Empathy and Failures
of Democracies

What is the Role of Empathy in Political Discourse?

This is a meandering discussion about empathy's role in public policy debates and popular culture's role in affecting empathy. So can popular culture help to nurture or destroy empathy in politics? I try to set up a framework for exploring this, but raise more questions than I answer.

31 Dec 2018

Asheville, North Carolina and Washington, D.C.

by Matthew Eric Bassett

While driving between Atlanta and Asheville I turned into conservative talk radio. It was a replay of a show from September discussing Portland State University's doubts about hiring armed campus policy officers 1. The discussion wasn't about the pros or cons of the policy, or why someone might take a position so antithetical to conservative principles. Rather it was chiefly of callers taking turns in new ways of dismissing the views of Portland's liberal politicians and residents by accusing them of lying, being stupid, or having malicious motives for all of American society 2. Such a callous discussion of a policy decision by political opponents isn't limited to American society. Following the Brexit referendum the Remain-friendly media could hardly contain their low opinion of Leavers while they were penning articles suggesting that their opponents did not know what they were voting for 3.

Whether its American Conservatives or UK Remainers, much of the political spectrum has an inability to consider the other side's opinion. Politics makes people stupid by triggering tribal instincts to avoid new information that might hurt their allegiance 4. Today's culture feels like the problem is getting worse. At the least, partisanship, which I consider to be a proxy for measuring lack of empathy, has been growing in measurable ways 5. But it is not without historical precedent. The media discussions around US President Andrew Jackson's 1828 election were so filled with bitter, baseless partisan attacks that it was credited with causing the death of the would-be first lady 6.

Empathy and Failures of Democracy

Whether we look at 21st century or 19th century political debates, the common characteristic is a lack of empathy for the opposing side. Your opposing side does not take their position because of a different perspective or different values, but because they are stupid, or immoral, or Enemies of the People. It is hard to imagine how democracy can survive (or could have survived) with such vicious attacks on itself. That public policy debate descends into such tribal fights cannot bode well. But does it really precipitate an eventual failure of democracy?

To be more precise, by "failure of democracy" I mean a situation where new leaders who are democratically elected then go on to expand their powers and terms beyond the constitutional limits that were in place when they were elected and used such powers to either oppress certain segments of the popular or enact polices which substantially reduced the quality of life for large portions of the population 7. We have seen throughout world history that democracies are capable of electing damaging leaders who thrive when debates turn from policy and to tribalism, especially in Venezuela, Spain, Italy, and many African and Middle Eastern democracies. If it is true that a lack of empathy in public policy debates causes, or even precedes, these failures of democracy then I am led to believe that one of the most pressing problems facing western society is that of bringing empathy into political discourse.

Art and Empathy

How can this be done? One oft-repeated suggestion is that the arts and humanities can facilitate greater empathy. Author Barbara Kingsolver explicitly drew the connection between politics and art and said the line went through empathy 8.

“ Good fiction creates empathy. A novel takes you somewhere and asks you to look through the eyes of another person, to live another life [...] How can that not affect you politically? "

Some intrepid researchers have sought to test the assertion that fiction creates empathy. A 2013 paper by Kidd and Castano 9 attempted an experiment in which subjects had to read either a fiction narrative or a non-fiction piece before taking a test which is understood to be a proxy for empathy. Subjects who had read the engaging fictional narrative scored higher. But like many studies in psychology, their paper had a replication problem. A follow-up paper in 2016 10 attempted the same experiments with a larger sample size and failed to find any increase in test scores. Both studies are imperfect attempts at testing Kingsolver's argument. A single passage of a fictional narrative is unlikely to alter one's cognitive powers, and Kingsolver explicitly asked for "good fiction".

What about historical examples? In countries where democracy failed do we see evidence of "bad fiction" or a lack of interest in fiction? In the Weimar Republic in Germany, preceding Hitler's rise to power, the New Objectivity and Aufklärungsfilm genres produced Max Nivelli's 1919 film Ritual Murder which was explicit in its intention to make the public aware of the dangers of antisemitism 11. The film was considered a commercial and critical success 12. Another film, also from 1919, Richard Oswald's Different from the Others, is credited with being the first positive portrayal of homosexual characters 13.

Meanwhile, in Japan, the 1920s and 1930s saw a proletarian literary movement, with novels like The Factory Ship focusing on the plight of oppressed workers 14. A 1930 novel by Kuroshima Denji, Militarized Streets, preached an anti-war and anti-militarism message as it discussed the Jinan incident from the eyes of Chinese and Japanese civilians 15. Over 2000 Chinese civilians were killed in the operation 16. Both books were banned by government censors but only after achieving some commercial success 17.

These examples of pre-war German and Japanese literature are striking in that they explicitly warn about the dangers of the attitudes that lead to German and Japanese military aggression in later decades. We might say that they explicitly try to promote empathy. But does a "good novel" or a "good film" that facilities empathy necessarily mean that it does so explicitly? At least in these cases it did not do much to prevent a failure of democracy in these regions. In fact it may have been a warning for it;

Where to Look Next

Between this (admittedly superficial) analysis of historical examples, and the sense of impending doom for Western Democracy 20, I think its important to find answers to the questions raised here. In particular, does a lack of empathy for political opponents in public policy debates precipitate a failure of democracy? And if so, can we fight it by producing "good art" and "good literature"? If explicitly calling for empathy does not work, what is the effective quality of art that facilitates empathy? These questions can only be answered via a thorough study of historical examples. I think the political events since the Industrial revolution provide enough material for us to have several cases of "failures of democracies" along with source material on the

Thank you to Charles Dupont and Jagna Feierabend for recommending changes to earlier drafts.