Empathy with Whom?


Empathy with whom?

“We always come back to the same stumbling block: a revolutionary attitude is virtually non-existent in America, outside the Organisation, and all our activities to date don’t seem to have changed this fact. The masses of people … are still far too comfortable and complacent to entertain the idea of revolt. … Without some sort of empathy between us and the general public we can never find enough new recruits to make up for our losses”. (Pierce, 1978 p. 55.)

It is important to see the difference between today’s neo-fascist leaders and cadres, on the one hand, and their potential recruits, on the other hand. 

One way of thinking about this is in terms of political psychology. The distinction here is between the “social dominance orientation” and the “authoritarian personality”. One is a (sociopathic) leader type. The other is a follower. 

Although all persons who have fascist politics have authoritarian personalities, not all authoritarian personalities are fascists. Some are fundamentalists, some are ultra-conservatives, and many, perhaps most, are politically alienated and disengaged from a civic life that they can often neither conceptually understand nor sympathise with. The authoritarian personality is, if you like, a proto-fascist personality structure. But it takes quite a bit to get them over the line, as we will see in a moment.

First, let’s unpack the terminology to make sure we’re talking about the same thing. There are lots of definitions of fascism as a movement category, a regime type and a political programme. I am not going to split hairs: for my purposes, someone has a fascist politics if they meet three criteria: (1) explicit hostility to democracy; (2) endorsement of extra-legal political violence; and (3), a positive orientation to the restoration or preservation of natural hierarchies and social inequalities. I am going to simply describe this as “the militarization of politics”. (There is a leftwing variant of the militarization of politics which is not fascist because (3) is inverted, but that is outside the scope of what I can deal with here.)

Now rightwing authoritarianism and the social dominance orientation. These are terms from the political-psychological research of Bob Altemeyer, currently also being done by Matthew MacWilliams. To be a rightwing authoritarian is to score highly on a political attitude test that tests for three covariant attitude types: (a) rigid conventionalism, a rigid adherence to customary cultural, political and religious norms, rules, values and standards, on the basis that their rightness springs from the fact that they are the way that “we” do things “here”; (b) positive valorization of unquestioning obedience to established or conventional authority; (c) endorsement of harsh punishments for designated out-groups, especially violators of customary conventions. In the literature, these are referred to as “rigid conventionalism,” “authoritarian submission” and “authoritarian aggression”. The test is called the “RWA test,” and I am going to describe high scorers as having an “authoritarian personality”. 

The social dominance orientation, also explored by Altemeyer, is different. It involves agreement with the idea that “might is right,” combined with an extremely strong desire to dominate others and a disregard for conventional standards. The researchers refer to these persons as “SDOs,” and note that the “double high” combination of high-scores on an SDO test and an RWA test results in a particularly anti-democratic and inegalitarian set of attitudes. Altemeyer and co-thinkers describe this personality type as sociopathic and discuss global politics simulations played under well-defined test conditions with hundreds of students representing different countries and groups, where the simulation is seeded with a handful of “double highs”. In all simulations, the double highs launched pre-emptive war against perceived threats, reduced the Third World to complete submission using starvation as a weapon, and employed chemical, biological and nuclear agents to exterminate enemies when global war erupted. I am going to call these double highs “potential fascists”. 

So, here’s the opportunity diagram for the actual fascists who emerges from the pool of potential fascists. Double high SDO/RWAs represent less than 1% of the population. This is sufficient for fascist terrorism, but not enough for seizing power (except under circumstances of a coup d’etat, e.g., General Pinochet). However, the authoritarian personality represents about 11% of the population in the industrialized world (according to Karen Stenner’s research), but a whopping 18% of American voters (according to Matthew Macwilliams’ research). Furthermore, another 23% of American voters are moderate scorers on an RWA test. (MacWilliams’ research exploded into political prominence recently when he showed that a high score on an RWA test was the most reliable predictor of a vote for Trump.) A potential constituency of 41% of the electorate is certainly sufficient for the seizure of power—provided that circumstances can be engineered that trigger political anxiety on a massive scale (e.g., ungovernability because of civil strife). 

But there’s a problem. The problem is “rigid conventionalism”. In the context of the USA, let’s designate these conventions via the shorthand of “Christianity and the Constitution”: C&C. Now, to my knowledge, until recently, the main fascist groups in the USA did not stand for C&C. They reject democracy, often explicitly rejecting the Constitution. They mostly despise Christianity as a slave religion. Mass extermination camps for the Jewish people are difficult to square with the customary norms of the culture surrounding C&C. And, finally, America’s wannabe candidates for Fuhrer do not stand in the place of established authority. In a nutshell, successful fascist takeover requires swapping out customary conventions against an entirely new set of standards. And this is why the literature of fascist deplores … its potential recruits amongst the authoritarian personality! [I will evidence this claim against the writing of William Luther Pierce in another post.]

Duplicity is the standard way for fascists to get around this problem.  [You begin, perhaps, to see the dangerous genius of Steve Bannon at this point, right?] The mushrooming of pro-C&C militias dedicated to extra-legal political violence in the USA today is an extremely dangerous phenomenon. It is the recruitment pool where fascist leader-types can bring authoritarian personalities into the orbit of a complete redefinition of conventions. Generally speaking, this happens through conspiracy thinking in the context of political anxiety.

Now, the other way of thinking about the empathy with whom question, which has to do with political passions. 


“Happy Australia Day, Mate!”

“The way the voice of the ‘ethnic other’ is made passive not only by those who want to eradicate it, but also by those who are happy to welcome it under some conditions they feel entitled to set is one of the main features of these ritualistic ‘immigration debates’ that White Australians enjoy having so much.” (Hage, 2000 p.17)

The year is 2013. I’m in my old hometown: Perth, Western Australia. I’m wandering the streets of Claremont, a salubrious suburb located between the waters of the Swan River and the Indian Ocean. 

On this particular day the sky is an improbable deep blue, and the sun shines fiercely— nothing unusual about the weather, then. Perth summers are brutal. I can feel the radiant heat from the concrete footpath burn through my rubber thongs. I’m with my mother and adult son—three brown skinned people from the ‘other side of the river.’ I rarely feel a sense of menace on the streets of Melbourne, so I’m mildly surprised at my discomfort amongst the throngs of young white people draped in Australian flag.

‘Happy Australia Day, mate’, she said.

She wore the flag like a superhero’s cape, and sported miniature Aussie emblems on her cheeks. A marketer’s vision of the quintessential beach babe: lightly tanned skin, sandy blonde hair, taut body, unlined face. She couldn’t have been more than 20 years old.  She looked at me intently, registered the fact that the hue of my skin didn’t change with the seasons and barked out her greeting for the second time:

‘Happy Australia Day, mate!’ 

She waited for a response. 

‘Happy Australia day,’ I said.

Yeah, right!’ 

She gave me one final stare before running on to join her friends, a mix of young men and women who also wore the national flag as a fashion accessory. I looked up at the sky, shielding my eyes from the glare of the sun with the upturned palm of my right hand, as my face flushed with embarrassment and dribbles of sweat slid down my back.


I have no way of knowing whether the young woman in my anecdote had an authoritarian personality or was familiar with the writings of right-wing firebrands such as William Luther Pierce. I suspect her aggression came from a complex blend of sources. Was she enraged? Did she hate me? Once again, I can’t know for sure, but I suspect her antagonism was not fuelled by extreme emotions. The good people of Claremont have little reason to feel disaffected or alienated, but they do have a clear sense, it seems to me, of who does and who doesn’t belong to their community. 

Of course, my interlocuter may have been a ring-in from a less salubrious suburb and her nationalistic sentiments may, indeed, be the result of strongly held political convictions. Clearly, there is a lot I don’t know about this young woman. That said, my encounter with her is typical of the many instances in my life when the colour of my skin has marked me out as an interloper in my own country. No matter how many years I live and work in Australia, I will always be an immigrant in the eyes of many white Australians. And as unnerving and terrifying as my close encounters with fascists have been over the years, it’s the everyday interactions with apparently benign everyday people that really scare me. Even those white folks who vociferously proclaim their support of people like me sometimes reinforce racist assumptions about identity and belonging. This doesn’t mean we ignore the real political threat emanating from far-right demagogues. Rather, I think it’s important to acknowledge that sometimes Satan comes as a man of peace.


On hate and rage.

 “Since they are no longer capable of responding to an idealistic appeal, we began by appealing to things they can understand: fear and hunger. We will take the food off their tables and empty their refrigerators. We will rob the System of its principal hold over them. And, when they begin getting hungry, we will make them fear us more than they fear the System. We will treat them exactly the way they deserve to be treated”. (Pierce, 1978 p.101)

Rage is a justified emotion, by which I mean, rage happens when an individual feels egregiously frustrated or the victim of a manifest injustice. Rage is about righting a wrong. The evidence gathered by Ronald Inglehart and Pippa Norris suggests that many supporters of authoritarian populist political movements in Europe and America are filled with rage, generally speaking, triggered by “hot button” “culture war” topics which indicate a liberalization of society that imperils their most cherished conventions. 

I want to suggest that the politically mobilized authoritarian personality is enraged. Enraged about “social justice warriors,” “political correctness,” “minorities dictating to the majority,” and all the rest of it.

By contrast, hate requires no justification. Hate happens when a person adamantly believes that an individual or group is intrinsically evil. Generally speaking, hate leads to violence, because intrinsic evil can only be suppressed, not reformed or dissuaded. 

Fascists hate. Since the decline of the KKK, virtually universally, they hate the Jews, which is intriguing in the US context, because you might expect that other forms of the politics of race would predominate. The politics of hate is the politics of violence—generally speaking, of “ethnic cleansing” and extermination camps, but also of show trials and assassination campaigns. 

From the perspective of the passions, then, the recruitment of authoritarian personalities to fascist politics looks like the conversion of rage into hate. Or, at least, the (mis-)direction of rage against targets of fascist hate. 

So, the kicker: I doubt that it is possible to empathise with hate. I think that radical empathy has to be reserved for the enraged only.


Empathy for Whom?

In this era of stark political divides, it is clear that racial divisions can get in the way of empathy. I define empathy as the ability to see the world from another person’s perspective, in order to understand their feelings and life experiences. “Radical empathy” takes this a step further, encouraging each of us not only to understand the feelings of others, but also to be motivated to create the change that will allow all of us to benefit from economic prosperity and develop the social relationships are beneficial to our emotional wellbeing. (Givens, 2021)

Geoff’s stanzas suggest that radical empathy has limits by questioning whether it’s possible (or desirable) to empathize with narcissistic sociopaths, for example. He also suggests that a psychological approach to understanding why people are seduced by populist demagogues has the potential to reveal the workings of political polarization. I want to briefly engage with both points and suggest possible paths for further discussion and debate.

The phrase, ‘Radical empathy’ seems to be gathering a lot of traction in public discourse, as a cursory Internet search will reveal. And while the term varies in meaning from commentator to commentator, most people agree that it implies attitudinal change is possible by first trying to understand the life experiences of others and then engaging in some form of social justice activism. The point is the change the world (and so on and so forth). The other notable feature of the term lies in the way it frequently reduces politics to interpersonal conflicts and interactions (and, sometimes, takes on the air of a self-help strategy — see Peter Laughter’s TED talk).  So, will a little peace, love and understanding coupled with activism held us close the ‘stark political divide’? 

As Geoff implies, it important to identify the limits of radical empathy as a form of political activism. How does empathy work? And who do we find it easier to empathise with: the kid with cancer who lives next door, or the hundreds of Palestinian victims of Zionist violence? Might there a problem with basing political activism on emotion and the identification with individual experience (empathy tends to be most powerful when directed at individuals).

That said, I’m a little weary of those discourses that explain social and political phenomena with reference to ‘types’. This move, while perhaps carrying some explanatory force, tends to demonize others by reducing complex lives to psychological traits. The danger in this mode of analysis is that we pay scant attention to the social, economic and political forces that shape individual psychology. Chicago School sociology was fond of using typological analysis to explain dangerous or non-normative others (see Stonequist, 1937. I don’t know enough about the psychological research Geoff cites to make a confident declaration about its value, but I am curious about the persistence of ‘typological’ thinking in psychology and adjacent disciplines. 

Perhaps the real problem today is that we elide the personal with the political. Perhaps a politics based on categories of identity is doomed to polarize people no matter how hard they try to empathize with others. Perhaps we need to revisit Hannah Arendt’s theory of political action which is predicated on maintaining a distinction between the public and the private. (Arendt, 1958) Maybe Arendt, that pioneering theorist of totalitarianism has something to offer contemporary political debate, especially if we entertain the thought that the political and the private are not as porous as most people take for granted these days. Agamben’s concept of ‘whatever singularity’ and ‘The Coming Community’ might also offer something to this debate ( Agamben, 1993) Briefly, Agamben’s concept of ‘whatever being’ or ‘whatever singularity’ represents an attempt to develop a concept of community that is not predicated on conventional categories of belonging — of being German, being Jewish, being gay, for example. Agamben reconfigures the relationship between the one and the many, the particular and the universal, the individual and the group, in order to conceive of singularity ‘as it is.’ ‘Whatever Being’ is neither particular nor universal. So, in other words, each instance of singularity is valued on its own terms, whatever those terms might be. Perhaps the emotional attraction of Radical empathy needs to be tempered with a bit more thought.


Arendt, Hannah (1958) The Human Condition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Agamben, Giorgio (1993) The Coming Community. Trans. Michael Hardt. Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press.

Givens, Terri (2021) Terri Givens, Radical Empathy: Finding a Path to Bridging Racial Divides. Bristol: Policy Press.

Hage, Ghassan (2000) White Nation: Fantasies of White Supremacy in a Multicultural Society, London and New York: Routledge.

Pierce, William Luther (1978) The Turner Diaries National Vanguard Books.

Stonequist,  Everett V. (1937) Marginal Man: A Study in Personality and Culture Conflict. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons.

Geoff Boucher (1,3)

Glenn D’Cruz (2,4)

3 thoughts on “Empathy with Whom?

  1. I would like to insert a film into this discussion about appropriate responses to hate and violence, a formalist film by James Benning: American Dreams: Lost and Found (1984) that has just been restored by the Austrian Film Museum. available at https://vimeo.com/414450766.
    Benning juxtaposes the trajectory of Hank Aaron’s baseball career with Arthur Bremer’s diary, documenting his stalking of Nixon and his attempted assassination of George Wallace. The maliciousness of these texts only become evident as the film progresses and takes the viewer into this unstable ethical territory around empathy.

  2. Let me take up Glenn’s comment about typological thinking in a sympathetically critical vein.

    I think that he is conflating moral worth with psychological typologies. His thoughts based on Agamben about the singularity of the individual point in the direction of moral worth. (I don’t agree with this way of thinking about moral personhood, but that is a different debate.)

    But a psychological typology points in a different direction. It points to regularities in the motivations and orientations of the individual, in respect of what the psychometric testing process measures.

    Motivations and orientations are not the same as cultural standards, ethical values or moral principles. They are the ways that these might be held or operationalised (or not), and the drivers for adopting (or rejecting) these things.

    Belonging to a certain political- or moral-psychological type does not predict specific elements of a moral outlook or political ideology. But it certainly does have predictive power in relation to which of these (assuming a diverse pool of potential candidate values) an individual may adopt. In fact, the claims to scientific validity of such procedures depend on this: a type must involve covariant characteristics that have predictive value in relation to some attitude, value, conduct, etc..

    I must state at this point that Altemeyer rejects the terminology “authoritarian personality,” because he thinks that this involves typological claims that the empirical science cannot support.

    He speaks instead about “right-wing authoritarianism” as a covariant cluster of social attitudes (rigid conventionalism, authoritarian aggression, authoritarian submission). The empirical evidence presented in his many books, and since replicated by several other researchers, indicates (1) that the strong presence of two of these predicts the presence of the other at a similar strength–so they are covariant and (2) that a high score on a RWA test predicts strong prejudices–so it has predictive value in relations to politics.

    So typological thinking is my doing, not Altemeyer’s. This thinking is influenced by psychoanalytic studies of authoritarian attitudes from the 1950s through to the 1990s. It is also influenced by authoritarianism research into disciplinarian parenting styles and their effects on authoritarian social attitudes. Finally, it is cognizant that research exists, by figures such as Karen Stenner, who think that authoritarian attitudes reflect natural dispositions of specific persons.

    But aside from proper names and reference to authorities, why do I think that high scoring persons on an RWA test likely have an “authoritarian personality”? Because high scores on an RWA test are durable. They are durable in a way that moderate scores are not. If I scored highly on measures of authoritarian attitudes ten years ago, it is likely (within limits of statistical significance, that is) that I will score highly again this year. That implies that authoritarianism is a style of the person, a character structure or personality type (in relation to the single domain of politics, since that is what the test measures).

    Alright–that’s methodology. Here’s the politics, nice and direct. I think that refusing to accept the existence of political types who disagree with people like me, and who will likely always disagree with people like me, is a residue of utopian thinking that militates (and it militates strongly) against political pluralism.

    Honestly, I think that I have to accept that there may always be people who dislike democracy, prefer fundamentalist religion, reject liberal values, and so forth.

    That emphatically does not mean that I must accept their violence, should that be an outcome of their attitudes, or that their prejudices are okay (because somehow “natural,” as opposed to predictable). Some things truly are deplorable, no matter what their motivation.

    But these considerations mean that I cannot think about “elimination,” for instance, through “re-education”–not, at least, if I think that civil society should include some personal liberties. I must be tolerant–even of persons likely to be intolerant. I must not tolerate their intolerance, when it erupts, but I must renounce the belief that that I can somehow fundamentally reshape them–through legal coercion, ideological indoctrination, or whatever. The best I can do is to envisage the significant reshaping of social institutions and the regulations governing civil society, to eradicate the social roots of discrimination and disadvantage, and to provide educational (and other) contexts in which prejudice is never okay.

    Rebadging all of this as singularity does not really confront reform programs, like the one that I hold, with this political problem about tolerance, and its limits, in democracy–I think.

  3. When Glenn says, “might there a problem with basing political activism on emotion and the identification with individual experience?” I think he really gets it completely right. There are limits to radical empathy, both as a tactic and as a program. Limits. I am not saying it is wrong, and neither is Glenn.

    I am not sure why radical empathy is on the rise and rise. But I will hazard a guess: it is a way of thinking about political passions and interpersonal interactions that fits well with identity politics (understood as a politicisation of the personal, grasped at the level of individuals).

    Perhaps a context for this is Hilary Clinton’s “basket of deplorables” comment. This was the idea that supporters of Trump are just “deplorable” racists, sexists and nationalists. Framed within the sometimes sanctimonious discourse of American liberalism, this presents the view that it is not worth speaking with these people. This is because their politics of identity is that of the assertion of privilege, and such people should be shut down, not granted an audience.

    No statement or idea more successfully recruited support to Trump’s campaign in the American Midwest.

    The resentment–the rage–that this comment evoked was truly significant to the outcome of the 2016 election.

    One possible context, then, for radical empathy is in “having difficult conversations” (as the title of one how-to self-help political book has it). This happens once a political line begins to divide families and friends, as well as neighbours and members of civic organisations. (As has happened in the USA.) Radical empathy, in these contexts, might be read as being all about NOT saying things like “basket of deplorables,” writing people off because of what might otherwise have been transient attitudes.

    Many Trump voters, according to Matthew Macwilliams, would fit this description (“transient attitudes” that is): they are moderate scorers on a RWA test, who therefore might be persuaded by conversation to adopt more liberal attitudes on key questions. That is where the politics of empathy can play an important role.

    I assume that it is called “radical” empathy because it goes further. We are encouraged, I assume, to empathise with persons who are high scorers on a RWA test. I think that is a good idea. I have acquaintances who would probably score highly on such a test, and understanding their worldview, including what they feel about the world, is really important to “having difficult conversations”.

    But not all conversations can be concluded. Not with everyone, and not all the time. Communicative reason, including imaginative sympathy for the interlocutor, is extremely important. But violence terminates every conversation, and leads elsewhere.

    So does hate, I am saying. Hate springs from the belief that the other is evil. My interlocutor may seem to be listening, but they are not: I am evil, in their eyes. I cannot say anything that will persuade them. They want to smash my face in. Have a read of Pierce’s novels, if there is any doubt about this.

    Let’s be clear. Lumping everyone who disagrees with me into a “basket of deplorables” is politically suicidal and morally wrong. But there ARE deplorables out there: in political terms, they are called fascists, and their threat is real. The American fascist movement is tiny. But it is growing, and it is growing in the fringe organisations, like for instance the Proud Boys, which attract authoritarian personalities. Here, rage is converted into hate.

    An understanding of authoritarianism and fascism which restricts itself to individual privilege and interpersonal empathy, cuts itself off from understanding the systemic drivers of this process, as well as from the appropriate responses to hate and violence–I think.

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