On Individual and Collective Empathy

It would be naïve to expect a dispassionate stance regarding the matters of the so-called Second Cold War, or even about its reality or the motivations of the crisis. Nevertheless, careful observers of the current debates may be able to see that –to a very large extent—many participants and actors are characterized by something I would call “lack of empathy”.

This is particularly clear in the “blogosphere” and in the “social networks,” where commentators, journalists and activists who try a reflexive approach are met with nasty and sometimes repulsive aggression and insult.

In many cases the more rational actors too regress into the same level of mindless tribalism and aggression when they cannot develop a sane strategy of irony and distance to “survive” in such a medium.

Despite the appearances of hostility, though, it has to be recognized that the current hostilities are not only political or only based on machinations of some of the actors. In the last instance, what we are seeing is the outer layer of a conflict between worldviews which is only distorted and scrambled by communication networks. In the absence of neutral and professional press/media information, the networks tend to convey an unstructured mass of commentary which effectively hides large ideological groupings.

The more dynamic networks in social media do not have space and do not allow for organized discussion even or because they become the ground of ceaseless rumour and disinformation.

Behind this we should be able to see the now globalized ideological war which characterizes the end of the unipolar world.

In considering the superficially chaotic world of opinion and counter-opinion, it is fascinating to see how current networks in social media seem to correspond more to a particular type of psychology than to others. It seems a medium which gives preference to the lack of argument and immediate, non-analysed “evidence” or factoids.

These networks also seem to favour a liberal and post-liberal ideology of “free expression” of unsubstantiated, subjective, empirical opinion. Simultaneously, this type of expression (mostly the outburst of aggressive differentiation from the “other”) seems to have almost a therapeutic value for some classes of participants.

In this context it is possible to distinguish at least two types or large classes of opinions (especially in relation to social and political issues in Europe, like the European Parliament elections, and the civil war in Ukraine).

On the one hand we have a relatively large group of participants (experts and non-experts alike) who seem to use social media and these debates as a mechanism of confirmation of their political and personal choices at home and in other areas or subjects. In this space we can count all those opinions that justify military attacks on large areas of the world because of a pre-defined image of certain countries as “enemies” of the “free world.”

In a similar class we can put all those opinions which seem to justify fear and blind rejection of any and all the political movements that reject the post-national project of the European Union.

In all these stances the common (un-analysed) motivation is the presumption that post-national and anti-national projects are essentially “good.” While all defence of tradition, language and communal attachments are fundamentally “wrong.”

People are obviously not against this or that particular country (e.g. Russia), but against an ideological image which identifies those countries as being authoritarian, retrograde, un-democratic, or perhaps even “Orthodox” or “Communist”. People are not specifically against nationalist or traditional conservatism (as expressed by the Eurosceptic parties) but against an image which identifies Euro-scepticism as “not progressive,” “isolationist,” “anti-liberal” and “nationalist.”

In general, traditionalist opinion is rejected as being necessarily bad precisely because it is in opposition to all forms of liberalism and ultra-liberalism. The unifying aspect of this group seems to be the search for ideological reaffirmation and identification with the consensual image of a globalized, post-national, post-cultural, liberal ultra-liberal world.

On the other side, fraught with confusion and fragmentation, we can see a perhaps smaller but active collection of participants. These groupings are not unified around any particular ideology (for example there is no agreement around the nature of Capitalism or Democracy, and there is no single religious allegiance), but instead a strong sense of dis-identification or alienation from the collective imaginary of Western Liberalism. More clearly: while one side emphasizes identification with the unipolar world ideology, their opponents are sustained and sustain its rejection. It is not strange that rejection of uni-polarity is marked by the lack of an overriding religious, political or theoretical model.

This rejection takes many different forms and hinges on a wide range of issues (religious, social, philosophical, political, etc.) but it is nevertheless rejection of a universalistic view of the world which essentially negates the “person” and only recognizes the “subject” (that is the individual devoid of personal context). I refer here to the notion of the individual as the “economic man” or absolutely “rational” economic actor which is “equal” to all others in a world ruled exclusively by market pricing.

Arising from the focus on the person and the associated cultural, linguistic and historical context, I think that the anti-liberal side shows an ability to sympathize with people outside of its own local or national context who also reject universalism and post-national projects. While both liberal and post-liberal groupings “recognize” the right of self-determination, they give different meanings to it. I believe that a detailed psychological study of these debates would show that the post-liberal camp at international level has a high component of identification with contextualized people, i.e. “communities” of language and history, while the liberal and –ultra-liberal camp shows high level of identification with non-contextualized “individuals” which are “free from” cultural and traditional sentiment or obligation.

The liberal commenter, blogger, etc. automatically identifies with the “oppressed individual” while the post-liberal actor’s sentiment appears primarily in sympathy or as rationalization of the “oppressed community.”

In general then, despite the large obstacle represented by the present social networks and internet media for meaningful, complete interaction, it is reasonable to say there is a long-term opposition of a “post-national,” liberal “individual” mentality, versus a person-orientated mentality, also singular, but traversed by dis-identification with the liberal consensus and leaning towards an identification with concrete traditional collectives.

The liberal and ultra-liberal ideology will be mostly self-reproducing in the plane of the immediate individual. By self-reproducing I mean self-justifying. This means that the investment of energy will be on maintaining or achieving a homeostasis where the individual “defends” itself from any social challenge, any demand of responsibility and any attribution of meaning that depend on the social context.

Contrariwise, there are ideologies which do not prioritize the preservation of the individual, but the conservation of the material collective of persons (the family in particular, and in some cases the national groupings).

When considering these matters, though, we need to be alert to the existence of pathological extremes in one and the other class of alignments. These will mean for example that ultra-liberal trends may demand the “death of the other” while the conservative and collectivist positions could emphasize the “sacrifice” of the individual for the sake of the community, but precisely because these are pathologies, the roles may be reversed and mirror each other.

At a different level, it is more useful to note that an individualistic ideology makes itself indispensable, because it acts as a filter that does not recognize the autonomy of different contexts. Liberal freedom is always “appropriate” independently of any historical circumstances. Moreover, liberalism and ultra-liberalism become essential in order to regenerate the conflictive “primary scene” of the death of the father and the destruction of the family. This is different to the post-liberal ideologies which –despite their lack of a unitary view of the world—do not consider themselves indispensable at a personal or particular level.

It is clear here that I am using the terms “individual” and “personal” in two different senses. The personal is the soul-centred aspect of the human being. The individual is the psyche-centred aspect, as in the well-known distinction formulated by L. Klages and others. Personal empathy is here different from psychological empathy, and in this sense –to the extent it is present—lack of empathy is of a psychological nature.

A strong role of the personal in this sense implies a cultural memory, while a dominance of the individual psyche represents a loss of cultural memory and the preference for immediate social consensus (“trend-following” and “group thinking”).

While the current trends remain, the seemingly chaotic debate will continue, without “winners” or “losers,” and the underlying currents will reappear time after time with the successive phases of unravelling of the unipolar world.