What makes an empathic society? More importantly, how can we approach this question using an interdisciplinary perspective?
Ethicist Martha Nussbaum in her works lays out the groundwork for a radical approach to creating a world beyond just caring individuals, but one where caring is fundamentally entrenched. Nussbaum contends that empathy is often limited to seeing through the point of view of someone in distress and forgiving them. What it truly entails is wearing a more critical lens which then calls for action to erase the sufferings of those who have been rendered invisible by forces of power.
A society of reciprocal and unconditional sensitivity is not incumbent on individual agency. It cannot be brought about through a performative show where I need to prove my worth. My worth is integral to the way institutions and social structures function.
Recently, there has been this talk of the ’empathy economy’ which is applied to the modern workplace in facilitating better relationships with supervisors and employees. The underlying issue is not that the supervisor doesn’t understand their subordinate’s feelings, it is the existence of the supervisor itself and the unequal dynamics the relationship holds.
The supervisor does not exist in itself but as a proxy in relation to institutions of power. You may try to empathise with them, but they will never have the same feelings for you because of their innate position, which placates them to see you as an asset rather than a person.
When we observe these imbalances in our attempts to connect with each other, it becomes evident that our frame of reference needs expansion. We may assume that our social relationships come from an innate part of us, but they are very much informed by the structures around us.
Scholars and researchers have long tried to understand the effects of economic policy, welfare, and social services in facilitating compassion and emotional bonds. Here comes political economy, the science of interconnecting seemingly separate concepts, which can give us perspective to the question: How can empathy be applied to the study of the distribution of wealth, resources, and power to solve the crisis of apathy we are facing in the industrial West?
The political economy of empathy has already been a project embarked upon in the West during the post-WWII Keynesian consensus long ago. Sociologist Dalton Conley’s seminal work Honky (2000) provided a glimpse of life in New York City on the precipice of the collapse of this consensus into neoliberalism.
While recounting his life story, Conley makes various passive references to many of the social programs that existed during the time: expansion of public housing, desegregation reforms, school rezoning, strong civil society, and various other services that were once the hallmarks of the city.
These elements, by some accounts of Nussbaum, should be emblematic of an empathetic society. These services still exist in the present day; however, there is a striking difference between the New York of Conley’s time and our contemporary one.
We now live in the austerity era where every public institution and service is under the radar of cost-benefit analyses, whereas before, there was consensus that social insurance was an organic aspect of our city and nation. I recognise to a degree that I am sanitising the dark history of New York at the time or the past in general. We nonetheless can recognise that the consensus of that time at least prioritised an egalitarian society where basic needs can be met before anything else is considered.
We understood why low-income families, the working class, and others beyond the business class needed support systems to ensure some form of social mobility. US president Lyndon B Johnson once boldly declared policies centred around compassion, allowing citizens to live their desires, and allowing “no child will go unfed, and no youngster will go unschooled”.
Today, such language is seldom echoed without arbitrary benefits to economic forces that are prioritised such as growth, the market, and development. Those arbitrary forces function not to serve the public good, rather it is the public good that serves them.
So what spelled the death of empathetic policy? This is where even larger forces play a role. Empathy in the policy-making process is shrouded by the advent of aggressive free-market forces that have castrated public services. The municipal fiscal crisis in the backdrop of Conely’s childhood, the global oil shock, and the decline of the Bretton Woods system that emphasised the importance of domestic welfare all spelled the end of the consensus.
What came after was an intrusion of market forces into spheres that were once protected from it. Safety nets became hidden behind layered walls of bureaucratic forms and long phone calls with social service offices without any human connection on the other side.
Welfare recipients became rendered invisible, parasites, leeches, a burden of the state, thus resulting in the aforesaid alienation and indifference. Stigmatisation from participating in welfare is then internalised, and the needy shut themselves off from the world.
The absence of the political economy of empathy has created an illusion of capitalism as essential which has left us on our own devices in place of solidarity. Anthropologist David Graeber affirms that proponents of capitalism argue it is the ‘only’ choice whether we like it or not. It is the only system that supposedly can accommodate the jungle of modernity, industrial society, and globalisation.
This is where empathy dies as this pessimistic and gloomy attitude produces not just indifference towards the ways we can actually help each other but outright hostility. This can give rise to structural (economic), symbolic (social), and even interpersonal (physical) violence toward populations we are alienated from.
Political economy also touches on a lot about the ‘losers’ and ‘winners’ of global political, economic, and social changes. Who are the losers? Do they deserve empathy or are they the inevitable product of the rat race? We tend to not think about the losers, and so they are relegated to the status of homo sacer; socially and legally dead even if physically alive.
Say we wore the lenses of the poor and the developing world, what could that do? How can we reach bodies of lower status if they are so far removed from us and vice versa? Will CEOs of multinational corporations be suddenly persuaded by pathos to improve labour conditions? We’d like to think, but all we are doing is lying to ourselves.
Graeber asserts that we must break free from this mentality. We ought to have faith that the political economy of empathy is still possible. So how does it materialise? How can we reclaim our lost emotional capital that has been replaced by its financial form?
There has been much discussion in recent decades on the outsourcing of labour to other nations in recent decades due to globalisation. The same phenomenon has been occurring in our everyday life; the state has outsourced empathic decision-making and left it to us to bear the emotional burdens from burdens of those around us.
We face this whether it be talking with a friend struggling with depression or coming across a homeless person in need of donations. We make our own cost-benefit analyses of the extent we should engage in these dilemmas constantly as we deal with our own burnout, stress, and financial anxieties. This outsourcing is detrimental to us physically and mentally as we are now labouring and toiling beyond our capacities to constantly take on each others’ traumas and adversaries individually.
Akin to global market forces and price mechanisms, empathy is also largely reliant on information. Context allows us to understand and put ourselves into the shoes of others. This is the pillar of empathy as without exposure to new data we remain alienated and detached.
Yes, if I know more about my friend or the homeless man who needs help I can see where they are coming from and can connect shared experiences. Nonetheless, my own material reality limits my responses. We can only do so much if the information is incredibly overwhelming and, most importantly, not always our burden to take. The costliness of recognizing distress signals forces us to disengage, further exacerbating our estrangement.
We must be provided the mechanisms and apparatuses to provide the aid the unfortunate need from bodies of governance and those who oversee resources and benefits. The exchange of emotions, shared experiences, and the development of self-awareness certainly create a foundation.
It cannot be left to us individually to respond to someone’s suffering because empathy is not, as in the words of Isabel Wilkinson, “what you think about a situation that you have never been in and probably never will be in”. Essentially, a shallow and cognizant approach of conditionally assessing a situation cannot alone solve state violence, poverty, and inequity.
The new political empathy is one where we are guided to instinctively deduct injustice instead of having to do so through some deep individual psychological journey. It is also one where interventions are placed to alleviate everyday people from the weight put upon us and permit us a deserved breathing space to autonomously engage, re-connect, and co-operate.
The new political economy of empathy goes even beyond the New Deal-era policies of social spending. The new consensus is an exhaustive project of liberating us from surface- level ideations of norms and niceties. It is the shifting of policy, customs, laws, discourse, and allocation of the common good to create better morals and the conditions of a society where we are not expected to be compassionate but ‘must’ be through direct action.
Those at the top of the hierarchy cannot be overcome simply by an appeal to emotion or even reason; the power structures that individuals hold and utilise are to be dismantled altogether. Empathy requires an extent of contempt; contempt for the enterprises that have torn the collective fabrics that hold us together.
The new consensus points the finger not at each other or ourselves but directs us to recognize that our sufferings come from a blueprint deeply rooted and embedded in quantitatively evaluating every emotional function. As Kant says, we have a duty towards each other regardless of the context and benefits.
The argument is often put forward that we should educate groups like women and children because it’s good for the economy. We should instead reframe this thought process to ‘women and children must be educated’, full stop. Even In the face of global recessions, downturns, conflict, and coercive integrations, the commitment to recognize the inherent humanity of the subjugated populace serves the standard of the political economy of empathy.
But as Nussbaum warns us, we cannot achieve this ideal merely through being forgiving, tolerant, and passive. Our civil rights and our most basic freedoms did not come from futile and superficial attempts of empathy in the framework of existing systems.
In a new consensus, we are able to imagine other people’s suffering beyond an internal process and one that is a result of societal ailments. And we are collectively obligated to remove those ailments from holding us back from freely processing each other’s thoughts, desires, wants, and needs to recreate our lost bonds taken by the political economy of malice, violence, abstraction, excess, and isolation.
Aamer Tahseen is currently working for the New York City Department of Youth and Community Development’s Workforce Unit.