The new rule for empathy seems to be: reserve it, not for your “enemies,” but for the people you believe are hurt, or you have decided need it the most. Empathy, but just for your own team. And empathizing with the other team? That’s practically a taboo.
And it turns out that this brand of selective empathy is a powerful force.
In the past 20 years, psychologists and neurologists have started to look at how empathy actually works, in our brains and our hearts, when we’re not thinking about it. And one thing they’ve found is that “one of the strongest triggers for human empathy is observing some kind of conflict between two other parties,” says Fritz Breithaupt, a professor at Indiana University who studies empathy. “Once they take the side, they’re drawn into that perspective. And that can lead to very strong empathy and too strong polarization with something you only see this one side and not the other side any longer.”
Hanna Rosin on.
This is from an article that’s basically a press release about Breithaupt’s book, The Dark Sides of Empathy, which does sound kind of interesting. Basically, Breithaupt’s argument is that the pop culture understanding of empathy as a “morally positive” force is wrong, or at least not the whole picture. Because, yes, empathy can lead to compassion (something it’s often conflated with) towards those who are different than oneself… but it’s even more likely (according to Research) to violence and aggression against a group an individual perceives as harming a those they themselves empathize with. Or, to put it another way, punching Nazis is just as “rational” an outcome from empathy as hugging them is.
Breithaupt’s point here is not to malign empathy, or say we need more or less of it. Instead, he argues that it should be seen more as a tool—with the potential to be used both well and poorly—rather than an inherent moral good. Which… hm.