“If other ages felt less, they saw more, even though they
saw with the blind, prophetical, unsentimental eye of
acceptance, which is to say, of faith.”
Patricia Snow cites the sentence above, taken from O’Connor’s introduction to A Memoir of Mary Ann, in a brilliant essay that appeared recently in First Things (“Empathy Is Not Charity,” October). “A lot has happened in three hundred years,” Snow writes. “As secularization has advanced and man has had to learn to live without God, his solution for the most part has been to draw closer to other people, in unprecedented, ultimately untenable ways.” The “death of God” thesis encourages people to consider what we owe to other people in a world in which only human beings can help themselves, and others. In a God-forsaken universe, sharing others’ sufferings (though much less their joys) becomes a moral obligation in an “age of empathy” (Frans de Waal’s phrase), an age not of reason but of unconstrained emotion. “Is it a coincidence,” Snow asks, “that in a world that has made a fetish of vicarious suffering, suffering itself—real suffering—has become taboo?” Liberal man’s imagined duty is to discover suffering (“suffering situations,” as Kenneth Minogue said) wherever it exists in the world, and to eradicate it. A Christian objection to this imperative is that suffering is not always a bad thing—it is suffering that brings us closest to God. One of Patricia Snow’s concerns is that, “in a world without God, man attributes too much agency to himself.” Further,
Empathy solidarity . . . is Christian solidarity’s demonic counterfeit, one that carries within itself the seeds of its own destruction. If the Holy Spirit strengthens both individuals and the ties that bind them, empathy weakens them. Excessive, unmediated intimacy leads to affective confusion (whose suffering is whose?), and even to confusion about identity and agency (whose choices are whose?).
She concludes, “Our culturally sanctioned practice of empathy is an attempt to fill Christ’s shoes; it is a reiteration of the sin of Eden in a fresh guise. In place of Christ’s fearless, definitive Passion, we offer others our problematic, uneasy pity, a passion from which no one rises incorrupt.”
Patricia Snow’s insight points in two directions. One is to what is best and most noble in the human spirit. The other is toward liberalism at its most false, most dishonest, most self-serving, and most manipulative, and the effect it has had in shaping the modern liberal world for the worse in spite of the fact that, as Snow reminds us, people today are no more selfish and egotistical than they ever were.
Liberalism has worked for three centuries to reshape the world to its own ends by creating an imaginary alternative world, and since 1789 toward creating a new people to populate and realize that world. Aware that their project depends on a liberal avant-garde in politics, commerce, society, culture, and the arts to encourage people to think—and, especially, to feel—as liberals think and feel, liberals since the French Revolution have concentrated on constructing an intellectual and emotional context favorable to liberal ambitions. Since the liberal view of human nature is wishful and unnatural, liberals have needed to be almost preternaturally inventive in devising ways to establish that context. These have included developing a new political philosophy that is actually not philosophical at all (as the ancients would have recognized at once), denying the existence of God and persecuting the Church and the churches, “discovering” what does not exist (the “Brotherhood of Man”) and what never could exist (perfect liberty and the universal equality of men), and butchering the ancien régime while not overlooking details like starting the calendar over again and renaming the months of the year to reflect the new revolutionary culture. The early liberal era (most of the 19th century), bloody enough itself, was followed in the 20th century by mass extermination on an industrial scale by totalitarian movements for which liberals denied philosophical responsibility, though both communism and fascism obviously had their intellectual roots in the sanguinary liberal utopianism of 1789. Since the defeat of fascism in 1945 and the collapse of communism in 1991, mainstream liberals, while simultaneously waging brutally destructive and seemingly endless wars to impose modern liberal democracy on the world, have emphasized the empathetic, educational, and therapeutic aspects of liberalism over the militant ones, waging metaphorical wars globally against poverty, funding plans for global economic development, promoting the rights of women, children, and minorities everywhere, working to abolish international borders to facilitate the free movements of peoples, and trying to eradicate (by stealth) the Christian religion everywhere. From the end of World War II until 1991, American hegemony was chiefly supported and extended by America’s “hard” power—the State Department and the Pentagon—despite the creation of “soft” programs like the Marshall Plan, critical support for the United Nations, the Peace Corps, and so on. Since then, though, despite Washington’s aggressive ideological wars to establish and support what it claims are democratic regimes, the liberalism embodied by “the indispensable nation” and her allies has been less the work of the Pentagon and Foggy Bottom and much more of America’s liberal educational system, various and well-funded international “centers” and “institutes” for the care and feeding of democracy, the liberal media, liberal Hollywood and the artistic world generally, Madison Avenue, and Wall Street. For the past quarter-century advanced liberalism has relied on an illusory world conjured by relentlessly ideological education, biased news reporting and commentary, psychological manipulation, and moral intimidation, all made plausible and possible by weakened Christianity, distorted and misrepresented about equally by liberal “Christians” and secular liberals. A psychological sleight of hand has been practiced all along, a trick that liberals themselves, when they think they see it being worked by the conservative enemy, call “brainwashing.” There is nothing new here: In the good old days of not-so-advanced liberalism, liberals invoked “democracy” rather than “the global community,” “freedom” instead of “rights,” “free enterprise” to “economic fairness,” and so forth. It is all a matter of what are called God terms: words that carry instant authority simply by being spoken, and command unthinking respect merely from being heard. Advanced liberalism relies on many God terms, among which none is more sacrosanct than compassion, and the empathy so effectively scrutinized by Patricia Snow.
Snow thinks that today’s obsession with individuality indicates “a deficit rather than a surfeit.” In a world without God, people no longer know “where they end and others begin.” The sense of individuality they guard so fiercely is actually weak and uncertain. But Christianity can only flourish or be passed forward by strong individuals endowed with a sense of an integral self. Christianity is a religion that accepts for a fact that Everyman has it in him to lead a heroic life, which is what the Christian life, truly and faithfully lived, is. As a Christian herself, Snow’s primary concern is for the person of today,
[s]uspicious of others’ influence and terrified of exercising his own, frightened of suffering himself but even more unnerved by the thought of others suffering—how can such a person receive Christ or offer him to others, when either to receive or propose Christ is always, at the same time, to receive and propose his cross? In a suffering-averse world, handing on the Gospel is almost impossible.
She is absolutely right, of course. Yet the corrosive effects of liberalism’s insistence that “compassion” and “empathy” are human obligations with a universal reach extend well beyond her particular concern.
The Church has always taught that our primary charitable obligation is to those nearest us—those with whom our relationship is a personal one. Charity is a personal and particular—a very real—thing which, in becoming universalized, loses both its personal and its human reality. It is made an abstraction—insofar as it has any reality, it is merely a form of generalized benevolence which, like philanthropy, is not charity at all. (It is no coincidence that an age in which every sort of personal immorality is rampant and accepted has been ironically described as an “age of conspicuous benevolence.”) The same goes for empathy, since, while the need for personal charity is present and obvious, the causes of universal suffering can only be imagined, and imagined badly—incompletely, or not at all. Human beings are as incapable of feeling for the entire world as they are of knowing it (partly because they cannot know it), though they may easily fool themselves into thinking—or “feeling”—that they do, usually for egotistical or dishonest reasons. This is true especially of Christians, whose religion is a deeply personal one based on the revealed fact of divine sonship. True empathy is the result of an immediate confrontation with suffering that enables direct personal acts to alleviate both the suffering and the empathy, which has now been deprived of its object and cause.
The affirmed obligation to experience universal empathy is a cruel self-serving trick of liberalism. One of its effects, beyond inducing unwarranted sentiments of personal guilt, is to encourage people away from charitable love and toward a sense of impotence to perform effective acts of mercy; that sense of impotence chills and hardens the heart, while leaving it burdened with an equally strong conviction of guilt. In a time of universal benevolence that is also an age of instant global communication ceaselessly transmitting news of humanitarian horrors and all sorts of suffering situations—news, liberals insist, that we have an ancillary charitable obligation to follow conscientiously—liberalism’s insistence on universal empathy registered instantly, automatically, and unreflectively as a moral obligation is as self-defeating in the end as it is inhumane, unreasonable, and unrealistic. Impotence in the face of suffering eventually prompts decent and humane people to respond cynically and callously to suffering at a distance, insofar especially as they recognize that they are being relentlessly manipulated by politicians, the media, and global relief and “charitable” organizations to feel things they are humanly incapable of feeling, and “raise their awareness” of suffering situations they can never comprehend. A profoundly human and altogether excusable response to still another massacre of its people by some African government; or a mass human stampede killing hundreds after a train breaks down at a railway station in India; or brutal civil war in Yemen; or rape, warfare, and starvation in Sudan is carelessly to dismiss the disaster: “Oh, that’s just the way those people are.” (A remark by a character in Waugh’s novel Scoop to the outbreak of riots in Northeast Africa—“some niggers having a revolution”—struck nobody 80 years ago as anything other than humanly recognizable, and therefore amusing.)
The universalization of “compassion” and “empathy” is just one of innumerable attempts by liberal individuals, classes, parties, private organizations, and governments to alter human behavior and redesign human nature by a sort of forced Lamarckian process. The predictable result is the same old humanity, pressed by ambitious and power-hungry cynics to experience feelings of dishonest mercy, false justice, and imagined sympathy when informed of remote sufferings easily exploitable by calculating liberals, who, more than anyone else, stand to benefit from a shallow “empathetic” response to them on a mass public scale.