The Perils of Sympathy

Great cities ravaged by bombs. Images of children drowning in the ocean. Photographs of devastated victims unable to process horrific acts. Pathetically charged narratives begging readers and/or listeners to feel enough to incite them to action. Each of these examples is used as a way to evoke a sympathetic reaction from a party separate from those directly involved in sympathetic scenes. Sympathy is often a visceral, even spontaneous, feeling sparked by unfortunate circumstance. But sympathy has its dark side.

According to Paul Bloom, sympathy (for the purposes of this article, sympathy is used interchangeably with empathy) causes people to be more violent. Bloom draws his theory from Adam Smith, writing, “In The Theory of Moral Sentiments, published in 1759, Adam Smith observes that when we see someone harmed by another, we feed off his desire for vengeance: ‘We are rejoiced to see him attack his adversary in his turn, and eager and ready to assist him.’” Thus, in our most sympathetic moments, we often simultaneously experience intense negative feelings, even hatred, for those who inflict pain on other people. Bloom outlines how our reactions to national and international tragedy cause us to justify things like war and harsh punishments in the criminal justice system, especially when coupled with a tragic story of or from the victim(s). He concludes, “Everyone appreciates that fear and hate can motivate ugly choices; we should be mindful that our most tender sentiments can do the same.”

Perhaps such sentiments do lead us to make ugly choices, but those choices are often made when we believe that there is a perpetrator who has committed a heinous crime (whether our reactions to and actions against those perpetrators are moral is another question entirely), but what happens when we misidentify the enemy? Peter Beinart describes how American conservatives have moved the problem with jihadist terror to the domestic front, placing Muslims in America as the enemy, even though, “for the most part, they constitute a small, well-educated, culturally conservative minority that wants little more from the government than to be left alone.” Such backlash against Muslims in America has escalated since the attacks on Paris, with Muslims fearing for their safety in a country that desires freedom and peace. According to Kirk Semple, a Muslim imam, Siraj Wahhaj, “warned of a backlash, [stating,] ‘Muslims all around the world will pay a price for what happened in France.’ He added: ‘We had nothing to do with it. We hate it. But still we will pay the price.’” Semple cited several examples of people who experienced negative, even dangerous, reactions that were elicited from Islamophobia after the attacks in Paris.

But the fear extends beyond just the Muslims in the United States. A recent opinion piece, “The Price of Fear,” articulated how leaders of our nation, both Republican and Democrat, have taken steps toward limiting outreach to Syrian refugees because of the attacks in Paris. The editorial staff concludes, “Americans should hope it’s just fearful ignorance that clouds their vision, and that in time it clears.”

One has to wonder, then, how sympathy plays into our decisions about those with whom we should sympathize. Paul Krugman suggests that our reactions to terror come through the attackers’ desire to incite panic: “Take, for example, Jeb Bush’s declaration that ‘this is an organized attempt to destroy Western civilization.’ No, it isn’t. It’s an organized attempt to sow panic, which isn’t at all the same thing.” Yet this panic is what leads us to sympathize with those who are directly affected and then move our sympathy to ourselves. We sympathize with those who are like us because we fear that we will find ourselves in the same tragic circumstance.

Such an assertion matches how our nation, and other Western nations, have approached the Paris attacks in comparison to attacks in other parts of the world. Lebanese doctor Elie Fares writes about the world’s reaction to the attacks in Beirut, poignantly stating, “When my people died, they did not send the world in mourning. Their death was but an irrelevant fleck along the international news cycle, something that happens in those parts of the world.” Not only were these attacks given less coverage, they also elicited purely unsympathetic responses from some people. Fares cited Everett Stern in particular, who Tweeted his gratitude for the bombings at Hezbollah because he believed the bombs hit a terrorist organization. Stern removed his sympathetic feelings for the victims of the Hezbollah bombings, falsely transforming all of the victims into enemies who deserve to die in order to create more peace. Or perhaps the origin of his ignorant statements stems from the idea that we should seek the greatest good for the greatest number of people; therefore, we bomb areas with known terrorists despite who may be surrounding those areas. Are we prepared to make the decision to bomb? Are we prepared to support that kind of destruction?

Psychology professors Daryl Cameron, Michael Inzlicht, and William A. Cunningham argue that empathy (sympathy) is a choice, concluding, “Yes, there are many situations in which empathy appears to be limited in its scope, but this is not a deficiency in the emotion itself. In our view, empathy is only as limited as we choose it to be.” Sympathy needs to be more than a visceral reaction to images and narratives. Mindful sympathy requires action, thought, and sensitivity instead of rash reaction. And it also requires that we exercise sympathy for those who are not like us and that we do not express sympathy only out of fear that the same tragedy may befall us. If our sympathy becomes selfish, our feigned desire and resolve for protection and peace can turn us into the enemy.

By Brittany Bruner, Humanities Center Intern 

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