You have to be kind to be cruel

Empathy is held up as humanity’s moral salvation, but scientific study exposes its dark and dangerou

The primatologist Frans de Waal tells a story about a bonobo. One day, a starling smashed into the glass of the ape's enclosure and fell to the ground. The bonobo approached the stunned bird and set it on its feet; the bird failed to move. So the ape carried it to the top of a tall tree, unfolded its wings and set it free like a paper aeroplane. But the starling spiralled back to the ground. The bonobo descended the tree and protected the bird for some time. Eventually, the bird recovered and flew to safety.

De Waal's interest is scientific. Bonobos apparently show empathy, an ability to imagine the circumstances of another creature - another species, in this case. But when he tells the story, he is making a moral point, too. We human beings, by analogy, are not machines run by selfish genes. "We are born with impulses that draw us to others and that later in life make us care about them," he writes in his book Our Inner Ape.

His story resonates powerfully today, as it seems that this capacity has become little short of a panacea for our moral ills. It will solve the climate crisis, according to Jeremy Rifkin, author of The Empathic Civilisation. It is the "core of our humanity", says the novelist Ian McEwan, who has argued that the 11 September 2001 hijackers "would have been unable to proceed" if they had had empathy for their victims. It's as if there's a collective sigh of relief that we're not lonely souls, inferring what's going on inside another person's head as we gaze out of our own, as philosophers have told us; we know others from the inside. But does de Waal's story feed a sentimental myth? Can empathy achieve such dramatic moral gains for us?

“There is a danger in using the word too loosely," believes Lynne Cameron of the Open University, who is engaged on a three-year programme to understand the dynamics of empathy. She refers to the rhetoric as "deceptive" and "disturbing". The difficulty is this: empathy can be defined as stepping into someone else's shoes, but have you ever tried it? Your imaginative exercise might evoke concern for the Chinese factory worker in Shenzhen. Yet it can also provoke antipathy. What is consumer culture, if not an exercise in mass empathy, powered by the desire for the shoes of the rich and famous, because you long to wear them, too? Empathy is morally ambivalent.

Ethical dilemma

Psychologists differentiate between automatic and deliberative empathy. Automatic empathy is the kind investigated by neuroscience - research shows that when we see someone in pain, say, the same brain areas are activated as when we ourselves are in pain. "The importance of these results is that they show that we are much more embedded in the social world of other people than we realise," says Chris Frith, emeritus professor at University College London, who works with the Interacting Minds project at Aarhus University in Denmark.

But it is deliberative empathy that interests Cameron. Her research has focused on the relationship between Jo Berry and Patrick Magee. Magee planted the bomb in the Grand Hotel in Brighton, 20 years ago, that killed Jo's father. Berry exhibits deliberative empathy in her unusual willingness to engage with Magee. The thought alone would repel many people, and their meetings are typically stressful. But that is what makes Berry so remarkable. She has powers of determination and a personal ethic that strives for reconciliation. Cameron notes that such admirable behaviour requires an individual to be both emotionally mature and open to moral deliberation. That can overcome the ambivalence inherent in automatic empathy - though the tougher the situation, the tougher the personal challenge.

The ambivalence of empathic responses is further complicated when you consider what happens between groups. Another factor comes into play: "us and them", as the author David Berreby puts it in a book of the same title. A recent study, published in Science, examined how men in teams behave when they are dosed with the "bonding hormone" oxytocin. The individuals who took the hormone behaved more generously towards others in their own group, as might be expected.

However, the same people were significantly less likely to co-operate with individuals from a different group. This suggests that our empathic responses depend on our beliefs about who is "with us" or "against us". To put it another way, oxytocin could equally be called the "dividing hormone" - the reaction depends on the circumstances.

Given all the ambivalences, can we say what empathy is? An answer is to be found in the history of the word - which is, in fact, only 100 years old. It is a translation from the German Einfühlung, or "feeling into", which itself was a neologism of 1873, according to Carolyn Burdett, a lecturer at Birkbeck College, London, who is writing a history of empathy.

Moving pictures

Empathy's first British populariser was one of the most striking women of the Victorian age, Vernon Lee. Known as "the cleverest woman in Europe", Lee deployed the new word in her theory of aesthetics. She sought a link between beauty and morality, and believed she had found one in a study of her friend Clementina Anstruther-Thomson, or "Kit". Lee noticed that Kit would stand before artworks and spontaneously show their value in her physiological responses - a slight shortening of the breath, a gentle rocking on her heels.

Lee reckoned the reaction came about by a process of projection. The artwork caused changes in Kit's body because she unconsciously loaded the work with her feelings and beliefs. That in turn caused her to apprehend the work in a specific way. She was "feeling into", as the German Einfühlung had it. So Lee called the process "empathy".

Such projection helps explain the ambivalences. The psychology suggests that an individual who sparks an empathic response in you does so, at least in part, because of what you read of yourself into them. Hence, you might warm to them, but you could also be blinded to their predicament, which is why psycho­analysts are often wary of empathy. You might be appropriating them for your own needs, brutalising them. Furthermore, if empathy has something to do with morality, it is also implicated in masochistic behaviour.

“If we want to retrieve what's morally good about empathy," Burdett reflects, "we have to acknowledge these ambivalences. I've come to regard empathy as a process, not an act; as a task, not a response." It is part of what tells us we are with others, but working out how we will behave towards others is a personal, political and moral challenge - as it always was. To believe otherwise, as implied in the rhetoric of expanding circles of empathic concern that grow to encompass the whole of humanity, is not just deluded; it's dangerous. Empathy's ambivalences unchecked might not result in just compassion fatigue, but compassion collapse.

Mark Vernon is the author of "The Meaning of Friendship" (Palgrave Macmillan, £9.99)

Aesthetic pleasures: the life of Vernon Lee

Vernon Lee was the pseudonym of Violet Paget, a Victorian author and essayist who was a strong advocate of the late-19th-century aesthetic movement. Born to British parents in France in 1856, Lee mostly lived away from Britain. Her longest place of stay was the ancient Residenza del Palmerino, just outside Florence.

Lee's first published work was Studies of the 18th Century in Italy, which appeared in 1880, and gave her an entrée into the intellectual elite of the day. On her first visit to Britain, in 1881, she met Walter Pater, the founder of the aesthetic movement, and his disciple Oscar Wilde. A flurry of publications followed, including Euphorion (1884), a work that established her as a writer on art and the Italian Renaissance.

In the early 1890s, she began a long-term lesbian affair with Clementina Anstruther-Thomson ("Kit"), who inspired Lee's theory of psychological empathy and its connection to fine art. As well as her scholarly reputation, Lee attracted praise for her short fiction, such as the 1884 novella
Miss Brown, a satire on the Pre-Raphaelite circle, and Hauntings (1890), a collection of short stories about the supernatural. In the years following the First World War, she withdrew into comparative isolation, and died at the Palmerino villa in 1935.

Caroline Crampton

This article first appeared in the 06 September 2010 issue of the New Statesman, The Pope on Trial

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What's to be done about racial inequality?

David Cameron's words on equal opportunities are to be welcomed - now for some action, says Sunder Katwala.

David Cameron made the strongest, clearest and most high profile statement about ethnic inequalities and the need to tackle discrimination ever yet offered by a British Prime Minister in his leader’s speech to the Conservative Party conference in Manchester.
“Picture this. You’ve graduated with a good degree. You send out your CV far and wide. But you get rejection after rejection. What’s wrong? It’s not the qualifications or the previous experience. It’s just two words at the top: first name, surname. Do you know that in our country today: even if they have exactly the same qualifications, people with white-sounding names are nearly twice as likely to get call backs for jobs than people with ethnic-sounding names? … That, in 21st century Britain, is disgraceful. We can talk all we want about opportunity, but it’s meaningless unless people are really judged equally”, said Cameron.
While the proof of the pudding will be in the eating, this was a powerfully argued Prime Ministerial intervention – and a particularly well-timed one, for three reasons.

Firstly, the Prime Minister was able to root his case in an all-but-universally accepted appeal for equal opportunities. It will always prove more difficult in practice to put political energy and resources behind efforts to remedy discrimination against a minority of the population unless a convincing fairness case is made that values cherished across our whole society are at stake. Cameron’s argument, that any party which tells itself that it is the party of the ‘fair chance’ and ‘the equal shot’ must have a response when there is such clear evidence of discrimination, should prove persuasive to a Conservative Party that has not seen race inequalities as its natural territory. Cameron argued that the same principles should animate responses to discrimination when it comes to race, gender and social class. Put like that, wanting job interviews to be fair – by eradicating conscious and unconscious patterns of bias wherever possible – would strike most Britons as offering as clear a case of the values of fair play as wanting the best baker to win the Great British Bake-Off on television.
Secondly, Cameron’s intervention comes at a potential "tipping point" moment for fair opportunities across ethnic groups. Traditionally, ethnic discrimination has been discussed primarily through the lens of its impact on the most marginalised. Certainly, persistent gaps in the criminal justice system, mental health provision and unemployment rates remain stark for some minority groups. What has been less noticed is the emergence of a much more complex pattern of opportunity and disadvantage – not least as a consequence of significant ethnic minority progress.

Most strikingly of all, in educational outcomes, historic attainment gaps between ethnic minorities and their white British peers have disappeared over the last decade. In the aggregate, ethnic minorities get better GCSE results on average. Ethnic minority Britons are more likely, not less likely, to be university graduates than their fellow citizens. 

As a result of that progress, Cameron’s intervention comes at a moment of significant potential – but significant risk too. Britain’s ethnic minorities are the youngest and fastest-growing sections of British society. If that educational progress translates into economic success, it will make a significant contribution to the "Great British Take-Off" that the Prime Minister envisions. But if that does not happen, with educational convergence combined with current ‘ethnic penalties’ in employment and income persisting, then that potential could well curdle into frustration that the British promise of equal opportunities is not being kept.  Cameron also mirrored his own language in committing himself to both a ‘fight against extremism’ and a ‘fight against discrimination’: while those are distinct challenges and causes, actively pursuing both tracks simultaneously has the potential, at least, depolarise some debates about responses to extremism  - and so to help deepen the broad social coalitions we need for a more cohesive society too.

Thirdly, Cameron’s challenge could mark an important deepening in the political competition between the major parties on race issues. Many have been struck by the increase in political attention on the centre-right to race issues over the last five to ten years. The focus has been on the politics of representation. By increasing the number of non-white Conservative MPs from two to seventeen since 2005, Cameron has sent a powerful signal that Labour’s traditional claim to be ‘the party of ethnic minorities’ would now be contested. Cameron was again able to celebrate in Manchester several ways in which his Cabinet and Parliamentary benches demonstrate many successful journeys of migrant and minority integration in British society. That might perhaps help to ease the fears, about integration being impossible in an era of higher immigration, which the Home Secretary had articulated the previous day.

So symbolism can matter. But facial diversity is not enough. The politics of ethnic minority opportunity needs to be about more than visits to gurdwaras, diversity nights at the party conference fringes and unveiling statues of Mahatma Gandhi in Parliament Square. Jeremy Corbyn’s first speech as Labour leader did include one brief celebratory reference to Britain’s ethnic diversity – “as I travelled the country during the leadership campaign it was wonderful to see the diversity of all the people in our country” – and to Labour bringing in more black, Asian and ethnic minority members - but it did not include any substantial content on discrimination. Tim Farron acknowledged during his leadership campaign that the Liberal Democrats have struggled to get to the starting-line on race and diversity at all. The opposition parties too will no doubt now be challenged to match not just the Prime Minister’s rhetorical commitment to challenging inequalities but also to propose how it could be done in practice.

Non-white Britons expect substance, not just symbolism from all of the parties on race inequalites.  Survation’s large survey of ethnic minority voters for British Future showed the Conservatives winning more ethnic minority support than ever before – but just 29 per cent of non-white respondents were confident that the Conservatives are committed to treating people of every ethnic background equally, while 54 per cent said this of Labour. Respondents were twice as likely to say that the Conservatives needto do more to reach out – and the Prime Minister would seem to be committed to showing that he has got that message.  Moreover, there is evidence that ethnic inclusion could be important in broadening a party’s appeal to other younger, urban and more liberal white voters too – which is why it made sense for this issue to form part of a broader attempt by David Cameron to colonise the broad centre of British politics in his Manchester speech.

But the case for caution is that there has been limited policy attention to ethnic inequalities under the last two governments. Restaurateur Iqbal Wahhab decided to give up his role chairing an ethnic minority taskforce for successive governments, unconvinced there was a political commitment to do much more than convene a talking shop. Lib Dem equalities minister Lynne Featherstone did push the CV discrimination issue – but many Conservatives were sceptical. Cameron’s new commitment may face similar challenges from those whose instinct is to worry that more attention to discrimination or bias in the jobs market will mean more red tape for business.

Labour had a separate race inequalities manifesto in 2015, outside of its main election manifesto, while the Conservative manifesto did not contain significant commitments to racial inequality. The mid-campaign launch in Croydon of a series of race equality pledges showed an increasing awareness of the growing importance of ethnic minority votes - though the fact that they all involved aiming for increases of 20 per cent by 2020 gave them a slightly back-of-the-envelope feel. 

Prime Ministerial commitments have an important agenda-setting function. A generation ago the Stephen Lawrence case opened the eyes of middle England to racist violence and police failures, particularly through the Daily Mail’s persistent challenging of those injustices. A Conservative Prime Minister’s words could similarly make a big difference in the mainstreaming of the issue of inequalities of opportunity. What action should follow words? Between now and next year’s party conference season, that must will now be the test for this Conservative government – and for their political opponents too. 

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.