We need somebody who’s got the heart, the empathy, to recognize what it’s like to be a young teenage mom, the empathy to understand what it’s like to be poor or African-American or gay or disabled or old – and that’s the criterion by which I’ll be selecting my judges. – Former President Barack Obama
A poll conducted by the Pew Research Center in 2014 showed that of all the human traits we can teach our children, empathy was considered the most important…by Liberals, that is. Conservatives, conversely, chose religious faith and obedience as their core values.
Anyone who is Conservative encounters these attitudes the moment you dip your toe into the marketplace of ideas. “Lack of empathy” is one of the frequent criticisms levied against us at On The Rocks blog. Empathy along with a lack of love, lack of compassion, and the general accusation that our opinions are merely reflections of fear and Fox News – incidentally, neither of us actually watch Fox News.
But all of this had me asking: what is empathy really? Why do Liberals seemingly prize empathy, love, and compassion more than Conservatives? Is empathy even necessary?
What Empathy Is
First, we must define what exactly empathy is. According to Dictionary.com, empathy is:
- The psychological identification with or vicarious experiencing of the feelings, thoughts, or attitudes of another.
- The imaginative ascribing to an object, as a natural object or work of art, feelings or attitudes present in oneself.
The first definition is closer our purposes than the second but doesn’t quite encompass the answers to the Pew poll. I think a layman’s definition here might be more useful:
- Empathy is walking a mile in another man’s shoes.
- Empathy is seeing something through someone else’s eyes.
The layman’s definitions may serve better because they include one important distinguishing element from the dictionary definitions: they both imply a moral judgment.
Empathy, in its dictionary form, is completely amoral. You can empathize with literally anyone. It only implies an understanding. By contrast, walking a mile… or …through someone else’s eyes implies that you must first empathize before making a judgment or criticism about someone from another group.
It is beyond doubt this is what Liberal Pew poll takers are referring to when they say empathy is the most important thing to teach your children. And is this not a good thing? Shouldn’t we all strive to empathize with others? Wouldn’t Jesus do the same? This is certainly what is claimed.
But the answer is not as simple as a straight yes or no.
Power, Privilege, and Criticism
In our culture, there is a perceived social pecking order dictating how we must relate to other members of society. This pecking order creates social strata. And while this order is unspoken it still pervades discourse and permeates the marketplace of ideas.
This cultural order is summarized in two words: political correctness.
The major conceit of political correctness is that society is layered according to power or “privilege”. In this order, white heterosexual males are usually considered the most privileged, and therefore represent the top layer of strata. From there the layers grow more complex, typically falling along three main axes: race, gender, and sexual orientation.
The dominating axiom of political correctness is that only positive feelings (i.e. empathy, love, compassion, etc.) may flow from the perceived higher strata to the lower strata; whereas negative feelings (i.e. criticism, judgment, and labeling) may flow freely but only if from low strata to high strata.
It’s like a grand scale game of Taboo, the party game where one player has to describe a thing without using one of the many buzz words printed on a card, while his teammates try to guess what he is describing. While this is happening, an opposing player holds a buzzer which is pressed if any of the buzz words are used.
Consider Cam Newton, a talented black Quarterback for the NFL’s Carolina Panthers. Newton has the reputation of being rather cocky. In 2016, when Newton’s Carolina Panthers earned a spot in that year’s Super Bowl, Newton was criticized heavily for his frequent on-field celebrations, which drew the ire of opposing fans and players alike.
In the weeks leading up to the Super Bowl, the media picked up the controversy and ran with it. News feeds were full of articles denouncing fans’ criticism as being motivated by racism. It is important to note that many of Newton’s NFL opponents also took exception to his celebrations. In fact, two years later Newton was voted by his mostly black NFL peers as the “biggest trash-talker” at the Quarterback position.
Cam Newton drew fire again this season. This time for laughing at a female reporter, saying it was weird to hear a female ask such a serious football question. Twitter exploded. Female journalists from all over the world took shots at this backwards young male chauvinist. One female ESPN journalist even called him a “Neanderthal”.
This example is important because it illustrates the way in which the politically correct social structure works. Newton received criticism from three different layers. The first layer was mostly white NFL fans. And because whites are perceived at the top of the social strata, this criticism from white to black was deemed a violation of political correctness. Consequently, all criticism was denounced as racist.
The second layer was from his peers: predominantly black NFL players. This black to black criticism was a non-issue, even though it was very similar in nature to the criticism levied by mostly white fans.
The third layer, however, was from a perceived lower stratum: women – or, to be specific in this case, female sports journalists. In this case, not only was it considered acceptable to criticize Newton, but strong labels like “Neanderthal” were applauded.
The vital point here is that criticism of Cam Newton was deemed commendable, acceptable, or overtly racist based solely on the source of the criticism rather than the content.
Who Decides What Is Politically Correct?
How did we come to this point as a society? That question is well beyond the scope of this article, but a word must be said about it, nonetheless. To really understand our current brand of political correctness, one must go back to its origins in the 1960s. Of this, Shelby Steele writes the following:
…in the culture war between liberalism and conservatism that followed the tumultuous 1960s, liberalism won. That is, liberalism won the moral authority, the power, to set the terms of social relations among Americans—the manners, the protocols, the ideas of decency, the rules for how people must interact within the most diverse society in human history. Liberalism gave America a new “correctness” that enforced these new rules with the threat of stigmatization.
Steele, Shelby. Shame: How America’s Past Sins Have Polarized Our Country (p. 162). Basic Books. Kindle Edition.
Steele says again:
Political correctness is the enforcement arm of poetic truth. It coerces people into suspending their own judgment on matters of racial equality, women’s rights, war, and the environment in deference to some prescribed “correct” view on these matters that will distance them from the stigma of America’s sinful past. The very point of poetic truths is to supplant the actual reality of American life with the view of America as a nation still surreptitiously devoted to its past sins. It has no other purpose than to project these sins as the essential, if not the eternal, truth of the American way of life. Then political correctness tries to bully and shame Americans—on pain of their human decency—into conformity with this ugly view of their society. This is how America after the 1960s began to live under a hegemony of political correctness, so that we became more invested in the prescriptions of that correctness than in the true nature of the problems we faced.
Steele, Shelby. Shame: How America’s Past Sins Have Polarized Our Country (p. 24). Basic Books. Kindle Edition.
I will only add to this by saying that we need enough intellectual honesty to acknowledge that political correctness is the law of the land. And this large-scale game of Taboo doesn’t just infiltrate our interaction and communication with others, but also changes the very definitions of words like love, compassion, and empathy.
Empathy and Political Correctness
Growing up, I remember a cliché frequent to television comedies. A man would accuse a pregnant woman of complaining too much. The audience would boo and the woman’s eyebrows would raise. There would be a challenge. The man would wear a weight strapped around his belly to simulate pregnancy. Of course, he would complain even more loudly than the woman did. I’ve even seen variations of this in skits where men are strapped to gurneys and electrocuted to simulate the pain of childbirth. Predictably, 100% of the participants come away with a newfound empathy for pregnant women.
Now, there is nothing wrong with this example, per se. Empathy for a pregnant woman is a good thing. But where are the examples of empathy flowing in the other direction? Where is the woman who makes fun of a man’s job only to try it and fall flat on her face, coming away with a newfound respect for men? This does not exist in television. If anything, the opposite is true.
Hollywood, in particular, promotes the idea that women can do anything men can do, and maybe even better. A woman is challenged to complete a “man’s job”. The men begin as scoffers and eagerly wait for the woman to fail. But even if she cannot physically match a man’s strength, she invariably uses her intelligence and cunning to devise a smarter and faster way of completing the same job.
This is true outside of Hollywood as well. Examine any commentary on labor around the Western world. Male dominated industries such as mining, oil and gas, construction, police, military, and professional hunting or fishing – industries which have a strong physical and/or danger element – are not talked about in terms of “Hey, isn’t it nice that men are willing to do some of these dirty or dangerous jobs”, but instead are talked about solely in terms of gender and wage inequality: how is it fair that men should dominate these high-wage industries?
Empathy or Sympathy?
All of this leads to a very important distinction: empathy no longer means empathy, but really means sympathy. This may sound trivial at first, but it has one vital ramification.
The progressive appeal to empathy (objective understanding which leads to discernment) is really an appeal to sympathy (subjective feeling which leads to agreement). And this politically correct sleight-of-hand is possible because it all sounds so reasonable.
After all, are empathy and sympathy really that much different? Surely, I am making a bigger deal out of this than I should!
But am I?
Is it not like Satan to disguise himself as an angel of light? Would it not be in keeping with his strategy to make bad things sound like good things? Did he not make the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil seem like something that would give wisdom? The arts of the enemy are subtle. He is a crafty villain.
When you really understand the difference between empathy and sympathy, I believe you will really see it all over the place in modern discourse. In Hollywood, for example, it is the norm to portray lesbian, gay, and transgender persons as everyday people that you can sympathize with, therefore removing the stigma and pressuring you to give them acceptance in society.
But Paul says in Romans that these people are destined for hell and we must call them to repentance! But how can one repent of a sin which society and the church is not simply required to understand (which is to say: true empathy), but through a subtle shift in terminology is required to also affirm (which is to say: the politically correct definition of empathy)?
And there we find the catch 22 for the modern Christian. Using LGBT as merely one example of many: if we affirm the LGBT movement then we are at odds with Scripture; but if we do not affirm the LGBT movement then we are accused of not showing proper empathy; therefore, we aren’t very good Christians. In fact, if we refuse to empathize then we are subject to empathy’s distasteful antonyms: disdain, indifference, hatred, disunity, and unfeelingness.
There is no middle ground in this argument. The shift in language has rendered empathy incompatible with dissent. If you disagree with any of the Progressive agendas: LGBT, gun control, Black Lives Matter, National Anthem protests, Pro Choice, social welfare policies, illegal immigration, etc, then you are convicted as guilty of harboring disdain, indifference, hatred, disunity, and unfeelingness.
This is why Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann are mocked by Feminists who call them “anti-woman”. It’s why black intellectuals like Clearance Thomas, Thomas Sowell, Shelby Steele, Larry Elder, and Ben Carson are reviled as “Uncle Toms”. It’s why LGBT Republicans like Milo Yiannopoulos and Guy Benson are branded “self-hating gay persons”.
Is it because they lack empathy? Does Sarah Palin not understand what it means to be a woman in a Patriarchal system? Is Shelby Steele, a former Black Nationalist sympathizer who grew up in the turbulent 60’s, clueless as to the plight of blacks in America? Does Guy Benson have no understanding of what it means to be LGBT in America?
Truth vs. Empathy
The plight of the true Christian is perilous. We live in a hostile society which perverts language to accommodate its sins. And so, when we are constantly shouted down by the left and shamed for showing disdain, indifference, hatred, disunity, and unfeelingness, we are often cowed into a state of submission and self-loathing.
We make accommodations to try and throw off the brands attached to us. We try to understand the other side. We try to acknowledge our sins, both individual and collective. We try to genuinely see things from our accusers’ perspectives. In short, we try to winsomely win them back to us.
But it was never about empathy, or love, or compassion, or any of the rest of it. It is and always has been about one thing: affirmation. Therefore, every Christian must ultimately make a solitary choice: either affirm the sins of the world and the agenda of the Progressive left or stand up for biblical truth and be branded as a prejudiced hate-filled bigot who is indifferent to the sufferings of others.
There are many Christians who still deny the existence of this ultimatum. They still believe that self-loathing along with a winsome smile will ultimately win the day. Blame ourselves for all the world’s problems, make reparations, agree with our accusers when they condemn us, and we will slowly win them back. But this gives the left too much credit because it assumes they seek the truth.
Empathy is not a bad thing. But truth is better than the new, politically correct perversion of empathy. So do not be confused by the two, or cowed into believing that you are a hate-filled bigot simply because you won’t affirm the left.
“For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.” – Ephesians 6:12 (ESV)
“Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour.” – I Peter 5:8 (ESV)
“…for even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light. So, it is no surprise if his servants, also, disguise themselves as servants of righteousness. Their end will correspond to their deeds.” – 2 Corinthians 11:14-15 (ESV)