Before you write, check your empathy. Even if you’re writing primarily to express yourself, you are also writing to inform other people, to persuade other people, to impress other people in the way you want to impress them. Empathy lets you do that. Empathy is the art of figuring out how your readers will respond to your words.
Like any other art, empathy has its tools and techniques. One of them, believe it or not, is a knowledge of standard grammar, diction, and syntax, because that’s what your readers use to understand what you mean.
Here’s a passage from an article in the March issue of The New Criterion — a good journal, but the copy editing is off and on. Adrian Goldsworthy is discussing the politics of the Roman empire: “Aristocrats remained nostalgic for the centuries when they had real power and political independence without ever really doing anything to revive the system.” Never mind what the difference might be between “doing anything” and “really doing anything”; think about when the aristocrats didn’t do it. Did they fail to revive the system while they had some real power (there’s that real again), or did they wait to fail to revive it until, to quote The Wizard of Oz, it was not only merely dead, but really, most sincerely dead? I vote for the second alternative, but why should I have to vote? Why couldn’t the author have foreseen my plight and worded his thought in this way: “Aristocrats remained nostalgic for the centuries when they had real power and political independence; nevertheless, they did nothing to regain them”?
Trudeau has never shown much empathy toward people who care about the meanings of words.
That was easy, wasn’t it? Still easier is the act of remembering that some of your readers are in touch with a dictionary, and that this technology is available to you, too. If you remember the dictionary, you won’t say such things as a Breitbart author said on March 19, while writing about Robert Francis (“Beto”) O’Rourke. “Beto” is a rich person who must be very bored with everything but himself and has spent his life looking for something to do — such as being president, or (wait for it) eating dirt. Yes, Breitbart reported, after O’Rourke lost his Senate race to Ted Cruz, he traveled to some mystic location in the Southwest where you can get some kind of dirt with “regenerative powers.” He got the dirt, and ate it. He also took some home, for other people to eat. Well, that’s odd. But what does our Breitbart author say? He says, “The strange antidote is one of several unflattering details to have emerged regarding O’Rourke’s past.” Empathy can teach us that there are some readers who know the difference between an antidote and an anecdote. Even politicians should know that some people — many people — are pedants like that.
Now, you wouldn’t know it from the American news media, but (I could follow that but with almost anything) for many days now, Justin Trudeau, Prime Minister of Canada, has been the subject of a terrific scandal. The issue in mid-March was whether he would let significant details about his alleged attempt to influence a prosecution come to light. The Conservative opposition used parliamentary tactics to force the information out, but failed to break through Trudeau’s apparent stonewalling. According to a March 21 article, “Trudeau said there has already been a ‘fulsome’ accounting of the scandal.” There is a big difference between full and fulsome, but Trudeau has never shown much empathy toward people who care about the meanings of words.
Some people have too much empathy with their audience, too ready an understanding of how people will react to their falsehoods, prevarications, stupidities, or inanities.
I need to add that CTV, which published the passage just quoted, apparently doesn’t empathize with word-carers either. Its report includes such elegancies as: “attempts over the several weeks to have Prime Minister Justin Trudeau take further steps to allow [MP Jody] Wilson-Raybould speak further and in more detail about the scandal, [further steps to further speaking!]” “there’s since been two federal cabinet shuffles [ah! shuffles there has been],” and “Conservatives voted against every line item, which Liberals used to try to score political points on social media [using their own line items to score points, eh?], pointing out some of the government programs and services the Tories opposed. Though [look out, here’s a sentence fragment!], from the Conservative’s perspective [just one Conservative, I guess], their ‘no’ votes were to signal they do not have confidence in the government.” The CTV report was updated without correction of those remarkable phrases.
It must be admitted that some people have too much empathy with their audience, too ready an understanding of how people will react to their falsehoods, prevarications, stupidities, or inanities. Like good authors and speakers, they know how others are likely to feel, and they shape their words accordingly. As you know, Christopher Steele is the author of what is called, both by people who know the meaning of the word infamous and by people who don’t, the infamous Trump dossier, the document accusing Donald Trump of doing various weird things in and about Russia. Steele has been deposed in a lawsuit brought by a Russian whom the dossier accused of employing electronic means to disrupt the Democratic Party. Questioned about whether he verified the allegations in the dossier, Steele said, “We did,” and referred to “an article I have got here,” an article that was posted on a CNN website. He understands that many readers will think, “Well! There’s a CNN news report, and he’s got it right there! That’s good enough for me.”
But there’s a problem. The CNN webpage was just a bulletin board on which anyone was allowed to post anything. CNN itself posted signs on it saying that its contents were “not edited, fact-checked or screened.” So what did Steele have to say to that?
“Do you understand that CNN iReports are or were nothing more than any random individuals’ assertions on the Internet?” an examiner asked [him].
He replied: “No, I obviously presume that if it is on a CNN site that it may has [sic] some kind of CNN status. Albeit that it may be an independent person posting on the site.”
At that moment, Steele triumphantly reestablished his mind meld with the credulous reader. Such readers are impressed by apparent forthrightness — “No!” — and by the assumption that they themselves are too sophisticated not to know the ways of the world. Steele obviously presumed . . . Why, of course he did. We all would, wouldn’t we?
But there’s a problem. The CNN webpage was just a bulletin board on which anyone was allowed to post anything.
Who among us has time in our busy lives to fuss over the CNN status of something that is, after all, a CNN site? Not Steele! Not the reader! The reader, being a sophisticated man or woman, also understands what “albeit” means and, if not, can still pass directly on to a concept of which all forthright, independent readers approve, that of an independent person posting on a website. Of course he posted something! The reader probably posts things too! And why not? The problem with this world is that forthright, independent people post their brains out, without ever being recognized or believed. But Steele saw the truth in the independent person’s post — saw it, and believed it!
I wonder how many politicians, newspaper editors, television commentators, and news junkies have read the infamous dossier and actually believed it. Many of them cynically claimed to believe it, or part of it, or some deduction that might be made from it; but lots of them probably swallowed it whole. It was the right thing for them, and Steele had enough empathy to know that.
There is such a thing as selective empathy, the ability to put yourself in the minds of some people, though not of others. President Trump has made a career out of selective empathy. He doesn’t know or care how lots of people will receive his sayings, but he knows very well and cares very much how lots of other people will react. Whether that kind of empathy will win him the next election, as it won him the last, I cannot predict. But I can say that Hillary Clinton’s entire political life — and she has had no other life — demonstrates what happens when your empathy is too selective. Even among people who were certain to vote Democratic she aroused constant antagonism, and it wasn’t because of her “program” or even her personal history; it was because of her words, her tone, her manner of delivering her thoughts. This antagonism remained mysterious to her; she lacked the empathy to perceive its source. The only people with whom she empathized were those who thought her “deplorables” remark was, in the words of a Stephen Sondheim song, “another brilliant zinger.” Her circle of empathy included only people exactly like herself — uptight snobs who never talk to anyone except other uptight snobs.
Many of them cynically claimed to believe it, or part of it, or some deduction that might be made from it; but lots of them probably swallowed it whole.
Elizabeth Warren has the same problem, except that her circle of empathy is even more contracted. It was originally limited to the staff of the Boston Globe and some people in Cambridge who regard themselves as an intellectual aristocracy. But her long, insistently repeated series of “Indian” gaffes finally proved surprising even to them. They couldn’t empathize with the mind that could proclaim it was right all along about being Native American, because a DNA test purportedly showed a possible one-six-hundredth admixture of the appropriate “blood.”
Dimly sensing that something was wrong, Warren sallied forth in quest of the real America. She first tried to establish herself as a regular person by releasing a video that showed her drinking beer. Somehow that didn’t instill warm feelings in the breasts of average Americans. Then she took up the idea of ethnic reparations, announcing that she “loved” the idea of a congressional commission to study the matter. “I believe,” she added, “it’s time to start the national, full-blown conversation about reparations.” Another amazing failure: it was as if her words were designed to prove her lack of empathy. In a nation largely populated by people whose ancestors were nowhere near America in slavery days, or were here and fought to end slavery, the idea of reparations hardly evokes “love.” Maybe duty. Maybe fear. Maybe disgust. Maybe boredom. Not love. Warren had no clue about that. She also didn’t realize that the words national conversation have been used so much by people like her that to everyone else they now mean “orders from on high.” To refer to the national conversation, as if it were inevitable, merely confirms that reading. Nor did she realize that to most people “full-blown” sounds like something that happens when a gas line explodes.
Nothing can save the Elizabeth Warrens of America from their assumption that politics is a matter of policies and constituencies and one-sided conversations, bereft of the (to them) mysterious quality of empathy. And not only are they lacking in empathy; they are lacking in a knowledge of history. The American political landscape is littered with the wreckage of political careers, blown up when the pipe line of empathy failed.
The words "national conversation" have been used so much by people like Warren that to everyone else they now mean “orders from on high.”
In 1884, James G. Blaine (to his friends the Plumed Knight, to his enemies Blaine, Blaine, James G. Blaine, the continental liar from the state of Maine) was running for president when he was done in by the lack of empathy of a prominent supporter, who described Blaine’s Democratic opponents as the party of “rum, Romanism, and Rebellion” — in other words by anti-prohibitionists, Catholics, and former Confederates. Those three groups proceeded to vote enthusiastically against him.
In 1912, former President Theodore Roosevelt, campaigning for a third term, proclaimed that “we [he and his followers] stand at Armageddon, and we battle for the Lord.” The statement earned him a predictable derision, both from secularists, who were irritated by his sanctimony, and by religious persons, who knew what Armageddon was supposed to be (and it wasn’t the election of 1912). In 1967, George Romney, father of Mitt Romney and every bit as empathetic as his son, unintentionally terminated his campaign for the Republican presidential nomination by claiming that he had formerly supported the war in Vietnam because he was “brainwashed” by the military: "When I came back from Viet Nam [in November 1965], I'd just had the greatest brainwashing that anybody can get." The comment grated on everyone, including Senator Eugene McCarthy, who was even more distant from normal people than Romney was. For Romney, he said, “a light rinse would have been sufficient.”
In the presidential debates of 1976, Gerald Ford, intending to flatter Polish Americans by saying that their European relatives would not passively concede to communist rule, pressed boldly into the realm of idiocy by claiming that “there is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe and there never will be under a Ford Administration." The Poles were not flattered. Ford lost the close election — to Jimmy Carter, who was soon to lecture Americans on the malaise that, he believed, had overcome their values. Although his “malaise” speech is supposed to have impressed people on the night it was given, it was one of those things that just don’t sit well with ordinary folks. Carter lost his own next election.
Blaine, Romney, Ford, Carter, Clinton, Warren, Theodore Roosevelt in his crazy years — all zeroed out by lack of empathy. And if you’re running a list, you can add Michael Dukakis, John Kerry, Richard Nixon . . . When you think about it, I guess you could say that empathy is good for writing, but lack of empathy is good for weeding.