Wednesday, 5 October 2011

Careless Words

I've held off on posting about this article by Brooks, mainly because the excerpts of it I'd read were so horrific I got too angry to type.  I promised myself I'd calm down, read the piece in full, and then comment.

I'm glad I did, because it isn't as bad as I'd thought.  Not quite, anyway, in that it's merely contradictory and ill-considered, rather than desperately offensive.

Still, though, I have to wonder what is it Brooks is ingesting to make hm seem lucid despite his total amnesia about what he's written just a few sentences earlier.

Brooks writes that the US is currently in the grip of an "empathy craze", where you can't move in a bookstore without stubbing your toe on a book on the subject that presumably is expecting you to apologise to it.  Brooks thinks this is proof that people over-value empathy.  I'd be more inclined to think that it's an obvious reaction to a country in which people deride the president for saying judges are better when they can understand the experiences of other people, and in which one entire political party has concluded that lowering unemployment or funding disaster relief for those hit by hurricanes are things only pussies would want.

Let's assume for the sake of argument that Brook is right, though.  What's his point?  That empathy alone isn't going to get you anywhere. 

Thanks for that, Davey boy.  Really fucking insightful.  You know what I've seen recently?  An awful lot of cook-books.  You know what didn't go through my mind? "Don't these people realise they'll need an oven as well?"

The crux of Brooks "argument" is that unconsidered, spontaneous empathy might not be as much use as a firm moral code, and that the world would be a better place if we could just respect each others core beliefs (man, if only there were a word to describe understanding other people's convictions are as important to them as ours are to us, huh?).  He "demonstrates" this in several ways, but the two that stand out are a) that Nazi prison guards sometimes wept when machine-gunning prisoners, but that didn't stop them, and b) it turns out that happiness/good fortune actually makes one more likely to be charitable than empathy, under certain conditions.

The degree of cognitive dissidence to include these arguments in a piece based on stressing the importance of a moral code is truly staggering.  To take the second example first, any first year student of any course requiring any logic whatsoever would be able to point out that "A is better than B because B doesn't do so well as C" is a fallacy of the most egregious and embarrassing kind.  It can't possibly matter that people are more likely to give money to tramps if they've found it on the street than just because their empathic, unless you also prove that whatever moral rules you live your life by clear the hurdle empathy fell at.

Moving on to the Nazi example first (I can't believe I even have to type that sentence), either the prison guards were obeying orders for fear of being imprisoned or executed (in which case it's not proof of anything), or they did it because their moral code told them obeying orders was more important than their personal feelings.

The fact that Nazi soldiers massacred civilians despite finding it abhorrent isn't proof that empathy isn't sufficient, it's that a moral code divorced from empathy can lead to murderous, even genocidal outcomes.  Whether the guards felt empathy for their prisoners is irrelevant, what matters is that Adolf Hitler, who moulded the moral code on which Germany under the Nazis was based, clearly didn't. 

This is where Brooks argument completely collapses.  He assumes a priori that a moral code is important, and empathy "a sideshow", without stopping to think for a second that maybe empathy's real use is in shaping moral codes to begin with [1].  Brooks suggests we think of people we admire, and then note that what drives them is liable to be a moral/religious conviction rather than empathy, but the people I admire - take Martin Luther King, Jr., for example - based their convictions on the simple truth that empathy is the bedrock of human society.  Remind me again, who was it who said "Love thy neighbour as thyself?", again?

Which brings me back to Brooks initial reason for writing the article - the sudden explosion of "empathy" books in America.  In response, I'd point out two things.  First:: I will bet all the money in my pockets that books on Christianity outweigh those on secular empathy by a considerable degree. Second: the vast majority of American citizens are religious, which means the moral codes that Brooks is so fixated on have already permeated US society.  We don't need more people to have codes, we need more people to act on those codes in a consistent, thoughtful way.  Every one of the major religions in the United States is quite clear on the idea that being nice to people is good, and suffering is something we should take steps to avoid.  The fact that some people don't do this in a sufficiently cool-headed way for David Brooks (a man whose moral code, let's not forget, puts politicians being nice to each other above attempts to save the lives of hundreds of thousands of Americans without health insurance) is almost indescribably less concerning a problem than those who claim to belong to a religion demands empathy, but who  demand the children of immigrants be deported, Iranian citizens be killed so as to teach their leaders a lesson, homosexuals are booed for daring to want to serve their country, young women die of cervical diseases for which vaccines are freely available, etc., etc., et-fucking-c.

It's like Brooks has seen people drinking tonic water in bars, and lambasted them for not realising how great a drink gin and tonic is, all whilst pretending not to notice that his friends have gotten themselves completely wasted on Bombay Sapphire, and killed a stripper.  Actually, it's worse - it's like Brooks has deliberately launched into his "just because it cures malaria doesn't mean you can order it on the rocks!" tirade specifically to give his buddies time to dump Candi's corpse into the Potomac.

Which, of course, makes David Brooks the real sideshow.  The fact that this is rhetorically satisfying is cold comfort to say the least.

[1] This is what Davey does almost every time, of course.  Hell, we should call this the Brooks-Douthat Inversion.  Every time Republicans in Congress or high-profile positions in "grassroots" organisations say something thoroughly abhorrent, Brooks and/or Douthat will crap out a colum arguing that the exact opposite position might be pretty bad as well.  If Bush had nuked San Francisco, Brooks would have pointed out that hating radiation might lead to a loss of business for banana farmers. 

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