Trump, TikTok, and America’s cognitive empathy deficit
As you may have heard, President Trump is waging thermonuclear war against a smartphone app. Last week he declared, in an executive order, that the famously zany video app TikTok represents a national emergency and will be crippled by new legal restrictions come late September—unless, he has said, it’s sold to an American company by the Chinese company that owns it.
You may have also heard that Chinese political and corporate leaders aren’t happy about this. But you probably haven’t heard that lots and lots of regular Chinese people aren’t happy about it. This is something that, so far as I can tell, the American media isn’t reporting.
In fact, to confirm my suspicion about this grassroots blowback, I had to go beyond googling and email a Chinese-American friend who for years lived in China and now follows China closely as part of his job back here in the States. He emailed back, “There's certainly a lot of popular resentment at the Trump Administration for the TikTok ban.” Many Chinese people are “livid,” he continued, “that Trump has tried to kneecap the one Chinese app to finally break through globally.”
In other words: Trump’s latest move has strengthened nationalist sentiment in China. And you know who likes to keep nationalist sentiment strong in China? Xi Jinping, the country’s authoritarian leader, whose popularity is directly proportional to it.
Kind of ironic! After all, a professed purpose of Trump’s increasingly hostile stance toward China is to weaken its authoritarian leader. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, in a landmark speech delivered last month at the Richard Nixon library, said the U.S. must “engage and empower the Chinese people” to that end. (He “stopped shy of explicitly calling for regime change,” the Wall Street Journal noted.) Yet Trump, rather than engage the Chinese people, is alienating them—and in the process has empowered the regime.
Paul Bloom is not a monster! I don’t normally begin my introductions of people with those kinds of reassurances, but Paul, a professor of psychology at Yale, is the author of a book called Against Empathy—and that title has led to some misunderstandings. Paul would like you to know that he isn’t entirely against empathy; he’s just against its counterproductive application—which he thinks is pretty common. After his book came out in 2016, I had a conversation with him on The Wright Show. I always have fun talking to Paul, and I think this extended excerpt shows why.
BLOOM: ...I actually suffer from an abundance of empathy. This book is, in some sense, a self-help book for myself. I tear up at things, I get really upset when I hear stories about people suffering. My charitable contributions are bizarre, based on personal prejudices and strong feelings. ...
WRIGHT: So this book is a cry for help. ...
This is definitely a cry for help.
I would think that the temptation, if you write a book called Against Empathy, when you meet someone who has only heard the title, … is to say, "No, don't get the wrong idea." … The subtitle kind of says it: "The case for rational compassion."
Exactly. The subtitle … is ... saying: “Look, I'm against something, but this is not one of those weird pro-psychopathy books that [says] we should be cruel to each other. It's not some sort of a plea for selfishness or brutality. It's rather: if you want to be a good person, there's a better way to do it.” ...
Some people think "empathy" is just a catch-all term for everything good: being kind, being moral, being compassionate or understanding. I have no problem if people want to use the word that way, and in that case, I'm not against empathy. I mean it in a more narrow sense: roughly, putting yourself in the shoes of other people, feeling their pain, feeling their suffering.
And even taking that into account, I'm not against empathy for all realms of life. I think it's a wonderful source of pleasure. But the argument I make, which still remains somewhat controversial is that this narrow type of empathy is a very bad moral guide. It makes us into worse people, it makes the world worse.
... I think later we'll get into some of these distinctions: between empathy and compassion, and also a distinction you make between emotional empathy—you know, feeling their pain—and cognitive empathy, [which is] just understanding what the world looks like to them—that you're not railing against. ...
A piece in the newsletter BNet makes the case that, “Being skeptical of TikTok is not weird. Being skeptical of TikTok to a far larger degree than any other Big Tech company is absolutely weird.”
Wondering what kind of influence Kamala Harris might exert on foreign policy in a Biden administration? In October of last year, in the lefty periodical In These Times, Branko Marcetic profiled the Center for a New American Security, the think tank that was channeling its influence on the presidential campaign largely “through the campaign of Sen. Kamala Harris, who has drawn heavily from its ranks to fill her line-up of foreign policy advisors.”
In Tricycle, Ann Gleig, author of American Dharma: Buddhism Beyond Modernity, looks at the historical relationship between Buddhists and racial justice.
In FiveThirtyEight, Likhitha Butchireddygari recently looked at the polling on American attitudes toward China over the last fifteen years. Plot spoiler: we’re at a Sinophilic low point. But Butchireddygari explains why these sentiments may not give Trump much help in the 2020 election.
In MIT’s Technology Review, Tanya Basu offers some advice on how to change the minds of conspiracy theory believers in your life.
On The Wright Show, I recently had conversations with two DC foreign policy thinkers—Heather Hurlburt, a self-described “pragmatic liberal internationalist,” and Emma Ashford, a “realist”—about what paradigm should guide America’s engagement with the world. Plus, I’m now doing a weekly show with my old friend and ideological nemesis (He voted for Trump!) Mickey Kaus. Audio versions of all these conversations are available on The Wright Show podcast feed.