On the other hand...
On the other hand...
I ran across the phrase "weaponized empathy" the other day (in an article about immigration called "How to Defeat Weaponized Empathy": you can google it if you must, but I prefer not to link to it). Do you remember the picture of the little drowned refugee boy in the red shirt? The photo, which I don't have the heart to repost here, went viral, and for a brief moment, all of us here in cyberspace felt that a line had been crossed--this could not stand--something had to be done.
The author claims, though, that the little boy's body had been moved, repositioned for "maximum propaganda value." There's a before and an after picture. In the first, he's half hidden behind some rocks; in the second--the familiar one--he's lying on the shore, head to the waters, as if his little body had just washed up. You see? You're being manipulated. That image that awoke your empathy, and your desire to change immigration law? Contrived and artificial! Fake news! Don't fall for it!
It was strange, though. The author of the article didn't attempt to deny that the little boy drowned. He didn't deny that thousands upon thousands of just such toddlers are suffering and dying. He just showed the pictures of the body in one position, with someone, apparently some sort of aid worker, crouched beside it, then in another. It left a bad taste in my mouth--not because of the propaganda, but because of the leap from "They're trying to weaponize your empathy!" to "Don't fall for it! Don't empathize!"
Up to a point, he has a point--the same one personalists have been laboring to hammer into people's heads forever. You don't use people. You don't turn anybody into Exhibit A, just to prove your point. You don't feign interest in anyone's plight while secretly relishing what a neat and tidy illustration he is of your preferred ideology. And you don't determine public policy on the basis of sentiment instead of facts.
But that doesn't mean you ignore the actual person. That doesn't mean the person--this little boy, or anybody else--is less real, less important, than anybody's preferred policy.
I've seen this kind of weaponizing defended, by good guys and bad guys alike. There's an organization I used to support wholeheartedly--until I went to a conference and heard its president give a talk. As he was wrapping up, knowing what a friendly audience it was, he explained his fundraising strategy. "You need to get people angry," he confided. "Angry people write bigger checks."
He had learned how to weaponize their anger.
The thing is, it is sometimes good and necessary to awaken empathy, or anger, or even fear, where it's called for but doesn't spring up spontaneously, because of our sloth or hardness of heart. Affective response, as we at The Personalist Project have always insisted and Dietrich von Hildebrand spells out in The Heart, is not just some one-dimensional animal passion, serving only to stir up trouble and in need of domination by the more respectable faculties of will and intellect. The plight of a particular person, and the affective response objectively called for by that plight--these are no less real than all the facts and figures in the world.
So no--don't let the ideologues and politicians weaponize your empathy. Don't let the fundraisers weaponize your anger and fear. But don't throw the baby (your fitting affective response) out with the bathwater (somebody's cynical manipulation of that response). You'll end up losing a lot more than political victories.
“The Socialist who finds his children playing with soldiers is usually upset, but he is never able to think of a substitute for the tin soldiers; tin pacifists somehow won’t do.” – George Orwell, review of Mein Kampf
Since the horrific mosque shooting in Quebec City a few weeks ago, I’ve been wondering how it is that ordinary young men (and women) get swept up into violent ideologies. Sociologists call the process “radicalization,” and as I was reading about a study of thirteen different militant extremist groups—from across different regions, religions, and cultures—I encountered this list of beliefs that typify the violent extremist.
The researchers…extracted 16 key themes that occurred over and over in the texts. Taken together, the themes cohere into what Saucier and colleagues describe as a “seductive narrative”: The modern world has fallen into a catastrophic state. The ordinary mechanisms of change are no longer valid. Only extreme, violent measures can save things. This is a war of us against them, a war of good versus evil, a war of necessity. Any and all means are not only justified, they are glorified. God is on our side. In the end utopia will be restored.
Sounds pretty extreme at first glance, doesn’t it? How could anyone swallow this vision of the world? But if you soften the language a little, you get a set of propositions many people might find themselves agreeing with:
· The modern world is heading toward disaster.
· All our ordinary methods of bringing about change have been fruitless.
· There is an "us," and there is a "them" antithetical to us.
· We have to do whatever it takes to reach our goals. Means are unimportant; only ends are important.
· God/history/progress is on our side.
· We can fix what is wrong with the world.
These are not propositions we find only in ISIS propaganda or identitarian nationalism. These are propositions we see accepted widely among activists on the right and the left, "Culture warriors" and "SJWs," among people whose goals we share and people whose goals we abhor.
In an interview with the Washington Post on violent extremism, anthropologist Scott Atran referenced George Orwell on the attractions of Nazism and fascism:
“George Orwell once wrote a review of “Mein Kampf” in 1940, and I think it has some of the most profound insights of any commentator of the modern political world. He asks, how come [modern societies] offer their citizens ease, avoidance of risk and pain, hygiene, birth control — in short the good life — and no one is willing to fight for their ideals? And how is it that Hitler offers his people revolution, danger, death and glory, and a whole nation of 80 million people fall down at his feet? It’s because Hitler understood something profound about human nature: that human beings need at least intermittently a sense of self-sacrifice and transcendence. Under threat of death and extinction, they’ll find it. But if that can’t be given to people, their way of life just can’t compete.”
Looking at the “soft” version of the propositions I gave above, and reflecting on the discussions and debates I’ve participated in online over the last decade, I think there are two pieces to this puzzle. Our people are vulnerable to extremism not only because we have failed to offer them ideals and propositions worth sacrificing and transcending everyday comfort and security. We could offer alternative causes, but what would prevent those causes from themselves being overtaken from within by advocates for violence? We know that people are capable of being oppressive in the cause of tolerance, violent in the cause of peace, hateful in the name of Love.
We have failed, not only and perhaps not primarily in offering evocative and attractive alternatives to the fascist’s tin soldiers. We have failed, I believe, in countering the utilitarian ethics that makes the end the only measure of the moral and the good. The poison of extremist violence is not one we can bar with borders or security measures, because it reflects the battle within the human heart. The seeds of violence can be found in every community, every cause, every activism, every movement, anywhere that disordered love for an ideal is used to justify turning other persons into objects—enemies, others, weapons, and “necessary sacrifices.”
Whether or not you or I are in a position to root out and counter the societal and structural causes of violence, we can begin by rooting out the violence within our own hearts. We can affirm the need for self-sacrifice and transcendence—transcendence of our own hatred, our own anger, our own desire to plow down moral laws in search of simple means to much-desired ends. We can sacrifice ourselves in service to the other.
For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what shall a man give in return for his soul? – Matthew 16:26
What is our answer to tin soldiers? Not tin pacifists, but the living colour and narrative power of the Passion play.
My last post included a little dig at some students I overheard in a coffeeshop, self-consciously chattering about "intersectionality." I assumed then that it was an up-to-the-minute buzzword, but no, it turns out it was coined way back in 1989--it just seems to have gathered steam lately. Kate Cousino wrote about it last week, and you can read her insights here.
When the students I was eavesdropping on said the Women's March was so, like, intersectional, I think they just meant that there were lots of different kinds of people there. Google's definition is this:
Intersectionality: the interconnected nature of social categorizations such as race, class, and gender as they apply to a given individual or group, regarded as creating overlapping and interdependent systems of discrimination or disadvantage
(If you want to get a good migraine going, read the entire Wikipedia entry, especially the part about the way the various identities "reciprocally construct" each other.)
On the one hand, worrying about intersectionality might seem a step in the right direction. It's an improvement on selecting a single, currently favored characteristic--just skin color, or just gender--and viewing each person through that lens and that alone. On the other hand, it's a pseudo-solution to add a characteristic or three, puzzle earnestly over all the "reciprocal construction" going on, and leave it at that.
The term was inspired by a genuine dilemma: a General Motors plant was accused of segregating workers by both race and gender: blacks were welcome to apply for some jobs, whites for others; women for some, men for others. But there was no "intersection": the women's jobs didn't overlap with the blacks', so a whole segment of the population--black women--was excluded from every job. And the plaintiffs lost, because the judge objected to the black women combining "their race and gender claims into one." Heads I win, tails you lose.
So you can understand the frustration. Whether the injustice was as clear-cut as described by the plaintiffs, I don't know. There's plenty of other simplistic labeling, though, that cries out for redress. For instance, many of those who have presumed to speak for all us women, all these decades, have been white, upper-middle-class women --"happy people with happy problems." Or if not exactly happy, they have certain privileges (like nannies, cleaning ladies, and high-prestige journalism jobs from which they always seem to be taking a sabbatical). These privileges cushion them--but not their more humble admirers--from some of the consequences of living out their ideologies. They forget that not everybody is living in SoHo, on leave from The New Yorker.
So maybe they initiate a divorce on frivolous grounds, or intentionally pursue single motherhood. Bad ideas for anybody, but without the amenities of the celebrity life, they can wreak extra havoc. Celebrities set the pace, and the middle-income or inner-city women read about them in the supermarket checkout line and follow suit--and they and their children pay the price. (I'm not claiming to read the heart of any celebrity in particular, or to imply that everybody blindly imitates celebrities, just to note a harmful tendency.)
That's just one case of real-life calamity ensuing because of a failure to account for the variety of human experience. People get labeled, with a few arrogating the right to speak for everybody, ignoring difference in the name of diversity. It's a lack of imagination and a lack of logic. But taking the intersectionality route doesn't just overlook something about the person--it ignores what a person is. As the "About" tab of our website describes it, there's an "'infinite abyss of existence' (Newman) in the interiority of each person, in virtue of which each always exceeds the finite qualities and properties that he or she displays."
No matter how we pile identity upon identity--and no matter how closely we examine the interplay among them all--as long as we ignore that interiority, our goal of doing justice to the person will keep on receding, Each person is a whole constellation of qualities and conditions, with a unique history, yes--but each of us is also more than the sum of all these. Slapping a single label on a person is a sin of injustice and reductionism, but so is multiplying the labels and scrutinizing the interactions.
And if you're studying the whole subject, and the world in general, through the lens of power differentials--as so many intellectuals with blind spots do--so much the worse.
Grains of truth are not altogether absent. But impressionable kids in coffee shops deserve better.
Common domain Images:
"Rosie the Riveter: Wikipedia
In a lecture given several years ago, Neil Gorsuch, President Trump’s Supreme Court nominee, reflects on the meaning of the black robes that judges in America typically wear.
As my daughters remind me, donning a robe doesn't make me any smarter. But the robe does mean something — and not just that I can hide coffee stains on my shirt. It serves as a reminder of what's expected of us — what Burke called the “cold neutrality of an impartial judge”. It serves, too, as a reminder of the relatively modest station we’re meant to occupy in a democratic society. In other places, judges wear scarlet and ermine. Here, we're told to buy our own plain black robes — and I can attest the standard choir outfit at the local uniform supply store is a good deal. Our’s is a judiciary of honest black polyester.
I like this explanation and reminder. The robe does more than distinguish between the office and the individual who occupies it—a distinction with which I was already familiar. It also indicates the true purpose and proper place of that office in the American democratic situation. In America, laws are made by the people and only applied by judges. A judge does not speak in the name of a king to his subjects, or as the representative of divine justice, but merely as the impartial interpreter of the rules by which “we, the people” have decided to govern ourselves.
Democratic ideals like this are expressed not only in simple black robes, but also in the overall layout and design of American courtrooms and courthouses. Allan Greenberg shows this compelling, including lots pictures and illustrations, in his book Architecture of Democracy. Just the fact that we use the term “courthouse” rather than, say, “palace of justice” already speaks volumes. Likewise the inside of an American courtroom is full of symbolic meaning, and expresses America’s “view of the appropriate relationship between an individual accused of a crime and judicial authority.” Here's Greenberg:
The judge is located in the center of the front of the courtroom to symbolize the role of unbiased arbiter between two contending parties: the defense and the prosecution representing the state. Because they are in opposition but are equal in status, the parties sit at similar tables set out symmetrically facing the judge’s bench. The defendant, innocent until proven guilty, sits at the defense table with counsel. The public, at the rear of the courtroom, faces the judge and observes the law in action. The jurors, who determine guilt or innocence, are placed on one side of the courtroom. They are unbiased observers, removed from the axis of judge, counsel, defendant, and public. Because defendants are entitled to confront their accusers, the witnesses face the counsel tables but are placed adjacent to, and under the protection of, the judge.
This layout is deliberate, and its significance becomes even clearer when one compares it with courtrooms in other countries and cultures. In England, for instance, it is apparently still customary to place the accused person “alone with a guard in the ‘dock,’" and "raised up above the rest of the courtroom.” The accused is symbolically set apart from society, and held up for all to see, even though he has not (yet) been found guilty.
I find it reassuring to know that Neil Gorsuch is aware of the modesty of the role of a judge in the American judicial system, and also find it interesting to see how the American conception of the person, and of a democratic society and legal system, has been embodied in architecture and dress. Greenberg’s book, in case you’re also interested, is available second hand for only a few dollars at Amazon.