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When did empathy become so dangerous?

Credit: Christopher Furlong / Getty

April 11, 2019   4 mins

On 5 October 2017, shocking allegations were published about Harvey Weinstein, detailing decades of sexual abuse. Eighteen months on, the fingers of condemnation now point towards Joe Biden, the putative presidential candidate. So far, seven women have made allegations against him, recalling a hug that went on too long, a shoulder pat, or a kiss on the head. On social media, Uncle Joe is now described as ‘creepy’. How quickly and confidently we judge.

Make no mistake, Weinstein is a sexual predator who deserves a long spell behind bars. Biden, however, is something different. He seems to be a man who punctuates his emotions with physical contact. He probably needs to rein it in, and he definitely needs to apologise to those who found his gestures unwelcome. But I doubt there’s anything inherently evil in his behaviour. I suspect Biden is a victim of his own empathy.

“Joe has a deep desire to share in the lives of others – their grief, pain, and joy” the former Missouri Senator Jean Carnahan recently tweeted. She had experienced the therapeutic power of Biden’s empathy after she lost her husband and son in a plane crash. “He reaches out… to connect and express … feelings. … it’s part of who he is. Like everything else about his big, Irish personality, he expresses those feelings with exuberance and sincerity.”

And that worries me. Carnahan’s description of Biden sounds a little bit like me. I’m certainly far more restrained when it comes to physicality, but I do sometimes express emotions with contact – a tap to the forearm for instance. I, too, convey feelings with exuberance and I involve myself in the lives of others.

Let’s make it clear: I’m not talking about touch – the sort of thing that got Biden into trouble. I’m talking about connectedness: I open myself emotionally to people and welcome it when they open themselves to me. Compassion is a two-way street. This, for me, is simple humanity, something devoid of sexual intent and applied equally to men and women.

But I’m worried now. Standards of acceptable behaviour seem suddenly to have shifted. Empathy – with or without that touch on the arm – is hazardous.

My worries are compounded by the fact that empathy plays a large part in my profession – or at least it should. I’m a university teacher. I prefer that description to ‘professor’, which connotes an aloofness detrimental to compassion. For many of my colleagues, that aloofness offers a safe haven that doesn’t require emotional commitment to one’s students.

Yet many students seek such commitment from their teachers. They’re alone in a stressful world, away from parents. Yes, they have friends, but sometimes they need someone else – someone older, not necessarily a friend, but a person they can trust.

We’re now officially advised, though, that we should not try to help students with emotional problems, and should instead pass them on to the ‘professionals’ at Student Support. I suppose that’s because the dangers of giving wrong advice are too high. We’re no longer trusted to help, no longer trusted with human compassion.

Yet, if only professionals are allowed to help, that can institutionalise a problem or give it a stigma with which the student is uncomfortable. It can escalate that problem to a level the student doesn’t want.

So I ignore that advice; I respect the student’s decision to seek out me. Lots of students – of both sexes – end up crying in my office. I’ve had colleagues do the same. For me, it’s part of the job and a reflection of who I am. I’m not formally trained to deal with these problems, but I do have experience – 35 years of it.

I’m painfully aware that my profession carries significant dangers. Students are often emotionally vulnerable. We see them in private with doors closed so that they feel comfortable about being candid. Taken together, these circumstances constitute a ticking time bomb.

Lecturers and professors have enormous power over students; some use that power for sexual favour. Over a long career, I’ve heard plenty of stories of despicable behaviour – many were probably true. Long ago, a colleague was so notoriously predatory that female students avoided going to his office alone. Keen to avoid a scandal, his university quietly encouraged him to take a job elsewhere. Otherwise, nothing was done, no sanctions imposed. Theoretically, gross moral turpitude – having sex with a student – was the only acceptable grounds for firing an academic. Yet in all my years in universities, I’ve never seen anyone fired. Some should have been.

But they were the predators. Nowadays, I’m worried about the empathisers – people like me, who let students in to pour out their hearts. In the past, I might have expressed compassion for a student with a pat on the shoulder, but I would no longer do so. Some time ago, a young colleague broke down in my office after male students had been unkind to her – something that happens all the time. She was a vulnerable wreck in need of compassion. That situation now frightens me because it carries so many risks.

A prominent female academic, faced with a similar situation, hugged her colleague. She ended up accused of unsolicited sexual contact, leading to a large out-of-court settlement by her university. Have my fears rendered my empathy less effective? Yes, I think so. I’m certainly more careful, more aware of the hazards of empathy. More guarded.

In my profession, suspicion runs deep; compassion now seems to carry unaffordable risk. We’re so afraid of the potential consequences of intimacy that we’re building walls to prevent its occurrence. Trust has disappeared. Safety lies in a cold heart. Some colleagues in America are no longer allowed to consult students in private because their institutions are deathly afraid of litigation. Extrapolating forward, it’s not inconceivable that future consultations will have to take place with student and teacher divided by a glass barrier, as in prison.

Almost every one of us has had, in our past, a teacher who changed our life, who put us on course toward where we are now. That connection most likely came through empathy, a personal bond that transcended mere conveyance of knowledge. A teacher who took the time to make an emotional connection with my son turned his life around. He’s now at university only because of her. If we remove empathy from education we might as well turn teaching over to computers.

Is this fear of empathy a problem that extends beyond education? I expect so. We’re all victims in this brave new world. We all lose when compassion is seen as risky and openness a danger. I’d like to be able to offer a solution, a path back to sanity and trust. But I don’t know of one.

The future scares me. I’m glad I’m retiring. I’ve got three weeks of teaching left, three weeks to avoid trouble. I once had the best job in the world, but now it’s gone. Goodbye to all that.

Gerard DeGroot recently retired from the School of History at St Andrews. He has written books on various aspects of twentieth century history, including moon landings and the nuclear bomb.

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