A couple of times now I have expressed my agreement with Doug Wilson and Joe Rigney on their position of empathy being a sin. There has been a lot of blowback, and as is par for the Wilson course it has been pitched and forked with calls for the monsters to be burned with these handy torches. During all of this I have been debating my good friend and colleague Syme on the issue and he has convinced me that it is not as though Wilson and Rigney are wrong, they are just poorly worded. This growing nuance was pushed a little further after the Doctrine and Devotion guys decided that they needed to weigh in. Despite a good portion of the episode being devoted to Joe Thorn failing to keep up and (I assume) wandering around the room muttering to the strange rhythms in his head; their guest Krista McDunn managed to make some compelling points.
So, does this mean I absolutely reject the idea that empathy is a sin? No, but I do think that it is a sloppy approach to a very real problem. It is kind of like a house seen from a distance. It looks great from far off but the closer you get, you begin to see the problems. It’s still a good house, but the paint is faded, there are toys strewn across the yard, and the dog has vigorously been at the flowerbeds again looking for that bone.
There is a healthy portion of truth to Wilson and Rigney’s (James White has also started to ride this train) point. There absolutely are cases where empathy is weaponized and to be empathetic would be brow beaten at best and cowardly at worst. The problem with the statement is that for all of it’s quippy punch it is too broad to be useful. In that rather than immediately making the mental jump to all of the sinful applications of empathy, the hearer instantly thinks of the exceptions. The lowest hanging fruit pointed out by McDunn, it is not a sin to be empathetic to a family whose house has just burned down.
Now Wilson and Co. will be quick to point out that according to them, and the dictionary, sympathy and empathy are two different things. So when the house burns down you suffer with the family by inviting them to stay at your house, this is sympathy. Empathy would be to go sit among the ashes moping around. But again that lovely nice 30,000 foot view becomes more problematic on the ground. One being that only one dictionary makes that distinction. And secondly, common parlance uses these words and synonyms. And you would have to be some kind of a jerk to roll up to the suffering family defining your terms just so they can be clear on your intent. And not that Wilson or Rigney would do such a thing, both are Godly men who, I am confident, would go above and beyond in helping a person in such a situation. But at the same time their argument gets chipped away at.
There is are, increasingly times and places where empathy is weaponized. Which is what these guys are seeing. And I have seen it too in everything from marriage counseling situations all the way through protests in the streets shouting slogans that are only slightly stupider than the demands. And I think this is the reason that Wilson, Rigney, White, etc. are so attached to their statement, it is pithy, it comes quick, it feels like a mic drop. And that is another part of the problem. It is hard to point out the lack of nuance from something like #believeallwomen and then take umbrage when someone points out, “empathy is a sin” is the same broad brush.
Can empathy be a sin, yes. And it might even appear that it increasingly will be so. But the quippiness of a blanket statement like this is not useful. And I get the tension on what word could you replace it with. I am surprised that with James White’s love of Star Trek he hasn’t compared the progressives to the Borg and offered up for consideration, “emotional compliance is a sin.” Seeing may on the left sound like the Borg queen shouting, comply!” at Seven of Nine after being rebuffed on the whole “Resistance is futile” bit. But even that doesn’t have the same brevity of, “empathy is a sin.”
Ultimately, it might just be best to call a spade a spade when it actually is a spade. And not besmirch a cultivator by lumping it in with a spade for convenience sake. This said, Wilson and Co. are smart guys. And they might even know this was a gamble and just wanted to stir the pot, as (Wilson most) they are wont to do. There is a strong chance that this was a further attempt to spark conversations about such things. Unfortunately, or predictably, rather than reasoned discussion and respectful pushback, there has been a shrill fist shaking response, and demands they comply with the prevailing understanding and play nice. And maybe that was their point…