Empathy and politics

One of my ambitions is not to become like the cranks who contribute to a low-level day-to-day unpleasantness in my life – the ones who only concentrate on things which fit their world-view, and then with blinkers, astigmatism, and in monochrome.

One way you could go wrong here is to weigh up every encounter or event in terms of what it could do for your cause. For example, you might hear for the first time about a state, briefly liberated from British control, and then invaded, occupied and violently repressed for 60 years, and you might think, “Why the hell haven’t I heard about this from those hypocrite Socialist Workers”, or you might think “Hmm, I can use this in my arguments” and save it to Diigo for a rainy day.

Or you could learn, while observing an argument about whether or not the Israeli Defence Force has policy to kill non-combatants (i.e. observing people trying to push/debunk a conspiracy theory), that the US has just killed 30 Afghan wedding guests and wounded about 120 in a mistaken bombing raid on what they thought was the Taliban. You might immediately think, again “I wonder what the Socialist Workers will make of that” or “Hmm, I can use it”.

What you’d have then done, if you didn’t have any other responses, is you’d have turned those dead and broken bodies, shattered lives, dashed hopes, grieving lovers, relatives, and friends into fodder for your campaign machine.

This impulse to use, to instrumentalise events – even where those events have a terrible human cost – with only a muted empathy, or none, is something I find intolerable in the people I argue with, and at the same time something which I have done myself, twice in a day.

Without empathy politics is no more than maths or chess. I’m bad at maths and I lose at chess.

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