The Politics of Sympathy

“Of course, this is hardest for Geoff in this moment. For those who are willing and able, he certainly can use any understanding or support they can offer (this wouldn’t include endorsement of the mistakes he acknowledges in an open letter on his website). I ask that those who have the room for it (now or later), hear him out and judge whether there is room for redemption in all that will transpire.”

That quote is from an email sent out by Geoff Marcy’s department head, in the wake of it being made public that he has been found responsible for sexual misconduct, and that Berkeley decided in lieu of sanctions, to sign an agreement with him about what would happen if he was found responsible again.

Sympathy is complicated. I’m not a moral psychologist, so I won’t pretend to be one — but I am a philosopher who thinks about the way social and political structures can influence our beliefs. And in view of tense and complicated conversations following several cases of issues of discrimination and violence related to members of our professional communities, I haven’t been able to help but think for awhile now about how, like credibility, distributions of sympathy are political.

This seems perfectly predictable, in a certain sense. We’re ready to lend a sympathetic shoulder to our friends. We tend to consider the interests of those in our own social circles more readily than those of others at a distance. Nonetheless, the experience of it can be unexpected. The first time I was ever told that a friend had been sexually assaulted by someone I knew, my reaction was — to me — utterly surprising. Though I knew the wrong-doer, he wasn’t a friend. He wasn’t someone I cared for. The only time I ever spent around him was not of my own choosing, but rather the begrudging result of our having multiple mutual friends. Yet, when I found out that he had assaulted my friend, I found myself absolutely weeping. First, for her – that wasn’t the surprising bit – but then, for him too.

I felt more deeply for him, suddenly, and unexpectedly, than I ever had before I knew what kind of wrong-doing he was capable of. That feeling, I think, was borne out (in part) of the recognition that even in the best of possible futures, there would be no undoing what he had done. If things went as well as they could, given what had already happened, he would recognize the wrongness of his actions, and seek to make what recompense there might be. And how painful would it be to live with that knowledge? How would you cope with knowing that you have irrevocably changed someone’s life by harming them so severely? I also think this was, in part, simply because I knew him.

To be clear, I blamed him. I was angry. I wanted him to be held responsible. At the same time, I felt deep lament and sympathy. My heart ached. I wished that it weren’t true. It didn’t take much reflection to understand a little better why we can be so recalcitrant and resistant in the face of claims to harm against our friends. If I could feel so much sympathy for someone who I didn’t even like, how would I feel had he been a friend? Family?  What would I think, if I didn’t also know the victim, or the extent of the evidence? What if I were his department chair, and he were one of my department’s star researchers? 

All of this is to say, I get it. I can understand how the pull of sympathy might disrupt our priorities in a harmful way. But that doesn’t mean it’s okay.

Of course it’s fine — perhaps good hearted, even — to feel sympathetic to those among us who have acted wrongly. Sympathy for those who have acted wrongly need not necessarily conflict with an appropriate sense of justice (indeed, I think it can enrich it). But we do need to be careful about what follows. When we’re not so careful, victims can be harmed by the politics of sympathy in many ways. It isn’t news that those who attempt to come forward with allegations against the powerful, well-connected, or socially-established, often find that with friends so well-placed to offer protection and so ready to offer understanding to the perpetrator, evidence simply isn’t enough. Perpetrators may be easy to sympathize with for other reasons (like their gender, being central to a department’s research profile, their interests being closer to our own, their being well-meaning, or sincere). Victims are unjustly harmed when this translates into a resistance to the belief that a perpetrator could be guilty, or results in, once again, concern for victims’  well-being having been sacrificed for the sake of the one who harmed them as we consider the (real or imagined) difficulties that they face while setting the victims’ to the side.

All of this, of course, can be exacerbated by the fact that it’s just easier to look the other way in the first place. As Judith Herman writes, “It is very tempting to take the side of the perpetrator. All the perpetrator asks is that the bystander do nothing. He appeals to the universal desire to see, hear, and speak no evil. The victim, on the contrary, asks the bystander to share the burden of pain. The victim demands action, engagement, and remembering.”

Sympathy can be valuable, but when readiness to feel it is tied up in our social relationships, it will also, inevitably, have a political element — and that’s something we need to be especially careful with in view of the possibility of mistaking our fellow-feeling for evidence of innocence, or when it signals that we prioritize justice and care for the perpetrator over justice and care for their victims. 

It is precisely that prioritizing that is so offensive in the email quoted above. These women who came forward risked their reputations, professional prospects, being subject to public scrutiny, to seek redress for harms they never wanted to be subject to in the first place. The university responded, having found their allegations justified, by doing (roughly speaking) nothing. I am sure Geoff Marcy is having a difficult time right now, and it’s fine to recognize that. But let’s not add insult to injury for his victims.