Imagine There's No Cringe Celebrity Moralism ... It's Easy If You Try
On the absurdity of empathy instruction
There are essentially two types of moral grandstanding performed by celebrities. Both are irritating and unbecoming, but their manifestations are quite distinct.
The first type is run-of-the-mill virtue signaling. This is when celebrities do something ostentatious like posting a picture of a superfruit açaí bowl or promoting a hashtag for some amorphous social movement that aims to appear aesthetically transgressive while also being politically unassailable. The unspoken message is that their sociopolitical priorities, as evinced by their public conduct, stem from an unwavering decency that you ought to find inspiring.
The second type is more blunt, and at a time when social theater exists almost entirely in the virtual realm, a realm where millions of devotees can fit in the palm of a hand, high society notables feel compelled to exercise this option with increasing regularity. Grandstanding of this sort is deliberately direct and didactic. Perhaps the best example in recent times is the ensemble performance of “Imagine” coordinated by Hollywood sweetheart Gal Gadot. In this situation, the celebrity is telling the commoner—explicitly and unabashedly—that the world is in need of a more virtuous public, and that noblesse oblige demands guidance from society’s chosen few.
Given the degree of social capital and creative energy invested in telling regular, salt-of-the-earth people how to be better, the question may be asked: Are the most powerful among us actually positioned to offer moral guidance?
Could they, for instance, teach us to be more empathetic? To most self-respecting normies, the answer is obviously “no”—though it may be difficult to clearly express why. What is it about these homilies that we find so condescending, distasteful, and morally hollow? Is our skepticism and antipathy justified?
Here, an examination of a recently released Masterclass on empathy led by Pharrell Williams is instructive. Throughout the course, which features wandering monologues from a mélange of other stars, Williams waxes eloquently about the transformative social impact that attends his heightened empathy, suggesting ways that laymen might mold themselves in his image.
You’ve gotta start thinking about others. That’s when you can start asking questions about other people and what their experiences might be, and how you might be able to help, if they need help.
Those of you who breathe with your mouth closed will find the course unmoving.
In extolling the importance of “empathy,” members of the social elite perform a semantic sleight of hand wherein the term is conflated with compassion, a phenomenon psychologist Paul Bloom explores in his 2016 book, Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion, noting that the construct is often used to mean “everything good.”
Compassion is not the same thing as empathy, however, and upon even a brief moment of reflection, the impulse to appreciate the two as close conceptual relatives begins to fade.
Empathy is the capacity to apprehend the cognition and emotion of another human being. It is the ability to understand and share the feelings of others. Simply put, it is the social dimension of intelligence, and as with all intelligences, its magnitude is largely fixed by the end of adolescence. Nobody gets to decide the circumstances of their upbringing, nor do they get to decide how acutely they will be able to appreciate the psyches of those around them. Thus, there is no clearer or more compelling moral basis for celebrating empathy than there is for celebrating the aptitudes traditionally associated with intelligence like mathematical ability, spatial reasoning, or verbal acuity.
Suppose Kareem Abdul-Jabbar insisted that being a center in the NBA was an intrinsically ethical accomplishment, something that by itself imbues him with moral exemplariness. Suppose he also offered a course on how to get there. Obviously, this would be ludicrous, and the endeavor would rightly become an instant meme. If you’re 7’2” and exceptionally gifted, it’s possible; if you’re anywhere near the average, no amount of instruction will ever be enough.
In much the same vein, empathy itself is amoral. And actually, as Bloom notes, there are even instances where the attribute can engender immorality: “After all, the ability to accurately read the desires and motivations of others is a hallmark of the successful psychopath and can be used for cruelty and exploitation.” Intuitively, we can all appreciate this by evoking stereotypes like the callous, calculating executive, the manipulative spouse, or, perhaps, the ruthlessly ambitious A-lister.
Compassion, on the other hand, is more of an orientation. It is a concern for the suffering and misfortune of others. It is the acknowledgment that the world is filled with other beings whose experiences inevitably fall somewhere along a vast continuum bridging anguish with ecstasy, and that pushing the aggregate human experience toward one end of that continuum is imperative. Identifying a more important tenet of morality than compassion is virtually impossible.
Compassion is what Pharrell is implying he has in spades. When he tells you he is going to teach you how to be empathetic, he really means he is going to show you how to be compassionate. Yes, Pharrell Williams, a man with a nine-figure net worth in a world teeming with people who die every day from hunger and eradicable disease, is going to show you how to be compassionate!
This is total nonsense. Empathy cannot be taught, though it can be (and often is) masqueraded as compassion. And to be certain, the people who wind up with Masterclass deals are not any more compassionate than whatever sorry handful of normal people they manage to sermonize.
It’s a transparent grift.
Just like being the tallest guy on an NBA court, being empathetic isn’t a skill you can simply pick up like quilting or playing the clarinet. It’s an ingrained psychological disposition. Some people have a lot, some people have a little. Most people, including those who blanket our big screens and populate our playlists, are fairly average. Empathy can’t be engendered by celebrities, regardless of their wealth, beauty, or charisma, and the attempts made to moralize it or equate it with an actual virtue like compassion are as absurd as they are insulting.