Are we living in ‘post-empathy’ times?

At its most dangerous, a lack of empathy normalizes the widespread cruelty required by fascism
Photo: Mike Morris
Your ad here
Don't like ads?
Automated ads help us pay our journalists, servers, and team. Support us by becoming a member today to hide all automated ads:
Become a member

The respected historian Timothy Snyder frequently offers an ominous warning about the times we’re living in.

“Post-truth is pre-fascism.”

To the degree that facts and evidence are devalued, and emotion replaces truth as the primary basis of political belief, democracies face something lethal.

There opens a pathway to power for those who can most skillfully tap into and circulate lurid untruths that stoke fear, anger, anxiety, and victimhood in a paranoid and aggrieved base convinced that only a ruler willing to jettison democratic norms can shore up an imperilled social order against its enemies from within and abroad.

It's been from out of the United States that we’ve seen in recent years truly unnerving instances of the pre-fascist things that hatch from what post-truth lays inside the skin of democratic politics.

On January 6, 2021, the world watched in astonishment as American citizens engaged in an insurrection to overthrow their own democracy under the fanatical conviction that the 2020 election had been stolen from Donald Trump.

And the stage is set for still worse thanks to the growth of the racist “great replacement” conspiracy theory.

The authoritarian dangers this post-truth condition poses to a society are clear enough. But it seems like there’s also something else happening alongside it, its threat to democracy related but underrecognized.

We need to ask if, in addition to living in a time of post-truth, we are in a time of post-empathy.

When few of us matter

How might a post-empathy condition be defined?

It would be one in which a growing class of major political events unfold as they do because the movements, political leaders, and allied media driving them operate on the assumption, explicit or not, that other human beings do not matter in a meaningful way. Under a post-empathy condition, the prospect that others will face hardship, suffering, or even death as a result of certain political decisions has greatly diminished.

We see a strange overabundance of failures in basic political tests of human empathy. We find people prominently advocating for heinous ideas without facing political scandal or penalty.

Like post-truth, post-empathy offers us a concept to better recognize and accept that something about our society has changed, and for the worse.

In post-empathy times there is a widespread sense that things are becoming crueller, and little indication that appeals to human decency and compassion will make them better.

We see a strange overabundance of failures in basic political tests of human empathy. We find people prominently advocating for heinous ideas without facing political scandal or penalty; if anything, proselytizing callousness is how more and more politicians and pundits are making their names.

Horrific events fail to spur changes or critical reflection necessary for preventing their recurrence; they simply become part of the background that society is expected to accept and endure.

Norms crucial to maintaining a decent society are besieged and reversed by political movements that not only exist to attack advancements in equality, democracy, freedom, sustainability, and justice, but are also surging in size, spread, and influence. Regression is cause to rejoice.

Recognizing a post-empathy moment is about something much more serious than lamenting a loss of kindness or expressing nostalgia for gentler times. It’s about identifying a political danger.

The political threat of post-empathy is that it chisels away the normative barriers that empathy and solidarity have erected against open and unchecked displays of injustice, contempt, oppression, and hate. At its most dangerous, it clears the way for the normalization of the widespread cruelty required by hate movements and authoritarian supremacists.

Post-empathy, too, can be pre-fascist.

Fighting for (and against) empathy

As it does with post-truth, the United States provides a leading example of a Western nation sunken far into the post-empathy condition. The country has been steadily conforming to a vision of state, economy, and society that can leave no place for empathy as its increasingly terrifying Republican party drags it into the vortex at the confluence of theocratic Christian nationalism, deregulated oligarchic capitalism, ruthless self-regarding individualism, bigoted nativism, and gun-fetishist patriarchy.

We can see the growing post-empathy moment in the northward intrusion of the “groomer” language, and the threats of violence rooted in homophobia and transphobia it has begun stirring here.

The most obvious example of its advanced post-empathy condition is this summer’s rampage by the U.S. Supreme Court, which, following the Trump years, sits firmly in the hands of a conservative supermajority.

In just a matter of weeks, its rulings have exposed more people to gun violence, stripped abortion rights, and constricted the federal government’s ability to take meaningful climate action.

But sweeping, high-level changes at that scale tend to be rare, and developments prior to those rulings were already telling us something important about the types of political struggles that must be won closer to the ground for post-empathy to advance.

Two recent and crucial such battles have concerned COVID measures and protection of rights for transgender people. Because they were new to mainstream politics, what was at stake in both cases was the question of whether they would lead to novel rules and norms extending the sense of who matters, and laying out how society must change to act in accordance. Depending on how they played out, America would either make steps towards a society enshrining values of interdependence, solidarity, and inclusion, or towards one of individualism, traditionalism, and exclusion — towards empathy or disdain.

Instances of post-empathy politics like these are coalescing in the movements behind Maxime Bernier and now Pierre Poilievre. They are precursors of how, should they achieve in power, these movements will tear up the norms and programs that promote a decent and sustainable society.

Voices on the American political right carried out sustained offensives in both cases. They succeeded in politicizing the COVID measures taken to protect others as violations of freedom akin to what occur under tyrannies. They beat back the prospect of greater inclusion for transgender people, meanwhile, by baselessly depicting them, and members of the larger LGBTQ+ community, as child “groomers” and predators, a deeply vile form of dehumanization that attracts threats and acts of violence.

And these kinds of tactics to block the expansion of empathy have now proven virulent enough to spread, informing Canada’s own post-empathy moment.

Canada’s post-empathy moment

We can see the growing post-empathy moment in the northward intrusion of the “groomer” language, and the threats of violence rooted in homophobia and transphobia it has begun stirring here.

We could see it in the “Freedom Convoy” occupation of Ottawa earlier this year where the absoluteness of its opposition to COVID measures — the underlying assumption that government should take no serious steps to protect society during a pandemic — gave a sense of the post-empathy self-centered vision of licentious “freedom” really being advocated.

It was there, too, in the laughter of Conservative members of parliament as NDP leader Jagmeet Singh spoke of Canadians struggling to put food on the table.

Instances of post-empathy politics like these are coalescing in the movements behind Maxime Bernier and now Pierre Poilievre. They are precursors of how, should they achieve in power, these movements will tear up the norms and programs that promote a decent and sustainable society.

They are thus reminders of the importance of winning every fight that builds and nurtures empathy and solidarity throughout society and beats back to the isolated fringes the sense that some — perhaps most — people’s lives do not truly matter.

You might also be interested in...
‘Gut-wrenching:’ Drilling starts under Wet’suwet’en river
Brandi Morin
September 20, 2022
Canada should use this moment to return Crown lands to Indigenous Peoples
Aidan Simardone
September 12, 2022
Health care in Canada is being deliberately sabotaged
Andrea Houston
September 5, 2022