Empathy on Bastille Day

When my talk at the Graham School (University of Chicago) was scheduled last March (2016), Bastille Day (July 14, 2016) was just another festive holiday, celebrating French independence day.

[Go To the very bottom of this post to watch the short or complete video of the talk or download the Power Point slides.]

As I was giving the talk itself neither I nor the audience were aware of the atrocity being perpetrated in Nice, France. A truck driver, Mohamed Lahousiej Bouhlel, from Tunisia, who, according to French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve, was radicalized “very quickly,” used the truck as a lethal weapon with devastating effect on the crowd of Bastille Day celebrants, leaving 84 dead, including ten children, and many, many others on life support. So the death toll is sure to rise. The meaning of the talk and of the day are changed almost beyond recognition, and sadly not for the better.

Once again, we are heart broken at the “senseless” loss of life. However, as a deep thinker on killers and killing, James Garbarino has noted: “no murder is ever senseless.” It may be irrational and unreasonable, but it is not senseless. The point of this post is to engage the “senseless” aspect and try to bring some sense to it.

A couple of disclaimers are required up front. As I write this post, we in the USA are in the Silly Season of a Presidential Election (and I hesitate even to bring that up again): (1) I have no aspirations for public office; and bemoan the loss of our ability to compromise and govern. (2) The subject of the murder of innocents is almost impossible to engage rationally without saying something that can be distorted by one side or another of the fragmented and hardened spectrum of political, religious, medical, criminal justice, social justice, legal, and ethical points of view. However, I am going to try. (3) When an individual or group takes up a weapon of any kind, the matter becomes one for law enforcement; and the uses, limits, and failures of empathy are a matter for ex post facto analysis. Hindsight is 20-20; and mine is as good as anyone else’s.

Law enforcement routinely uses top down, empathic methods to put themselves in the place of the Bad Guys, trying to understand and thwart the motives and next moves. Police negotiators attempt to use empathy to get the suspect in armed standoffs to express his grievances, complaints, or outrage at the system, regardless of the objective reality of what is being expressed. I suspect that the psychiatrist, who was part of the negotiating team that spoke with the Dallas perpetrator (Micah Xavier Johnson) of the ambush killing of five police officers and wounding of many more on July 07, 2016, used such empathic methods, though the perpetrator seems already to have been beyond reach. Before the perpetrator was killed by a pound of high explosives, we did actually get considerable visibility to his motives and thoughts, delusional though they may have been. When people get the empathy to which they feel they are entitled, they are less angry and may be easier to apprehend without further causalities. In the Dallas atrocity, such was not to be, and the police decided that the suspect had enough opportunity to be self-expressed. I will not second guess the tough decisions that had to be made on the ground in the “fog of war” and in the midst of a fire fight.

This brings us back to empathy on Bastille Day. The original Bastille Day (July 14, 1789) was a Day of Rage in which a mob of angry and hungry “under class” people with rising expectation stormed the Bastille, a prison in Paris, and released the seven prisoners that were still there. As a historic event, it is hugely more significant for its symbolic value – the beginning of the French Revolution – than any strategic or actual political consequences. The most famous prisoner, the Marquis De Sade, had been moved to a different prison the week prior for calling out inflammatory remarks from the barred window to the lurking mob. So he was not freed.

The connection between empathy and Bastille Day is this: when people do not get the empathy to which they feel they are entitled, they get enraged. Empathy break downs are experienced as dignity violations. This does not mean that the individual has to act on his or her rage. It means that the narcissistic slights with which life is filled – for example, going through airport security – leaves a lot of people simmering, doing a slow burn. Note this does not mean doing away with metal detectors, etc. That would be a different level of insanity, and we would not like the result. For the foreseeable being, security is a growth industry. Big time. However, this means – we have got a big problem – since many of processes and procedures that we have chosen to implement in order to survive are precisely the kinds of things that endanger our survival. As a side note, one can substitute the word “empathy” for “dignity” in virtually every instance in Donna Hicks work on conflict resolution and how “dignity violations” leave people enraged and in the grip of intractable conflicts (Hicks, 2011, Dignity).

Let’s take a step back. The individual who put empathy “on the map” made the connection between empathy and (narcissistic) rage – Heinz Kohut (1959, 1971, 1977 (see also Strozier et al 2010)). Kohut said that empathy was like oxygen for the soul. Without empathy, the human psyche (soul) is left lacking in vitality, lacking in aliveness – in short, left apathetic, lethargic, and depressed. So if one is short of breath, perhaps one needs expanded empathy. The other response to empathy violations is narcissistic rage – an irrational, destructive anger designed to get one’s own back, often even at the cost of self-defeating behavior.

Basically empathy is about respect for boundaries – the self is distinct from the other and one has an understanding of what the other is experiencing because I experience it too – not as a merger or identification but as a vicarious experience – a trace affect – or sample of the other’s experience – as if one was participating in the movie or theatrical scene of the other person’s life. Then that vicarious experience is further elaborated by the understanding and cognition (and more on that shortly). So I suggest that when one experience the lack of empathy as a boundary issue or even a boundary violation, including a dignity violation, then the response is narcissistic rage in an attempt to get back one’s own and re-establish the boundary. I suggest this is a primitive, primary process response that is rarely well thought out or even all that adaptive – except perhaps in a context of self-defense against an immediate danger – but it is a common response.

This does not jive with the average everyday understanding of empathy but it is the heart of the matter: wherever there is empathy – can narcissistic rage be far behind? When empathy breaks down, people go off, get angry, get weird – and do not even know why or what is going on. They then make up reasons that are at least partially accurate but do not get at what is really going on. How then do we understand empathy as an average everyday occurrence?

I have done some survey work, having students in a class go out an ask some five people that they know who are not family members or close friends to define empathy without telling or suggesting an answer: While often I have been known to say that we do not need more data, we need expanded empathy. Sometimes we need both. In this case, a distinctive tend emerged: an overwhelming majority of people – some 80% indicated that “empathy” means a cluster of distinctions such as “compassion,” “altruism,” “charity,” “helping someone in need,” or generally being ethical in a prosocial way of helping others in need. Now, heavens knows, the world needs more compassion. However, empathy is distinct from compassion. In short, empathy tells a person what the other person is experiencing; compassion and ethics tell a person what to do about it. Here is the conversation about dis-orders of empathy such as psychopathy, socio-pathy, or being on the Asperger’s and autistic spectrum. Here is the conversation about using empathy to increase the suffering of the person being interrogated as the American Psychological Association sends clinical psychologists to Guantanamo. The insight is that the way to get a person to the truth to her- or himself and tell the truth to you is voluntarily to do psychotherapy with him or her. However, why do I suspect that the psychologists at Guantanamo were not performing psychotherapy in any sense that we would recognize it? Simon Baron-Cohn has done work in the area of the breakdown of empathy in diverse contexts (but not Guantanamo) with his work on Mind Blindness and Zero Degrees of Empathy.

So, best practice, let’s define our terms. How is empathy defined? The minimal essential constituents of the unified, multi-dimensional definition of the process of empathy Slide1include: (1) a receptivity (“openness”) to the communicability of the affect of other people whether in face-to-face encounter or as artifacts of human imagination (“empathic receptivity”), the paradigm case of which is vicarious feeling; (2) an understanding of the other individual in which the other individual is grasped in relatedness as a possibility—a possibility of choosing, making commitments, and implementing them (“empathic understanding”) in which the aforementioned possibility is implemented; (3) an interpretation of the other person that identifies patterns of adaptation and templates of survival from first-, second-, and third-person perspectives (“empathic interpretation”) by means of the mental mechanisms of a transient identification with the target of empathy and a splitting into a participating and observing sector, resulting in the general view of an general observer; and (4) an articulation in optimal responsiveness in behavior and speech, including speech acts, of this receptivity, understanding and interpretation, including the form of speech known as listening that enables the other to appreciate that he or she has been the beneficiary of empathy (“empathic responsiveness”).

When empathy breaks down in the receptivity dimension, then one gets emotional contagion. The person is anxious but does not appreciate the anxiety is coming from the other person. When empathy breaks down in the understanding dimension, then one gets Slide1projection and the error of attributing to the other person one’s own feeling, issue, or bias. When empathy breaks down in the interpretive dimension, then one mistakes one of point of view for that of the other – similar to projection yet different – one takes things out of context, substituting a first person point of view for a second or third person perspective. One engages in stereotyping, judging and evaluating, in uncharitable way, where “uncharitable” means “taking matters out of context” (not lack of alms giving). When empathy breaks down in the responsiveness dimension, then one’s language lacks authenticity – one gossips, finger points, or “runs a blame trip,” instead of engaging the other person in his or her struggle. In every case, the path between a break down in empathy and rage is direct. The recommendation is to overcome the breakdown by taking responsibility for one’s own contribution. Restore empathy by using empathy to clean up the misunderstanding, misinterpretation, or misfired responsiveness. To be sure, easier said than done.

As noted, our days are filled with narcissistic slights and injuries – surely children (whom we are responsible for raising with our own strong sense of entitlement), rude retail clerks, mind numbing compliance processes at work (I hasten to add that I stop on red and go on green and pay my taxes), and the indifferent of the modern mass of citizens leading their lives of quiet desperation. However, most people do not “go bererk,” plan to perpetrate a mass casualty event, and act accordingly. There is not going to be a single cause or variable resulting in a catastrophic explosion of violence. Some individuals are petty criminal who escalate to mass murder in a distorted pursuit of greatness or a perverse sense of glory. Some individuals who are isolated and alone, attracted to and tapped inside first person shooter video games, they desensitize them to an empty reality. Some individuals are below average IQ or borderline cognitively handicapped, and are actually recruited and, as incredible as it may seem in our anti-religious age, are persuaded that they are literally bound for heaven.However, the profile of the perpetrator often includes not just a lack of empathy, but a long string of real or imagined empathic violations, dignity violations, and a sense of having been shamed or humiliated in their life circumstance. This injury seems to seek out a symbol to bind the rage by making the symbol a target for their wrath. Often the target becomes a group or community that has been devalued, demonized, or made the target of paranoid-like projections of the perpetrators own inner conflicts and struggles. People have different ways of expressing their madness, including religious fanaticism. Such matters are closely related, and disentangling them is no simple task. Resorting to violence – and subscribing to fanatical religious ideologies that support violence (such as honor killings) – are often attempts by an individual to regain emotional equilibrium (albeit self-defeating and destructive attempts) and to regain a sense of control and power when these are experienced as missing or lost.

Regarding the actual escalation to violence, Hannah Arendt (1970) has provided a fundamental analysis: violence is inversely related to power. As governments lose power, they tend to resort to violence. This also is the case with individuals. If an individual experiences a loss of power, the tendency to resort to violence goes up – in an attempt (often, but not always, misguided) to get back the control that is felt to be missing. In so far as empathizing with an individual under stress tends to restore the individual’s sense of power, it would reduce the possibility of violence. However, once violence is imminent or has already occurred, the consequences tend to take on a life of their own. All bets are off. Dial emergency services. Early intervention is the recommendation, though it is easier said than done. No particular course of action is required by empathy: empathy tells us what the other person is experiencing; our ethics and (moral) laws tell us what to do about it.

Yet another misunderstanding requires work. I do not believe this means we need more “trigger alerts,” which had initially been a way of protecting a small set of individuals in recovery from post traumatic stress disorder. “Trigger alert” has now become a reduction to absurdity of any attempt to have a debate about a controversial topic in school. Trigger alerts have now become a pretext for suppressing even the moderate exchange of ideas about controversial subjects and a reduction to absurdity of public disagreement about confronting topics. This does not mean that one should be casual about the risk of retraumatization. It means the individuals are responsible for their own emotional and spiritual well-being. As Hannah Holborn Gray is reported to have written: Education is not intended to make you comfortable; it is intended to get you to think! I would add “think – and feel and experience deeply about important subjects, including the experiences of others.”


Hannah Arendt. (1970). On Violence. New York: Harcourt/Harvest Books.

Donna Hicks. (2011). Dignity: The Essential Role It Plays in Resolving Conflict. New Haven, CN: Yale University Press.

Heinz Kohut. (1959). “Introspection, Empathy, and Psychoanalysis,” The Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association 7 (July 1959): 459–83.

___________. (1971). The Analysis of the Self. New York: International Universities Press. 1971.

___________. (1984). How Does Analysis Cure? A. Goldberg and P. E. Stepansky, eds. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984.

Charles B. Strozier, David M. Terman, James W. Jones (eds.). (2010). The Fundamentalist Mindset. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.


For those interested in the Power Point of the Talk or an edited on camera video of the talk, follow and click on the links (click): Empathy and Bastille Day Power Point 

Short video of Empathy on Bastille Day Talk (click):

Complete video of Empathy on Bastille Day Talk (click):

(c) Lou Agosta, PhD. and the Chicago Empathy Project

Written By Lou Agosta

Empathy on Bastille Day was originally published @ Listening With Empathy and has been syndicated with permission.


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