The Empathy Pill: A Proposition

This was written with the intention of it being the transcript to a video. The video may or may not get filmed, but the words seem to hold up on their own. Just imagine someone saying them into your face.

Something we’ve noticed is that it’s really easy to radicalise someone into a fascistic ideology. Especially in the age of the Internet. White nationalist, so called red pill, anti-woman, anti-queer, anti-poor, clash of civilisations rhetoric lends itself very nicely to being packaged and sold in an accessible format. Like all you have to do is click on some website and follow the rabbit hole, or spend some time on the wrong forums. As far as I can see, this is because of the following factors:

  1. The whole ideology is about telling the human brain what it wants to hear. It fulfills people’s internal needs, for a plot, a narrative; a justification for our inherent fear of difference; and a soothing, straightforward answer to our social frustrations. So the human mind is already primed and ready to accept fascism.
  2. It’s fundamentally easy to explain, because it takes an inherently selective approach to facts and history, and leaves no room for the nuance and complexity of human society. It just needs to present enough snapshots taken out of context, and it has a convincing facsimile of an evidenced argument.

In contrast, it’s far more difficult to sway people in the opposite direction. Whereas fascism speaks to people’s secret inner beliefs and says, “Yes, it really IS how you thought it was, deep down”, reality tends to do the exact opposite. It just doesn’t satisfy the things our deluded minds crave, and it’s never easy to explain because it’s as complicated and multifaceted as we are.
(As a minor tangent, while planning this I idly googled ‘introduction to queer theory’ and found a page on a website called critical-theory.com. It was a quite fun and multi-layered whistle stop tour of queer theory, but it was very much preaching to the converted, throwing in long quotes and academic jargon relating to heterosexism and imperialism. Sure enough, I got down to the comments section…and one of the highest rated comments was basically someone doing a TL;DR of the article which included the sentence “PRETEND TO BE TRANS AND GAY FOR POLITICAL REASONS!!” and at that point I just gave up.)
We’re not well-equipped, as people, to understanding each other; our imaginations will always fall back on the easier, dehumanising interpretation of what someone else is doing.

As a result of that, every day we lose territory. More and more people, principally young white men but it extends into other demographics, succumb to the seductive allure of the ahistorical, anti-empathy, narrativist, fascist delusion. Even if someone doesn’t progress to full-blown neo-Nazi, they’ll often still develop subtle, secret sympathies for the basic premises; that underlying skepticism of other people’s validity as human beings.

Meanwhile, those of us on the pro-reality side are frequently too busy trying to live our own lives in peace and safety, too busy confronting trauma, violence and death, to expend the time and energy on the frustrating and obtuse task of trying to educate people. A lot of the time, I see an assumption that people will just go along with anti-racist, anti-fascist, anti-queerphobe, anti-greed, anti-misogynist ideology because ‘it’s the right thing, and no-one wants to be like one of those Nazis am I right?’ And anyone who doesn’t go along with it is just a lost cause and inherently bad so who cares?
I think this underestimates the gravitational pull of fascism for so-called ‘normal people’.

And yet, I can’t help but think that there must be a way. Specifically, a way to break down and illustrate, from first principles – in a way that anyone of any educational level can understand – why fascism is bollocks.
They have what they call a red pill, which plunges its unsuspecting takers into a narrative world of cardboard cutouts. In their view, the silly fools who still believe in lies like ‘common humanity’ have taken the “blue pill” and chosen to stick with the comforting falsehood of the Matrix. And you know, I’m not going to dignify that by taking it seriously; I think so called ‘blue pillers’ regularly confront enough difficult, complicated, ugly, terrifying, unsatisfying, and existentially uncomfortable realities to know which side of that equation they’re really on.

But what if there was another kind of pill?

It’s virtually impossible to compress an entire critical, historically material, empathetic worldview into a single moment of gnosis. You can’t just write a brief little series of blog posts and illuminate the genuinely difficult-to-understand truth, that reams and reams of academic literature are still struggling to pin down, in the same way that some fascist can just link to a few crime statistics he Googled.

But you know what they say about giving someone a fish versus teaching them to fish?

Here’s what I’m envisioning. If there was to be what I’ll call an Outsideist pill – let’s say it’s a cute little website with a really memorable URL – the introduction would need to start on the very basic level of: What Is Empathy?

I’m always surprised by how little the concept of “empathy” as a process and a function comes up in our culture. Like, at school, I was taught to be nice to people who are different. But the mechanics of how and why that happens and is important? We’re just left to assume that. I look at the political discourse around the world, and it’s so rare for people to straight-up call out a severe absence of empathy. Our pop culture gives us vague messages about love or understanding or shooting people’s faces off, our religions tell us to demonstrate performative forms of ‘love’ for our fellow humans, but the E word just isn’t a force with significant power.

But the good news is, empathy’s not actually that difficult a concept. Even the most ardent fascist probably believes in empathy; he just reserves it exclusively for people who look like him.
So our Empathy Pill is going to begin with a simple example. Two people, A and B. They each have a mental image of the other. Person A tells person B, “I feel sad”. B’s mental image of A is updated to include this. B imagines how A must feel, and imagining that feeling affects them.

Example 2. A and B again. But this time, A tells B, “I feel sad because of something you did.”
Now, if B imagines how sad A is feeling, in the knowledge that it was their own fault and something they thought was right was actually wrong, then B is going to feel even worse.
B doesn’t want that. So B’s first instinct is to not do it. B’s mental image of A updates, but it changes to a version of A who is somehow wrong, so that imagining how A feels isn’t important. Either that A’s wrong about the facts, or worse – they’re wrong in how they’re thinking and living. But because B’s mind has done this solely to protect itself, it has no basis in the truth. So B’s mental image of A has diverged from the reality, and no longer makes sense with who A really is inside.

Now Example 3 would just be one where B deliberately makes the decision to hear A out and deal with the uncomfortable feelings that come with empathy. This whole laborious setup would be trying to illustrate, on a simple, person-to-person level, the problem of cognitive dissonance and the unreliability of our own perception.

If that’s step one, then Step 2 (the next page), would be something like, ‘What Are We?‘. And this would deal, in the lightest way possible, with the idea that our minds and actions are shaped by the experiences we have and the things around us, the basic idea of learning (with a light dash of neuroscience). It’d then spring from that to core beliefs – the way that we build up our own views of the world and fear changing them.

Step 3 – What Is History? Notice how we started from the basic and we’re slowly building up. Using the logic established in the previous section, we then set out some essential principles for the idea of history and its development – not as some wonderful narrative of competing great men, oh no, but rather as the inevitable result of what happens when a load of us soft humans occur in an environment and are left to our own devices. Touching very lightly on the accumulation of power and property, but not enough to scare anyone off.

Step 4 – What Is Truth? You can’t have a historical materialism if the reader conveniently rejects all recorded history as fake. So this section deals with critical thinking as regards deciding what information is trustworthy compared to what isn’t, taking first and foremost an empathetic perspective – populations of people with very little power will naturally feel the desire to express their own individual experiences of life, rather than fabricate them; big trends in history and media can be shaped by the interests of power, individuals generally work within the limits of their own perspective; something close to the truth can often by approached by comparing and contrasting multiple accounts.
And I think, more than anything, this section has to plant very firmly the problem with conspiracy thought, which links back to Step 1 in that it always hinges on manufacturing a false mental image of other people in order to make you feel right.

Step 5 – The Case Studies. This is the magic trick, I suppose, the point at which things ramp up to aggressive, and the reader (who has been babied along with safe-sounding stuff so far) is challenged to put their understanding of empathy and history to use. They’re given a big modular collection, which they can browse at their own whim, of accounts by and about individual people from past and present. There’s a huge range, and each entry is an attempt to offer a precise and multi-textured portrait of a person’s historical situation, centred where possible around their own testimony  and their own account of how they faced life, while incorporating a mixture of referenced historical sources (also offering context about said sources). The entries aren’t shaped to foster a positive or negative view, only a contextualised and human one, and they contain links to further and more advanced reading.

The reader is asked to confront each of these people on a personal level, and the challenge is that the list deliberately includes people they might not be used to empathising with. Marginalised voices, Othered voices, even ‘enemy’ voices, jostle alongside more familiar ones, from across the world, up and down the class spectrum and the political spectrum. Through these individual confrontations, the reader is slowly encouraged to grow their image of humanity and the world, coming into collisions with nationality, gender, race, class, ideology, sexuality, age, religion, ability, time period. And in each case they’re asked; how is your mental image of this person developing? Can you see how this person would fit into the visions of history, consciousness, truth, and empathy that we’ve outlined? Do you find their experiences to be valid?
In other words, easily accessible reality checks with your fellow human beings. The list could be updated periodically with new entries like a blog. Albeit one with no comments section.

 

Perhaps the strongest anti-fascistic remedy at this point would be to stop there. Rather than have an extra page outlining ‘Why Is Fascism Bad?’, some big final ‘gotcha’ moment to draw the whole thing to a neat close, let the empathy-based view of humanity (and the open-endedness of the collection) speak for itself. People are interesting.

Anyway, that’s what I dream of and don’t have anywhere near the resources or time to create, as could be said of basically everyone. But I think there ought to be strong, serious, committed thought about how the Internet could be used to make critical thinking and empathy accessible to the lay user. For all that the sultry voice of fascism lures people with its promises of fulfilment…the dangerous, weird, tentacled terror of empathy has its own secret appeal, in the same way we’re compelled to peek over the cliff and stare into the abyss, and I think that the easier to grasp and the more inviting you make it, the more people you could potentially save from fascism’s dread clutches. It just needs to be small enough to swallow.

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