Tell Me How You Really Feel

Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion BY Paul Bloom. Ecco. . $.

The cover of Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion

I’m a white man and (perhaps you’ve heard) my kind enjoys explaining things at great length to everybody else. I talk a lot, loudly. That’s probably my most zealously cultivated talent: the ability to speak with an air of relaxed authority about almost anything. It has served me well, especially at work, even though in my professionwriting songs for the theater—you spend a lot of time trying to see the world from the point of view of other people. Talking in different voices and living in different realities, or at least imagining them. Lately, I’ve been working in a kind of mash-up of fiction and journalism, where I conduct interviews and then turn them, drastically edited but mostly verbatim, into songs. In the fall of 2015, I pitched an idea to the New Yorker‘s radio program on WNYC: I would visit various primary states over the year, talk to voters, and record the resulting songs.

There is, of course, a certain amount of moral hazard involved in this process. What does it mean for me to turn someone’s experience and language—that of a Latino man, say, or a black woman—into a song that I own (each subject signs a release form giving me all rights to the material)? Or to choose which small fragment of a two-hour conversation will make a good song, the Russian-doll story hiding inside a story inside their story? What does “mostly verbatim” mean? (Is it like “kind of true”?) And where is the line between understanding somebody else and simply presuming that you’ve understood? Pretending. Faking. Lying. Still, I told myself as I went along, the important thing was that I was spending the year listening to people, letting them talk, instead of forcing my views on them. That I was walking in their shoes for a minute. Practicing the sort of empathy that we keep being told is so thin on the ground these days.

My project would have got short shrift from Yale psychologist Paul Bloom, who argues in his bracing, infuriating new book, Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion (Ecco, $27), that empathy cannot and should not be the basis for morality. Empathy, he insists, has nothing much to do with goodness, kindness, or the sort of anger that fuels political protest or revolution. What we think of as empathy is really more the psychic equivalent of comfort food. Feeling other people’s feelings doesn’t do much for them; it just allows us to congratulate ourselves for our sensitivity. Being empathic is like working in a soup kitchen—but without actually having to do it. And when empathy does move us to action, so much the worse: We give to the charity that has a better pitch rather than the one that does more useful work; we fall for a sob story from someone on the subway rather than trying to address the systemic issues that cause poverty.

None of this is exactly news. Bloom quotes the expected experts on rational empathy, effective altruism, and so on: Steven Pinker, Adam Smith, Peter Singer, Simon Baron-Cohen, Elaine Scarry. He also has some familiar trouble defining his terms, so that his bogeyman sometimes eludes him. Empathy is a shape-shifter, somewhere between sympathy and compassion. It’s not clear whether its essence lies in identifying with someone, feeling their pain, or the understanding or knowledge you glean from doing so. At times, Bloom seems to present Buddhism’s “great compassion,” as opposed to “sentimental compassion,” as an acceptable goal in our attempts to think about the rest of the world. But for the most part, leading with your feelings, let alone other people’s, is both suspect and disastrous. (Though I was glad to find that Bloom lets me personally off the hook with a reminder that writers and performers are not our society’s most problematically empathic people—we call those therapists.)

In late January 2016 (a more innocent time, when Donald Trump was not yet the Republican nominee), I flew from Newark airport to Des Moines, Iowa. To find interviewees, I called the father of my oldest friend, who grew up on a farm outside the city and knows everyone. Over five frigid days, I talked to farmers, refugees, union workers, small-town lawyers, the head of one of the largest family-owned farms in the state (where Khrushchev stayed when he visited Iowa), and a small group of Democrats in Greenfield who reminisced about the day Jesse Jackson came to their town. The first song I ended up writing was a fairly jaunty setting of an interview with members of the Carlisle High School Mock Caucus Society, in which they talked about the anxiety of political correctness, the confusion of mixed households (Mom’s a Democrat, Dad’s a Republican), and their love of video games (“You can make whatever reality you want”).

The song aired on the radio, and I embarked on trips to South Carolina, Texas, Colorado, California, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Arizona, Massachusetts, and Oregon. More songs! I wrote one from the point of view of a possible Trump supporter in Charleston, a hard-line Episcopalian who told me about growing up with a black maid and how it was all right that the Confederate flag had come down at the statehouse, because “we can have it in our house / share the remembrance of it.” I wrote one in the voice of an undocumented Mexican American activist in Dallas, who described getting pulled over in Arizona and, unable to show his Mexican passport, producing his Sam’s card, at which the officer conceded, “If you buy in bulk / You must be American.” I wrote a song as a young African American college student from Georgia, now in Colorado for school, who expressed anguish over whom to vote for if Bernie didn’t make it and had no idea how she would repay her student loans, except by never having kids. Then there was the TV-news editor in Los Angeles; the anarcho-socialist gay-porn star in Arizona who felt that, since there’s no repairing this country’s political fabric, there was no point in voting, either; and the white Tea Party loyalist in New Jersey with “no sympathy for gays and blacks and womens [sic]—you’ve got everything that you’ve asked for.” That last guy yelled conspiracy theories at me for two hours in a McDonald’s and, when he was done, said, “This has been a really wonderful conversation.”

When I look back at the songs now, they show a bunch of people all over a big nation, without direction, some captivated by Trump’s charisma, most not seeing any candidates they really like. On the eve of the election, I sang the whole sequence in concert at City Center in Manhattan. The next night, as the reality of the situation became clear, I began to wonder what the point of my project had been. While one can (and I suppose, the Nobel Literature Committee recently did) make a case for songwriting as an art, I prefer to say that I make entertainment for a living. By telling stories that blurred the line between entertainment and journalism, I and others on both sides of that line have something to answer for in what went so appallingly wrong last year. From the entertainment side, I can’t help wondering whether we should just shut the whole thing down—stop making amusing political songs or radio shows or news programs. For instance, for a late October episode of This American Life, I wrote a song that imagined what poor, long-suffering RNC chair Reince Priebus might secretly be thinking, struggling to keep his party together as Trump tanked in the polls and upset everyone in sight (Paul Ryan included). It was a funny-sad song, because we assumed then that what we were watching was a kind of (comi-)tragedy for the Republicans, rather than a (tragi-)tragedy for the Democrats, and much of the country. That song is almost impossible to listen to now. Why the fuck was I worried about Reince Priebus’s feelings?

And then there’s the song I made out of a complicated story an old white Republican dude told me about calling three young men the N-word. An amazing story, I thought—but where exactly was the good in listening to him and passing on what he said? I recently spoke to the woman who worked for the billionaire who funded the Republican takeover of Texas in the 1990s. She had just purchased tickets to Hamilton for her granddaughter, and said to me, “Have you seen it? I think it’s changed everything.” I just nodded and nodded, like the universal empath I apparently am. Feelings are so slippery, and people have so many of them, that Bloom is right to suggest that empathy isn’t a reliable foundation for morality. For one thing, it’s easy to imagine you’re empathizing when you’re really only projecting. You could completely misunderstand someone else’s history and experience, yet keep on aggressively empathizing at them just the same. Or you might, say, feel such intense empathy for nonexistent abused children that you show up to a pizza parlor with a gun.

These are dark times, and they are getting darker. Since November I’ve wondered if maybe the best thing we white men can do is shut the fuck up for a while. Make a little room for someone else to talk. Shut up, lean out, leave our explanations unexplained. Paul Bloom, naturally, sees it differently. In a chapter about why humans are bad at “cognitive empathy,” he writes, “Our efforts should instead be put toward cultivating the ability to step back and apply an objective and fair morality.” If anyone questions Bloom’s credentials as regards objectivity or fairness, or asks him (as many apparently have) to “check his privilege,” he is puzzled, because the case for “an objective and fair morality”—one he presumably thinks is exactly the same for an African American woman as for a white male professor—seems to him self-evident. He asks, jokingly, if we’d rather have a “subjective and unfair morality” and let that inform policy. (Ha.) If there is a lesson to be learned now, finally and for all time, it is that whiteness is not neutrality.

Throughout his book, even in the chapter called “The Politics of Empathy,” something uncanny happens whenever Bloom approaches the subject of politics. He mentions gun control, abortion, economic inequality, race, and gender, but seems to have no strong feelings about any of them. (Though he does at one point admit that he would be unhappy if his son believed untrue things about evolution: “We should try to believe true things.”) “Political views share an interesting property with views about sports teams,” Bloom writes. “They don’t really matter.” His eagerness to attack empathy is matched only by his remarkable unwillingness to take sides about anything else. “My attack on empathy is nonpartisan,” he gushes. “Individuals of all political orientations—liberal, conservative, libertarian, hard right, hard left, all of us—can join hands and work together in the fight against empathy.” Can we? What fun! Bloom’s main objection to empathy as a mode of engagement with the world, then, is that it isn’t sufficiently neutral—results may vary. I’d say that, if anything, it can be too neutral, or we can be too neutral in applying it. Not all feelings deserve equal weight, and there’s no use listening to people unless you’re prepared to interpret what they say, judge accordingly, and figure out what can be done about it. And now look: I’ve been explaining for paragraphs. Maybe it’s time I get my own house in order, and try to behave with more generosity, in every sense of the word.

Michael Friedman is a composer and lyricist living in New York City.