Peter Boghossion asked: ‘Would human wellbeing be better served if people were more empathetic or more intelligent?’
This question is spikier than it first appears when one recalls the British historian Robert Conquest. Conquests asks: where does misery begin? The bell tolls for thee… but who rings the bell? Conquest answers that it is the Social Engineers, the Utopians, and the Idealists who beget our doom.
These are the people who pine over annihilating the current system for the dream of creating something novel and – finally – just. All forms of extreme politics hang from this unsteady branch – including the most pernicious ideological miscarriages. Conquest believes the history of totalitarianism is a homage to the machinations of his triad of doom-bringers.
What these ideologies have in common: Stalinism, Hitlerism, Maoism, and even the less sturdy branches of Trotskyism; is that they are all marked compass-points on the way to the poles of the irrational. Indeed, extremist political forces always coalesce around ‘some vague utopia’ – as Yeats called it – leaving reason marooned, emotions high and Goya’s monster (pictured above) at liberty to taunt the intellect whilst the free-man embraces an ignorant slumber.
Empathy – an overestimated emotion by itself – is an ingredient for personal connexion and reflexivity, however the architects of Conquest’s triad subvert empathy for their own causes by launching a nefarious campaign: The first stage of the campaign involves seeking out an entry-point where demagoguery might succeed and ideology can be made marketable; if a gap does not exist, they must forcibly tear at the cultural fabric until it does. This is where our empathies turn rancid.
Stage two pursues an effort to find a victim, typically in the from of the ‘average’ man or woman – so they are easily identified with – and crafting a narrative around them. And remember what your lawyers told you? Where there’s a claim, there is blame; the final stage of the campaign looks for the starring role their of their fiction and the most sinister part of the campaign starts – the program of dehumanisation.
Empathy all alone has no problem walking in a goose-step if it is not policed by a higher virtue. Name for me – if you dare – the good Catholic or Lutheran family who did not empathise with the plight of the exploited German worker at the hands of the monopolising Jew? Empathy only works when there are at least two humans in the narrative. Otherwise, empathy is just an emotional excuse for certainty, and such ‘passionate intensity’ – another Yeats phrase – manifests the worst aspects of our species.
Of course, as Paine said ‘It is not because the right principles have been violated, that they are to be abandoned.’ thus we cannot and should not do without empathy – the requirement for solidarity cannot exist without it. However, humanity’s moral calculus requires the ascendency of the intellect over the empathy because we do not know what is right without a philosophical and logical grounding!
People are so easily manipulated by verbiage and word-salad. That is why the pseudo-scientists from Astrologers to Homeopaths get so much undeserved credit. The most profound coup of the mind today comes from a baser appeal to emotion and its victims are those self-professed classical liberals who favour the authoritarian in-waiting Donald J. Trump, for the reason that he ‘says what he thinks,’ or because he rages against political correctness, unlike Hillary. This is purely emotional drivel!
Politics is the area where reason too often sleeps undisturbed. It is the area where wishes and entitlement supersede the boundaries that reality gifts us. The far-right Chetniks lament days gone by for crimes nobody has committed. Meanwhile, the extreme cold war leftovers think if they wish hard enough for the problems of the world to go away (without actually doing anything!) they will achieve universal brotherhood tomorrow. However, no side of extremist partisanship can see past their respective monomanias and into a world of evidence.
Marxist author Tariq Ali waxes about the ‘extreme centre’ as the new, dangerous challenge to Marxist politics and social and economic justice – the politics of the lovey-dovey. The extreme centre relies on empiricism rather than the predestined doctrine of any side. The extreme centre is an uncommon ‘ideology’ because it does not try to distort the world in its image; we look at the world as it is, and that is the only way to enact real progressive change.
The attachment to political identity is a bulwark against reason and instead an invite to take up ideological warfare – a simulacrum of real discourse. Tariq makes himself appear foolish by lamenting ‘extreme moderation.’ His criticism amounts to ‘do not consume too much reason.’ Gone are the days of revolution and the forceful repudiation of the ballot box in the name of ‘the people.’ And all I can say is… thank God for that!
Allow me to clarify further – a rational politics does not depend on being a centrist. However, a rational political life does depend on being open to adjustment. How is it that someone who is conventionally left-wing agrees on gay marriage, abortion and free-trade? The most disparate policy areas are all cobbled into a thought-code and branded political identity x,y,z and the only connecting tissue between them are the pragmatic politicians chaining arms on either side trying to swoon you for votes. The centrist – or moderate – is the only faction who can truly pick and choose their political philosophy with conviction.
The problems with the extremists is that they mistake the normative – what should be – for the mundane – what is – and make a virtue of their respective communist or fascist dirty-talk. Their mistake is fuelled by an attachment to emotion caused by the need for the world to be a just place. Alas platitudes do not feed the poor, but in some cases they do storm the Bastille. And when this happens, what follows is an emotional resentment – from perceived injustice – materialises into a physical campaign of violence and massacre. The corrective must be a politics of moderation, based on evidence and the primacy of the intellect, not ideological vagaries.
Mitchell is a blogger currently studying Politics and International Relations at the University of Bath