Skip to main content

Empathy Is Not an End in Itself

People love to romanticize empathy. But how often do they act on it?
White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders in the James Brady Press Briefing Room at the White House on May 10th, 2017, in Washington, D.C.

White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders in the James Brady Press Briefing Room at the White House on May 10th, 2017, in Washington, D.C.

Earlier this month, it looked as though journalist Brian Karem had seen enough. During a White House press briefing, an exchange about the administration's policy of separating migrant children from their families at the border became heated, then boiled over. Karem, executive editor of the Sentinel newspapers, darted up from his seat and began to yell at Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders.

"Come on Sarah, you're a parent," Karem shouted. "Don't you have any empathy for what these people are going through?"

He continued to yell in her direction about empathy, and whether or not she was capable of feeling anything for the children separated from their parents. Sanders spoke over Karem, deflected, and eventually took another question while Karem yelled himself into exhaustion, and then a resolute silence.

When Sanders sidestepped of the question, it seemed to confirm what so many watchers of this administration had already assumed: that we are being governed by a group of people who operate with a heretofore unseen level of heartlessness.

I understand Karem's tactic during this episode, but the question feels belated and deeply inadequate. I don't need to ask whether or not the effective mouthpiece of this administration has any meaningful empathy for the people harmed by its policies. If she did, she would not be the mouthpiece of the administration.

Empathy is the general idea that one can place oneself in the position of another person—even if one has no lived experience in that position—in order to feel solidarity with whatever that person is going through. It's worth picking apart what purpose empathy serves when the stakes are as high as they are in this political moment, particularly among the people who are enacting horrifying and violent policies against children. Former President Barack Obama used to fret about what he called America's "empathy deficit," but it's becoming harder and harder to believe that empathy itself is a solution rather than a personal indulgence. Given the remarkable cruelty in the executive branch, plus growing divisions in the country and incessant calls that we empathize with Trump voters, now is a good time to challenge pat ideas about the uses of empathy, and whether it's actually the answer.

How does empathy balance itself against power, or anger, or privilege? We see Sanders often in front of a podium exercising the power of the administration, and we have seen her exercise her privilege—as a white woman and mother—to elicit empathy even from people who disagree with her politics and tactics. Just this weekend, after Sanders was asked to leave a Virginia restaurant, op-eds began circulating suggesting that people leave the president's team alone and let them eat in peace. This high-road approach is popular, and the race to the high road (when it involves protecting someone who's already powerful) becomes feverish among the pundit class, who desire to appear good and wise. Sanders is afforded this honor, even as she seems to have no capacity to feel for others.

The language that the administration uses to describe the people and groups they disagree with is calculated to cut off Trump supporters' feelings of sympathy and empathy. When the president refers to whole groups of people as animals or criminals or gang members, it doesn't take long for those who follow him to narrow their view of what that entire group is, which in turn narrows their emotional response to any distress the group suffers thanks to the administration's policies. It is easier to see a family torn apart if you are convinced that everyone in the family is a criminal or potential criminal. In this way, the language of the Trump administration is aggressively working against whatever empathetic impulses their base might otherwise have.

Empathy, at its core, is about feeling, and feeling is a bridge that can lead one to action—but in the absence of other, stronger motivations to complete the framework, empathy alone is a flimsy bridge. For example, what does it matter if Sanders has a deep well of empathy if her love of power is greater? Within the Trump administration, it appears that there isn't much use for empathy, unless the lives in question mirror those of the people running the administration: white and wealthy and, often, male.

There is empathy, and then there is kindness; one is an emotion, and the other demands an action. Empathy is something that can wash over the body and make us feel satisfied, reassured to know that we're still capable of the altruistic emotions, though not really required to do anything beyond feeling it. It is a worthwhile starting point toward understanding the suffering of another, but it's important not to conflate the reassuring feeling of empathy with the discomfiting experience of compassion that results in kindness.

In his essay "Against Empathy," which concerns his book of the same name, Paul Bloom gives a clear example of the difference between empathy and compassion. He writes:

Imagine that the child of a close friend has drowned. A highly empathetic response would be to feel what your friend feels, to experience, as much as you can, the terrible sorrow and pain. In contrast, compassion involves concern and love for your friend, and the desire and motivation to help, but it need not involve mirroring your friend's anguish.

Empathy doesn't necessarily teach us to be better people. It is merely self-recognition reassuring us that we retain a capacity for goodness. If I watch a sad story on television and feel sad, even for a moment, then I can convince myself of my own potential to be good—a feeling often satisfying enough that it requires nothing else.

These days, scientists are using virtual reality to create experiences that act as "shortcuts to empathy," in the hope that, by adopting and experiencing this technology, society at large will become more empathetic and loving. It seems simple enough, and I'm not entirely unconvinced. But it also makes me wonder how and whether these shortcuts toward empathy will transfer to everyday lives—whether the technological experience of empathy will supplant or diminish empathy in real life: Once the technologically manufactured emotion passes, will people stop to help a person struggling with their bags while crossing a street, or just walk past them?

I often wonder about this future, and the ways that technology helps us perform empathy, when I look at social media. Empathetic gestures can play out easily online, and it's tough to know how apparently virtuous Tweeters are enacting their ideals in the real world. For example, when a black person is killed by a police officer, I scroll through Facebook and read that many of the white people I know feel bad, or I get emails or direct messages from white people telling me how bad they feel. Sometimes I appreciate the gesture. But I rarely get to know whether these newly invested white allies are doing anything concrete with these emotions. It is easy to convince others that you are good, but it is even easier to convince yourself.

Social media has afforded us unprecedented insight and access into strangers' lives, all without moving from our homes. As a result, we can now perform and broadcast empathy without anyone ever having to see us. On the morning Anthony Bourdain committed suicide, I was in an airport. Contrary to the romantics, I generally think people behave pretty poorly to each other at airports. So many of us take up too much space, push people around, don't speak politely, cut in line. I watched these usual pettinesses play out while I scrolled social media timelines of people eagerly begging their fellow humans to be kind to each other. I wrote a tweet about how difficult it is to see that kindness in practice once we step into an unkind world. And then I deleted it.