Monday, December 14, 2020

Empathy Framed as Concession

This nugget got buried in a posting from last weekend.
The single most dangerous psychological tendency of our era is the deep-seated feeling that empathy implies sympathy and support. These days, to say "I understand..." absolutely conveys, to the listener, some degree of approval. Understanding is a gift one grants on the merits. It's a concession. A kiss.

This represents the very seed of evil and brutality (though it has not yet fully germinated), and I'd gladly use up a genie wish to see it go away.
Really, I believe this will be our undoing. Aliens observing from Rigel-32n will point to this subtle shift of language. It may appear to be a quirky little linguistical thing, but it's really not. This is a ticking bomb; as insidious and alarming as a whiff of gas in one's kitchen.

When did this happen? You can't deny that it has; roll the phrase "I understand him" (or "I understand where he's coming from") around in your mouth and see. How did understanding become approval? How can we possibly live on a planet like that?

Update: I just got off the phone with a 92 year old friend. I asked him "If someone during the time of the McCarthy hearings were to say 'I understand McCarthy', would that have made people assume he was sympathetic?" He answered, with great agitation, "Absolutely! Why would you want to understand somebody like that?"

So this correlation is not, as I suspected, something new. It is, however, horrendously awful (no offense to my friend, of course).


Anonymous said...

What about outdoor dining? Any thought about supporting restaurants during these times?

Jim Leff said...

I eat - takeout or outdoor - as much as I can these days. Also tip high.


vhliv said...

As an historian I spend my working life attempting to understand how different people I rarely agree with think, and of course I see my job as a teacher to develop students abilities to do the same. This is not a new problem. It says nothing specific about the rot of our age If this came easy to people we wouldn’t need historians or intense and lengthy negotiations that end in treaties written in multiple languages. The fact of the matter is that such thinking requires detachment that many people only develop in limited ways. They may be able help two friends negotiate themselves out of a disagreement but not be able to make sense of ideological differences with the same empathy. (Truth be told there are people who could do the former but might be quite good at the latter.) That said, when in casual speech someone says, “I understand where so and so is coming from, it is almost invariably a statement of some kind of sympathy, whether it is a statement for a repugnant or admirable (but under appreciated perspective. It is a rhetorical device, and when wielded by people trying to recruit people ideologically it can be dangerous. Of course sometimes it is just good old fashioned critical skepticism, but in intense times it is the critical skeptics who express their skepticism openly who end up as punching bags at best.

What does seem a contemporary problem is there is a significant polarization of people who want to understand the other side and those who don’t, and this seems to go in one direction. By this time four years ago a whole genre of journalism had emerged trying to explain Trump support to those of us who didn’t get it. Much of this was written with the implicit and often explicit assumption that Hillary would win and that we would have to deal with Trumpist sympathies no matter what. There was no comparable genre trying to understand Hillary supporters to Trump supporters. After the election, when it was clear our country was deeply divided, and the reality that Trump would have to live with that there was still now effort. In fact Trump supporters just got even louder about non-supporters understanding them. I am not saying that under other circumstances the left couldn’t fall into the same trap, but what we have witnessed is currently a problem of the right.

Jim Leff said...

You're talking past my point. I know it's hard for people to understand people they disagree with (because their perspective is frozen, so they can't even truly understand people they AGREE WITH, though that failure is less obvious). But that's not my issue here.

The mere effort to understand is suspect. Understanding is collaboration. Using the "U" word in conversation about villainous entities makes you look villainous. Your "understanding" will land about as successfully as if you'd pronounced that "rape victims mostly had it coming". You've CHOSEN SIDES.

The way language is used equates understanding with approval. The word itself carries the clear implication of concession. It's worse still if you use the even more appropriate word, empathy. No one wants to be caught empathizing with the Devil. As my friend said, "Why would you want to understand somebody like that?"

One can at least try to understand, even empathize (or merely recognize the larger benefit of such attempt), without approving, collaborating, or conceding. But this strikes most people as crazy talk. Me? I empathize with every monster, and it only just occurred to me that that's something I need to not ever say out loud. WHAT KIND OF PERSON EMPATHIZES WITH MONSTERS?

Naturally, the real problem is that everyone's monstrous from time to time. There are few saints. If understanding is approval, there's ample reason to suspend understanding/empathy with every last person...perhaps more often than not. And even a cursory survey of our world shows that this terrible process is fully in play.

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