Saturday 18 November 2017

Radio review: Feeling other people's pain isn't always good

Brendan Ogle
Brendan Ogle

Eilis O'Hanlon

Paul Bloom, a psychology professor at Yale University, appeared on Newstalk's Moncrieff last Tuesday to discuss his book Against Empathy: The Case For Rational Compassion.

The book argues that the increasing urge to feel other people's pain, and to demand political action based on emotion rather than cool analysis of the problem, "makes us stupid when it comes to moral decisions", and can all too easily be manipulated for nefarious ends.

The example used on the show was that of Donald Trump's campaign. Well, of course it was; Trump is now the first port of call for any broadcaster wishing to chill the blood of sensitive liberal listeners. And the President-elect did indeed use personal stories of the suffering of certain groups in American society to "extremely skilfully" marshal supporters to his cause.

But there was another powerful example of the misuse of empathy on display during Tuesday's Last Word on Today FM, where Brendan Ogle of the Unite union was doggedly defending the late Cuban dictator Fidel Castro.

Each time he was asked about the many victims of the communist regime, Ogle would go back to victims of homelessness or symphysiotomy or clerical abuse here at home, as if the two States were in any way equivalent, thereby dulling the edge of Cuba's crimes by comparison.

His paean to Cuba was a textbook demonstration of why the hard left will never be more than a novelty act in Irish politics, as he eulogised about the "friendly, happy faces" he'd seen on his 10 visits to the island's capital Havana. Ruth Dudley Edwards, there to provide some counterbalance to this nonsense, noted wryly how socialists invariably hate countries that millions are trying to get to, such as America, and love those that have to force their own people to stay.

Political correctness is an abuse of empathy, too. On the surface it appears to be nothing more than a scrupulous sensitivity to other people's feelings, but deep down it ruthlessly presses them into the service of shutting down alternative opinions that some may find offensive.

The Last Word hosted a debate on the subject next day, with Mary McAuliffe, assistant professor of gender studies at UCD, arguing that PC was merely "the language of respect, of inclusivity, of equality" and "hasn't gone far enough".

David Quinn of the Iona Institute, whilst not denying the good intentions of many of those who want to police language, merely pointed out that, if a word such as "racist" is used too easily, then it "loses its power to shame, and it should have power to shame."

Same for "sexist" and "homophobic". They're bandied about too freely these days, even against mainstream conservative politicians. McAuliffe denied that those voices were mainstream. Therein perhaps lies the problem. We all want to challenge extremists, but who are the extremists and who gets to decide?

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