Hope, empathy and ambivalence in the body politic

No one would deny that elections (and referenda, which have also been hugely divisive across Europe in the last year) are emotional spectacles. Love, hate, fear, shame, disgust, joy – all these play a role in determining not just how we vote, but how we arrive at our political identities. On top of this, we live in a time when emotions are being brought to the surface more and more. On the one hand, irrational, charismatic charlatans seek to twist the emotions of the frustrated masses to their own ends (and are given more and more of a platform by the media to do so), and on the other hand, a range of liberal and left-leaning voices – from pop psychologists to radical feminist and queer activists – are articulating the importance of kindness, self-care and emotional well-being in building flourishing societies and/or sustaining communities of resistance.

With all of these emotions swimming around, we end up in all kinds of messes, and it’s usually left to those who have the least time or energy available for it to tell us why we feel how we feel and how what we feel is connected to our position in the social hierarchy and why it might be best for us to stop feeling it.[1] Of course, the social hierarchy entails multiple, intersecting layers (it’s not really any one geometric shape) so our feelings are usually quite complex, even contradictory at times. Presumably we invented morality so that we could feel our way out of this emotional swamp (I say morality and not religion because religions themselves tend to be riddled with contradictions. This is actually a good thing, because when a religion presents itself as having ‘the answer’ to our moral dilemmas, it’s a very small step from there to fundamentalism).

All of this is by way of preamble to the following essay – part confession, part critique – which looks at emotions and politics. Although I take the aftermath of the US elections as a reference point, I believe the main points can be transferred to other political contexts, and I hope that anyone reading this will reflect on how it applies to the countries they are tied to by birth or migration. The first part of the essay is a short reflection on hope, and the ambivalent role it plays in constructing alternative political imaginaries. The second part focuses on empathy, and once again on the ambivalent role this plays in mediating the emotions of the body politic. I have been interested in the topic of empathy for some time, mostly for its role in transnational feminist movements, and looking at it in a different context has helped me articulate some of the conceptual difficulties.

A small confession about hope

When I read the news on November 9th, I was not surprised. I experienced a flicker of disappointment (thank you world, for once again living down to my expectations) and then I felt a little surge of hope. I am ashamed to admit it now, but I thought something along the lines of “maybe it won’t be as bad as promised…maybe some good can even come out of this.” This was an interesting reaction, because NOT ONCE during the entire campaign, not even for a single second, had I entertained the thought that this scenario might have a silver lining. And even though I am ashamed that that was my reaction, and even though I know that it stemmed from being in a relatively privileged position and, let’s face it, not having paid a whole lot of attention to the whole devastating gamut of the Trump campaign’s racism, misogyny and homophobia until after the fact, a part of me is still waiting expectantly to see what change will be produced. The only way I can possibly justify this part of myself is to say that I relish a good fight, and I saw this one coming. The changes that I want to see happening involve the consolidation of grassroots movements for human rights and social justice, and I desperately hope that this happens so rapidly and so smoothly that victory is guaranteed. I think it’s okay to hope for something like this. But if I’m being completely honest, my hope in that first instant was a lazy hope, an embarrassing, shameful hope: the hope that this was a storm in a teacup and that I wouldn’t have to do anything about it because nobody’s life was stake. As if all that bile that was spewed up during the campaign isn’t going to continue seeking outlets now that it’s been legitimised through elections.

Hope is good when it channels resistance, less good when it becomes a form of denial. Hope brings us to the point where we tell ourselves, over and over again, that things are not as bad as they seem. I read about hate crimes and part of my reaction is to think: “okay, there are people like that, who are really violent and disgusting, okay, they exist, but…they are a minority. Most people, whatever their political views, are not like that, right?” This argument brings some relief, because it feeds our desire to believe the best in people (if we have the luxury of being able to believe the best in people because we have never been on the receiving end of the worst of them). But it is deeply, deeply problematic because it overrides the subjective experience of the persons subjected to the hate crimes and the legitimate fear of hate crimes which is much more widespread. It is deeply problematic because our denial (that these things are happening on a significant scale; that we are witnessing a terrifying mobilisation of hate) is one short step away from disbelief (that couldn’t really be happening; there must be an alternative explanation for what I am seeing/hearing at this moment). If it isn’t a part of your reality, then you are free to distance yourself from the whole thing. But by not getting involved, you are saying to yourself “I hope it never reaches me.” The furthest you might get beyond this denial-induced disbelief is “I hope someone else sorts the whole thing out.”

Likewise, the signs are all there that civil liberties are going to be (that is, continue to be – we can’t pretend this just started) eroded once the Oval Office has a new inhabitant. But many people are hopeful they won’t be. Some of that hope comes from denial: surely they can’t do anything nearly as bad as they promised to do. Some of it is based on selfishness: even if they do all that stuff, I don’t think it will affect me or my loved ones all that badly. Some of it stems from an urge to capitulate – bow down now and we will all be spared – and some of it from a belief that people in powerful positions who know what they are doing will rise up against this. But institutions can be dismantled, with breathtaking speed. People can be shot down, literally. Hoping it won’t happen because you don’t want it to happen, or you can’t quite believe it could happen, is dangerously irresponsible. (Lest we forget, the trial of Thomas Mair, the British nationalist and self-described “political activist” who murdered Jo Cox MP last June, is going on in London at the moment. This June also saw the end of the trial against a man who attempted to murder German politician Henriette Reker in October 2015 because of her stance on the refugee crisis. Of course, neither of these acts was sanctioned by anti-immigration politicians, but they should give pause to anyone who thinks that rhetoric and bombast have no repercussions.)

In short, hope is a tricky emotion. We have lazy, privileged or complacent hope, hope-as-denial, false hope/shame-as-motivator, displaced hope, positive hope, hope-as-resistance, embrace-the-fear hope, and probably as many different kinds of hope as there are people in the world. Religions and political campaigns are often very good at distilling hope, presenting it in an apparently raw (pure) form, when in fact they are mostly calling for followers to enter a willing state of disbelief. (Too cynical?) And there are very good reasons for this, because hope is usually what allows us to go on when things get too dark, too real, too much for us. Hope is a double-edged sword: it can lull us into complicity or it can spur us to action. Sometimes it does both at the same time. So be careful with your hope, if you are lucky enough to have any. Make sure you know where it’s guiding you. Make sure you know what else is resting on it.

The uses and abuses of empathy

Strictly speaking, empathy is not an emotion. I often think of it as a kind of master emotion. Some would say it allows us to feel what others are feeling. I would be more cautious and say that it allows us to feel what we think others are feeling. It is a very popular concept at the moment, and those who have it (or think they have it) must occasionally find themselves basking in warm rays of happiness and pride, at the same time as being deeply immersed in another’s pain, anger and regret. Our understanding of empathy is mostly bound up in ideas of love and caring for other people, something that is extremely noble (or is it?), extremely vague, and very often pictured as a one-sided relationship. We empathise with our friends all the time, but we usually just think of that as “being friends.” When we think about empathy, we might give some thought to these mutual emotional support structures, but we are also prone to considering how to stretch the boundaries of our compassion by putting ourselves in the shoes (not literally) of those who are less fortunate than us. Empathy often springs from a charitable impulse, and while we might empathise with an Other’s pain, we would never expect the Other to empathise with our privilege. Empathy is often not very good at recognising structural violence. (There are a lot of reasons why I think empathy is ultimately good and deserves to be redeemed, but I just wanted to put some of its problems into the foreground here.)

As the US election campaign raged over the last 18 months, many people shook their heads and sighed that politics was becoming more polarised than ever. A few people raised those heads over the parapet and called for empathy. I was happy whenever I saw these pieces, because I believe that there is a lot of legitimate anger in the anti-establishment heart of America, and there is a lot of undeserved pain and suffering. Also, I empathised very readily with the people posting them, who were mostly fellow graduates in Reconciliation Studies. Calling for empathy before the elections made sense, because there was a specific sequence of actions and results attached: listen to people’s anger and despair, and respond to it in a way that will make a vote for the hateful guy seem less appealing. Engage with people. Try to imagine alternative solutions to the problems that they have. Avoid being condescending. Establish affective solidarity[2] based on shared anger and frustration. The only way this works is if you, too, have a critique of the system, and if you are prepared to give up some of your comfort and security so that we can all feel a similar level of comfort and security. Your empathy needs to be credible.

Calls for empathy, post-election, are the same in principle. They’re saying: remember, a lot of people will still feel angry and frustrated tomorrow, and next year, and the year after that, and it may be that we can win them over, it may be that we can even learn from them. The trouble is, calls for empathy can provide a very smooth channel for hope-as-denial to flourish, especially if empathy is conceived as a one-way street. At this moment, calls for empathy seem to downplay – if not completely whitewash – multiple racist, misogynist and homophobic incidents that have been reported across the US. These range from verbal attacks and physical violence against individuals at the community level (for example, girls being forcibly stripped of their hijabs by groups of boys in their school) to the appointment of misogynistic, homophobic racists to positions of unfettered political power. While some are calling for empathy with white, working-class voters (not all of whom voted for Trump), others are calling for (angry, but nonviolent) protest and reorganisation of the Democratic party, and others are calling for smart organisation: figure out strategies to combat right-wing activism and authoritarian government, form local networks, and get offline.

Of course, all three positions involve some level of empathy. The first looks at a group which it sees as in danger of being made a scapegoat/further radicalised through blame and finger-pointing, and it calls for us to see their grievances and find a way to accommodate them in our vision for a better society. The second looks at a group (or groups) that already face significant structural and physical violence and will be disproportionately affected by hate crimes and potential (read: probable) legislative changes in the coming days and years, and calls on those who can to offer them protection and solidarity. The third looks at the risks we could all face in resisting authoritarianism, and reminds us that real solidarity and protection involve personal risk and responsibility. It works against a future that it hopes will never come to pass, for the sake of humanity. In this, it empathises with people in other historical periods and geographical areas who have paid dearly for living in, resisting, and fleeing from authoritarian states. However, it seems to be the least likely to present itself as overtly empathetic (and the most likely to look paranoid/delusional, not because it is, but because that is how it registers in the prevailing climate of hope-as-denial).

Like hope, empathy requires caution. It requires us to think deeply about who we care for, and why. Empathy can kindle solidarity, or it can create walls and amplify echo chambers. It requires us to push the boundaries of our compassion, something for which we cannot always afford to summon the energy. Empathy might strive for universal love, but it sometimes settles for less. It asks us to be judicious with our hope, because the hopes of others depend on the form our own hope takes. Becoming attuned to the emotions of ourselves, and others, requires a lot of patience, understanding and fortitude. It is a skill to be cultivated, not a tap to be turned on and off at will. Calls for empathy will collapse if not followed up with a plan of action for building solidarity between disenfranchised groups.

Emotional ambivalence on a global scale

For me, the most compelling expressions of emotion over the last few days have come from friends who, like me, have studied and lived in authoritarian states. One of the surprising things about authoritarianism is how easily it is normalised across a population. Some people speak out, and are punished for it. Others speak out, and rely on strong personal networks to protect them from punishment. Many censor themselves, partially or completely. Many don’t speak out at all. And then you have a very great many who speak out in defence of their government, at best admitting only partial criticism, and even then supporting the status quo. In all of these actions, I see variations of the forms of hope which have been thrown into stark relief in the US this week. Hopes that correspond to varying degrees of denial and disbelief, paranoia and fantasy, resistance and compromise. I have also seen many of these hopes dashed and illusions shattered, and it is this above all else that makes me say now: prevention is better than cure.

I worry about Europe, and I worry that Ireland, though it may look very different to larger countries with a long tradition of Right-Left politics, will not escape from this global resurgence of nationalism and fundamentalism (two phenomena that certainly do have a very large place in our political traditions). We cannot pretend that this is a new phenomenon, but now more than ever, we must be ready to call out injustice and bigotry where we see it, and to ensure that the hope and empathy that help us feel good about ourselves are anchored in affective solidarity and strategies for change. Otherwise, we remain caught in the web of ambivalence whether we admit it to ourselves or not.


[1] There are multiple blog posts dedicated to this topic, and I encourage you to search them out if you’re feeling curious. One of the most celebrated takes on intersectional feminism in recent years came from Flavia Dzodan (My feminism will be intersectional or it will be bullshit!, and no the strong language does not stop in the title). If you are looking for academic feminist reading about emotion and politics more broadly, then the work of Sara Ahmed (whose resignation from Goldsmith’s University comes into effect next month) and Lauren Berlant at the University of Chicago may be of particular interest.

[2] This term is taken from an article by Clare Hemmings, “Affective Solidarity: Feminist reflexivity and political transformation,” Feminist Theory 13:2 (2012), 147-161. It offers an insightful critique of empathy as a privileged concept.


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