David French recently wrote about what he sees as a significant developing problem with the issues of empathy and sympathy in the church. As yours truly got mentioned in his piece, I thought this would be a good time for a refresher on this most significant topic.
Despite initial appearances, this is not an esoteric debate about a bunch of nothing. It does not have to do with whether we place more emphasis on the third or fourth dictionary definition of a word like empathy. No—the correspondence view of truth itself is actually at stake, and that means everything is at stake. It really is a big deal.
Two Things Right at the Front End
Let us start with this initial problem with French’s approach.
“Christians of all people should understand the ultimate empathy of the incarnation itself. As the book of Hebrews declares, ‘For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin.'”The American Crisis of Selective Empathy
This actually has more to do with selective translation than with selective empathy. The difficulty is that the Greek word that French renders here as empathize is actually sympathesai, the word that we obviously get sympathy from.
But sympathy is the culprit in the video by Brené Brown that French applauded at the end of his piece. I have posted that video down at the end of this post so you don’t have click around hunting for it. So if you want to get yourself oriented first, you might want to jump down there and watch that video before reading any further.
However if you decide to depart these august premises in order to look at it over on YouTube, you may there ascertain that we are not battling with some little off-Broadway understanding of empathy. That video has almost 17 million views, and it obviously seems quite reasonable to a whole lot of people, including David French.
For some reason, the thing that got people riled about about this discussion was the idea that empathy was sinful (according to our stipulated definition of empathy). To take on that stipulated definition seemed reasonable to me because the word empathy is of relatively recent coinage, and the definition we are resisting is obviously a widespread one, and in my view very destructive.
But notice that no one was outraged that sympathy, a characteristic considered virtuous for thousands of years, was being backhanded as something that “drives disconnection.” Moreover Brown managed to do all this with a variation of the straw man fallacy, a form which might be called the “funny voice refutation.” The “sympathetic” deer in the video says the most frightfully ham-handed things, and does so in a funny voice. Clearly in the wrong.
The empathetic bear says ham-handed things also, but he gets away with it in the video because no funny voice was used. For example, the deer repeatedly says, “well, at least . . .” But the bear, supposedly modeling how we all ought to be acting, comes in to the hurting person and says, “I know what its like down here.” Are any of you incapable of imagining a stereotypical dolt who barges into personal tragedies with an “I know what its like . . .”? I didn’t think so. Have any of you ever thought to yourself something like, “No, you don’t“?
Here is another big problem with French’s analysis.
This is a Christianized version of the famous secular conservative statement that “facts don’t care about your feelings.” There are multiple problems with this approach, especially for Christians. First, as a practical matter, the prioritizing of our own judgments often implies wisdom and knowledge we don’t possess. Take, for example, the argument that “untethered empathy” is dangerous in the context of racism and abuse, that it prevents solid fact-finding and sound judgment.The American Crisis of Selective Empathy
I must frankly say that it had to have taken a lot of work to misunderstand a point this badly. French says, rightly enough, that “the prioritizing of our own judgments often implies wisdom and knowledge we don’t possess.” This is absolutely true. This is why there are numerous situations (especially when accusations of racism and abuse are involved) when empathy is demanded from us, and we must refuse to give it.
Why? Precisely because we don’t trust our judgment. We withhold judgment because we don’t have the facts yet. We know we don’t have the facts yet. Even if we think we have the facts, Scripture demands that we respect and follow certain processes that assume that we don’t have the facts (Prov. 18: 13; 18: 17 ). That we don’t have all the facts when we first hear about a situation is an article of faith with us.
And withholding judgment is not making a judgment.
So when someone tells us a horror story about some racist taunt or some abusive behavior, to respectfully withhold judgment until we know more is not the same thing as accusing the person who told us the story of lying. It actually demonstrates our commitment to the truth—which is the true friend to anyone who loves the truth. We have a responsibility to be loyal to the account of what actually happened, which we don’t know yet. Because we don’t know yet, we must not accuse the whistleblower of lying, because we don’t know. And we also must not empathize with the accuser (which is tantamount to making a judgment against the accused). Why? Because we know how frail our judgment can be.
So David French wants us to be suspicious of our own judgments. Okay, we said. That’s what we are doing. Let’s investigate carefully, taking our time. What are you doing?
So Scenarios Matter
Let me illustrate what I mean. I want to set out three scenarios for you, and note how dangerous it is to respond to each one of them with the same kind of simple “empathy.”
“Jon, I just heard that my father died in a car wreck.”
“Jon, despite everything you say, my father and I both believe that the vaccine mandates are tyrannical.”
“Jon, I hate to tell you this, but my father began sexually abusing me when I was twelve, and he kept it up for years.”
The first is simply horrible news, but with no real question about the fact of it. The second is a political disagreement, with each taking their side. And the third is an implicit accusation against the speaker’s father. They are not the same kind of statements at all, and it is beyond irresponsible to demand that we take them all in with the same empathetic response.
Now what would terrible responses to each of these statements look like? If someone were to say, in response to the first statement, something like “well, he was probably speeding anyway,” that would be terrible. If someone were to reply to the second one with “you unvaccinated people are the worst. I hope you all die, and I hope that it will be really painful the entire time you are dying,” that too would be an ungodly sentiment. Let’s defer for just a moment on a terrible response to the third statement—because that terrible response lies right at the heart of this debate.
What would a straightforward empathetic response look like with each? With the first, it would simply be to weep with those who weep, and I don’t think that anybody really cares if in the process the words sympathy and empathy get treated as synonyms. In such circumstances, they probably are synonyms. And whether or not anybody else cares, I sure don’t. I don’t care because I am not quibbling about words. Tomayto, tomahto.
With the second, we should respond graciously, but we probably need a word like sympathy to describe a good response instead of empathy. Why? If we adopted Brown’s insistence upon empathy, over against sympathy, when we encounter someone who differs with us on some important political issue, we would have to engage in “perspective taking,” and “staying out of judgment,” her first two characteristics of empathy, both of which render political and cultural debate impossible. In order to get to the debate, you would have to abandon empathy entirely. But you wouldn’t have to abandon sympathy in order to debate someone.
And this is also why an empathetic response to the third kind of situation is really problematic. In fact, it is more than problematic—this is conflagration of empathy that is currently burning our country down. There is no good way to respond to the third situation with empathy—because we still care whether or not the accusation is true.
To respond to the third situation with empathy (“I am so sorry to hear that. How could your father do that?”) is to validate the accusation and stand with the accuser. It is, as the saying goes, to “believe all women.” This is why I deferred discussion of the “terrible response” to each scenario. The empathetic response (as Brown defines it) is the terrible response to an accusation. In this scenario, empathy is a destroyer.
Remember, in the meantime another counselor, trained in the same school of thought, is supposed to be saying the same thing to the father, who has been telling him that his daughter has just falsely accused him of sexual abuse. This is how untethered empathy lays waste to everything.
An important qualification. When someone makes an accusation, how should they be treated? With dignity and gracious respect They should be assured that the accusation will be taken seriously, and will be fully investigated. We will find out the truth because we care about what actually happened. The one thing we won’t do is confound a charge with a trial.
Incidentally, tethered empathy is simply the same thing as sympathy. You reach out to someone who is drowning, but you keep one foot on the bank. There is an objective reality outside the feelings of both of you, and that objective reality is what makes biblical compassion even possible. If you remove that objective reality, a reality that is bigger than all the parties involved, then you may call it empathy, but what it really has become is nothing more than sentimental tribalism. You already know whose side you are on, and you feel accordingly.
The Disease That Is Killing Us
This disastrous error is why America is currently burning down, and the name of the oxygen that feeds the conflagration is empathy. We have fragmented into countless identity groups, and whenever some incident happens, we don’t need to know what actually happened before our empathy is engaged. We go straight to the empathy, which is how lynch mobs do it. This is part of Twitter’s business model.
This is the cancer of our relativism. This is the malaise of our time. And we have done it to ourselves.
“O Israel, thou hast destroyed thyself; but in me is thine help.”
Hosea 13:9 (KJV)
So this is not the growth of Christian compassion, as some would have it, but is rather the weaponization of untethered emotion and sentiment.
A woman accuses a man of raping her, and he flatly denies it. If you extend empathy toward either one of them without knowing what actually happened, then you ought never to be allowed to serve on any jury anywhere. And if biblical justice were a wet halibut, you wouldn’t recognize it if some fishmonger at Pike Place Market in Seattle slapped you in the face with it.
To give the feelings of the first person to talk to you pride of place is to utterly confound the different kinds of statements that people can make to you. You must not render a standard empathetic response to wildly different statements. “The MRI revealed that I have a brain tumor,” and “I have written 13 letters to the mayor, and he still won’t do anything about these little pink spiders that run up and down my spine” are statements that ought not be treated as though they were the same kind of thing. They are not the same kind of thing.
In the first instance, you can extend sympathy to this person because there is no reasonable dispute about what is actually happening. In the second, there is a radical disconnect between what the person is saying and what is actually happening. In brief, the little pink spiders are not actually happening, and the brain tumor is. Objective reality, independent of feelings, matters. Or, to quote the problematic phrase that David French had a problem with, facts don’t care about your feelings.
Definitions matter. As Brené Brown defines it, the objective truth doesn’t matter in all this, and David French called her treatment outstanding, and we are not just dealing with the self-report of someone who is feeling depressed. French himself applies this standard to the world of perceived racism and abuse. In such situations, we are supposed to begin by recognizing their truth. Those fatal words, their truth, are that large dark spot on the X-Ray of your lymph nodes. But the sacred word truth doesn’t take the personal pronoun the same way that my boots, or truck, or laptop might. I don’t care about “my” truth. I care about what would have been true had I never been born. I care about the truth.
So empathy requires that we set aside the concerns raised by this “actually happening” fetish of ours, and enter fully into the experience of the one reporting whatever his malady is, recognizing it as “his truth.” And thus it is that a man becomes one of the arsonists burning down western civilization. This may not have been intended, but it is certainly what is happening. Just look around.
With the little pink spiders example, the divide between perception and reality is caused by mental illness, or the DTs, or LSD, or something like that. Speaking of reality, do you guys remember that concept? Good times, good times.
But such a disconnect can have multiple causes. It can be caused by high respect for authority, and if Fauci says it, it must be so. It can be caused by extreme loyalty to your tribal identity, and so if a white cop shot a black man, that’s all you need to know—and you might not need to know even that much. In French’s case, it may have been caused by detestation of that strange orange comet that dominated our night skies for a few years following 2016. It can be caused by misbegotten gender solidarity, such that you live in a world where women never lie, unless it is about Biden. Then you get what might be called an intersectional purée, and the predominant flavor that usually results from this leftist slushy reveals that you have more solidarity with Democratic operatives and the members of the press who sleep with them than you do with violated women.
For Those Who Believe I May Have Put Too Many Eggs in the Pudding
There are many conservative Christians, and maybe even David French himself, who might want to grant that I have a limited point if we restricted ourselves to certain obscure and very dark nihilistic corners of our culture, like the English Department at Behemoth State, or the House Ways and Means Committee. But they still have strong memories of a once coherent American mind, and so they have faith that our institutions are still basically sound, and that the kind of insanity I am talking about will surely not become all that widespread. Surely this sympathy/empathy debate is just linguistic gnat-strangling?
No. This is widespread and is already messing with all our categories. It is everywhere., and has gotten into everything. Christians who have tended to dismiss all this “feelings trump truth” stuff as the troubled ravings of certain demented philosophers out on the periphery somewhere have not been paying attention.
This is now the ruling paradigm in our universities, our law schools, our corporate world, our courts, and in our media. There is a radical disconnect, now operating, between reality on the one hand, and how we are all required to behave on the other. This disconnect is being enforced, and with a heavy hand, for the sake of feelings.
Perhaps you doubt what I say, and perhaps also you have not been paying attention. Can a Christian be fired from virtually any major corporation today for addressing a co-worker with a pronoun that does not align with that person’s feelings? I thought so. Does the COVID virus hit you in the face while walking to your table in a restaurant, but go floating over your head once you are seated? No? So perhaps you and millions of others are going through these inane little rituals simply so that the fearful feelings of others may be assuaged. Do we live in a time when a garage door pull can be mistaken for a threatening lynching noose and multiple FBI agents scramble as a result? Why, yes, yes, we do. Can a young man be kicked out of college because a young lady had sex with him, regretted it later, and consequently felt like it had to have been abusive? Well, yeah, that happens also. These things, and many others like them, are not simply mistakes.
They are the necessary result of allowing the concept of “their truth” to serve as an adequate replacement for “the truth.” And the hyper-defensiveness over the sacred territory of empathy is one of the things that has groomed us to accept all of this. This debate did not erupt because someone objected to the word sympathy gaining a new synonym. No, it erupted because some of us are suspicious of big, wooden horses, especially when we can hear the warriors inside.
But still, here we all are, empathizing away like crazy. We are acting like we never read the essay by C.S. Lewis called The Poison of Subjectivism. We continue on, blissfully unaware of how a conservative activist like David French could find himself participating in what Lewis once presciently called the abolition of man.
David French > Brené Brown > outstanding > what? what was outstanding? > “to each his own truth.“ And if David French replied, as I have no doubt that he would, that of course he believes in objective truth, I would simply request that he take an incident in “the context of racism and abuse,” apply Brown’s empathetic approach to it, while plainly holding on to the idea of objective truth. Good luck.