John Oliver recently did a piece on the Law & Order franchise and how wrong it got everything. The biggest thing it got wrong was how you deal with humans when you need them to cooperate with an investigation. He showed many scenes of, especially on SVU, how the prosecutors and the police would righteously brutalize suspects. Yet, everything in psychology screams that’s not going to get anything productive done because let’s say someone is an accused sex offender, they are a monster in the eyes of everyone who sees them. Their amygdala is blasting sirens at DEFCON ONE, their prefrontal cortex is flooded with cortisol, epinephrine, and is defecient in serotonin. The most valuable asset in the investigation is probably their hippocampus which has now been rendered inaccessible.
Taylor Swift named one of her cats after a prosecutor on that show and her approach to interpersonal diplomacy, of course, demonstrates no empathy, tactical or not. Now, Taylor could say “I reject the philosophy of John Stuart Mill and the teachings of every major world religion and of secular humanism and believe, in the ethical normative, that causing needless human suffering is moral therefore I do not regard it as immoral to character assassinate my opponents on a global stage in light of the obvious mental health effects that will have on them” She can believe that and probably does but she isn’t trying to get anything useful out of her opponents except schadenfreude from their pain. The only reason she is germane to this is her outsized influence on how people relate to others which isn’t great.
It is often said anger is the most useless emotion and that, largely, is true. Hatred is the most useless thing, too. As said in an earlier article, Tom Morello defended punching neo-Nazis but, of course, the psychological and sociological reality is that they became Nazis because of economically dispossessed lives of socially rejection and often dysfunctional families and engaging in active harm against them is not going to do anything except martyr them to themselves and their circles and reinforce the very sense of victimhood that drove them to the far-right. Taylor Swift’s aim is captialism and schadenfreude so it works but Tom Morello’s is to end racism and there a lack of empathy is diametrically opposite to what he wishes to accomplish.
The biggest cognitive bias in all of human psychology is WYSIATI. “What You See is All There Is”. Since I work in politics, psychology, and have worked in law, and have had to consciouslly be able to read social cues and situations, I have done a rather successful albeit difficult chore of countering my cognitive biases and WYSIATI is among the most difficult to conquer. In every situation, I go through what I don’t know about the situation and being agnostic to a degree about almost everything is not easy and forcing yourself to consider what you don’t see. To use an example in an earlier paragraph, Tom Morello sees a Nazi but my first thought is and what I would ask Tom is “Where is he from and where will he go? Statistically, he is from a broken, poor, trailer park and he is going to 4Chan to complain about being punched which will reinforce their belief the normies are oppressing them.”
Tom: “What do we do?”
Me: “Ask non-invasive personal questions until we find a ‘pressure point’, as they say in the business world, and empathize with it.”
I made the same point with the #metoo movement enlarging the manosphere because they did not know or care where those men went after they were crucified. The #metoo warriors didn’t put themselves in the shoes of their vigilante targets. Where would you go if you were in their position? Probably to a place where you would be loved, accepted with open arms, and not judged. The only way out of the mental anguish for many of these men was into the arms of a devil that would love them and not hate them: the manosphere. Thinking empathetically and putting yourself in another person’s shoes helps a movement avoid mistakes like sending men into the manosphere. Aside from the goals of schadenfreude and profiting from the revenge fantasies of others, it is always more gainful to consider the full humanity of everybody. For moral reasons, yes, but practical ones, as well.
5 thoughts on “Tactical Empathy: The First Rule in Diplomacy”
I think it would be heartless to mention that there isn’t a prosecutor (or DA) on Law & Order named “fukmenow”, so I won’t mention it.
(Taylor Swift is a convenient punching bag, but I think she is hiding real hurt behind a ridiculous façade).
yes, when I got to dig into people and learned about what caused them to tick, I empathized. People hate Lena Dunham but if “you” saw what created her, “you” could almost feel sorry for her.
But there is a point where I call for people to be held to account for their actions, to excuse terrible actions is to infantilize. I would rather reward those that hurt before they act out than afterward.
The point of the article is not to excuse terrible actions and to let people off, that is mercy not empathy; this empathy is tactical. Using the SVU example, it was not to say they should let the suspects off. If they’re child molesters, letting them off may not be the brightest notion, yet the point was that by being empathetic one would get them in a state of mind so they would divluge useful information. On SVU, they brutalize the suspects in interrogations which is not going to yield much useful information. If the prefrontal cortex is in state of hypervigilance then they won’t have the attention span to retrive details from their hippocampus.
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I like to understand my adversaries to understand what they can do and what defense/offense is required. Yes, I follow your piece. Good stuff
Tactical empathy is not moral empathy. Everyone should do the latter, of course, but the point of tactical empathy, to oversimplify it, is to understand one’s opponent. My criticism of the #metoo movement’s lacking empathy, in this context, was not that their lack of love for the accused but rather their counterproductive tactics sending lots of men whose misdeeds were largely minor and who could have been feminist allies into the manosphere thus enlarging their opposition. The #metoo people needed to put themselves in the shoes of a man facing their vigilante mob to calculate what that man’s rational choices are. They didn’t figure out the logical place for a #metooed man to go for acceptance and support would be the misogynist community.
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to understand one’s opponent., Sun Tzu!