Sympathy is often conflated with respect. This insight popped into my head during a conversation with a friend. What do I mean by this? It’s difficult to articulate, but I will try. Most folks I know have a relative or two who frequently uses guilt trips to get what they want. If, for instance, you got caught behind a bad traffic accident, and were a few minutes late meeting one someplace, he would be offended by it. He might say “you don’t care about me” rather than merely inquire as to why you were late. The idea is to elicit a sense of guilt, and then a corresponding sense of sympathy for him as the victim of your mistake. You’re a bad person for not doing what he wants. You should try to be a good person by obedience. It’s kind of like a weird form of Pavlovian conditioning. He controls your behavior through conditioning.
Such people are deeply unpleasant to be around. Always, they are on the lookout for ways to be offended, to take things personally, and bludgeon you with guilt in an attempt to elicit your sympathy. Some will even burden you with their other problems, completely unrelated to you, in the sense that they will complain about things in an effort to make you feel sorry for them, and then use that to get things from you. If you deny them their requests, the guilt trip will be applied. “You don’t want to help me? You don’t care about me!” They always portray themselves as victims. They rarely take responsibility for anything, but demand that you take responsibility even for those things you have not done.
It is as if they have conflated sympathy with respect, and strive for the former over the latter without really realizing it. They do not understand that you can feel sorry for someone you do not respect, and you can respect someone you don’t feel sorry for. Since they crave your sympathy, they are on constant lookout for ways to obtain it. Such a man can deliberately take your words out of context in order to cast himself as the victim. He can deliberately misinterpret your gestures, ignore context, dispose of nuance. He can even mishear what you say completely, or make something up. A common method of the latter is to say something like “well, someone told me that you said X, how could you?” Naturally, this is done without inquiring whether or not you actually said X. Sometimes the statements are completely fictitious, in that no one even told them anything of the sort, but it is useful to solicit sympathy by making the claim anyway.
Of course, in order to get back into the good graces of a person like this, you must prove your worthiness. This can be done by doing what they want you to do, by giving them things, by obeying their every whim. Such a person might ask you to denounce people he doesn’t like, even if those people are close to you. You may be required to buy things, give them money, or do work for them. It may be more emotional nature, where you have to constantly manage his own feelings, such that he can outsource responsibility for his own emotional state to you. The price for that person not treating you as if you were a bad, hateful person has a tendency to rise. Eventually your whole life must revolve around him, or else you don’t care. And you want to care, don’t you?
Does this sound like a good many political activists these days?
Weaponized empathy works much the same way, just on a much larger scale. Groups of people can burden you with their failings and blame you for them, then demand that you take action or you don’t like them, you nasty racist you. You’re a bad person for not doing what they want. The price similarly has a tendency to constantly rise. Today X is demanded. Tomorrow X, but also Y.
The real goal of such people is power over you. Power to make you do what they want, to be made to obey. And they use your own desire to be seen as a good, caring person to do this. Guilt only works on someone who is not a sociopath. But guilt is an effective weapon for a sociopath to deploy on others. Such people find sympathy more useful than respect, perhaps. Of course, you don’t have to be a sociopath to use it. For some, I suspect, it is confusion which drives this behavior.
Such confusion may begin in our education system, which has been infected by victim politics for as long as I can remember. The sanctity of the victim is absolute with them. Is it any wonder people can so readily confuse sympathy and respect? Too many people want to be victims, thinking that sympathy will grant them power that has been denied them otherwise. In this they are correct for the nonce, given our political climate, but in accepting this, they have thrown out legitimate relationships with people built on respect. Again, it is very possible to feel sorry for someone and to still lack any real respect for them. Respect is more enduring the sympathy.
Consider the racial animus present in today’s political environment. Many others feel some sympathy for the historical wrongs perpetrated upon American blacks. They may wish to help them. But when demands are made upon wallets, and when not acceding to these demands is declared prima facie evidence of racism, good will is extinguished. The possibility of earning respect is lost. Sympathy may still be forced by peer pressure, but genuine sympathy is replaced with grudging reluctance forced upon others at metaphorical gunpoint. This grudging reluctance is then declared further evidence of racism. It all spirals out of control.
With the possibility of mutual respect taken off the table, all options become progressively worse.
The use of weaponized empathy may rip this country apart. It is extraordinarily divisive. It makes people hostile and defensive. And for good reason. After all, if you have a relative who does this to you frequently, do you really want to hang out with him? Do you really enjoy his company? Do you respect him? Clearly he does not respect you, if he blames you for things you didn’t do, and demands that you right wrongs you have not committed. The terribly irony of it all is that if he didn’t make demands upon you, you might very well offer to help him right the wrongs of your own free will, regardless of who was at fault for them. You might possess both sympathy and respect for him. And that could become the basis for a real relationship. But his attempt to make himself out to be the victim, and his assumption that you must pay the penance for being a victimizer, destroys any potential goodwill.
This problem is everywhere in modern America. It crosses lines of race, gender, sexuality, religion, and a thousand other such things. And at some point – probably in the near future – the demand for sympathy will come up dry, such that not even peer pressure and a metaphorical gun held to your head will be sufficient to compel it. Only the literal variety of gun will be work then, and that is when it will descend into pure madness. Weaponized empathy is a sociopolitical weapon of mass destruction. It almost assuredly will result in the deployment of something equally nasty. It needs to be put away before it is too late.
But I have no expectation that it will. After all, “victims” want their sympathy, and the power it brings them. That there is a price for this hasn’t really occurred to them yet. And by the time it does, it will likely be too late.