Empathy – the Enemy?


I read an interesting piece by Mark Steyn recently that questioned to oft-vaunted “empathy” of the Left.  The occasion for this discussion was the horror that some members of the media showed when Rick Santorum explained the circumstances around the death of an infant child.  In brief: though told that the baby would live only hours outside the womb, Mr. and Mrs. Santorum decided to take the child home so that the family could meet him.  Basically, he decided to treat his non-viable child like…a life.  How strange.

Steyn points out the irony of the “empathetic” Left showing horror at this occasion:

The Left endlessly trumpets its “empathy.” President Obama, for example, has said that what he looks for in his judges is “the depth and breadth of one’s empathy.” As he told his pro-abortion pals at Planned Parenthood, “we need somebody who’s got the heart — the empathy — to recognize what it’s like to be a young teenage mom.” Empathy, empathy, empathy: You barely heard the word outside clinical circles until the liberals decided it was one of those accessories no self-proclaimed caring progressive should be without.

Of course, the irony goes deeper than this instance.  The Left’s empathy ends when it meets people with whom it disagrees:

The Left’s much-vaunted powers of empathy routinely fail when confronted by those who do not agree with them politically. Rick Santorum’s conservatism is not particularly to my taste (alas, for us genuine right-wing crazies, it’s that kind of year), and I can well see why fair-minded people would have differences with him on a host of issues… The usual rap against the Right is that they’re hypocrites — they vote for the Defense of Marriage Act, and next thing you know they’re playing footsie across the stall divider with an undercover cop at the airport men’s room. But Rick Santorum lives his values, and that seems to bother the Left even more.

All this has me wondering if empathy is much good at all.  I recently completed Edwin Friedman’s A Failure of Nerve.  If you aren’t familiar with systems theory, you probably should be.  His basic argument in this book is that leaders lead best who lead themselves.  That is, the best leaders are able to remain connected while staying differentiated (not “bound up” on a core level with those one leads).  Doing so enables leaders to take well-defined stances that, if maintained, encourage growth on the part of those around her or him.

Empathy, as it turns out, is counterproductive to this model of leadership (and maturity).  Friedman points out that “empathy” entered our language very recently, and yet in its short history has come to be viewed as indispensable in all kinds of professions and contexts.

“As lofty and noble as the concept of empathy may sound, and as well-intentioned as those may be who make it the linchpin idea of their theories…societal regression has too often perverted the use of empathy into a disguise for anxiety, a rationalization for failure to define a position, and a power tool in the hands of the “sensitive”…I have consistently found the introduction of the subject of “empathy” into family, institutional, and community meetings to be reflective of, as well as an effort to induce, a failure of nerve among its leadership.”

The basic assumption of empathy is understanding.  The classic illustration is that sympathy can look down on someone from above with pity, but empathy puts us right next to the person in trouble.  Friedman’s argument – and he is not a reactionary arch-conservative but a Reformed Rabbi and counselor – is that the empathetic stance is actually counter-productive to the growth and “self-regulation” (read: maturation, development, positive change) of the others we seek to help.

The bottom line:

“Forces that are un-self-regulating can never be made to adapt toward the strength of a system by trying to understand or appreciate their nature…it is self-regulation, not feeling for others, that is critical in the face of entities which lack that quality.” (133-135).

What do you think?  Is empathy actually holding back our churches, families, and communities?  Is empathy the enemy?

4 thoughts on “Empathy – the Enemy?”

  1. I don’t believe that empathy is a problem. I believe that sympathy is and that sympathy is being mislabeled as empathy.

    The Liberal assumption is that these two words are interchangeable when they are not, not in any functional societal system at least.

    That I can put myself in another person’s place and understand their feelings and how they led to actions or inaction doesn’t mean that I have to hold any sympathy for them at all. Yet the Liberals – except when it comes to any and all who disagree with them – consistently claim that it does mean just that.

    1. Most descriptions of sympathy view it as a lower level of identification than empathy. Sympathy, on this understanding, is more like pity. You can pity someone without really being concerned about their well-being. I think most would argue it is harder to remain uncaring once I’ve tried hard to walk beside someone or go “a mile in their shoes.”

      His point is not so much how “their” feelings lead to action or inaction, but rather how our – that is, the leader’s – concern for being empathetic, feeling, and nice encourages unhealthy behavior to continue on the part of the person for whom we empathize.

      And I didn’t mean for this to come across as political as it did, though I suppose that on a political level the left plays up the empathy card much more than the right – although populist elements of the right probably do too.

      At any rate, thanks for stopping by.

      1. Empathy is the capacity to recognize and, to some extent, share feelings that are being experienced by others.

        Sympathy is a level of affinity which causes one person to stand with another, normally closely understanding his or her feelings. Sympathy not only includes empathizing, it also entails having a positive regard or a concern for the object of sympathy.

        Which sounds closer to being the root of the leaders’ concern and the resultant unhealthy behavior?

        When one empathizes, one understands. When one sympathizes, one not only understands but approves to some level or is willing to make excuses for the object of sympathy, normally in modern politics by blaming others for that object’s actions or condition.

  2. I’ve been doing more reading on sympathy and empathy just now than I care to admit. It seems to me that the definitions are fluid. At any rate, my life will be happier if I stop arguing about it. I just don’t care that much. The word Friedman uses is empathy, so I’ll stick with that.

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