"faces," Ivan Pavlovskyy / flickr


letter | 9.4.17

What's the difference?

An ongoing exploration of empathy, kindness, and politics.


Back in March, when we first launched, I wrote “an embarrassingly lengthy” letter from the editor which functioned as a sort of manifesto for the project: in “What’s the question again?” I took a hard look at what seemed to me at the time to be the very big question we’d been grappling with, politically and culturally, since the 2016 presidential election had laid bare some profoundly entrenched social divisions. The increasingly concrete segmentation of groups of Americans into racial, class, and cultural (coastal elites v. heartlanders, i.e.) tribes – each with increasingly siloed ways of speaking and being – brought to mind a simple question, which turned out to be really tough to unpack.

That question was: How do we know what we know?

It’s a question, I discovered, that had been asked on a loop for thousands of years, ever since Plato in fact, and too, it’s a question (I also discovered) that doesn’t really have a comforting answer:

Whom we believe is connected, simply and directly, to whom we trust, and trust is an even more difficult thing to diagnose and determine than belief, especially when it’s placed in someone we’ve never actually interacted with – trust is dependent on a whole host of factors you wouldn’t necessarily call rational: relationships, memories, predictability and consistency, money and influence, etc.

As evidence for that whole trust-is-irrational thing, I cited a handful of studies that cast irrationality in a pretty nasty light, and which made tribalism seem basically inevitable. The suggestions I offered for combating the tribalism and hyper-partisanship, along with the confessedly “hokey” ending, struck me in subsequent weeks as inadequate, and I started to wonder if the “broad firm middle ground” I mentioned toward the end wasn’t in fact something other than the mushy potpourri of hopes, dreams, and values I’d claimed it was.

I wondered if it was something way deeper, something hardwired, and possibly sub-human.

I wondered – and still do – if it’s possibly empathy that functions as what some psychologists refer to as “social glue.” This suspicion led to another deceptively simple question, or cluster of questions, which is: what is empathy, exactly? And what is kindness? Are they the same thing? Can we become kinder/more empathetic, and if so, then how?

For months now, I’ve been exploring these questions – reading books and articles, listening to podcasts, watching videos, and speaking to folks, like Dr. Oliver Curry, an evolutionary anthropologist at Oxford, who’ve also spent lots of time thinking and exploring kindness and empathy.

The exploration is still very much in progress, but for now, I wanted to share with you three of the more interesting, surprising, and thought-provoking things I’ve learned so far.

(1)   There’s a lot more research and discussion on empathy than there is on kindness.

This weird quantitative gap startled me at first, frankly. Because it’s a lot easier to detect when somebody’s being kind than when somebody’s being empathic, or so I’d figured, which would’ve made kindness a more attractive field of study. But it’s not the case. In the past few decades we’ve made near-quantum leaps in the field of neurology, thanks mostly to fMRI technology, which lets us see different areas of the brain light up as we experience things. Which means, more specifically, that we can study empathy as it occurs in real time in the brain. That’s a helluva lot simpler than parsing action for motivation (i.e., observing kindness and/or constructing experiments that can measure whether and how kind people are).

There’s another promise inherent in fRMI, which is: with some effort, we can figure out whether empathy is linked, neurologically, to kindness. If the same areas of the brain light up when someone is experiencing empathy and when they’re engaging in kindness, then we can reasonably conclude that the activity of empathy, what the German philosophers Hermann Lotze and Robert Vischer first termed Einfühlung – feeling into – is linked to the activity of kindness, which can be sort of vaguely defined as doing something beneficial for someone at a cost to oneself.

According to psychologist Paul Bloom, we’ve already figured this out, and the answer is no, empathy and kindness are not linked. In his uncomfortably persuasive book Against Empathy, Bloom makes the argument that “there are other possible motivations for good action.” He blends anecdotal evidence with experimental data, specifically citing work from neurologist Tania Singer, who found neural differences between empathy and compassion, Bloom’s term for kindness: “Empathy training led to increased activation in the insula and anterior cingulate cortex…compassion training led to activation in other parts of the brain, such as the medial orbitofrontal cortex and ventral striatum.” Compassion, or kindness, according to Bloom and the researchers he relies on, is a more cognitive, deliberative process, whereas empathy is emotional, less rational – the ultimate sin, for various reasons Bloom expounds on throughout his book.

(2)  There’s lots of term confusion going on.

Compassion, empathy, kindness, altruism, sympathy – these terms are used in various ways in various contexts by various writers, plus they’re embedded in bigger word-clusters that tend to make the semiotics here way more complicated. An example. When a guy like Bloom talks about empathy, he’s careful to establish what he means: empathy for Bloom is what other folks might call affective empathy, “the act of feeling what you believe other people feel – experiencing what they experience.” Roman Krznaric, a founding member of the School of Life, defines empathy as “the art of stepping imaginatively into the shoes of another person, understanding their feelings and perspectives, and using that understanding to guide your actions,” a definition which is neatly opposed, you’ll notice, to Bloom’s, who believes understanding, as a kind of rational filter, is distinct from empathy. For Adam Smith, the Scottish philosopher who (in)famously gave the world the invisible hand but also possibly developed the very first theory of empathy and its social importance, empathy is sympathy, or “fellow feeling.” Smith’s sympathy, however, is not the sympathy of Dr. Brené Brown, who believes it “drives disconnection.” Nor is it the sympathy of Frans de Waal, the famous primatologist, who claims that sympathy, unlike empathy, “takes a detour through a rational filter.”

Often, too, conflations occur – the terms are used more or less interchangeably at times in some of the media I’ve consumed: Krznaric in particular tends to use kindness and empathy interchangeably, and de Waal seems to believe that empathy is the most effective route to kind action, despite acknowledging that “there exists no obligatory connection between” the two. Lea Thau, the host of the enormously popular podcast Strangers, which takes as its mission radical empathy, confesses in a recent show that “my purpose with this show is to create a path to empathy, so that there might be one person in this world who’s gonna be a little bit kinder to the next person,” – you notice what’s implied here, right? That empathy automatically leads to (or just plain is) kindness?

A few quick searches through Google Books also confirms this conflationary thing: search for books with any of the terms mentioned above and you’ll find titles like Altruism: The Power of Compassion to Change Yourself and the World, Kindness in a Cruel World: The Evolution of Altruism, Caring Economics: Conversations on Altruism and Compassion Between Scientists, Economists, and the Dalai Llama, Zero Degrees of Empathy: A New Theory of Human Cruelty and Kindness, etc.

Such term confusion is also a possible answer to the weird research gap I described in observation (1): there’s not a whole lot of kindness research out there (as compared to empathy research), but there is a lot of research into altruism.

(3)  The way we talk about politics is and has been for decades diametrically opposed to the language of kindness (but not necessarily of empathy).

The assertion that we’re living in an era of steroidal partisanship has basically become white noise – it seems like just about one-in-three op-eds in every major US newspaper and magazine make reference to this fact, even as many of the them engage in it. There are plenty of reasons for it, this partisanship, but one of the major ones is the language we use. There’s this deeply American obsession with victory, with winning, embodied almost-too-neatly in our current president, that implies, on the other side, a loser. For us to win somebody’s gotta lose, and the fact that (1) political parties tend to build their ideologies and policy proposals in opposition to each other, (2) journalists cover political campaigns like sporting events, and (3) our electoral system, structured (in)famously as a “first past the post” system, in which whomever gets just over half the votes wins the whole damn thing in one round, means that we are, inevitably, going to divide up into hostile political tribes. Which, this tribalism, tends to encourage two things: an extreme empathy that blinds us to facts about people on our team, and a deeply-felt antipathy for the other guys, which is equally blinding. Thus great swaths of, for example, conservative Christians embraced Trump in 2016 despite his (politely) un-Christian words and ways, just because he called himself Republican. And thus, too, a weirdly entrenched opposition to the Affordable Care Act by the very folks who need it most, because the GOP successfully branded it Obamacare, and everybody knows Obama is evil. You could easily draw examples from the left, too: the neoliberal embrace of Hillary Clinton despite her hawkish foreign policy and email incompetence, the blind spot progressives have for free-market policies that have brought a lot of wealth, culture, and knowledge into our and other nations (why, in other words, does it make sense to have progressive immigration policies but protectionist trade policies?)[1].

Bloom, too, hits on other issues with empathy-based politics:

It is because of empathy that citizens of a country can be transfixed by a girl stuck in a well and largely indifferent to climate change. It is because of empathy that we often enact savage laws or enter into terrible wars; our feeling for the suffering of the few leads to disastrous consequences for the many.

Bloom’s point here is not difficult to grasp; it’s the notion that we often let our feelings direct our moral action, and we’re much better at feeling the suffering of people we know. In a massively populous and diverse country that’s embedded within an even more massively populous and diverse world, relying on our feelings for the people we know to guide our political policies is foolhardy; it skews our thinking and thus our action; it leads us to short-term solutions that tend to relieve the suffering of our families, friends, constituents, but does nothing – or actively harms – people we don’t know: people in different parts of the country or with different ancestors or skin tones, or future populations. Leslie Jamison, in her book The Empathy Exams, calls this “the finitude of empathy.” And Bloom provides a useful analogy to illustrate this point; he suggests that empathy is like a spotlight:

But spotlights have a narrow focus, and this is one problem with empathy. It does poorly in a world where there are many people in need and where the effects of one’s actions are diffuse, often delayed, and difficult to compute, a world in which an act that helps one person in the here and now can lead to greater suffering in the future.

So we can see, right, how our winning-losing rhetoric plays into our tribalist impulses, which in turn, our tribalism, tends to be undergirded by robust empathy (for the people in our tribe). Another aspect of this, is that our winning-losing rhetoric keeps us from instituting a culture and/or politics of kindness, something I’m betting folks on both sides would want. Kindness, as Bloom argues – again, basing his conclusions on the work of Tania Singer – is “characterized by feelings of warmth, concern and care for the other, as well as a strong motivation to improve the other’s well-being.” Kindness is feeling for, not feeling with. And since kindness does not require us to experience the perspective of someone else, it also tends to better avoid the pitfalls of tribalism: it’s more diffuse, less finite. Empathy necessarily requires Us and Them because empathy is the act of turning Them into Us. Kindness, however, or compassion, or sympathy (again, struggling to figure out the differences), sees no Us-Them distinction, no winners and losers. Instead there are hierarchies of need: individual, group, nation, world – and the goal is to effectively balance these needs, to engage in a kind of utilitarian cost-benefit analysis: the word used by the Effective Altruism movement is optimal. The goal is to optimize existence – everybody’s existence. Kindness is rational.

So that’s what I’ve got so far. In sum, I’m torn on empathy. In a month or two I’ll post an update; right now, I’ve started reading about folks like Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, and Mother Theresa, with an eye toward understanding where their big hearts came from: were they motivated by their beliefs (in other words, did their zealotry power their altruism), or was it inherent, or what?

I’m also posting online my big, ugly spreadsheet of notes on empathy and kindness – you can click here to access it, take a look, and even add to it, if you’d like (but please mark your addition in some way: different colored text or background, for example).

And to finish this letter off, I wanted to place a little request, which is: what is empathy to you? What is kindness to you? Can you think of a time someone was kind to you, and how that made you feel? I’m hoping to collect some stories that’ll help me make sense of some of the more abstract or conceptual things I’ve read. I’ve made a little survey, which you can find here. Or you can email me at editor@sinkholemag.com, or send your thoughts through our contact page.

- Eric Fershtman, editor


[1] Progressives, whose ideology is increasingly dovetailing with socialism, should also note the socialist cautionary tale provided by FEMA’s flood insurance program, which is drowning in about $25 billion of debt.