Empathy as Self-Justification

So, Katha Pollitt is complaining about liberals being asked to show empathy and understanding for those voters that didn’t vote for Hillary Clinton. Her main argument seems to be that liberals already show more empathy than those people and so being constantly reminded to show empathy is annoying. The problem is that she does so by completely ignoring what empathy actually is and instead ends up claiming to have and be showing more empathy simply because of the policies she supports, and in so doing shows that she doesn’t actually have any empathy or respect for the people that she’s complaining people keep telling her to have empathy and respect for.

She starts off by misrepresenting the situation:

And that’s not even counting the 92,346 feature stories about rural Trump voters and their heartwarming folkways. (“I played by the rules,” said retired rancher Tom Grady, 66, delving into the Daffodil Diner’s famous rhubarb pie. “Why should I pay for some deadbeat’s trip to Europe?”) I’m still waiting for the deep dives into the hearts and minds of Clinton supporters—what concerns motivated the 94 percent of black women voters who chose her? Is there nothing of interest there? For that matter, why don’t we see explorations of the voters who made up the majority of Trump’s base, people who are not miners or unemployed factory workers but regular Republicans, most quite well-fixed in life? (“I would vote for Satan himself if he promised to cut my taxes,” said Bill Thorberg, a 45-year-old dentist in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. “I’m basically just selfish.”) There are, after all, only around 75,000 coal miners in the entire country, and by now every one of them has been profiled in the Times.

First, it’s not like we haven’t been seeing a large number of articles appealing for empathy for those who would be impacted by, say, the death of the ACA, focusing on people with health problems who were only able to afford treatment with the ACA but who now can’t. So there are more than enough counter-narratives from the liberal side to balance the narratives from the conservative side.

Second, one of the reasons for all of these articles is in fact that people were not expecting them to vote for Trump. Thus, there is a lot of interest in figuring out why they did so. Pretty much everyone already knows why those 94 percent of black women voted for Clinton, and at least all of the liberals like Pollitt think they know why those “well-fixed”, “regular” Republicans voted for Trump … although her summary is almost certainly wrong for most “regular” Republicans, as extreme exaggeration starting from a basis of stereotypes and bias tends to be. For liberals specifically, the interest and admonishments happen because they want to see how they can get these votes back. Pollitt herself hints at the importance of this when she talks about how these areas have, under the existing system, disproportionate power — citing the “3 million more votes” line yet again — but ignores that Obama and Bill Clinton managed to win enough votes — or, at least, enough apathy — from them to win elections, while Hillary Clinton didn’t. There’s certainly reason for liberals to want to see if they can pick up those votes and thus win elections, and denying that any changes need to be made might start to slide into “repetitive insanity” mode.

Pollitt then moves towards “two wrongs make a right” territory:

But here’s my question: Who is telling the Tea Partiers and Trump voters to empathize with the rest of us? Why is it all one way? Hochschild’s subjects have plenty of demeaning preconceptions about liberals and blue-staters—that distant land of hippies, feminazis, and freeloaders of all kinds. Nor do they seem to have much interest in climbing the empathy wall, given that they voted for a racist misogynist who wants to throw 11 million people out of the country and ban people from our shores on the basis of religion (as he keeps admitting on Twitter, even as his administration argues in court that Islam has nothing to do with it). Furthermore, they are the ones who won, despite having almost 3 million fewer votes. Thanks to the founding fathers, red-staters have outsize power in both the Senate and the Electoral College, and with great power comes great responsibility. So shouldn’t they be trying to figure out the strange polyglot population they now dominate from their strongholds in the South and Midwest? What about their stereotypes?

Well, first, because they have the power to, in fact, determine who will win the election, it is in the best interests of liberals to figure out how they can get these people to vote for them. That means understanding them and what they want. These are people who, at least, won’t turn up to vote for just any Republican and might even (gasp) vote Democrat on occasion. That they didn’t vote for Hillary Clinton means that something in what Hillary Clinton said didn’t appeal to them and even turned them off. If you have no interest in figuring out what that is and how you can use that to your advantage in the next election, you either have to believe that they will always vote and vote Republican — which, given Bill Clinton and Obama, is flatly false — or else you have to decide that you don’t care if you win or not. You can do the latter on a basis of principle — promising them what they want violates your moral principles — but a) Pollitt here is not suggesting that those specific people are the evil and selfish ones — for her, those are the “regular” Republicans — and b) any liberal who wants to take that tack can’t have ever argued that people should have held their nose and voted for Clinton despite disliking her. You can’t stand on principle only when it’s convenient for you and still be a person of principle.

But the issue here is that this is definitely “two wrongs are all right”, where someone who presumably thinks that morality and moral decisions should be based on empathy is saying that that only counts when the other person is doing it, which is invalid. To use a personal exmaple, I, personally, believe that basing morality on empathy is a really bad thing to do and oftentimes borders on being evil. By Pollitt’s logic, people who base their morality on empathy should not bother applying empathy to me or trying to understand me, even if they need me to work with them on things. This is despite the fact that since I lean Kantian/Stoic and definitely lean towards rationalistic morality they actually could convince me of their side by simply appealing to why the action is right rather than by asking me to think of how I’d feel in that situation (to which my usual reply is that I can see how they feel but that, in and of itself, doesn’t make the action right or wrong). I can justify not trying to climb the “empathy wall” for them because for me that’s not relevant to making moral decisions. They cannot. Thus, Pollitt would be justifying acting immorally towards me on the basis that I don’t share her morality. That seems to contradict her line in the post that she wants to help all people (more on that later).

And at the end of the day, this is all false anyway; there are lots of attempts to get those people to feel empathy for those people that Pollitt is concerned about. It seems that for the most part it’s had as much impact on them as the liberal calls for Pollitt to show empathy for those who voted for Trump had on her.

What difference does it make if I think believing in the Rapture is nuts, and hunting for pleasure is cruel? So what if I prefer opera to Elvis? What does that have to do with anything important? Empathy and respect are not about kowtowing to someone’s cultural and social preferences. They’re about supporting policies that make people’s lives better, whether they share your values, or your tastes, or not.

Um, no, that’s not what empathy and respect are about. She’s trying to pull a “deeds, not words” argument here, but it doesn’t work. Empathy is about understanding who people are, what they want, and why they want it, and respect is about not looking down on them for those things that they want that are different from what you want, and treating them as having an equal right and justification to pursue their own wants and needs even if they don’t want what you want. To take on her examples, I don’t care for either opera or country — the predominant music form of those areas — but I can at least potentially understand why they might prefer those to what I prefer, and I don’t look down on them for liking things I don’t like and not liking the things I like. Pollitt here seems to, in general, do both, and liberals in general, in fact, have been acting that way for a while now, and arguably that’s what cost Hillary Clinton the election: the idea that Clinton and the Democrats only had any respect for them if they thought “the right way” and wanted “the right things”. They never tried to understand what they wanted or why they wanted it, and when they did usually argued that what they wanted was wrong and they were bad people for wanting that. That is not a way to get people to vote for you.

Sorry, self-abasing liberal pundits: If you go by actual deeds, liberals and leftists are the ones with empathy. We want everyone to have health care, for example, even those Tea Partiers who in the debate over the Affordable Care Act loudly asserted that people who can’t afford treatment should just die. We want everyone to be decently paid for their labor, no matter how low they wear their pants—somehow the party that claims to be the voice of working people has no problem with paying them so little they’re eligible for food stamps, which that same party wants to take away. We want college to be affordable for everyone—even for the children of parents who didn’t start saving for college when the pregnancy test came out positive. We want everyone to be free to worship as they please—including Muslims—even if we ourselves are nonbelievers.

What should matter in politics is what the government does. Everything else is just flattery, like George H.W. Bush’s oft-cited love of pork rinds. Unfortunately, flattery gets you everywhere.

The problem is that she defines herself as “having empathy” entirely on the basis of the things that she thinks are right or important and thus carries on the idea that those who disagree are evil or ignorant. But that’s not necessarily the case. Let me use the example of the ACA. A large number of the ACA’s strongest supporters in my experience are liberals who either a) have serious medical problems themselves or b) know people who have serious medical problems. So of course their “empathy” is going to kick in towards finding a way to help those people. Many of them are also people who are mostly self-employed — or, again, associate with people who are — and so don’t have health insurance through their jobs, and hold out little prospects of getting it. So, again, that they find health insurance to be the most important issue is reasonable, given their context. But not everyone is like that. A poor family working a labour job that is generally healthy is likely going to less concerned about their health care than about their job, even if they think the ACA benefited them. Those coal miners and manufacturing workers? They had to note that Clinton was at best not saying anything about helping them with their jobs and was at worst promising that they’d lose their jobs. Now let’s take a middle class manufacturing worker, or worker in general. Many of them had health insurance through their jobs before the ACA. And what I learned is that much of the time, for these workers, their health insurance premiums increased. So they actually ended up paying more for what is arguably the same health care that they had before. They aren’t likely to see it as all that great a deal given that … and they’d have a point.

And all that people like Pollitt will do is chide them for not having empathy, and point to their trying to help certain specific people with an appeal that certain things “just ought to be covered” as their argument. I’m not saying that Pollitt et al are right about that. I’m not saying they’re wrong about that either. I’m saying that if you don’t understand what these people want, you aren’t going to be able to demonstrate to them that you a) care about what they want and b) can make their lives better. So all you’ll end up doing is coming in, putting things in place “for their own good” that actually leave them, specifically, worse off than they were before, and then end up angrily denouncing them as selfish, ignorant, and evil when they refuse to support you because, well, what you do keeps hurting them instead of helping them.

This is why Pollitt’s empathy is self-justifying. She defines the actions that show empathy, and is willing to stick to them no matter how much it hurts some people, and then when she is asked to consider people other than those she most empathizes with hides behind “But my actions really show that I care, no matter what they think of it”. Which is … a bad argument, but highlights the problems with empathy: it is easier to empathize with people you understand. Those other liberals are asking Pollitt to come to understand more people so that she can properly empathize with them, and Pollitt is mustering lots of reasons to avoid doing that. That’s not something that someone who wants people to act out of empathy can do, as it ends up with her only applying empathy to those she thinks “deserve” it, for whatever reason, and hurting people for their own good. And she — and many liberals — don’t seem to see that.

And, as Dukat said, that’s bad.

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