attended the funeral of a dear friend who just succumbed to pancreatic cancer. It wasn’t hard to do this.

Are you a sociopath or a simpleton? How is this difficult for you?

Can you simultaneously empathize with two people? If so, good, congratulations. Now add a third person to the mix. Now try 10. And then 100, 1,000, 1,000,0000.

Guuuuuuuuhhhhhhhhh. Fine. I will concede this point to you, Paul. I cannot successfully empathize with one million people. You win, professor.

But have you considered that I don’t have to? No one does. That’s the beauty of the world and the beauty of empathy. The vast majority of us all do our best (except for you, apparently) to empathize as much as we possibly can – all the way up to the limits of human capability in many cases – and as a collective entity, we achieve wonderful things.

A point I will actually concede is that empathy is ultimately a limited commodity, but only insofar as human action has practical limitations. The idea that empathy is as transactional as you claim is nonsense.

Empathy is particularly insensitive to consequences that apply statistically rather than to specific individuals. Imagine learning that a faulty vaccine has caused Rebecca Smith, an adorable eight-year-old, to get extremely sick. If you watch her suffering and listen to her and her family, the empathy will flow, and you’ll want to act. But suppose that stopping the vaccine program will cause, say, a dozen random children to die. Here your empathy is silent — how can you empathize with a statistical abstraction?

This is intellectually dishonest, and you know it. Fuck you.

To the extent that you can appreciate that it’s better for one specific child to die than for an unknown and imprecise larger number of children to die, you are using capacities other than empathy.

EMPATHY IS NOT SOMETHING USED IN ISOLATION. HUMANS ARE NOT THIS FUCKING STUPID.

The issues here go beyond policy — I’d argue what really matters for kindness in our everyday interactions is not empathy but capacities such as self-control and intelligence and a more diffuse compassion. Indeed, those who are high in empathy can be too caught up in the suffering of other people. If you absorb the suffering of others, then you’re less able to help them in the long run because achieving long-term goals often requires inflicting short-term pain.

Oh my god. This guy has the most hideous view of humanity I’ve ever encountered. It’s like he thinks if people have empathy, we’re all just like DURRRR Pain is bad DURRRR No pain ever DURRRR Empathy!

I’m going to play my humans are capable of feeling more than one thing at the same time card just one more time here.

I worry that I’ve given the impression I’m against empathy.

No you don’t.

Well, I am — but only in the moral domain.

Again, fuck you.

And even here I don’t deny that it can sometimes have good results. It can motivate kindness in individuals that makes the world better.

THEN WHAT THE FUCK ARE WE DOING HERE AND WHY DID YOU WASTE OUR TIME WITH ALL THE BULLSHIT ABOVE?

The concern about empathy is not that its consequences are always bad, then, it’s that its negatives outweigh its positives — and that there are better alternatives.

Evidently I didn’t need to be here at all, since pee-pants over here is content to undermine the entirety of his argument in his last line. Terrific.

Mr. Bloom’s article is an example of cynicism of the highest order, and while he’s succeeded in getting people to read his ugly appraisal of the idiocy of humanity, and successfully baited me into wasting 2500 words on shouting him down, tripe like this deserves a full-throated takedown and total evisceration.

Because… one more time with feeling… Empathy does not, and never has, functioned in isolation.  Humans deserve way more credit than Paul Bloom wants to grant, and empathy is the catalyst for a disproportionate share of good in the world. It’s only by opening ourselves up to the experiences of people across geography, across race, across gender, across economic lines, and across experiences that we begin to understand the world in a more sophisticated and caring way.

To answer Mr. Bloom’s central thesis: No, empathy is not overrated.

Evidently the Yale Department of Psychology is, though.

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