The Empathy Wars

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Well, that mustache for starters . . .

In a somewhat odd turn of events, a controversy has recently broken out over the relative merits of sympathy and empathy. But if you drill down into the discussion, you will quickly discover that it is not necessarily a fracas over a bunch of nothing, but rather that some significant issues really are at stake. Or, depending on the definitions you are using, some really significant issues could be at stake.

At the same time, I think we all have to grant that having a hot controversy over something like this is kind of funny—I mean, look at us Christians colliding over whether empathy is a sin, or whether sympathy is, with hardy blasphemers maintaining whatever the contrary position might be.

And being kind of funny in that particular way, it did occur to me that I might want to roll up my sleeves, spit on my hands, and have a merry little time with all of this. This is this kind of thing that makes me want to lay about me with a quarterstaff, and in a manner that is off-putting to some. But I hasten to add that I resisted that particular temptation manfully. I only bring it up so that you might extend your sympathy to me. Or empathy. Whatever would be most suitable.

One time Gibbon made fun of the ancient Christians for their controversy over homoousia and homoiousia, as though the debate over the deity of Christ were actually only about the letter iota. But this is like thinking the contest between theism and atheism is somehow a debate over the letter a. However this particular empathy issue is a little more complicated than that, because empathy is a word that can admit of more than one meaning, depending on the usage, which means that sometimes it might be entirely innocent, and other times . . . not. At other times there is death in the pot (2 Kings 4:40).

You Can’t Tell the Players Without a Scorecard

So I think this particular controversial rotation started with the first episode of Man Rampant, where Joe Rigney and I discussed why we believed that sympathy was a Christian virtue and why we considered empathy to be problematic. To simplify the point, we were treating sympathy as rescuing a drowning swimmer while keeping one foot on the bank, and empathy as identifying completely with the one drowning, such that you could easily go down with him. The sin of empathy, as we defined it, was the sin of entering into someone else’s experience totally, without keeping a firm grasp on objective truth at the same time. Weeping with those who weep is not only lawful, but it is unlawful not to (Rom 12:15). Having said that, we don’t want to be found weeping for Tammuz (Eze. 8:14), even if the women at the Temple gate maintain that it represents their truth, their felt reality.

The relevant episode of Man Rampant can be found on the Canon App, but the trailer for it is below.

For those who want to get up to speed, Joe has also written on the subject—here and here. And over here you can find a Twitter thread that might help a bit.

And on a somewhat related front, just the other day James White tweeted on the subject, and got the kind of blow back one usually gets for throwing a dead cat at a high priestess at the head of a solemn funeral procession. James talks about all of that here, and also in the opening of The Dividing Line below.

But my point here is to follow up on the Rigney thread.

Needlessly Provocative?

Now one of the things that helped set the controversy off was the fact that the Man Rampant episode was entitled The Sin of Empathy. Now I do think it is fair to describe that title as arresting, or provocative, or challenging. But it was hardly a declaration of war, and it did not rain down anathemas on those persons who use empathy and sympathy as equivalent words in casual conversation. There are plenty of situations where those terms can be used, as the Internet gag has it, as cinnamons.

So provocative, yes. Needlessly provocative? No.

The reason someone might say provocative things like this is so that he can create an opportunity to get at a real issue. And in this case, the reaction to all of this demonstrates that there is a real issue. You say x, and they say “but that sounds like you are saying Y,” and you say “no, I am actually saying a really important X.”

In ordinary circumstances, we all know how to budget for this. This applies to people on your own team and people you disagree with. I certainly differ with Aimee Byrd, but would be out of my mind to pretend that she is seriously maintaining that whatever biblical manhood and womanhood might be, we need to recover from it. I would be happy to debate her on that subject, but if one of my points were to be “but you said you were recovering from biblical manhood and womanhood . . .”, the only thing that would prove is how tedious I was being. And I have my differences with Karen Swallow Prior, but she really is a reasonable soul, capable of hearing what others are saying. So turnabout is fair play, and so it would be evil to take her statement that empathy is less than sympathy as being her celebration of callousness.

So words and their connotations matter, which includes words like sin and empathy. And we shouldn’t be provocative simply for the sake of being pointlessly provocative. But provocation for the sake of getting at an important but abused truth is one of the most biblical things in the world that we might do.

Depending on what you mean, the sympathy/empathy debate can be a tomayto/tomahto thing, on the one hand, with reasonable people on both sides. But if you mean something else, something that makes up a significant part of our current kultursmog, then the debate goes down the bedrock of all reality. It extends to whether there is even such a thing as denotation. Denotation presupposes the correspondence view of truth, about which more shortly.

Denotations also matter, along with a view of reality which makes actual denotation possible, which means that you might find yourself being provocative simply because you want to maintain the law of identity, as in A is A. Remember that we live in a time when it is controversial to say that a boy is a boy, and not, say, a girl.

Is Sympathy Sin?

Here’s another great example of provocation, but running the other way. This is the view of empathy that Joe Rigney is arguing against, as should we all. But quite apart from the merits of that argument, look at this video and meditate on the fact that it could easily have been entitled The Sin of Sympathy.

Every example of sympathy in that video is boneheaded sympathy, and not at all in line with countless acts of the kind of true sympathy that we have all experienced. And yet, the ham-handed acts of “sympathy” she describes really do happen. She is getting at something, and that something exists, and it really is a problem. However, in getting at that problem, she made a statement about all sympathy that was without any qualification. Sympathy drives people apart, it “drives disconnection.”

So why can we not differ and say that empathy drives disconnection? Disconnection from the objective reality of the world? Disconnection from the facts on the ground? Disconnection from the banks of the river in which the swimmer is drowning?

The Company You Keep?

Now someone might want to argue that there might be a legitimate point here, but that Wilson’s flamboyant way of arguing gets in the way of it.

By way of contrast, Joe Rigney is certainly willing to interact with thoughtful critics, is willing to make careful and nuanced qualifications, and is willing to adjust his phrasing as the conversation proceeds, while at the same time maintaining his central point. In short, a scholar and a gentleman.

Not at all like—I blush to say it— that saloon brawler from Idaho. This would not be Nancy’s evaluation of my contributions, because she knows that I am a regular baa-lamb, but some on the Internet have been known from time to time to take umbrage at things I have written. Some have taken so much umbrage that we hardly have any of it left around here, and have nothing left to fertilize our raspberry garden with.

Suffice it to say that Joe’s rhetorical style is very different from mine. As far as I can see, we completely agree on the substantive issues involved in all of this empathy business, but his rhetorical approach does differ from mine. I freely acknowledge it. So would Joe freely acknowledge it. Everybody in the know thinks this. And many a time I have been exhorted by various responsible parties to adopt something more like the demeanor and approach of good people like Joe.

Now some might chide Joe because, even though he was being most reasonable, he was sitting on the same stage with the likes of me. And everybody should understand by this point how unacceptable that is. Goes without saying, right? Except that Joe is from Minneapolis, where I have spoken for DG a number of times, and written for them, and all of that jazz. Ahimelech had a very strong argument for Saul (1 Sam. 22:14), but by that point of the proceedings nobody was listening.

By the way, I have a very different rhetorical approach from John Piper too, but that doesn’t keep me from loving him. To the merits of the argument, people!

Now, just like Joe, I always try to hit above the belt, but this virtue is not always recognized by others in the fray. As best I can figure, it is the blue face paint that throws people off. But I am getting sidetracked again.

The reason I brought any of this up is that I would like to point out that Joe has in every respect approached these sorts of issues with just the sort of poise and comportment that people have so ardently wished that I would see fit at some point to adopt. You know, after I grow up. Yeah, right. And a fat lot of good it did him, right? Did Joe’s spirit of sweet reason stop the Wokenistas from descending upon him with wild shouts of alarm? Nay. It did not.

Whether Offense and High Dudgeon happen doesn’t really have anything to do with the comparative rhetorical strategies adopted by people like Joe or me, and it has everything to do with whether or not the Precious is being threatened. And the Precious is the doctrine that the feelings of the anointed must be treated as autonomous, and that they cannot be questioned or held to account by any kind of outside, objective reality. If you argue that, whether in Joe’s effective way, or in my way of tart winsomeness, then you are in for the Treatment. The Precious is what Joe called Empathy (B).

And here is that doctrine in a nutshell. If I am miserable, then you must be in sin.

So Here’s the Deal

This is why this topic is worthy of debate. Our salvation depends upon maintaining a correct understanding of the central issue here.

If we allow emotions to reign, untethered from the objective reality of the world, then the correspondence view of truth is not true. This is what makes it possible for me to have “my” truth, and you to have “your” truth and Meghan Markle to have hers. By the time we are done, the only thing we have in our hands anymore is a few tatters of truth, a few remnants, a few faint memories. But if the correspondence view of truth is not true, then there need not be any correspondence between the robust statement (of our faith community) that Jesus rose from the dead, and what actually happened outside Jerusalem two thousand years ago. And if that is the case, we are all still in our sins.

Many years ago I had my first encounter with this kind of thinking. I was meeting with another counselor, who was counseling someone who was making false accusations against somebody else. The problem was that her accusations didn’t add up. But instead of seeking to establish the actual truth of what she was saying, the counselor simply resorted to saying, “but this is her truth.” Fine, but what is the truth?

This is why Scripture requires us not to receive an accusation against an elder apart from two or three witnesses.

“Against an elder receive not an accusation, but before two or three witnesses. Them that sin rebuke before all, that others also may fear.”

1 Tim. 5:19-20 (KJV)

According to Scripture, all such claims must be measured against the standards of justice. But for those who are exalting the primacy of feelings (with which we must empathize), they must be measured against the standards of social justice. And what this translates to ultimately is simple power. Justice becomes whatever you and your partisan faction can get away with.

This deadly process begins by empathizing with people without any obligation to find out whether their claims are objectively accurate or true. This leads to emotional tyranny, which in its turn leads to actual tyranny. It sounds good to say that we are to believe all victims, or believe all women, but this is simply untenable. Nobody means that. Everyone has a selection mechanism for knowing which accusations to process and which ones to reject.

That selection mechanism will either be the processes of biblical justice or it will be raw partisan politics. Do you doubt what I say? Do you remember that the current occupant of the office of vice-president said that she believed the current occupant of the office of president was guilty of sexual assault against Tara Reade? That she thinks she is working for a rapist?

Suppose someone has accused some powerful figure of serious sexual misconduct. No matter who we are, we must process the accusation. We will either do it on the basis of whether the claims can be objectively verified, or we will do it on the basis of whether the claims are being made against Brett Kavanaugh or Andrew Cuomo.

So if we are actually debating Empathy (B), and we are, then our ultimate choice is between courts or mobs, facts or feelings, justice or injustice, salvation or damnation. It is a debate of great moment. These things really matter.

Last Word

I began with the observation that this debate was an odd one. It is particularly odd when it comes to the debate among Christians, given how the life of our Lord Jesus is described for us in Scripture.

For we do not have a High Priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but was in all points tempted as we are, yet without sin.

Heb. 4:15 (NKJV)

The word translated by the NKJV here as sympathize is, as it turns out, the Greek word sympathesai. I think that is more than sufficient, and if it isn’t, it ought to be.