There is a group of people who frequently appear in the headlines, identified by a wide range of terms. Instead of listing all of them here, it’s best to describe them by their behavior, namely, being aggrieved on behalf of those who are not, themselves, aggrieved. I have yet to discover a word which seems to embody the phenomenon adequately. Therefore, I am attempting to define a new one: sympathology. By this, I mean both those who have pathologized sympathy and those whose sympathy is pathological.
Sympathology isn’t meant to be synonymous with any specific intellectual brand that is currently manifest in our public discourse. It isn’t a term to describe merely one political ideology or perspective. Instead, it points toward a more general corruption in our understanding of suffering. It is here, at the misunderstanding of the nature of suffering, where those who are aggrieved for others who are not, themselves, aggrieved, engage in error. This error, however, is rife with social pathologies to such a degree that to label it simply as an error is to understate the danger that this behavior will continue to have on our public discourse.
A better word than “error” can be drawn from the ancient Greeks: hamartia. Hamartia means, quite literally, “to miss the mark,” but it is laden with moral questions. My main area of research is in Aristotle and his theory on the intersection of ethics, politics, and poetics. For him, to miss the mark is to make an error in judgment but that judgment is derived from the nature of the actor. This isn’t to say that mistakes are somehow fated from the character of the actor; not at all. Instead, hamartia points us to the fact that the error is intelligible given the character of the actor. Therefore, what I want to do in this piece is outline the way in which sympathology has become the hamartia specifically of the activists within the modern Social Justice left. Their mistake is both derived from, and directly informs, their pathology. As I will also point to at the end of the piece, this problem isn’t unique to this group of people but is perhaps more manifest with them currently. I am confident they will not be the only group to engage in this behavior.
In order to understand the nature of the error, I want to explore two important concepts which underscore the phenomenon of sympathology: tribalism and catharsis. I will then point toward the ways in which sympathology has become manifest across the Social Justice left and how it will become manifest across the right as well, resulting in a newly inflamed tribalism predicated upon a corruption of our capacities to sympathize and to pity.
Tribalism is certainly one of the most important evolutionary traits of human beings. It’s what allows us to differentiate between friend and foe, to band together in mutual defense, to construct interwoven social and political networks that allow us to transcend merely existing, and move toward living a fulfilled human life. But this quality can also be quite dangerous for the ability of human beings to coexist with one another beyond the extended family. Beginning with Hobbes and Locke, and continuing through the tradition, liberalism has laced within it the idea that human beings lack the capacity to see beyond themselves (and their own) without an objective third party to arbitrate disputes. For example, Locke argues that the need to leave the state of nature comes from our inability to be judges in our own cases; we always believe we are due more benefit than we are and that our foes are due more woe than they are. This, of course, is also nested within the broader demand for limited government. But a limited government is still one which is still serves necessary functions and being an objective third party is one such function. But this necessity arises because of a weakness in our ability to be objective in our evaluations. That subjectivity is inherently drawn to our self-interest and that self-interest manifests itself in the love of what is similar to us, thus it is connected to our tribalism. Therefore, liberalism fundamentally requires that the tribalism of human nature be corrected by the creation of politics, even granting the limited role of a liberal state.
The cosmopolitan branch of liberalism, as it emerged from Kant and extends into the contemporary idea of “global citizenship” not only sees tribalism as something to be corrected but something to be transcended. Human beings must be educated to see themselves not as members of a particular tribe, sect, political state, etc. Instead, we must be freed of the shackles of tribalism in order to be properly rational and live as properly rational beings. Tribalism is a threat to cosmopolitanism because it points us back into our in-group instead of pointing us toward the other. Therefore, social and political movements predicated on tribalism are labeled as regressive and illiberal to the universalists, to the cosmopolitans. This latter label may be apt, but the former is perhaps more difficult to affirm.
Extending beyond the tribe is the foundation of politics; it’s what allows us to move beyond living in villages comprised of our extended family members. The ancient Greeks understood this even without the work of modern psychology; Cleisthenes’ reforms of the Greek demes in Athens displays an innate understanding of this phenomenon. The political utility of tribalism properly-used is a sense of citizenship. While citizenship cannot ever replace familial ties (and attempts to do so are profoundly disastrous), the state must rely upon our ancient tribal impulses as a way of constructing a meaningful identity for politics to work. Perhaps the central problem of cosmopolitanism is that it wishes to go from the individual to the species in one great leap, transcending the need for intervening social and political systems. It wishes to abolish our tribalism, but in so doing, it undermines the very foundation of politics. This is why the Greeks considered those who were cosmopolitans to be homeless; they lacked a sense of being grounded in their contingent identities and were abandoning their “homeland” in the sense of a localized political identity.
This drive toward cosmopolitanism has both suppressed and exasperated our tribalism. On the one hand, it wishes to move immediately toward the species in an attempt at solidarity. But on the other, what it has functionally done is create a tribe of cosmopolitans — a tribe dedicated to transcending the limitations of tribalism. However, it’s highly dubious that tribalism can ever be eradicated in human beings; the evolutionary drive of tribalism is deeply rooted in our existence as a species. We are pack creatures. We make distinctions between in-groups and out-groups for the survival of our families. The notion that such a thing is inherently unethical is a failure to understand human nature. While human beings have the capacity to reflect upon our nature, we lack the capacity to transcend it. In this way, while we have the ability to see sketch out the logical demands of a cosmopolitan life, we are limited by our nature from ever instantiating it.
The error presupposed by those who say we have the capacity to transcend the contingencies of our existence is that they omit the facets of our existence which are problematic to their conception of man. How did this happen? Because the project of liberalism, from Hobbes forward, has been the denial of an innate human nature. In so doing, the notion of a natural tribalism is denied and with it goes the conception of politics derived from nature. Thus, politics comes to be understood not as something connected to the human condition but as something imposed upon the human condition as a corrective to human ignorance.
Liberalism does maintain that human beings are fundamentally ignorant and do require an education aimed at the truth. But what if we make truth itself a social construct, as the post-modernists have done? If politics is predicated on a flaw within human nature, namely the limitations of our reason and thus our ignorance; if we can deny there’s a distinction between truth and falsity, we can deny the need for a corrective to human ignorance. Denying the need to correct human ignorance by denying that there is a Truth which is discernible is all that is necessary to transcend the liberal conception of politics. And, to take it even further, if we transform how we see the corrective nature of politics from being an essential element in human life to being a form of oppression, anything derived from that corrective element which requires an involuntary (or even nonvoluntary) act is oppression. When such an intellectual pattern is partnered with cosmopolitanism and our nascent tribalism (even as it is thoroughly denied by the postmodernists and their intellectual children) it aligns closely with the behaviors of the modern Social Justice movement.
The tribalism which once stood as the foundation of natural politics, which needed to be corrected by liberal politics, is now attached to the movement to deny both the naturalness of politics and the necessary corrective quality of the social contract. Therefore, what has emerged is a tribalism not fueled by a devotion to the family or the rationalism that underscores liberal universalism but one that sees the good human being as one which hasn’t been tainted by rationalism or the correctives of politics. This sentimentalizing the “natural man” has its roots at least in Rousseau but even he recognized the necessity of educating man about his desires in order to correct the corruption of vanity. The contemporary Social Justice left has abandoned even this. Their tribalism, fueled by an abstract cosmopolitanism that denies the necessity of political contingency and wishes to see human beings only as creatures which have desires, strips the rationalism out of Kantian cosmopolitanism (destroying the very thing Kant saw as the foundation for such a cosmopolitanism) and now sees the “true self,” the one not tainted by the corruption of patriarchy or privilege or any other source of oppression, as the only legitimate expression of this new, irrational cosmopolitanism.
This tribalism is manifest not on behalf of our families or on behalf of our political regimes, but on behalf of the species as irrational, unencumbered, self-constructing true selves. This tribalism is why some see this movement as being religious in its manifestation and in its propagation. But, while it may share some of the puritanical elements of religious fanaticism, the underlying structure aligns more with a corrupted cosmopolitanism utilizing in-group and out-group dynamics to weaponize the inclusion of any non-majority demographic. This is their new brand of tribalism — a tribalism of weaponized inclusion and self-affirming irrational cosmopolitanism.
The next issue to address, catharsis, is connected to the issue of disgust, at least for my purposes here. Within Aristotle’s intersection of ethics, politics, and poetics, there is a debate over the term catharsis which breaks into three areas of interpretation: purgation, purification, and education. For the sake of this inquiry, I’m going to omit the last category and combine the first two. The reason for doing so is to purge or to purify are both based on removing a corruption, an impurity within a given object, which is undermining its ability to adequately function. In tandem with this, if something is going to be cathartic, an emotion must be aroused and then released. The impetus for that release will vary based on the stimuli, but for the purpose of defining sympathology, I am going to look only at pity and at suffering. To feel pity, one must have a separation between themselves and the sufferer — we do not say children who have lost a parent have pity for one another. We say they are suffering together, the literal meaning of sympathy — sum meaning “to put together” and the verb paskho meaning “suffer or experience.” Sympathy requires an intimacy of experience, frequently in suffering, which is distinct from pity. Empathy is closer to a conception of pity since it requires imagining what it would be like to suffer in the way another has. For my purposes, I’ll be using the term “pity” instead of “empathy” but this relationship should be implicit in that use.
Why is it important to make these distinctions? Simply: we don’t have pity for things we find disgusting, and we certainly do not suffer with those we find disgusting. In this way, watching the downfall of someone we find disgusting, even being driven by their mistakes drawn from their character, will not engender pity. An example here is beneficial. It’s terribly difficult to engender pity for Robert E. Lee in America. His private life is destroyed and his public reputation is dishonored but because his choices are morally repugnant to us, he doesn’t engender pity. And, given the evils of chattel slavery and the horrors created by the Civil War, perhaps rightfully so. Watching his fall, seeing him suffer, would not arouse within us the necessary emotions to result in a cathartic experience. Our disgust is too great. And that kind of disgust will not be cleansed or purified regardless of how much we see him suffer.
Utilizing this principle, sympathologists construct a series of traits which are deemed disgusting and therefore, unworthy of pity or sympathy. Those afflicted with these traits are not those to whom we relate but those whom deserve our ire. This is not unusual; it’s a necessary trait of distinguishing cultural norms and values. But what is different here is the pathologizing of sympathy. Sympathy, from this perspective, is associated with immutable traits relative to oppression. For example, a revolutionary from the proletariat is not going to have sympathy for the overlords in the bourgeois; the traits that would engender that sense of fellow-feeling are muted to the point where pity is impossible — too much disgust mutes our ability to see the suffering of others. Shifting what we perceive as being disgusting is an amazingly powerful tool; perhaps one of the most powerful cultural tools available to us. Failing to take pity on those who have done morally repugnant things is essential for demarcating any moral system. Disgust is one of the key defensive tools for the perpetuation of such a system. But every medicine is also a poison if administered incorrectly. So, when disgust is turned toward behaviors attached to immutable characteristics, we aren’t using sympathy as a defensive tool but as an offensive weapon.
One of the great projects of liberalism has been the reconstruction of sympathy (via the work of Adam Smith and, more recently, a version of it in Peter Singer) away from particular tribal associations and toward the species. Its plausibility is dubious and, in some ways, must treat human nature as fairly flexible in order to transcend our tribal nature. But it, along with the Kantian cosmopolitanism discussed above, has peeled back the layer of disgust often associated with the out-group. This has lead to a lower toleration for racism, sexism, bigotry, and discrimination of all kinds. This, almost without qualification, is positive. But, it has not resulted in a kind of moral equilibrium. The relatively small, but extremely vocal, coalition of sympathologists are engaging in an activity which is drawn from the Enlightenment but, critically, does not simply refute the fundamental principles of that intellectual tradition but actively uses those principles in a corrupt way. For example, Smith utilizes our reason to attempt to move beyond our own perspective and attempt to access the natural moral sentiments of another. In so doing, we expand the reach of our sympathy beyond our kinsmen. This expansion beyond kinsman is essential for creating the modern state. But this reconstruction of relations toward the species, further displaying the discussed corruption of liberal principles, has also aided in the construction of the fairly dubious concepts of internalized misogyny, implicit bias, race privilege, toxic masculinity, etc. These concepts are now what activate disgust for those engaging in Social Justice activism.
As an example, our reason is necessary for unmasking the implicit biases which may exist in an individual and is necessary for the proper “re-education” and being “re-sensitized” to your privilege. This could be seen in the Smithian light of attempting to access the sentiments of one dissimilar to you. But, what is catastrophically different is in how we understand the function of sympathy itself. Any variation in our understanding of these ideas on implicit bias, etc. is not the result of the diversity in the faculties of human beings, but is the result of internalized oppression or a tyrannical desire for power and, thus, must be “re-educated.” But because these concepts are either not empirically verifiable or have a veracity which is drawn from weak social science, the tool for their establishment and perpetuation is disgust, not reason. Questioning the veracity of these kinds of concepts draws not just ire or rebuke, but moral outrage — a righteous indignation, which is activated when we see something which is revolting, not merely when we disagree. Therefore, if you fail to have the correct kind of sympathy for the correct kind of suffering for the correct kind of oppression, you fail to deserve pity for your own suffering. There’s no room for taking a charitable view toward your opponents. Your opponents are disgusting and are unworthy of your pity. Sympathology, then, not only triggers the moral outrage but actively engages in the opposite of Smithian sympathy — the goal is not the expanding of sympathy to those dissimilar to you.
The goal is now only to extend sympathy to those which reflect you. Our natural tribalism not only is re-ascendant because of the sympathologists, but because the goal is the reorientation of disgust toward any power inequality, this school of thought may preach universal acceptance but only under the auspices of the empire of sympathology. To find something cathartic in this worldview is to see those in power destroyed because they have power; to see inequality leveled because inequality itself is evil; to see purged any idiosyncratic preference which doesn’t align with the new modes and orders of sympathology. Catharsis is possible, particularly in its vulgar form of purging the impure, but only if what is pitiable matches the new moral order.
The New Moral System
Again, nothing about this is unique to this moral system. But the sleight of hand nature of a perspective which preaches universal toleration and lauds human freedom but doesn’t tolerate the variation which arises from the unequal distribution of human faculties or the variation of perspective which comes with the variation of experience, is not a moral system which produces an Enlightened or free people. And those who advocate for this system understand this. By centralizing expression of the authentic self as the only legitimate metric of morality, and making the elimination of any imposed external correction the moral imperative, people come to see the open examination of ideas as morally odious. It’s why “speech is violence” or to question someone’s perspective is to “invalidate their existence.” The key centers around the transformation of sympathy and pity. The Enlightenment, in large order, is able to tame the inflamed passions we have for those who are similar to us by expanding the sphere of the state, extending the social network of human beings, and enlarging those who we deem worthy of our pity. If you can control what people find worthy of pity as well as what people find morally revolting, you will be able to transform the moral landscape in ways that argument alone cannot.
The new moral system of the sympathologists is something akin to this: Arouse people to take sympathy for others even when they are not suffering from the boot of oppression because, even if they aren’t actively suffering, they are still being oppressed. These poor people merely don’t understand that they are being oppressed; they’ve internalized the oppression so much they don’t even know they are oppressed. And this is the highest form of pity we can have — to pity those who don’t even know they are worthy of the pity. But they take it even further. Instead of having pity for these non-suffering sufferers, we are to take up the mantle of the sufferer. This is a pathology of sympathy; to demand we suffer along with those who are ignorant of their suffering is to corrupt sympathy. But such a thing is necessary if sympathy is going to become the tool for overthrowing the oppressors. By utilizing the righteous indignation which is natural in human beings, this perspective directs that indignation toward a new understanding of justice. And along with that new understanding of justice comes a new sense of moral disgust. It’s the combination of these two elements (1) having sympathy for those who are ignorant of their suffering and (2) weaponizing sympathy against those who present morally odious thoughts which underscores this system of thinking. And it’s because of these two elements that I’ve coined the term sympathology.
It would be a great error to assume that this restructuring of sympathy is going to stay within the limitations of the social justice left. It will not. Instead, the backlash to it will use the same tools and ossify the opposing moral sides into more extreme tribal distinctions. Living in a time dedicated to the reduction of tribalism and to the expansion of philanthropy (literally, the love of humanity) is terribly rare and to have it be the aspiration of modernity to universalize a moral system predicated on that dedication is perhaps the biggest experiment of liberalism. Illiberalism has always coexisted with it, but by using the mechanism by which liberalism has become ascendant against liberalism, claiming to be acting on behalf of those oppressed by liberalism, corrupts the very soul of the Enlightenment project. It could have been a noble effort — to engender within us a suffering for those being crushed by the excesses of liberalism. But it isn’t. It isn’t even speaking to those lives crushed by the ignorance which is rampant in human judgment or destroyed by prejudice, something which even Enlightened liberalism cannot cure. Also, as Orwell observes in the Road to Wigan Pier, there’s almost never any actual affection for the afflicted, only the utility of there being someone afflicted. This is perhaps the newest, and truly insidious, iteration of that phenomenon.
We seem to believe that how we have lived for 70 years, with the global ascendancy of liberalism in the form of a Kantian Universal Declaration of Human Rights and a slow march toward a hegemony of republicanism, will continue without preserving the moral system which produced it. It won’t and this is the hamartia of our age. The hamartia of sympathologists, on the other hand, is in believing that the means by which the moral landscape is subverted, and corrupting our sympathy into a quixotic condition, will result in the world for which they yearn. They’ve constructed a moral system which is prohibitive to the very freedom they claim to desire. And the corruption of sympathy for the benefit of destroying all inequality, regardless of how legitimate that inequality may be, will not result in utopia. Instead, their missing of the mark will be the same as their intellectual forebears: the perpetuation of the very systematic suffering which they proclaim to disdain. We cannot pathologize sympathy and weaponize it without engendering within ourselves a terminal illness drawn from that same pathology. But, those afflicted shall be too blinded by their moral indignation and sympathology over oppression to see that the tools which they have used to scream for liberation will become the very weapons which shall enslave them. By corrupting the notion that our fellow countrymen are worthy of our pity and instead branding those who are afflicted by certain immutable qualities as unworthy of that pity, we set up the foundation for factions to rise out of our partisanship. And factions are the greatest threat to liberal democracy.