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The Empathy Gap and a Politics of Extremes

Empathy – to be of any meaning – needs to be bolstered by a willingness to accept one’s failures, writes Iain Overton

Then Home Secretary Priti Patel at the late Queen’s Platinum Jubilee celebrations in 2022. Photo: Hannah McKay/Alamy/Reuters

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Whatever you think of politicians, they have a crucial, albeit often understated, role in British life: they frame the ideas of who and what we are to care about. Such framing, aligned with (and often in step with) the editorial obsessions of the dominant media, creates what might be called the ‘majority moral conscience’ of a nation.

The role of religion has been, to a large extent, handed over to such politicians, who act as a sort of litmus test for our notions of good and evil, right and wrong.

The right-wing political classes, spurred on by an inevitable headline in the Daily Mail, tell us that migrants are a source of concern. That bully dogs are too. That addressing vaping, or drugs, or ‘lefty lawyers’ will address society’s failures. Such critique is, of course, never about their own shortcomings – always the fault of the other.

Many see through this. This month, research by King’s College London and Ipsos UK found that almost two-thirds of Brits believe our politicians use ‘culture wars’ to distract from other issues, with 62% of those polled claiming that politicians “invent or exaggerate” culture wars as a political ploy. This is up from 44% some three years ago. 

In recent weeks, this enforced framing of what is good and what is not good has been tested to its limits.

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The violence unfolding in Israel and Gaza has led to a polarisation and woe betide politicians who seek nuance. Conservative MP Paul Bristow was sacked from his Government post after calling for a Gaza ceasefire; Labour MP Andy McDonald had the whip suspended after saying the controversial phrase ‘between the river and the sea’ at a pro-Palestinian rally. As if you are unable to believe that the massacre of Israeli citizens by Hamas and the subsequent murderous bombardment of Gaza are both terrible events. 

Such a lack of consideration was there when Suella Braverman accused hundreds of thousands of people marching over Gaza of acts of hate. It was there in the Government’s attempts to criminalise, detain and deport asylum seekers. And it is there in its condemnation of international human rights treaties.

At the root of this dualistic framing – the distillation of complex issues to the singular poles of friend or foe – lies an erosion of the most complex of political emotions: empathy.

This has revealed itself in the COVID Inquiry, where it has emerged that Downing Street colleagues called each other ‘morons’ and ‘c****’, or in Boris Johnson allegedly thinking that old people should accept their fate in the pandemic. 

In the end, it is a deficit that impacts us all. 

Last year, former Conservative peer Patience Wheatcroft observed in the Guardian that “you don’t have to be a socialist to find UK levels of poverty intolerable – but Liz Truss lacks the empathy to see it”. As Wheatcroft noted, Truss “misread the public mood as well as the markets.” The consequences of her empathy deficit are, arguably, still being felt today as the Bank of England maintains rates at a painful high for many homeowners. But still, the former Prime Minister defends her actions.

This failure of Britain’s elites to properly accept their failings is widespread.

Analysis of Hansard shows that the word ‘sorry’ across the floor of the House of Commons has dwindled to its lowest level since 2000. Even when it is uttered – as in the case of former Health and Social Care Secretary Matt Hancock’s apology at the COVID Inquiry – the sincerity is often justifiably questioned.

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In the end, empathy – to be of any meaning – needs to be bolstered by a willingness to accept one’s failures. The inability to do so, in the end, impacts the heart of democracy.

Many, disenchanted with the unempathetic political landscape, are distancing themselves altogether from news. Nearly four in 10 adult Brits are reportedly avoiding the news – a ratio that increases the younger they get. Rising inflation, war in Europe, climbing food and rent prices, and the looming threat of climate change have engendered feelings of alienation. 

So what to do about this?

Mariame Kaba’s wisdom in her book, We Do This ’Til We Free Us, offers a path. Do not fixate on the “spectacular event”, she says. Do not put it higher than “the point of origin”. Instead of aligning uncompromisingly with a singular position, focus instead on addressing foundational problems – and seek to understand what led to the problem in the first place. 

We should reconsider empathy, while not the sole driver, as one of the most significant components to achieve such a moral and political view. Its increasing absence in the British political arena is not just problematic but detrimental to the body politic.

As we face this age of extremes, the need for empathetic leadership seems more pressing than ever.  We should consider this when gauging who we want to lead us: those who can bait the crowd or those who understand what causes the crowd to be so easily driven to anger.

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