The Empathy Hack – How a Social and Cognitive Exploit Creates Fake News, Aids Trump, and Generally Messes Up Everything

This past weekend, as part of his whirlwind document show-off tour, Trump signed the executive order establishing the so-called “Muslim ban.” One would’ve had to have been living under the proverbial rock, or maybe secured in a retrofitted nuclear silo like some of our Silicon Valley overlords, not to have to noticed the deluge of consternation currently drowning social media. But who am I kidding? The overlords will still have internet in the post-apocalypse.

Trump, looking like he wants his cookie now
Trump, looking like he wants his cookie now

A great article at The Federalist has already pointed out the ways in which the Left’s current overreaction actually helps Trump, and I will at least partly be building off of some of their insights. Suffice it to say that to anyone straddling the current divide between echo chambers, it’s clear that the wailing and gnashing of teeth on the part of progressives is achieving lackluster, if not outright deleterious, results for their perceived mission. That’s because mischaracterizing your opponent only works to strengthen the resolve of his supporters and to cast doubt on your own motives.

This constant mislabeling and calculated misunderstanding is rampant. Just read this article from ThinkProgress, or this from a writer on Medium, or anything from Jacobin magazine or, wow, the mainstream media, and you’ll get the idea if you hadn’t already. CNN has posted a copy of the order, which you can read here, and I suggest that everyone reading this take the time to actually look at what this order says before they post their outpouring of misplaced hysteria to their friends.

To be frank: this is not a Muslim ban. This is not Japanese internment camps. To claim that it is requires either a stunning ignorance of history, a lack of respect for the people who actually faced an injustice like the internment camps, or some unholy union of these two characteristics. Go ahead and claim that the suspension of immigration from these countries is stupid, counter-productive, or inept. But racist, or the product of a coup?

Making use of the nuclear option
Making use of the nuclear option.

Of course, dropping the r-bomb is a tactic that has consumed the Left, along with claiming all sorts of nasty things about their opposition. It’s part of their claim to being on the side of the downtrodden, to feeling for those they perceive as in need, and which their “deplorable” opposition doesn’t. Progressives really care. I think we can thank that level of caring for giving us a populist demagogue anti-hero as President. This, along with a complete breakdown of conversation, which is our only real method of discovering truth.

How did we get here? I think it’s because while the worst of the Right appeals to nationalistic jingoism, the worst of the Left appeals to self-centered ego dissipation through a trick I call “the empathy hack.”

Source Code

Thinkers have long held empathy as a necessary root of morality. Adam Smith placed it at the very center of his ethics, while Harper Lee has her characters learn to “walk a mile in another’s shoes” before judging them. Society teaches us to care about how others feel.  As social animals, the preeminence of empathy makes a lot of sense. In fact, a lot of Humanity’s progress in the past fifty years has been in large part due not just to empathy, but to its recognition as a generally beneficial personal characteristic. Just read Steven Pinker. This is so true that we’ve come to shun those that don’t display it. This has led to a dangerous situation.

Like any impulse, empathy is open to exploitation. With the recognition of its usefulness as a character attribute, the potential for it to be exploited in individuals and even whole groups has risen. It’s part of the lowly stamp of our origin that we put undue weight onto what those in our peer group are perceived to think. With the rise of empathy’s role, to be accused of not being empathetic is tantamount to being labeled hateful or stupid. It was once said of the Existentialists that the only virtue they recognized was honesty. Of the Left today, there’s no doubt that it’s empathy.

It’s possible to find those who throw empathy off of its pedestal, including Paul Bloom, who’s recent book Against Empathy questions the actual efficacy of this now irreproachable mental state. I don’t know if I agree, but it’s an interesting thought. One can read a critique of this idea from Douglas Murray here. Whether one agrees that empathy is actually as helpful as most of us have believed doesn’t really matter though. What matters is that those on the Left believe that it is, and that anyone who doesn’t meet their standards is obviously a soulless demon spawn unleashed from the lowest pit of Hell.

Just look at most of the media, or at any of the aforementioned outpouring of grief on social networks, and ask yourself what it is most of these people are really doing. Do they think this is changing anyone’s mind? Is it changing your mind? Or is it really just showing all the other really empathetic people out there that they’re one of the good guys. Anyone who’s not down with all this…well, obviously they suck.

Danger Zone

In his book Influence, psychology professor Robert Cialdani catalogues the mental mechanisms we depend on to function in the busy modern world. While necessary, opportunistic people hack these mechanisms while looking to make a buck or get a petition signed. Oftentimes these processes are valuable aids that evolved for a reason, much like empathy.

Some of the most troubling examples of this hacking are much darker than getting swindled by a used car salesman. In his exploration of “social influence,” he gives an analysis on how it could be that close to a thousand people committed suicide as part of the infamous Jonestown Massacre. In the end, he concludes that it was the need, when uncertainty strikes, to follow the example of your peers. So strong is this impulse that it led to them “drinking the kool-aid” as we now say. Humanity, it seems, isn’t as far from “monkey see, monkey do” as we’d like to think.

His analysis is that it was the isolation afforded by their emigration to Guyana and the example set by just a few of the most zealous that led to hundreds of people willingly committing suicide.

Empathy’s social influence assaults us now everyday. “Virtue signaling” is really just social influence at work, and the news has contorted itself to reflect its power. In this light, “fake news” is a product of constricting social influence spheres, one which has roughly become consumed by the need to at least appear empathetic, the other by a refusal to do the same. The result? Isolation, zealousness, and mania. If Jonestown is any indicator, none of this leads anywhere good.

The Left’s Culpability

You’d be hard pressed to find someone on the Left who’d accuse a conservative of too much empathy. Well, maybe for corporations. But anyway, by that realization alone it’s clear which group is the offender. Once you understand the Left as a replicator for the empathy hack, their behavior and the subsequent fallout begins to make much more sense.

For example, the Left’s favorite language toys are “racist, homophobe, sexist, bigot,” and they use them a lot. They’re all condemnations of someone’s supposed lack of empathy. Their efficiency in ending arguments is clear. Up until a couple of years ago, they were the atom bombs of social discourse. To accuse someone of racism was not something you did lightly. It was a serious charge, employed only when someone had crossed identifiable markers.

Just look at what's floating around social media
Cause if you don’t like executing the enemy, you’re not showin’ the love

Now, the Left retrofits them for tactical use, employing them at will to dismiss and silence opposition. The rules of empathy up until recently stated that to be a bigot of any kind was simply unacceptable. So these attacks became the DDoS implementation of the empathy hack, assaulting interlocutors with a host of accusations that immediately put that person on the defensive. They also simultaneously function as sirens for any empathetic person to assault in the same manner. This has been exclusively a tactic of the Left, along with an attention to “feelings,” to a respect for someone’s unique and anecdotal experience over the facts, and to a soupy moralizing degradation of history.

What began as a beneficial social norm has become an exploited mental mechanism, leading to a disillusionment with facts to become the new normal. The Left’s addiction to it has turned them into an ahistorical, hysterical, and infuriatingly self-righteous group of people.

Exploit the empathy hack and you can win the argument without even knowing what you’re talking about. Who could withstand that kind of onslaught?

Enter Trump

Well, it turns out one person could, and it wasn’t John McCain or Mitt Romney. Tell me, how “un-empathetic” does Romney’s stupid binder seem now? The empathy hack is the main culprit for this rise of populism, and not just because a reactionary will always need a strong narrative to react against. It’s by the very nature of the hack itself.

Think of your reaction to a laugh track when you notice it, or to ads that use “customer testimonials” culled from supposedly random people in the street. Ever wonder why relief organizations focus on one beleaguered child rather than a whole family or community? Or why outrage about Syria comes up whenever a photo of one wounded person hits social media, while hundreds of thousands have been dying over the past couple years? This is people exploiting the empathy hack for various reasons.

If you’re like me, you hate this obvious crap. I actively don’t want to get a product from a company that’s lazily trying to convince me that it’s automatically a virtue to be in line with what other people do. These ads come across as dishonest, and this is a feeling that’s so rampant, major brands have shifted from into becoming “movement” brands. They now try to support one cause or another in what the industry terms”humanizing” the brand. Yuck.

Corporations have changed their strategy thanks to the fallout of these tactics. The state of our dialogue is in desperate need of the same. One side needs to realize that their exploitation of empathy has cost it its credibility. A lot of people view the Left’s practices the same way most of us view laugh tracks when we notice them – they don’t trust them. They don’t trust the people who use them. In winning arguments, the Left has lost their war.

Worse yet, they’ve dragged empathy through the mud. It’s one thing when faith in brands that take a hit – we should always be distrustful of them. But to discredit empathy itself is something far worse. Who better than Trump, a pugnacious con man without a filter, to exemplify this?

Security Update Against the Empathy Hack

It’s not so easy to patch the human mind. But we can start. It’ll take changes both on the Left (unlikely to happen on it’s own) and in how we engage with the news and with each other. As usual, it comes down to individuals. When reading a headline, I now ask myself, “Is this trying to make me feel like a bad person if I disagree with it?” I think it’s a feeling most have intuitively now, but by consciously approaching the media this way, it’s possible to tease out motivations with more accuracy. Doing so builds immunity to the exploit, one engagement at a time.

The heartening advice Cialdani gives for engaging social exploiters is that it’s as simple as calling them out on what they’re doing. In this case, the next time someone dismisses your reasonable analysis as bigoted, call them out.  Usually, denying racism is a bit a like denying that you’re crazy – the more you say it, the less believable it is. But telling people that they’re unfairly impugning empathy defuses the power these attack hold. To the claim often made that “you don’t know someone’s personal experience, so you can’t judge it,” turn the empathy hack against them and say that they’re impugning empathy, their favorite trait.

To the charge of “You’re a racist!” or “It’s a sexist country!” one can try to simply say, “You’re trying to claim that we’re not empathetic, and I think you’re wrong.” Hopefully, you think they are. Despite Bloom’s suspicion of empathy’s current hold on people’s morality, it’s been the major motivator in expanding people’s rights. Gay marriage was not an issue for people until they came to understand that they knew homosexuals themselves, and that they could understand them. The Left ridicules these people as being hypocritical and small-minded. They’re also just human.

It’s time to start understanding empathy in a new light, before America drinks too much of the kool-aid.


Also published on Medium.

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