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Do We Need More Empathy for Billionaires?
We care more about billionaires dying in submarines because they're billionaires.
This week a tourist submarine that charges $250,000 to view the wreck of the Titanic failed, killing all aboard. Among the dead were two British billionaires, the child of one of them, and a pilot.
As you’d expect, some people on social media were less than sympathetic, and there were various jokes about wealthy extreme tourists getting their just deserts. As you’d also expect, other people on social media were horrified by the callousness, and reprimanded the jokers for their lack of empathy and fellow feeling.
I’d probably just ignore all of that in normal circumstances; I don’t think that joking about the tragedy is likely to harm anyone, and tut-tutting people who are joking is also not likely to harm anyone. It’s basically an argument about civility or the lack thereof; it doesn’t seem likely to have many consequences and it’s hard to get worked up about it. No one, billionaire or otherwise, is likely to be harmed or saved, either way.
There was one disturbing aspect of the back and forth though. Namely, people arguing for empathy for billionaires tended to slip into apologizing for billionaires as a class.
I’m not interested in calling anyone out, but one writer with a large following who I respect said that people who make $50,000 a year were wealthy by global standards, and so didn’t have standing to mock billionaires for being wealthy. Another writer (again, someone I follow and generally agree with) agreed that billionaires were upholding an evil system, but added that you could say that about anyone. Another poster characterized billionaires as people who happen to have more money than you.
All of these comments, to my mind, minimize the very real, concrete harms billionaires perpetrate inevitably by virtue of becoming billionaires. To amass that much money requires exploitation of other people on an unimaginable scale. And then, once you are a billionaire, you are basically unaccountable to anyone. Governments have little sway; the political process often buckles before you. The extremely wealthy are international oligarchs; they rule the world. Comparing that to someone who makes $50k a year, or characterizing it as equivalent to someone having more money than you—that’s like saying a cop and a janitor have jobs that are structurally morally equivalent because they both wear uniforms.
I think that in most contexts most people on the left—and for that matter many people not on the left—understand that billionaires have really massive structural power that is not comparable to the life experience of most people. So why all of a sudden are some people on the left minimizing that?
The answer is fairly straightforward; they’re minimizing it because the sub accident led them to empathize with the victims. They put themselves in the place of people dying in a horrible, terrifying way. They thought of themselves in the place of these billionaires, and so they emotionally and cognitively reduced the distance between billionaires and themselves.
This is what empathy is supposed to do; it erases distance and difference. It helps you understand and sympathize with others. That’s a good thing, right?
Sometimes, maybe, it is a good thing. But not always. As philosopher Kate Manne points out in her book Down Girl, empathy—like all other resources—tends to flow towards the most powerful. Manne points especially to cases of sexual harassment or violence, in which public empathy tends to focus most on the potential damage to men who commit violence, rather than on women who are targeted for it. She calls this “himpathy”—default empathy for men.
Empathy doesn’t just flow towards men, though; it also flows towards the wealthy. You can see that in the discussion of the sub. The accident received a lot of media attention and discussion; people discussed at length the incredible suffering faced by those onboard.
But of course people die in incredibly horrible ways all the time. A fishing boat carrying hundreds of migrants sank in Greek waters this week before the sub failed; as a number of commenters have pointed out, it received a lot less media attention than the sub, and a lot fewer resources were devoted to rescue attempts.
No Pity for the NPCs
Billionaires are seen as Player Characters; they have individuality, backstories, motives, inner lives. What happens to them matters; you are supposed to see yourself in them, and feel bad when bad things happen to them, because they’re important. Migrants on the other hand, are always suffering—who has the time or patience to put yourself in all of them? We feel less empathy for those with less power—which in turn contributes to their powerlessness. It’s hard to organize against billionaires when people feel the plight of billionaires more acutely than the plight of those who billionaires crush.
Himpathy, or billionpathy, isn’t something people choose; it’s an unthinking cultural norm, hammered in by what sort of people get to be protagonists in fiction, by who the media reports on, by the stories we tell ourselves and the stories we put ourselves in. And while it’s about sympathy, it’s also about attention. Spending your time happily dreaming about the death’s of billionaires is a kind of empathy too; you can put yourself in someone else’s place to savor their suffering, after all. It’s not even that uncommon.
You might argue that even this article is participating in billionpathy, since it’s mostly (if somewhat abstractly) about feeling with, or towards, billionaires. Cultural defaults are difficult to avoid. But that’s all the more reason to be aware of them. Demanding more empathy for billionaires is like demanding more money for billionaires; they already have plenty of both, and indeed, their massive hoardings of each help build their massive hoardings of the other. The death of a couple of billionaires isn’t going to change much of anything. But if we were able to care about, and think about, the deaths of the marginalized the way we care about and think about billionaires—well, that might be a revolution.
Images of billionaires with many empathizers, from top:
Elon Musk (Credit: Debbie Rowe CC)
Bill Gates (Credit: Kuhlmann CC)
Ending scene of Succession
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