The Empathic Dogma

By Glenn Wallis

(Part 2 of Against Empathy.)

Empathy—what a beautiful surrogate for the disempowered. –Jan Slaby

Western x-buddhism prides itself on being an exemplary supplier of a supposedly much-needed salve to contemporary social and interpersonal conflict: empathy. But according to Jan Slaby anything approaching a robust sense of empathy–literally feeling another’s pain–would require an untenable concept of personhood. It would require, for instance, objectification of the other person through an imagined, egoistically-informed pretense to experiential correspondence. Such an imposition is nothing short of an usurpation of agency. That the prevailing x-buddhist view of empathy mimics this popular view is particularly pernicious since it requires the inclusion of an (ostensibly) impermissible metaphysical feature: an atman. In contemporary western x-buddhism, empathy is understood as an encounter or “resonance” between discrete minds. Ironically, x-buddhists may abandon this absurdity by insisting on a notion of agency that is more consistent with classical-buddhist teaching in the first place. Such a notion will require, for instance, a revaluation of the currently anathema concept of reactivity, whereby the presumed certitude of “empathic resonance” is replaced by the non-presumptuous interaction with other people, of reacting, that is, with incertitude, to, for instance, gesture, facial expression, and language. But to do so, western x-buddhists will have to forgo their celebration of the currently fashionable theory of Human Nature 2.0.

Concerning the topic of empathy, what is most in need of analysis is the remarkably swift change in style, direction and normative tendency within both social brain research and science-inspired accounts of human nature in the past thirty or so years. (21; for references and links, see “Against Empathy” post.)

In short, according to Slaby, this shift concerns the recent scuttling of Human Nature 1.0 for Human Nature 2.0.  This topic is central to a critique of contemporary x-buddhism because Human Nature 2.0 has, like the belief in empathy that is embedded within it, become yet another ingrained–and poorly considered–western x-buddhist dogma.*

Human Nature 2.0

Slaby, drawing from the work of anthropologist Allan Young, argues that we are currently in the midst of a significant shift in discourse concerning human nature.

This transformation, as a child of our time, is played out predominantly in construals of the brain—the seat of human nature, as far as our dominant cerebro-centric world view has it. The emerging social brain with its emotional, communicative, and cooperative competencies, designed according to the superhuman wisdom of natural selection, displaces the selfish, mechanical, self-contained Cartesian “ego” brain of former times. Mirror neurons function as a neural Wi-Fi that links us up to form various social networks. Sympathetic connectedness reigns the day. (22)

Any reader of the scientistic secular-buddhist sites will be familiar with the contours of this shift. It replaces the former, somewhat Hobbesian-cum-Freudian, view of the centrality of human animality and instinctual drives with “a surprisingly rosy and optimistic picture” (21) where a telepathic-like Other-receptive brain predominates. As Slaby puts it, “the selfish gene has given way to the empathic social brain” (21). Daniel Goleman, x-buddhist favorite and friend of the Dalai Lama, waxes enthusiastically, for instance, about how “mirror neurons operate like a neural WiFi, activating in our own brains the same areas for emotions, movements and intentions as those of the person we are with [allowing] us to feel the other person’s distress or pain as our own” (21). Likewise, Jeremy Rifkin proclaims that we are on the verge of “a new social tapestry – the Empathic Civilization” (22). The problem with all such claims about the saving power our inherent capacity for empathy is that they rest more firmly in myth than in actual biology. Writers like Rifkin and Goleman–and I would add the majority of x-buddhist figures today (see “X-buddhist Provocateurs?” for a few examples)

seem not only to count on the assumption that their readers share a deeply naturalist, wholeheartedly scientistic worldview, but also, importantly, that readers will lend default plausibility to the broad-stroke construal of a pro-social, benevolent human nature. Present some data on mirror neurons here, give some experimental results on the attachment-hormone oxytocin there—then throw in some feats of cooperation observed in primates and you have enough sticking points for a robust feel-good tale that does not even seem in need of much actual argument. (22)

That x-buddhist figures preach the, let’s call it, empathic dogma, should be obvious to readers of the everything from the Atheists to the Zinns and from the Aachans to the Zens. (If you find evidence to the contrary, I’d love to see it.) The interesting question thus becomes why.  Why has this dogma taken hold in contemporary-western-buddhism?

Slaby presents an argument worth considering, particularly in light of previous posts here exploring the apolitical, consumerist, status-quoist nature of contemporary-western-buddhism.

I argue that the de facto powerlessness of the individual in today’s network capitalism is naturalized through a model of “visceral sociality” that prizes affective attachment and harmonious connectedness, providing a nature-backed narrative of conformist, uncritical, domesticated affectivity. The discursive regime supported by research on the social brain sings a heroes’ song for the docile, the disempowered, the politically dismantled. A change of tune is urgently needed. (2)

Advocates of x-buddhism as it is currently presented have to ask themselves whether and to what degree they are serving as agents of such powerlessness. They must refrain from their typical knee-jerk “off-the-cushion” rhetoric and earnestly examine the broad implications of their teachings. For instance–I’ve asked this before–what do supposedly “skilful” values such as non-judgmentalism, non-reactivity, equanimity, and so on look like when extrapolated out to the political sphere? I have already come to a conclusion, and so can declare: What a ridiculous irony that contemporary-x-buddhism perpetuates human bondage. And, given its potentially emancipatory teachings, what a waste.

At least one other reason that Slaby considers a change of tune to be necessary should be of interest to anyone concerned with the current state of western-x-buddhism, or with a critical theory of x-buddhism. Although Slaby presents the reason in terms of the “critical theorist of science” the reader should not have difficulty in seeing its relevance to the “critical theorist of x-buddhism.” (Really, ideally, we could speak here simply of “the x-buddhist.” After all, x-buddhists are fond of presenting themselves to the public at large as scientific rationalists of one variety or another.) I’ll end this two-part reflection on the x-buddhist empathic dogma with Slaby on his own.

The critical theory approach asks where a given swath of scientific activity is coming from and where it is heading toward, both understood broadly. This encompassing situating receives its normative guidance from founding ideals of the enlightenment, such as the striving towards emancipation, equality, freedom from coercion, or other elements of a thick conception of human flourishing. The critical theorist of science thus asks whether a branch of science and its material and discursive uptake is discernibly in the service of these ideals, or whether it is rather obscuring or hindering an emancipatory understanding of human affairs, or whether it even directly contributes to coercive political or institutional arrangements. (19)

It is here where a critical theory approach finds its material. The task is to analyze the manifold ways in which those tacitly normative schemas come about, are spread and sustained. It is important to understand why a specific, time-bound credibility is attached to the value-imbued narratives that leave the sites of scientific fact production or that are mobilized with reference to putative scientific findings. The growing power especially of human neuroscience—together with the usual bunch of allied disciplines such as evolutionary psychology, behavioral genetics and some other med-, psy- or cognition related fields—as a quasi-hegemonic interpretive schema in human affairs makes it a target of special attention. (20)

  • As I was writing this, someone sent me a link to a blog post that exemplifies this dogma: Kenneth Folk on “Social Meditation.”

Image: Emil Nolde (German, 1867-1956), Masks, 1911.

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