There’s been a lot of talk lately about how kids these days (i.e. the millennials) are self-absorbed and need to learn to empathize with others, an accusation that has also been levied against the rich (albeit with more scientific backing). However I want to argue that a critical politics based on social solidarity is what we (meaning those of us on the political Left) are really after, and what many of the calls for “empathy” lack.
Social solidarity means social cohesion based on interdependence, which, in our current, globalized societies, is a global interdependence. This idea is encapsulated by the phrase, “Workers of the world, unite!” — a call for solidarity amongst the vast majority of people that must sell their labour to survive (including those who are struggling with unemployment). While we all have different bosses, and work under very different conditions, our fates are bound together: a gain or loss in the standards of living and rights for one group affects all others, especially if those changes occur at the bottom of the ladder. Because we have very little power as individuals, the success and failure of these struggles is dependent on our ability to stick together and support one another, while still being conscious of the differences in power and privilege that divide us. The 8 hour work day, weekends, paid parental leave, pensions, public health care, universal suffrage, desegregation policies, employment equity, and other important historical gains won by labour unions and mass movements around the world are proof positive of the importance of social solidarity.
Social solidarity relies on critical thought and political action. While empathy usually leads us to nod our head in understanding, and sometimes prompts us to blindly accept what we’ve been told about the situation because we happen to connect to an individual or group emotionally, a critical politics pushes us to ask questions about where those feelings and experiences come from. A lot of human beings can empathize with anything, including an IKEA lamp, if it’s presented to them in the right light, but a critical politics based on social solidarity is what drives us to do something with those feelings.
Before I go any further, I should point out that I’m not trying to downplay the importance of interpersonal connections, or make a “reason over emotion” kind of argument (as if it were actually possible to divide the two). Empathy can certainly help enhance our sense of social solidarity, but what makes the latter especially useful is that it isn’t dependent on the former. You can stand by someone and support them even if you’re totally unable to understand, on an emotional or experiential level, what they’ve been through or how they’re feeling, and that’s a powerful (and I would say necessary) thing if we’re actually going to change our lives for the better.
Not convinced yet? Here are a few other perks:
- It encourages us to think of politics as more than just a career choice, or a subject that ought to be left to the “experts.” Politics is not just something that happens in parliament; it also happens in the streets, in the lessons we teach to our children, in the relationships, organizations, and objects we build, in the things we read, watch, and play, and in our most mundane conversations.
- It connects us to a rich history of struggle. There is so much more to learn from the past than what we’ve been taught in school, and some of the most thrilling, inspiring, and heart-wrenching tales come from the parts we never hear about. Listen to the story of the POUM and its demise during the Spanish Civil War, read about Rosa Luxembourg and the German Revolution, learn about the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo whose children were “disappeared” during the Argentinian Dirty War, or watch a documentary about the Brookside Strike.
- Based on this history you will learn to see how different forms of injustice and discrimination, such as (neo)colonialism, classism, racism, sexism, and ableism, as well the abuse of our natural environment, are interconnected. This means that even if you don’t have much (or even any) experience with a particular form of oppression, you can still appreciate how each of our respective struggles are intertwined and, ultimately, interdependent.
- It’s all about the big picture. While empathy tends to highlight the individual, a politics based on social solidarity focuses on the system as a whole. It recognizes that people are, more often than not, constrained to play a particular role within that system, and that punishing a person for the part they’ve played may be much less effective than challenging the system itself. This does not mean that we fail to hold people responsible for their actions–only that we think carefully about when and why we’re doing so, and consider whether it contributes to the broader changes that need to be made. For example, will blaming union members for striking solve the problems that led them to strike in the first place? What changes when we try to identify with their position, instead of the position of the people that have been inconvenienced by the strike, or their employers? While the media will often try to direct our empathy towards one group rather than another, we should always consider the political motives and assumptions that underlie these attempts to manipulate our emotions, and assume that there is more to the story than we’re being told, no matter how “right” it feels. Empathy may lead you to help someone in need, which is wonderful, but a critical politics will give you a clear and consistent reason for doing so.
- We can do away with universalizing conceptions of “human nature” and morality. Empathy is a nice, feel-good concept, but by assuming that everyone has it, or needs it, or ought to have it, we unintentionally discriminate against those people that have difficulty identifying and matching emotions in others. Just because someone has trouble empathizing doesn’t mean they’re a bad person, and vice versa. You may be able to empathize with mens’ rights activists (MRAs), but if doing so means you also adopt their hatred of women, and particularly feminists, no one is better off because of it. There will always be limits to our empathy, but so long as our actions express a commitment to improving our collective well-being, that shouldn’t matter.
Empathy is a good start, and something worth cultivating when we can. But it’s not enough on its own to get all of us up that hill. For that, we need a plan.