Shout-out to Mr. Rogers who inspired this essay. Mr. Rogers but fighting nazis is my dream aesthetic.
There are two starkly divided views on the tenderness that comes with empathy.
In one corner we have the alt-right, and fascist more generally, who believe that the world is fundamentally zero-sum and that all we can do is fight for power or die. Within this stunted view of reality, any admission of weakness, attempt at collaboration, or show of tenderness is seen not just as effeminate but also as deeply ignorant and pathetic. Cue the fashy cringe so ubiquitous in modern internet culture. It harkens seamlessly to the highschool bully inciting group laughter at some nerd playing Magic. Just caring that openly about something that is decidedly not cool is so *cringey*. “Don’t you know that you’ll never be able to climb the social power ladder acting like that? You probably don’t even know because you’re such a nerd. Or worse than not knowing you’re uncool, maybe you don’t even care.” The bully or fascist scoffs at your ignorance. “Don’t you know that only alphas will survive? That’s what Darwin said!” while thinking “We have to drench everything we do in distance and irony to protect ourselves from authentic vulnerability.”
Just about nothing is less cool than earnest authenticity and genuine care for another human being, especially one that is outside of our team. This is because empathy is, despite its quirks, a distinctly anarchist sentiment. This is true whether it’s intellectual or emotional empathy (up to certain points where they misfire). In the words of a recently departed friend of mine named Sailor, empathy says, “I am in competition with no one. I hope we all make it”. Empathy undermines the rules of the game of power. It refuses to play along. In the eyes of those afraid of its obvious power, that makes it weakness and to the extent that any person admits it into their interactions they are damning themselves to losing the game. To be an anarchist is to say “fuck this game. I hope we all make it.”. Emotional anarchists struggle with vulnerability in a way that fascists find frightening. For all of their macho posturing, fascists are actually the worst kinds of cowards; the kind that cannot love. They are the kind of coward that cannot look at something cringey like earnest tenderness and welcome it as the harbinger of a different type of relating to one another. They are afraid of change and the vulnerability it takes.
There is a cognitive bias called the Fundamental Attribution Error or the Correspondence Bias which is “is the tendency to draw inferences about a person’s unique and enduring dispositions from behaviors that can be entirely explained by the situations in which they occur.” This bias has to do with the researched tendency of humans to excuse their own mistakes with a lot of context, while seeing others’ errors as just parts of their fundamental personality. It’s a kind of bad faith that is very common. I was mean because I was having a bad day but you’re mean because you’re just an asshole. The part of the bias that’s about you is a way in which you’re trying to meet yourself where you are without rigorous honesty and ethical diligence and so you end up co-signing your own bullshit and letting yourself off too easy. When this same behavior isn’t a bias it’s just self-empathy or recognizing the way context affects you. The part of the bias that’s about others means either that we aren’t willing or capable of doing the work to understand how context is affecting someone else’s behavior. This bias is a shortage or denial of empathy. But when it’s not a bias it’s just the knowledge that it’s physically impossible to deeply understand everyone all the time and so some people are going to be worth more of that emotional labor than others. If some nazi or serial manipulator wants you to deeply understand them, a lot of times it will be a very disingenuous form of coercion buried just beneath the surface level disguise of a shiny nice thing like compassion or empathy. But even empathy and love can make boundaries.
Empathy is meeting someone where they’re at and being there with them. The closer you get to the heart of someone, the more messy and hard it becomes but also, the gems you find there are ever more brilliant and complex. It’s easy to imagine really meeting someone exactly where they are but, in real life it’s a very delicate and challenging art. It involves a real rollercoaster of experience and trust. The hardest part is just holding all the layers and complexity while still processing your own experience. People are complicated! A fascist cannot meet someone where they are because they cannot meet themselves. Although there are very self-aware fascists, the whole culture of dominance and distance undermines authentic connection to both self and others especially outside of their team. In the spirit of generosity, that makes sense. Meeting ourselves where we are is fucking terrifying. The swirling chaotic mass of how we’re seen, our self-conceptions, our trauma, and even the kindness we can show ourselves results in an overwhelming mass of interconnected strings. These strings form a ball of yarn so knotted it’s scary to even look at, much less consider unraveling. It’s often actually easier to look upon someone else’s knotted, sloppy mess with compassion than it is with our own.
But outside of extreme cases like interacting with wannabe genocidal dictators, it’s often easier to be generous with compassion for the experiences of others than it is for ourselves. This can be seen as a kind of inverse of the Fundamental Attribution Error where we’re so hard on ourselves and so stuck in shame and low self-worth that we see our mistakes as being just examples of how worthless we are whereas another person, especially a friend or loved one making the same mistake, we see as valiantly battling their demons and endearingly human in their fallibility. But we know all this. Self-love blah, blah, blah we’ve heard it all a thousand times in a thousand different ways. The real work of it is fucking hard though. Not only is it hard though, it’s also worth it because it’s at the root of undermining both the fascist ideology in others, but also in ourselves.
The Scary Part
All of these behaviors belong to everybody in scales. Everyone’s a little micro-fascist in some way. We all possess the same kind of potential for fear of the other, harming each other, being insensitive, power-seeking, or being too afraid to truly connect with other people. Anyone can be someone who feels the way I described fascists feeling because it’s all a spectrum. The difference is that most people don’t actually become fascists. Most people just choose not to be fascists. When faced with the trade-offs of selling out values they choose not to. When the boss says, “I’ll give you a 0.05c raise if you tell me who’s been stealing staples.” and you decide that a completely nominal pursuit of personal power is not worth the undermining of networked power for all to fight against domination, you’re fighting fascism in your head. But the actual fascist pursues power intentionally and consciously. They see everything as a small chess move in the field of war that is life. They’ll kill anyone along the way if the personal price is right because even if they posses loyalty it’s at the service of personal power not genuine connection or hope for a better world for all.
People who can recognize the power games for what they are, and choose to try to create a non-zero sum world, can also literally create worlds with less coercion through their interdependent actions. People can and do literally bring the values of emotional anarchism into the world but it involves dealing with all of the complicated internal emotional stuff head on. Emotions are a tool for navigating the complexity of existing. The authenticity that sees what could be the cringe worthy act of empathy and instead sees a brave act of kindness and earnest hope for connection in a twisted scary world, is the same type of person that creates that world in small but important areas. That’s a more beautiful world in tangible ways that comes from people working on their emotions, thoughts, and behaviors both together and apart.
Subtle forms of fascist consciousness can live in people that are far from the literal definition of fascist in terms of their particular political and economic goals of rearranging or abolishing power. Actual fascists are a left-right crossover palingenetic ultra-nationalists which just means that they believe in a mythic rebirth through some form of (often ethno-)power and incorporating aesthetics from the left or right to get there. It is through their outdated and misinterpreted views of things like natural selection and game theory that they justify the violence they birth into the world. Many fascists are very conscious of what they do even in the age of post-irony and people claiming “I was only joking about being a nazi” after openly advocating for fascist takeover on the local or more grossly ambitious stage. They must have really missed the whole bit about how cooperative game theory (1, 2, 3) and modern views of cooperation in natural selection (1, 2, 3, 4, 5) both make possible and realistic a non-zero sum world with foundations in evolutionary reciprocity.
The part of us that is fascist is the part that cringes at ourselves and others for our acts of low status things such as love or caring for things in an earnest way. Ever cringe at someone making art they love that is not particularly good? Them resisting the need to be perfect and high status and just pursuing joy is what hurts about that. It’s cringey at least in part because it’s wholesome. That doesn’t mean I have to sign-up for every open mic night within 100 mile radius but it does mean I can look at what my reactions mean and where they come from.
When I cringe at myself or something I did in the past, I’m exhibiting a fascist consciousness towards myself. I’m engaging in both forms of attribution error by ignoring my own context and assuming the worst about my inherent self. This means that I’m putting myself on trial for not having the capacity to handle a situation perfectly when in reality it’s always impossible to anyone because we have limited processing power. We have to make mistakes. It’s written in our limits. While ethical diligence is critical, the part of me that is overly hard on myself for making mistakes is the part of me that is not showing empathy to myself that I know others would deserve. This is the type of thinking that doesn’t believe in possibility when it does exist. I had to realize that caring about myself in an earnest and tender way is anti-fascist in a very grounded sense. In large part because of what it’s able to translate into our relationships and their relationships through ripples. Creating a world that doesn’t rely on dominance, is possible, in part through caring for ourselves.
Even this is such a cheesy thing to say. I know it is. It’s cringey. I can feel this as I write this whole essay. But it’s also in some sense true and the truth about it is what makes it so dweeby. “Well why would you say something so obvious, you’re just virtue signalling” someone could say. But aside from that statement being its own form of ingroup “vice-signalling” or anti-virtue signalling, it also obscures the fact that we also need to talk about the (anti-)powerful changes we want to make in societies. If that means “virtue signalling” then… okay, who cares because it also means that we are improving our networks collaboratively through consensual processes of mutual growth.
Empathy and kindness are cringey because if you don’t worship power and the severed connection of dominance than you really start to care for them so much. We love them so much that holding them can be like looking to directly at the sun. But we can unlearn collectively cringing at love. We can embrace cultures of compassion. For someone who can’t imagine such a world being possible, the result is the necessity for small-group prioritization of trusted close people over all others in a constant war for power from all sides at all times. This is the world fascists think they want. But it’s not the world we want. And finding out how much ones contributing to it in small ways through little acts of non-zero sum and dominance through emotional-thought-behavior, allows one to choose against it more consistently.
Making Room for our Hearts Kills Fascism
It should go without saying that nothing I write about emotions negates or becomes removed from the reality of structural violence and the need for a diverse range of radical activism at the physical and non-interpersonal level. However much social capital someone might have in their niche little circles, it generally doesn’t even compare to the power of someone like a billionaire or some cop. It still matters though and it’s still power with the capacity for harm. But, the more we can struggle for a better culture and nexus of co-determining behaviors through networks of people practicing emotional anarchism, the more it allows us to fight effectively in those structural struggles. The less we sabotage ourselves and each other, the more effective we can be in the struggles out there.
So if any dude or otherwise says that feelings don’t belong in activism, they’re either trying to silence or hide something, or trying enact a form of dominance that will ultimately obstruct our activism. Overcoming that, frees us to find new forms of connecting more sustainably in the harsh environment of resistance. This culture of earnest, vulnerable, tender radicalism is a form of resistance. We are trying to create more freedom to grow and cry and heal and fight together. In networks that employ empathy to engage in anti-dominant behavior, we are able to interact with those deemed “outsider” or “other” more easily. We can nerdily betray our team in pursuit of truth because empathy makes you curious. Empathy is a form of curiosity. It’s not possible to do it perfectly, but there’s something to be said for an honest go at it again and again. This is because empathy disrupts the notion of otherness that undermines connection across teams and allegiances and creates complex networks in their wake. Even failing is a part of practicing and learning.
Curiosity mixed with dominance is imperialism. Curiosity without dominance is connection. The connections of empathy stoke the embers of freedom.
1 thought on “The Cringeyness of Empathy ~ emmi”
Fantastic article, I have bookmarked this excellent website and may learn more later. keep up the great work!