The first serious problem with empathy is that it is biased. Empathy is often presented as a way to overcome insularity or partisanship (that is, “seeing the other side”). But in practice, empathy more often simply reinforces in-group prejudices, because people find it much easier to identify with those who are like them or on their side.
An example: A curriculum recently used in a Northern Ireland school was designed to teach adolescents about the Troubles. The hope was that Protestants would learn to empathize with Catholics, and vice versa. However, a 2012 study published in Theory and Research in Social Education found that students who took the curriculum were no less polarized than those who didn’t. In fact, the authors of the study wrote that “identification of students with their group’s historical positions grew even stronger” after taking the courses. Students did empathize more — but only with people on their own side. Empathy simply increased polarization.
“Empathy likes to travel up the social hierarchy.”
Similarly, Trump supporters don’t necessarily lack empathy; they just reserve that empathy for their own in-group. Consider, for example, alt-right leader Richard Spencer, who greeted Trump’s victory with an enthusiastic Nazi salute. Spencer advocates for the removal of non-white people from the United States and argues for this policy with an appeal to empathy: “We need an ethno-state so that our people can ‘come home again’… We must give up the false dreams of equality and democracy,” he said in a 2013 speech. Empathy for supposedly dispossessed white people justifies authoritarianism and ethnic cleansing.
As Spencer shows, empathy doesn’t necessarily lead people to put themselves in the place of the disempowered. In fact, Kate Manne, a philosophy professor at Cornell University, told me that empathy “is often directed towards the most powerful people rather than to those who might be more vulnerable and more deserving of empathic treatment.”
In her book Down Girl: The Logic of Misogyny, Manne discusses “himpathy” — which she defines in the text as “the tendency to dismiss the female perspective altogether, to empathize with the powerful man over his less powerful alleged female victim.” Manne points to Brett Kavanaugh as an example. When the Supreme Court justice was accused of sexual assault, there was a huge outpouring of concern for the effect the accusations might have on his career and the personal distress it would cause him. The effect of the alleged assault on his accuser, Christine Blasey Ford, was, among partisan Republicans especially, presented as less important. Many conservatives were reluctant to put themselves in the shoes of the accuser; they asked why she didn’t come forward earlier or why she couldn’t remember details more clearly. Her decisions were opaque and culpable. In contrast, Kavanaugh’s fate — the fear that he would not get a seat on the Supreme Court — tugged at the heartstrings.
It may seem counterintuitive that an inconvenienced judge would garner more sympathy than an alleged sexual harassment victim. But it’s not unusual. “Empathy,” Manne says, “likes to travel up the social hierarchy.” We often think of our country’s most privileged people as being deserving, normal, and appealing. That’s why white-collar criminals receive more lenient sentences. Judges worry about their suffering in prison and their loss of status; they empathize with them.
This dynamic also plays into the treatment of Trump voters. The president’s supporters were disproportionately white and disproportionately men — and white men have significant power in the United States. Further, despite the insistence that Trump voters were working class, they in fact tended to be relatively affluent. Just as important, perhaps, Trump voters won. We like to empathize with winners.
Why demand empathy for the white, male, relatively affluent people who got exactly what they wanted? Why not instead point out the need to empathize with black women, who are, as a group, massively impoverished and discriminated against, and who voted against Trump almost uniformly?
The answer reveals a kind of feedback loop: Black women receive little empathy precisely because they are discriminated against and because their suffering is seen as natural and unremarkable. In an extremely close election, Democrats could have won by turning out more of their base as easily as by picking up more Republican crossover voters. But there was no flurry of reporting on the black electorate after 2016 or calls to empathize with them. Instead, there were endless articles about traveling to Trump country to interview Republican partisans, because Trump voters are seen as real heartland American and because they are seen as having power.
The problems with empathy bias are compounded by the fact that it’s possible to weaponize empathy to create support for ugly political programs, and even for violence. Trump leverages our empathy bias by presenting himself as the spokesperson for good, normal, white people against untrustworthy, dangerous, racial others. When he talks about immigrants, for example, Trump constantly aligns himself with those he claims are victims of immigrants. He focuses on the people who will supposedly suffer when immigrants take jobs or commit crimes.
“Trump is a master of empathy,” says Fritz Breithaupt, a cognitive science professor at Indiana University. “He is better at using empathy than virtually anyone I have ever seen.”
According to Breithaupt, Trump uses empathy by positioning himself as a lone figure struggling against a horde of powerful others — the Republican Party, media elites, immigrants. “He likes being accused and showing that he has lots of opponents.” Breithaupt says. “Then he lashes back against the majority.”
In a February 2019 appearance, for example, Trump had a woman whose husband had been killed by an undocumented immigrant stand up as he dramatically said, “Your husband was just killed in Maryland. Incredible man. Just killed. Beautiful children. Won’t be seeing their father again.” Trump encourages empathy with these particular victims to suggest that any policy to prevent such atrocities is justified, up to and including separating children from their parents (though most Americans did not support him in that).