Did I Ever Mention How Much I HATE Appeals to Empathy?

So, over at Brute Reason, Miri is talking about how liberals failed to empathize with conservatives, which to sum up is essentially that they didn’t realize that conservatives really were terrible, evil, racist and sexist bigots out to hurt women, LGBT people and blacks/people who are not white even if it meant that they lost in the bargain. It’s how she justifies this that I want to talk about here, because she appeals to, you guessed it, empathy. And not only empathy, but her own super-duper special ability of empathy that can cut right through all the clutter and get at what these people are really thinking.

I know this because I listen to right-wingers and read what they write.

And because I have a relatively high empathic ability, which I train for hours each day in the course of my job, I can actually put myself right into a hypothetical conservative’s shoes and see why they’d feel what they feel given the beliefs that they have. If I had those beliefs, I would also feel (and vote) the way they do.

And when I put myself in the headspace of a white conservative, and run a simulation in my mind of their beliefs and values, their support for Trump and other Republicans makes complete sense to me.

So, the question is: how does she know that she’s right? How does she know that they really have the beliefs that she’s imputing to them, and that she’s not importing other beliefs and values that she has into the simulation and thus coming to a conclusion that works for her? It seems to me that believing that these people actually were bigots and thus it’s not that the Democrats and liberals failed to address reasonable concerns has some potential benefit to her mental image of herself and liberals and Democrats, and so doesn’t she have to be concerned that she’s coming to the conclusion that she likes best rather than the one that’s really true? So, then, on what basis can she argue that her empathy-based rationale is, in fact, the correct one?

Well, she can’t really do it on the basis of her past history and training. As I’ve talked about repeatedly on this blog, simulation and empathy break down when the person you are trying to simulate/empathize with is, in fact, radically different from yourself. It’s a lot easier to empathize with people who are mostly like you than it is with people who are completely different from you, which is one if the reasons I despise using empathy to determine things like moral obligations. So, in the past it might well be the case that her successes with empathy were due to similarities or even a limited scope than with superior empathic ability. Additionally, as a therapist she is in a position to fall for confirmation bias, where she can assume that her conclusions are always correct, and that when she succeeds it’s because she got the conclusions based on empathy right, and when she fails it’s not because her empathy failed, but for other reasons, including that they were deluding themselves into thinking that she was wrong about those empathic conclusions. So she needs an objective way to tell if her empathy is working in these cases.

She also can’t do it by appealing to the argument that it makes the results of this election make sense, or that it in fact predicted a number of things in the past. It’s way too easy to make any theory fit past facts, and the sample size is too small anyway. This would then run the risk of her rationalizing the results to fit her theory, and also run the risk of her missing another explanation that would explain the results equally well if not better.

So, how would you go about determining if your empathy is working or not in a specific case, if you can appeal to history with other groups, and you can’t appeal to predictions? Well, typically, the easiest way is to ask them if you’re getting it right. Sure, you can do long-term predictions, where you predict what the person will do over a number of relevant situations and not that your predictions work out, but that’s not what we have here. So Miri, then, ought to look at what conservatives say and determine if her views of their beliefs and values and actions really works.

Unfortunately, when it comes to discussing how to have actual empathy towards conservatives, she actually neatly cuts herself off from any such testing:

1. We take them seriously.

When someone tells you who they are, believe them.

2. We learn to read and listen critically.

On the other hand, we can’t take people’s statements so literally and interpret them so shallowly that we fail to understand what they actually mean.

Which essentially means — or at least runs the risk of meaning — that when they say things that align with your theory, believe them, and when they don’t, then they “really” mean something else. This is a recipe for never having to or being able to correct any misconceptions, because every time they tell you you’re getting it wrong you read out the code words and interpret them in line with those misconceptions. You can do this if, in fact, you already do know that you are interpreting them correctly, but Miri does not and cannot know that. Given this, she tries to make some arguments on that basis, but she isn’t careful to separate what she knows and believes from what they know and believe. Take this part:

There’s little evidence that they voted “against their interests,” because as much of a failure as Trump will be at improving their economic circumstances, that wasn’t the only interest they had. They were also very interested in reducing the number of people of color (especially Muslims) in the United States, maintaining Christianity as the dominant American value system, making sure that women don’t take what isn’t theirs, and preventing LGBTQ people from further corrupting American culture. They accomplished all of this and more by electing Trump.

Sure, many of them shot themselves in the foot economically in order to do that. But there’s nothing surprising about it. Psychological research (which I unfortunately can’t find right now, so feel free to take this with a grain of salt) suggests that people may willingly lose money in order to harm someone that they want to harm.

But even if we take it as a given that electing Trump does shoot them in the foot economically, we’d still have to establish that they knew and believed that it would when they elected him. If they really thought that he was their best choice economically and that their economic health was the most important thing to him, then Miri’s analysis here fails. And this holds even if Trumps platform wasn’t perfect; they would be voting for what they perceive to be the best, not what is a) actually the best and b) what is perfect or ideal. Heck, a number of liberals thought that Clinton was far from perfect, but thought that she was the best option; the same courtesy ought to be extended to conservatives, methinks.

So, again, we have potential confounds in Miri’s claim to be properly empathizing with conservatives, and she’s shut herself off from any possible evidence that could overturn those confounds.

And then we get into identity politics:

Conservatives don’t simply believe that climate change is a hoax; they really, really need to believe that climate change is a hoax. If they stop believing that climate change is a hoax, they will lose part of their sense of who they are, not to mention cause conflict with their friends and family and also start fearing that we’re all literally going to die. That’s some powerful motivation to keep believing that climate change is a hoax. Avoiding cognitive dissonance is a much stronger drive than your calm and reasoned arguments can possibly provide.

Okay, two questions here:

1) How does Miri know that climate change being a hoax is actually part of their identity and their sense of who they are?

2) Even if she’s right, how is it that a specific matter of fact became so critical to their identity?

Any matter of fact does not become part of one’s identity naturally. If people think that opposing climate change is part of their identity, it likely became so as the result of other commitments, beliefs, and identities that they have. One obvious one here is the idea that stopping climate change is a liberal position, and opposing it is a conservative one. If they see themselves critically as conservatives, then of course they’d make opposing climate change part of their identity. But this would only be because they identify as conservatives, and climate change is seen as something critically part of the identity of conservatives and individuals. Thus, if this is correct, then one could make great strides in changing that by decoupling the issue from the liberal/conservative divide. After all, there’s no inherent reason why positions on climate change would be necessarily liberal or conservative positions; there would be conservative or liberal approaches to combating it once people accept that it is happening. So turning it back into a matter of fact as opposed to a political football seems like a good start.

And all of that presumes that they do see it as an integral part of their identity, as opposed to simply not being convinced by those claiming that it exists.

Ultimately, Miri claims to really understand Trump supporters, but has no way of testing her conclusions or demonstrating that they are correct. All she has is her belief in empathy, which could very easily be impacted by her own beliefs, and that she’s built up a strong framework to defend no matter what evidence is adduced against her. Thus, empathy pretends to be objective while, really, being far more subjective than it should be. If anyone wants to claim that they are right based on “proper empathy”, the minimum reaction ought to be being skeptical, if not being outright hostile.


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