The Need For Empathy

17 May

“To understand all is to forgive all.”

“Coming from a legal man I find that remark astonishing.”

Blott on the Landscape

So … a week ago I got unfriended on Facebook.

The basic sequence of events went like this.

1 – someone (who shall rename nameless) posted an article.

2 – I wrote, rather snippily I will admit, an observation that the article boiled down to ‘everyone who disagrees with me is an idiot.’

3 – Said nameless person posted a rather snippy reply of his own and then unfriended me.

This bothered me so much that I was completely inconsolable for …oh, around five nanoseconds.

The article in question – which I have managed to lose, because Facebook doesn’t seem to record notifications more than a week old – basically asserted that everyone who voted for Donald Trump was stupid because there are no good reasons to vote for Donald Trump. I read it in amused disbelief because the article writer suffered from what I tend to call ‘rampant intellectualism,’ the belief that one is so clever that one is never wrong and anyone who disagrees is wilfully wrong. It is not an attitude conductive to healthy political debate.

Intellectualism is, at base, the ability to think through will happen if … And it isn’t really a bad thing. But what can turn it into a bad thing is the willingness – to borrow a line from Sherlock Holmes – to start altering facts to fit theories, rather than altering theories to fit observed facts. Because most intellectuals – in my experience – surround themselves with people who agree with them, it is quite easy for the intellectual to find himself trapped in an echo chamber and lose touch with the real world. Eventually, an intellectual will find himself supporting socialism or communism (or another system that basically relies on human nature being inhuman) because everyone he knows will support it. And, because he has lost touch with the real world, he will be unable to comprehend that not everyone will agree with him.


This, I suspect, is what leads to the twin fallacies of ‘diversity’ and ‘multiculturalism.’

If you happen to live in an echo chamber – and far too many intellectuals do – it is easy to convince yourself that everyone is the same. Why not? Everyone you meet sounds exactly like you. But the real world is a very different place. People can and do think differently and one man’s idea of a good place to live might be very different from someone else’s idea of a good place. Or one man may feel that extending tolerance is a good idea and another may think that another word for a tolerant man is ‘sucker.’

And if you happen to believe that your view of the world is correct, you may come to believe that anyone who disagrees is evil, that they are driven by racism, sexism, phobias of one kind or another, etc. It’s easier to believe that they are fundamentally irrational, fundamentally evil, than try to comprehend that they might have good reasons to feel the way they do.

The problem here is that far too many people believe that understanding something – and showing empathy – is exactly the same as condoning it. I disagree. I can understand why a gay couple would want to punish a bakery that refused to bake them a wedding cake – I can understand it, but not condone it. Equally so, I can understand why people might want to vote for Hilary Clinton or Donald Trump without wanting to support either of them myself.

I can understand – hah – why some people might feel differently. Everyone constructs a narrative that shows themselves as the good guys and everyone else as the bad guys. To accept that the other side has a narrative is a step towards accepting that narrative. But you do not have to accept that narrative to understand that they do accept it themselves. I can flatly refuse to accept that religious fanatics have the right to riot and kill without losing sight of the fundamental fact that they believe they do.

You can, if you wish, look down on Trump’s supporters. But do you really think that will change their minds? Why should they listen to someone who is not only sneering at them – and most of Trump’s detractors pour scorn on his supporters – but doesn’t have the slightest comprehension of why they feel the way they do? Why should they?

As Oliver Cromwell said, “I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible that you may be mistaken.”

Consider, if you will, that a person who disagrees with you may not be evil. Evaluate what they have to say. And if it doesn’t stand up to examination, you can explain – calmly and rationally – why it doesn’t work. Who knows? You might make a convert. But if it does stand up to examination, then … maybe you’re the one in the wrong. Changing your mind is not actually a bad thing, if you know why you’re doing it. Political debate doesn’t have to be a cutthroat sport.

In olden days, kings (the bad kinds, at least) used to shoot the messengers. And when they did, they eventually ran out of mail. And then they got blindsided by something they didn’t see coming because no dared to tell them about it. Now, people get unfriended on Facebook instead …

… Which may be more civilised, but the long-term result is just the same.

28 Responses to “The Need For Empathy”

  1. shrekgrinch May 17, 2016 at 6:51 pm #

    This is why I rarely unfriend/block people myself: It would make me a total hypocrite in the process.

    Granted, I can be a jerk from the other person’s point of view. After all, just pointing out certain logic bombs like u did threatens the entire work view of way too many people.

    Another thing I noticed, many also think they are “smart” simply because they can quote other ideological authorities while not independently checking facts for themselves or even learning the core knowledge that would enable them to evaluate what said authorities claim. You see this with people who always reference Paul Krugman & Thomas Pickett – both of whom who have a long history of making errors or just outright falsehoods. Picketty’s book for example was rife with lots of errors. Especially about US tax history and the Great Depression. We are talking very rookie scholastic mistakes here.

    But point them out to someone who worships him and they refuse to see this or even react rather negatively because you are also exposing their error. Nobody wants to admit that they bought the snake oil from the charlatan coming thru town, after all.

    So there is no “debate” going on anymore. It’s all a religious food fight. And everyone deep down is aware of this, so a lack of trust exists as well.

  2. Pat Patterson May 17, 2016 at 6:56 pm #

    There has to be a lesser version of shooting the messenger that’s healthy. Maybe put a sign out front: “Not really interested in anything that doesn’t affect ________ today.” Maybe not be a king, so responsibilities are fewer.I’m inclined to believe it’s the latter. I’m not really a king, I don’t have responsibility for that much stuff, and except for a the purely figurative sense, the bell ISN’T tolling for me.

    • John C. Calhoun May 17, 2016 at 11:17 pm #

      You should accept all opinions, except ones which don’t base their logic off of facts. In this way you can broaden your horizons. Sometimes people need other opinions to expand their own contemplations.

  3. robert godfrey May 17, 2016 at 7:00 pm #

    Said gay couple where exactly right to, to reverse the frequent Godwin invocation to reflect the real power balance before gay people actually got to be treated as human beings: ‘I would make a nazi bake a cake for a jew.’ Until religious based bigotry is ground to dust, by whatever legal means that requires, we will be stuck with the blind, mindless ‘Christians’ trying to drag us back to the bronze age so they can keep murdering unbelievers in the name of god, as required by biblical law: Christianity has averaged half a million murders a year for it’s entire history, why tolerate it any more?

    • robert godfrey May 17, 2016 at 7:03 pm #

      Actually for fairness, replace Christianity with the cults of Abraham.

    • shrekgrinch May 17, 2016 at 7:44 pm #

      There’s a legal principle in US commercial law. It is the businesses’ right to refuse service to anyone, for any reason.

      And as this was between two parties and ‘wedding cake’ is not a vital resource one needs to survive, the entire case is BS.

      Oh, and Freedom of Religion isn’t confined to just worship, but to living one’s life according to the dictates of one’s religion.

      • John C. Calhoun May 17, 2016 at 11:36 pm #

        Title IX said you can’t discriminate against someone for their gender or color, what’s the difference here?

    • Jacqueline Harris May 18, 2016 at 5:34 am #

      People have the right to their life style as long as that life style doesn’t infringe upon the life styles of other people. Didn’t you read the article? Other people have other views and that is okay. You can’t just say the only people who’s views matter are the gays and lesbians. That’s hypocritical. Forcing a christian baker to support a wedding directly against there beliefs is hypocrisy.
      It’s not about the cake. The couple who makes an issue about people not wanting to participate in there wedding and perusing legal action are just trying to prove a point. There mad cause some people don’t support their world view so they need to persecute them. Were before gays were persecuted now some of the lgbt are becoming the persecutors.

  4. Bruce Edwards May 17, 2016 at 7:04 pm #

    Well, as a voter in the USA, the best reason I can think of to vote for Trump is that he is not Hilary nor is he Bernie the crazy Commie. While Trump is far from perfect, he stands a better chance of aiming my country back towards a constitutional republic. The current trend of the 47 percent to vote themselves bread and circus’s is the road to national suicide.

    • andydwn May 17, 2016 at 7:33 pm #

      You guys, and we in the UK need a better class of politician.

      I think I’ve only ever unfriended one person from facebook over politics and it wasn’t for disagreeing with me or lack of empathy. She put up something to do with the election (something comparing Labor and Conservatives I think) and I said that I didn’t trust either party. Instead of disagreeing with me or asking what I thought she deleted my comment. That’s no way to treat someone who was supposedly a friend.

      • Conrad Bassett Jr. May 21, 2016 at 6:44 pm #

        I will chime in here. The problem here is about the confusion over basic rights. People believe they have the basic right to force other people to conform to their beliefs . This causes problems. Whether you are Democrat Republican progressive conservative or whatever people are calling each other nowadays , still presents the basic problem . People notoriously forget the basic philosophy of live and let live .

      • chrishanger May 22, 2016 at 5:27 pm #

        That’s the problem


    • shrekgrinch May 17, 2016 at 7:49 pm #

      I would not pin my hopes on Trump to deliver us back to constitutionalism. He’s never, ever mentioned constitutional constraints like Cruz has. And in a book he once wrote when he tried running before, he advocated for an unconstitutional wealth tax to boot.

      No, he will govern autocratically via executive order like Obama did and Shrillary would if she got in. Executive orders as they are used today should be flat out unconstitutional just like administrative law courts should be, but the Supreme Court doesn’t seem to be reading the same Constitution that you and I do. It is this break down of the separation of powers that led to the final death of the Roman Republic and has been happening over the last 40 years in the US. Trump being in office with a hostile Congress will accelerate this trend, not stop or reverse it.

      • John C. Calhoun May 17, 2016 at 11:12 pm #

        How have his executive orders overstepped the bounds of the constitution?

  5. John C. Calhoun May 17, 2016 at 11:19 pm #

    This is basically the same as calling people with different opinions trolls.

  6. shrekgrinch May 18, 2016 at 1:35 am #

    “How have his executive orders overstepped the bounds of the constitution?”

    – From John C. Calhoun

    Oh, just the 12 or so that the Supreme Court has overruled 9-0 is a good start to look at. Then there is the ObamaCare executive orders that violate set law…like paying insurers with money Congress didn’t authorize. That one is in court right now. Where have you been? 🙂

    • John C. Calhoun May 18, 2016 at 2:02 am #

      Okay, so if the supereme court overruled them, then what’s wrong? It’s the government working like it’s supposed to.

      • shrekgrinch May 18, 2016 at 6:05 pm #

        Yes and no.

        Yes, because the decisions are unanimous — even Obama’s appointees thought they were ridiculous.

        No, because the courts only grant standing to such challenges to Congress. Furthermore, they usually require both houses of Congress to be involved. So if the Dems control one they can block these challenges.

        That means for every 1 that has been challenged and thrown out, there are a hundred or so that have not.

        The executive branch has seized a lot of power over the last few generations. Executive orders are essentially the EB creating/altering legislation, which only Congress should be doing. Administrative law courts are interpreting the laws, which the Judicial Branch should only be doing.

        And Obama has taken the attitude “If they won’t impeach me, I’ll get away with it!” which is technically correct. Given how much he’s gotten away with it, future presidents will no doubt try to do the same thing. Somehow I doubt that Trump — who knows let alone cares less about the Constitution than my cat does — will refrain from doing so.

  7. shrekgrinch May 18, 2016 at 1:37 am #

    “Title IX said you can’t discriminate against someone for their gender or color, what’s the difference here?”

    Because gender and color are not religion for on thing, that’s why.

    • John C. Calhoun May 18, 2016 at 2:03 am #

      No, I mean what’s the difference between being gay and being black or of a particular sex?

      • shrekgrinch May 18, 2016 at 6:07 pm #

        They are all different characteristics/attributes fundamentally unrelated to each other as far as Title IX is concerned, that’s why.

  8. Bret Wallach May 18, 2016 at 1:41 am #

    I think this post is off a bit (please don’t block me for that! 🙂

    Those of us in the rich developed world are pretty much very insulated from reality. And that’s a very good thing. Reality sucks having to try to scratch a living in the dirt and life being nasty, brutish and short. Much of the point of technology and material advancement is to avoid that nastiness.

    No matter what we do, no matter who we vote for, no matter what happens for the foreseeable future, we in the rich developed world will have access to food, clothing, shelter for the vast majority of us, even access to comforts like air conditioning, and access to quite a lot of entertainment.

    This enables us, in our minds, to basically construct a subjective reality that has very little to do with actual reality.

    The downside (maybe), is that those who get satisfaction out of believing everyone else is evil can do so with absolutely no cost to them. In fact it’s a gain because it makes them feel superior. Those who wish to live their lives in an echo chamber of their choosing can do so with absolutely no cost to them, and again, it’s a gain because it makes them feel good. Oh sure, they might have to defriend a couple of people, but really, that’s a pretty small price to pay.

    Some people are empathetic, and I suspect authors are off-the-scale relative to the empathetic average (how else could you develop interesting characters?), but I think that most people find being empathetic unpleasant.

    And most people (in the rich world) have very little use for facts, at least outside of their jobs.

    Ignoring reality may catch up with us eventually, but maybe not, at least not for most people.

  9. PhilippeO May 18, 2016 at 4:44 am #

    But civilization itself is contrary against human nature. Basic human nature (as Fukuyama mention in Origin of Political Power) is to help family-kin and help friends who may help you later (quid pro quo). Any civilization greater than kin-groups, even city state in Ancient Sumer is already de facto contrary to human nature.

    Socialism/Communism simply extend machinery of state (who already in-human by nature) to economic realm. Taxing people who rich, and giving benefit to the poor is no more unrealistic than giving benefit of peace to non-soldier, giving jury trial to felon, or giving public education to foundling children, or allow non-taxpayer use public bridge.

    And Democracy, Liberalism, Republicanism and American Constitution itself based itself on doctrine that “everybody is equal under the law”. Its fiction that make basis of all of our modern civilization.

    Its certainly unrealistic. People give different contribution to society/state. There are people who go to war for society, there are who does not. There are who pay tax, there are who receive benefit. There are who give children to continue society survival and who does not. There are some who just become citizens, while others have contribute to society for generation. But to re-apply “privilege” would push modern civilization back to pre-French Revolution.

    Multiculturalism/Diversity is simple inevitable result of applying “equal under law” to people who have different language, religion, or culture. To not apply it would deny basic fiction that enable society to function. And its unrealistic anyway since vote already given to people of different culture, if you already give right to vote, to treat them differently afterward is just self-defeating.

    In the end, people who treat society as ‘sucker’ must be accepted as inevitable free-rider in any system. Its better to accept it rather than undermine basis of our civilization.

    • John C. Calhoun May 18, 2016 at 5:04 am #

      Universal service would solve so many problems

    • shrekgrinch May 18, 2016 at 6:07 pm #

      You related to the Unibomber? 🙂

  10. Johnz86 May 18, 2016 at 12:57 pm #

    My personal opinion is there is no attribute off human being, that can be contrary to human nature. Marking groups of people in some demeaning term like ‘rampant intellectuals’ or my favorite ‘degenerative liberal’ is common fallacy in discussion. It is attempt on antagonize and exclude a group based on some common stereotype or belief.

    In this post for example ‘rampant intellectuals’ are unable to endure and comprehend disagreement, because they are surrounded by group of people they agree with them. Therefore they mark other people and groups in demeaning terms ‘fundamentally irrational’, ‘fundamentally evil’.

    This is very similar situation to your post and your reaction. It is a common human reaction to group mark and exclude arguments and people based on dominant belief in your environment.

    People tend to leave the discussion and block others, because most discussion are used for persuasion instead of presentation of arguments and participants thoughtful understanding of conclusions. Most commonly it is result of laziness and mistakes on both communicating sides.

  11. RMAU June 5, 2016 at 7:05 am #

    Empathy is very important to teach kids and it seems that there are many folks who do not take the time to ensure that kids are understanding of other people s feelings. This article makes some great points.


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