What is so radical about empathy?

 Google this and you get_

“Radical Empathy is actively striving to better understand and share the feelings of others. To fundamentally change our perspectives from judgmental to accepting, in an attempt to more authentically connect with ourselves and others.”

It used to be important and appropriate to offer SYMPATHY and then, we moved to COMPASSION and these two were deemed too demeaning, too distant, too empty. The new regime is demanding EMPATHY, that we feel on the inside what the victim, the oppressed, the forgotten, are feeling. That is supposed to bring us to a place of recognition and action. And it can’t be ordinary empathy or supercharged empathy. No, it has to be RADICAL.

Sympathy, Compassion, and Empathy are feelings that move us from the outside to the inside, and this method presumes that this direction is the means to becoming WOKE. It seems self-evident and not as radical as it claims to be. But there is a huge problem.

First of all, there is the hidden presumption that I as a white person can ever get inside the feelings of a black person with the burden of history of racism and Jim Crow. I could say in solidarity, “Now I know what you have been going through” but while the intention is noble, the assertion is another claim of my White Supremacy- I am God, I am omniscient, and of course, I can feel what you feel. Why not? I am still acting inside my privileged power.

I as a man can claim that I understand the struggles of women to be equal and free, understand that from the inside, but that is the problem all along- men asserting they know what a woman wants- no need to ask them. Abortion, Employment, Voting Rights. Presumed Radical empathy of men for women has destroyed more women than has saved them.

And if I am straight, I get all you gays in a radical act of empathy or I am an Israeli and I get you Gazans ‘suffering through our three wars against you because my empathy is radical. I feel your pain. I might have a hint that it is a pain I am  directly causing, but no matter, I share your feelings. That absolves me from much else.  My claim ends up being another claim of my supremacy.

Marx  and later sociologists focused less on the feeling inside and more on the system outside that makes those inner feelings our best adaptation to being treated as “less than.” Inside is the end of the game-and how we feel and what we endure,  not the start which begins with power, and what people chose to inflict.

If the problem is outside, if the problem is the discriminatory  economic and political structures of power, structures that I as part of the majority regime pay for and sustain, then inviting me inside may be good therapy but lousy activism. It may even be a screen I erect to uphold my righteousness without having to do anything, except emote.

The whole criticism of psychology is that it converts the sickness of the system into the symptoms of the mentally ill  patients. All our energy is on curing the patient than healing the system. The best example is the “Escape Slave Sickness Syndrome” that psychologists used to diagnose for slaves who kept running away. The methods of the modern Gulag were not invented by the Russians but by how we policed the minds and bodies of slaves.

Human adaptation to abuse is paradoxically as healthy as we can make it, but we experts and liberabls turn it into the internal problem. Radical empathy makes this bogus claim- go inside because that is where the changes can occur, regardless of the fact that the system that is outside is what needs treatment. The treatment calls for the opposite of empathy. It calls for surgery or it calls for an election, or it calls for a revolution.

Friends are displaying and calling for radical empathy for the President during his COVID infection. What a nonsense. He is a product of a system that made his sickness more likely and he sits at the head of a government that oversaw 200,000 deaths, and sought to deny millions health insurance. He could not even offer enough PPEs for health workers.

So what kind of radical empathy would we offer him? To feel as he feels? How could we possibly know? Who knows how he feels given his history of not having any sense of what ordinary citizens feel.

What is it like to feel if you are used to the lifestyles of the rich and famous and who can fly to Hospital in Marine One. Oh, yes, let’s feel what he feels. Radical man, Radical.

We cannot offer radical anything. All we can do is offer sympathy- wish him well and then get back to work to defeat the system that he leads.

We have to treat his government and his disease as a cancer to be eradicated from the body politic. Radical Empathy is all fine for triage. That is when we have the patient there, suffering, in the moment. Radical Empathy makes a whole lot of sense at the bedside of the dying. But not at the bedside of the killers.

For anyone seeking to change the world, empathy is a noble distraction. “Radical” is just an adjective that covers how pathetic is might otherwise sound. Power must act with attention, less to how people feel and more to how people actually have to live their lives and how they aspire to live. Feelings are like clouds. It’s whether they bring rain is what matters.


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