Limits of empathy and kindness

In a post around the same time last year I wrote down some thoughts about empathy and staying kind, when these qualities are largely absent in political debate. It is also absent in most discussions held on social media over polarizing topics. As positions become more and more extreme, I feel many people have lost the ability to say ‘stop’ and set boundaries.

Much too often I fall into the trap of discussing and trying to understand, while adversaries are not acting in good faith. While you think you’re playing the game of understanding and finding middle ground, they are playing the game of stealing your time and energy. While you try to convince someone to be less extreme and show some empathy, they play the game of “owning” you or trying to win an argument by all – even extreme – means.

Another popular example is the “concerned citizen”, the most pampered group in Germany for over two years now. Their reasons for acting concerned do not even matter because they are all rooted in an undercurrent of racism even when they don’t realize it or don’t want to acknowledge it. It does not matter if this group acts racist because of their parents, or friends, because they were radicalized online, or because of the fearmongering of right-wing political parties. It also does not matter if they are acting out of malice or out of fear, because their action or inaction has disastrous consequences for minorities. They are the offender, not the victim. If people are so “concerned” that they are fine with ignoring the fact, that they are walking with literal neo-nazis, than they are no better. Legitimizing racism makes you a racist yourself, even if you don’t want to realize it.

As “couch resistance” I’m dealing mostly with luxury problems. People like me have internalized the role of the empathetic, understanding listener and are too comfortable in this role. The only way to foster change seemed to be debate, reasoning and a evaluation of all ideas. This utopia has been proven wrong prior to World War II and is today tried again.

The goal is not to compare ideas and find the best one, even if racists want to make you think that. The goal is to prevent racist philosophies from becoming more popular, normalized or accepted. Racist ideology by definition is against everything that is against itself. This hits the limits of tolerance and must be stopped by all means with all available resources. We must be angry and we must show it. That is the decent thing to do and not trying to understand fears and being nice, because racism can’t be tolerated or debated away. This works superficially in single cases but the effort for this is unequally higher for those acting in good faith than for the racist. This strategy might feel better than more drastic measures but it is futile as the racist has an unfair advantage. They have no skin in the game – nothing to lose.

Racists and people who try to normalize racism must not be given a platform. If they have established a platform, or platforms don’t position themselves, they must be taken away or shut down. Big organizations, companies, brands must position themselves against racism or face dire risk of alienating and losing their diverse workforce or facing an ethics crisis. People spouting racist ideologies – sometimes touched up as “concerns” – must be muzzled to prevent further spreading of normalizing of racism. Concerned citizens need to understand that they are following in footsteps of neo-nazis.

Debate and discussion has proven to be too weak of a strategy to oppose racism as the currency is not logic, but emotion. Instead of understanding concerned citizens, they need to be socially ostracized. That might mean breaking up with racist friends, partners, or even family, changing jobs, calling out people or companies publicly, being loud and uncomfortable. This needs to be the new normal. Have the better strategy and understand the game you’re in. The fear of consequences from being racist or a “concerned citizen” needs to be bigger than the fear people use as a lame excuse for their thinly veiled racism.

The paradoxes of tolerance

What are you going to do, now that roughly 13% of the 75% in Germany who voted, did vote for a party that behaves openly racist, sexist, discriminates against minorities, uses violence to silence dissenting voices and in general tries to push the limits of what is acceptable in a public discourse? I try to make sure that I don’t fall into the trap of normalizing their behaviour and stand firm on the values ingrained in our constitution. Understanding that it is in some cases necessary not to tolerate intolerant behaviour can help if you find that you need to defend your values. As this is a minefield though, I’ll briefly revisit the topic of toleration and sum up its paradoxes in the order they are mentioned in the article linked above in my own words.

  1. People suppressing their desire to discriminate against minorities for strategic reasons – like racists do to appeal to a larger audience – are not tolerant. They do this to gain followers because a less extremist behaviour is not that hard to swallow for right leaning centrists. It then gets easier to push the limits of unacceptable behaviour the larger your group is. Once you’re inside it’s hard to distance yourself again as you would have to accept that you have been deceived and have made an embarrassing mistake. Tolerance is not able to fix this; the root causes are discriminatory beliefs which the person needs to overcome.
  2. Moral tolerance is tricky as reasons for rejecting something and accepting the same thing can both be “moral”. The discussion which moral reasons weigh heavier can be difficult. Is torture tolerable to save other people’s lives? Is it tolerable to punch a nazi? The value system needs to be sound and give guidance to which reasons are morally higher and which are lower.
  3. Not tolerating the intolerant is not as simple as it sounds. “Intolerant” always needs to be put into context.  If i do not tolerate the intolerant, than I am intolerant and therefore not to be tolerated. Boom. Only if we can draw the limits between those who reject the concept of toleration in itself and those who do not tolerate those who deny the norm of tolerance are we able to have tolerance. Where are we drawing the line? The limits are defined through our constitution and augmented by our social norms and ethic codes of the groups we belong to. This can be the workplace, your family, a sports club or any social community you feel you belong to.

Empathy and kindness

The lack of empathy and absence of kindness in political reasoning these days has been troubling me for quite some time. I feel there is certain obsession over data that helps people fuel their fear driven agenda if the data is only selected to support whatever the goal is. There is no need to manipulate data even though this is still done if the return is high and the end seems to justify the means. Still, the sheer amount of available information is so overwhelming that you can pick what supports your view without raising suspicion. As a consequence it is easier to deny personal responsibility for certain statements because the data speaks for itself and serves as objective justification towards everyone not taking the time to dive deeply into complex topics. The obvious countermeasure to analyse all data and derive arguments to invalidate these positions does not seem to work. These efforts can be disregarded quickly as being too complex and are vulnerable to attacks through fabricated contradictions, comfortable oversimplifications and false equivalence.

How do you keep a balanced view in a world where the amount of accessible information is growing every day and the time that would be needed to verify sources manually grows exponentially? I try to stick to simple values.

“Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle you know nothing about.” – Ian Maclaren

Living by this quote is incredibly hard but this advice has been successfully guiding my professional career now for years. I hope that whenever I don’t live up to my own standards, the other person will have taken this quote to heart. How do you keep yourself from hating the people who are trying to change the world for the worse? I try and reframe myself to feel the following.

“I can’t afford to hate anyone. I don’t have that kind of time.” – Akira Kurosawa

Needless to say this is incredibly hard, too, but life is short so it’s worth a try.