Don’t you prefer an empathetic person to one that isn’t? Someone who remembers to consider the thoughts and feelings of other people? Someone who makes sure to craft policy with a kind heart? This concept has entered the discourse of nearly everyone these days. It seems everyone is pro-empathy. What’s not to love?
This past Feb. 24, Russia launched an unjustified, indefensible, and hyperbolic military invasion of Ukraine. According to most sources, thousands have already died in the violence and millions of Ukrainians, their lives abruptly uprooted, became refugees.
If you were in most American communities, you could feel the people around you, in one form or another, expressing solidarity with the Ukrainian victims of Russia’s brutal shattering of the peace. Pretty much every mainstream American news source broadcasted the suffering of the Ukrainians extensively. It’s good to know that American society is an empathetic one, that cares about people all around the world.
That’s why Americans have also likewise expressed their grave sympathies to the millions of Iraqi people devastated by the Iraq War, including hundreds of thousands of civilians that were killed, right?
…wait, they didn’t, at all? People didn’t wave the Iraqi flag in solidarity with the civilians getting killed? There was no recurring news coverage of the plight of the Iraqis?
Maybe that was back then and 20 years later, this is a kinder time. People have also expressed deep sympathies with the Yemeni victims of the Saudi indiscriminate war funded by the United States…oh, almost every American has been completely silent on this as well?
There’s a clear difference between these latter situations and the Russian invasion of Ukraine: in Iraq’s case, America was the aggressor. And in Yemen’s case, America funded the aggressor. The victims in the latter cases are them.
But we are people who value empathy, right? Surely, we are people who consider the plight of innocent, everyday civilians something of important emotional consideration regardless of the geopolitical placement of the governments that are outside of their reach.
We like to tell ourselves that. And this is where most people that are against militarily aggressive American geopolitics will accuse the media of manufacturing consent among the American people, causing them to pick favorites for who is deserving of their empathy, and where I disagree. My claim is that the mainstream American media indeed grossly disproportionately expresses sympathies for certain groups of people over others, but this display is, rather than a manipulation of the people, a reflection of the actual “empathy” of most of the people.
Sometimes, the media itself actually interviews a person who demonstrates the true inner workings of the empathy. This is, of course, just a few examples, of which several people involved are probably not Americans, but if you are American and pay close attention to the details of the discussion of disasters and tragedies by those around you, in most cases you should be able to notice that consistently there are parts of the world in which 1000 people dying does not get half the tears shed as 10 people dying in another part of the world. The average American has an empathy hierarchy that is more or less approximately as follows:
- the United States itself
- developed Anglophone countries
- non-Anglophone Western Europe and Israel
- Latin America
- Eastern Europe
- East Asia
- Everywhere Else
where the same level of tragedy happening to someone in a country higher up on this list consistently tugs at more heartstrings than someone in a country lower down on this list, and for which individual countries within these regions often move up or down this list depending on whether they are geopolitically aligned with the United States. Of course, people all over the world exhibit their own empathy hierarchies in different orders, and I actually expect the hierarchies in most countries to have wider gaps than in the United States, but, and here’s the point, here in America, we style ourselves the fair justice-bringers of the world, and tell ourselves we are the empathetic people. Our soldiers were in Iraq and Afghanistan to bring justice and liberty, so we told ourselves.
This seems like a good place to pause and make some disclaimers. I want to make it absolutely clear that I consider the kindness expressed to the Ukrainian people a good thing, and in no way am I trying to downplay the severe hardships Ukrainians have needed to suffer through. Disgusting publications like the Daily Beast will publish headlines like “It’s Good to Be a White Refugee”; no, it is not, it’s usually slightly better to be a White refugee than a non-White refugee, but good fucking grief, it still involves being a refugee. What I am wishing for is that the kindness towards victims of war is not so drastically conditional on where in the world a people are from, and what I am condemning is the current trend of embracing empathy, when this is what the American empathy is. Many Americans like to say they care deeply about all people, which they do…until the people are not the right people, which they don’t even notice they exclude. I in fact think one of the best indicators of whether someone is really marginalized is how much skepticism they display towards the value of empathy, because the truly marginalized are those that know that what most people mean by that word does not include them.
You might now be saying “my empathy is not like this though; I care about all the humans”. Okay, so side point, then main point. A lot of people like to think of themselves as empathetic and do not realize that there actually are people they barely care about. In the majority of cases, this isn’t what’s going on, and I’d like to make that assertion without making any accusations towards you specifically. I think it’s quite important to entertain the possibility that someone is, in fact, actually fair in their application of kindness and thoughts and to remember the benefit of the doubt, which can be done while pointing out population-wise tendencies. But main point: even if you are in fact “complete” in your application of empathy, you should realize that the people all around you aren’t, and you cannot make the assertion that empathy should be a central value of politics in a democracy when the “incompletely” empathetic people around you don’t view themselves as unempathetic; to them, what they apply is empathy. Regardless of your personal take, to the typical American, empathy includes a lack of political objection to supporting Saudi war crimes in Yemen.
This brings us to the most recent application of empathy to politics. Upon Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, much of the countries of “the West” chose to retaliate against Russia by levying numerous brutal sanctions. The sanctions came in many forms, some of which are a good response, and some of which are frankly despicable. In a particularly egregious case, Russian and Belarusian athletes were banned from the Paralympics. Eric Swalwell, Democratic Party Representative of California’s 15th District and perennial demagogue, even proposed that American universities should expel its Russian students. Clearly, the banning of Paralympic athletes and Russian students in American universities hurt Russian people more than the Russian government, so how did these ideas come about, and the first one implemented? Those in power in “the West” rode the wave of empathy and felt the emotional need to apply the feelings or sorrow they had for the Ukrainian people into condemning Russia, in the form of hurting Russian people, who had no part in launching the invasion of Ukraine. The effect of geopolitical alignment I mentioned above is in full force here: due to an action by the Russian government, the American people have defenestrated the full Russian populace from empathy. (By the way, guess what isn’t sanctioned yet? Russian oil. That’s right, whatever values underlie the choice of what sanctions to levy on Russia prioritized numerous items before oil.)
If this is not convincing to you, imagine if in response to the American invasion of Iraq*, disabled American athletes got banned from the Paralympics and political leaders in other countries called for American students studying abroad to be booted. By the way, if you’re an American and it was completely unclear to you what was unjustifiable about certain sanctions against Russia until this analogy is mentioned, thanks for helping to demonstrate the reality of “empathy”, the supposed feeling for others’ points of view, by not being able to understand the injustice until presented with the hypothetical when it is about you.
*I am taking it for granted here for the validity of the comparison that you agree that the American invasion of Iraq was completely unjustified and indefensible, which most Americans now believe (but, importantly, most Americans back then did not believe). If you still don’t agree on this, I guess we have other problems to sort out.
In fact, I think the analogy I just presented is slightly unfair—against the Russian people. I would argue that punishing the people of a democracy for the actions of its leaders is more justified than punishing the people of an authoritarian regime, who do not have the means of input towards the content of its government. It’s still not justified, because subjects of a democracy still don’t have fine control on their government’s actions, but it sure is closer to reasonable than the latter. (And no, you don’t get to use the “America is not really a democracy” defense here: polling near the start of the Iraq War consistently showed a strong majority of the American public in support of the invasion.) There’s a small proportion of people that are pushing for a recognition of a difference between the Russian government and the Russian people, and I’m glad they’re emphasizing that, but I want to note a point they often bring up: “many of these Russian people are against the war and protesting it”. I’d propose the line should actually be drawn substantially further than there. Even an everyday Russian citizen that takes a neutral stance does not deserve the retaliation of brutal sanctions. Ordinary citizens simply should not even have to answer for the actions of their governments under the threat of economic devastation.
Feelings are not a substitute for fairness. If you guide politics with empathy, it should be unsurprising that your politics lead you to telling disabled athletes they’re not allowed to compete due to an action of their government, because even if your empathy tells you this is wrong, it should be clear to you the empathy of those around you supports this. Decisions should be guided with objectivity, a direct comparison of actual, measurable outcomes. Ordinary people should not suffer the wrath of ridiculous sanctions, regardless of your feelings towards those people’s government. Every civilian killed in war is a travesty anywhere on earth, regardless of where a people’s empathy extends. Of course, people who oppose objectivity will say “but people who claim objectivity often fail to meet it themselves”. And, yes, defenders of objectivity indeed sometimes fail to recognize the passing of their personal biases as objectivity, as opposed to the defenders of empathy constantly passing large differences in response and solidarity as empathy. The thing about objectivity is that you could ask for the receipts—which objective standards are being measured up against, and tell when people are in fact lacking objectivity, because the crucial distinction is in rejecting “this action is empathetic” and “this is what someone with the right heart would do” as an end-all. And if you see a leader of a democratic institution as lacking empathy, it is probably because that leader reflects the empathy of the people.