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Empathise, dammit! [[[or damn it!]]]


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Empathise, dammit! [[[or damn it!]]]

Empathise, dammit! [[[or damn it!]]]

17th March 2017


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Much has been written about the incomprehension of the liberal-left over their countrymen's support of Donald Trump. They have been accused of being smug and knowing. The championing of identity politics and the favouring of minority groupings has created an unbridgeable gulf between those who voted for and against Trump.

Mike Berger (Trump and the crisis of the West, Politicsweb, 15 February 2017) refers to “a growing constituency in academia and the media focused mainly on a limitless smorgasbord of 'minority rights' and Western guilt for all manner of internal and global ills… such arguments [having] powerfully reinforced virulent ethnic and ideological identity politics in an increasing spiral of polarisation.”


The liberal-left protested in shock at their fellow citizens triggering such a backlash, the repeated message from Democrats invariably portraying Trump voters as stupid, narrow-minded and bigoted.

Despite claims of electoral fraud, Trump’s election was legal and constitutional. But, in their condescension, the liberal-left cannot comprehend how those who don’t share their world view could have voted for him.


After years of political correctness and identity politics, honed on college campuses, white, middle-class America is blamed as a group for the misfortunes of communities of victims – blacks, LGBTQI groups, women, Palestinians and so on. Blame is laid indiscriminately; the group is demonised.

This political dogma, which has grown in the past four decades, makes no distinctions and gives no consideration to the circumstances of the demonised group. Many Americans, including white Americans, have seen their economic circumstances stagnate or worsen. They have seen no real income growth for over 20 years. Many lost homes as a result of the crash of 2008 and lost jobs as industries became redundant or uncompetitive. They believe the political class has abandoned them and see Washington DC as a morass of big business interests and lobby groups.

Overlooking such circumstances is a consequence of the “politics of empathy”, whose premise is an aggressive demand for empathy for a designated group’s pain. The pain alone determines the narrative for activism in which the guilt of the alleged “perpetrator group” drives support for the “victim group”. Those who don’t share the, or who question the alleged victimhood, cannot be tolerated; they must be denied a voice. 

The “enemy’s” opinion is irrelevant. It must not even be debated, hence the culture of “no platforming” that has evolved in academic environments in particular. This is the nasty practice of ensuring that a speaker with whom the favoured group disagrees has his invitation to speak on campus revoked. Alternatively, the speech is protested against until it is cancelled or disrupted until it is abandoned.

During apartheid much was done by white people, particularly women, to ameliorate the effects of apartheid – in education, law, welfare, the arts and the unions, among others. They did what they did because they were appalled by the evils of the system and they responded with a sense of compassion. Some accuse these people of having been privileged, paternalistic and guilt-ridden. Whether they were or not, in no way derogated from or diluted their humanity. They worked extremely hard under very trying circumstances to improve lives greatly harmed by apartheid.

The current atmosphere is very different. Political leaders trade on anti-white racism and use inaccurate data to back up claims intended to detract from bad governance. Most recently, President Zuma said in parliament that anyone who opposed ‘Radical Economic Transformation’ was a racist. 

Groups like the fallists publicly accuse white students and academics of being racists, all the while making racist threats and utterances. Some whites take the accusations of guilt and privilege to heart and believe that the test of their humanity rests solely on supporting the fallists, irrespective of the moral, ethical and factual base of their position.

Addressing former United States president Barack Obama’s claim of there being an “empathy deficit”, Paul Bloom (Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion, Ecco; 304 pages; Bodley Head; 209 pages) argues that the world does not need more empathy; it needs less. “People are bingeing on a sentiment that does not, on balance, make the world a better place.” Bloom’s prescription is reason, compassion and self-control.

Bloom has no problem with compassion or “cognitive” empathy – the ability to  sympathise with what someone else is feeling. But he is opposed to empathy when it is defined as actually feeling what somebody else feels. Empathy is biased as people tend to feel for those who look like themselves. It is limited in scope, often focusing attention on the one at the expense of the many or on short-term rather than long-term consequences.

Bloom believes it is better to rely on reason and cost-benefit analysis. Morality is possible without sentimental approaches to individual suffering. Like anger or empathy, racism is a gut feeling; it might be motivating, but ultimately does more harm than good.

The Economist notes that empathy is easily exploited, capable of being marshalled on either side of the aisle to create not a bridge but an impasse of feelings.

#FeesMustFall typified this approach. A cause that had the support of many in society, and of the universities against whom the fallists were protesting, failed in so many respects.

The protesters determined who was worthy of empathy: they demanded negotiations with those deemed blameworthy even if they were sympathetic. They negotiated in bad faith, demanding negotiation with parties who were not in a position to address, never mind accede to, their demands.

Conservative philosopher Roger Scruton (Fools, Frauds and Firebrands: Thinkers of the New Left Bloomsbury 2015) observes that in the post-modern, politically correct academic environment, academics find it increasingly difficult to appeal to students for whom negotiation has taken the place of rational argument.

James Bartholomew (The Spectator Taught to be stupid 7 January 2017) suggests that the educated liberal elite’s views are a result of their education, of being injected with the views and assumptions of their teachers. “They have been taught by people who themselves have little experience of the real world.”

Constant appeals by government and civil society to debate racism and thus to “resolve” it, will come to nothing in this atmosphere. For any such project to succeed, the demonised groups would have to be allowed to speak freely, and would actually have to be listened to. Rational and full debate are necessary.

Society doesn’t need the aggressive victimhood and cringing guilt that comes with empathy politics. What society needs is more compassion.

Written by Sara Gon, a Policy Fellow at the IRR, a think tank that promotes economic and political liberty. Follow the IRR on Twitter @IRR_SouthAfrica.


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