“Every generation, a phrase enters the American consciousness and interrupts collective action like a boulder changing the course of a stream. In the 1960s, the phrase was civil rights; in the 1980s, it was self-esteem; now our word is empathy. Like the terms that came before it, empathy sounds redemptive — it’s an orientation that, should we adopt it en masse, could extricate us from our violence and our greed. But it’s also a term so varied in meaning and slippery in application, it can have ambiguous, even deleterious, effects. Empathy, when applied artfully and in the right contexts, can be highly moral and deeply liberating — but it’s not an empty gesture to be spread atop every interaction in this new and troubled millennium. We have to understand both its purpose and practice, and this book is an attempt to do just that.
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One example that can stand in for many: In the aftermath of the 2016 election, empathy has been weaponized. On one side, progressives argue that an empathy deficit, in part, is to blame for how the election blindsided them; when they thought Hillary Clinton was a shoo-in, a paucity of imagination kept them from truly seeing the swath of voters that could choose Donald Trump. Now many on the left feel they need to deploy empathy, in a gesture of unity and understanding that was so clearly missing in 2016. On the other side, voices have erupted in a chorus against empathy for Trump supporters: Trump is a bigot, they cry, and if he (and they) can’t have empathy for us, why should we have empathy for them? But I have learned in writing this book that empathy is not one singular thing. It can, when it’s contextualized the way it is above, serve as a way to be meek and deferential, or as a tool to withhold from political enemies, but it can also be instead an immediate gesture of common humanity. It can be innate, elemental, as difficult to stanch as love. Other times, empathy operates as a kind of karmic loop: empathy for the one affects the whole and vice versa. So what are we talking about when we talk about empathy?”