Against Digitally Mediated Empathy: Empathy as a Vector for Viral Rhetorics

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Like many humanists, when I graduated with my bachelor’s in English, I started searching for a way to justify my choice to pursue the humanities. Sure, I’ve developed “habits of mind” such as “openness” and “creativity,” a couple of the more “marketable” qualities I developed from my minor in writing studies—qualities that are as undoubtedly as important as they are problematically vague. Yet, in the conceptually opaque value system of a humanities education, it seems that empathy reigns supreme. 

Now, many years later, as an instructor in a college of liberal arts, I’m encouraged to pass on what I’ve learned to my students, to train them to become “the next generation of rigorous and empathetic thinkers.” This is not a difficult mission to embrace because I’ve been trained to value empathy in my scholarship and teaching. But watching White supremacists storm the Capitol on January 6th made me wonder if empathy can be used as a “#RhetOps” strategy. Like the moral psychologist Paul Bloom, you might say I’m “against” such digitally mediated empathy. But what does it mean to be against empathy? In this post I situate my critique of empathy in brief historical and contemporary discussions of empathy, and I consider the role empathy plays in our age of viral rhetorics.

The Western roots of empathy lie in the philosophical tradition of moral philosophy, whose most famous proponent, Adam Smith, is a familiar figure because of his (often negative) associations with current-traditional rhetoric. Perhaps it’s time to resurrect Smith, not for his rhetorical theories but for his innovative move to ground ethics in empathy. Smith essentially argued that “sympathy” (as empathy, a word only a century old, was then called) is the capacity for “fellow-feeling,” which all humans possess to some degree (Smith 12). Starting with the premise that humans have “no immediate experience of what other men feel,” Smith reasoned that to experience empathy, we must use our imagination to understand what gives rise to passions and sentiments in other people (11). While Smith is well known for making self-interest the basis of his political economy, he believed (confusingly) that it is our only interest in others, gained solely through empathy, which could serve as motivation for our moral behavior. Today Smithean empathy competes in an overcrowded conceptual terrain filled with contradictory ideas about how empathy works and why it’s important, making it hard to say what it really means to be empathetic. 

Today’s moral and social psychologists have rebranded Smith’s ideas, distinguishing, for example, between “emotional” (or “affective”) empathy, “projective empathy,” and “cognitive empathy.” But there’s little consistency in how contemporary scholars use the term “empathy” or its variants. Another hopeless distinction is between empathy, sympathy, and compassion, which “renders it difficult to have productive critiques and analysis about the potential and limitations of these emotions” (Yam 30). 

Take “projective empathy,” which has been described as what happens when “you try to imagine yourself in another’s situation, and feel certain emotions as a result” (Fleischacker 30). This is often synonymous both with Smithean empathy and what psychologists sometimes call “cognitive empathy” because it involves reflecting on another’s feelings. Yet this kind of empathy has also been distinguished from cognitive empathy, in which a person understands another person’s feelings but does not share them (Bloom 17).  Such disputes aren’t merely arcane academic squabbles: how we conceive of empathy has major ethical implications.

A person wearing a face maskusing a computer
How can we feel our way into other’s emotions while online? Photo by engin akyurt on Unsplash

While Smith and other empathy theorists have long attributed it as the cause of prosocial behaviors like altruism, empathy’s darker side was on display in 2014 when data scientists at Facebook published the results of their massive study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences examining the platform’s ability to affect users’ actions through “emotional contagion.” “Emotional states can be transferred to others via emotional contagion, leading people to experience the same emotions without their awareness,” the researchers explained (Kramer et al. 8788). Given its use by Facebook, “emotional contagion” might seem unique to the internet age, but this is precisely how David Hume—whose theories of empathy Smith was trying to distinguish himself from—characterized empathy. “The passions are so contagious,” Hume noted in 1740, “that they pass with the greatest facility from one person to another, and produce correspondent movements in all human breasts” (3.3.3).

Hume thought that empathy was the primary cause of “hatred, resentment, esteem, love, courage, mirth and melancholy.” “All these passions,” he explained, “I feel more from communication than from my own natural temper and disposition” (2.1.11.2). Unlike the critical distance of Smith’s projective empathy, the contagion metaphor turns empathy into a viral vector through which the violent passions accompanying demagoguery can hitch a ride into our minds. 

Photo shows a statue of the philosopher David Hume in Edinburgh, UK
A statue of David Hume in Edinburgh, UK. Photo by K. Mitch Hodge on Unsplash.

Understanding how affective empathy can become a vector for demagogic discourse—allowing its easy proliferation online—has important implications for rhetoric and writing studies, and in particular for rethinking circulation. While Jim Ridolfo and Danielle Nicole DeVoss’ work on rhetorical velocity has pushed the field forward by considering “how classical rhetorical concepts such as delivery are impacted by changes to the means of distribution,” it doesn’t account for empathy itself as a means of distribution, making it impossible to understand circulation as a sociotechnical phenomenon (“rhetcomp” section, para. 3). Rhetorical velocity mostly describes how discourses circulate in online spaces, but not why they are taken up and acted on. Critical studies of empathy instead ask us what might motivate and allow for discourses to be circulated by their empathetic receivers. Such considerations lead to questions posed by Jim Ridolfo and Bill Hart-Davidson about “#RhetOps,” or the “militarized deployment of digital rhetoric” (4). As Ridolfo and Hart-Davidson note, advances in AI and machine learning have led to increasingly complex relationships between human rhetors and machines, making possible a phenomenon they call the “fog of digital rhetoric,” which captures how today’s “conditions [are]ripe for doubt regarding the authorship, purpose, sponsorship, and motivation of digital texts, their compositionists, and amplifiers” (8). 

And what about when the fog of digital rhetoric is compounded by the fog of affective empathy? Such conditions have made American society uniquely vulnerable to a “contagious conspiracism” that has been spreading through the body politic in parallel with the novel coronavirus. To be against such digitally mediated empathy is not to be against compassion, sympathy, or feeling your way into another’s feelings; rather, it’s to always be on the lookout for empathy’s ability to infect us and make us host to unwanted, dangerous passions.

Works Cited:

Bloom, Paul. Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion. Ecco, 2016. 

Fleischacker, Samuel. Being Me Being You: Adam Smith and Empathy. University of Chicago, 2019. 

Hume, David. A Treatise of Human Nature, edited by David Fate Norton and Mary J. Norton, Oxford University Press, 2000. 

Kramer, Adam D. I., et al. “Experimental Evidence of Massive-Scale Emotional Contagion through Social Networks.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, vol. 111, no. 24, 2014, pp. 8788–90, doi:10.1073/PNAS.1320040111. Accessed 20 February 2021.

“LSA’s Vision, Mission, and Values.” College of Literature, Science, and the Arts: University of Michiganhttps://lsa.umich.edu/strategicvision. Accessed 22 February 2021.

Ridolfo, Jim and Bill Hart-Davidson. Rhet Ops: Rhetoric and Information Warfare. University of Pittsburgh Press, 2019. 

—and Dànielle Nicole DeVoss. “Composing for Recomposition: Rhetorical Velocity and Delivery.” Kairos, 2009, https://kairos.technorhetoric.net/13.2/topoi/ridolfo_devoss/intro.html. Accessed 22 February 2021.

Smith, Adam. Adam SmithThe Theory of Moral Sentiments, edited by Knud Haakonssen, Cambridge UP University Press, 2002. 

Sturm, Tristan and Tom Albrecht. “Constituent Covid-19 Apocalypses: Contagious Conspiracism, 5G, and Viral Vaccinations.” Anthropology & Medicine, 2020, pp. 1–18, doi:10.1080/13648470.2020.1833684. Accessed 22 February 2021.

Yam, Shui-yin Sharon. Inconvenient Strangers: Transnational Subjects and the Politics of Citizenship. The Ohio State University Press, 2019. 

About Author

Andrew Appleton Pine

Andrew Appleton Pine is a PhD student in the Joint Program in English and Education at the University of Michigan.

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