Against Tolerance: The Ethics of Empathy

by Rafaël Newman

“Quark”, photograph by the author, Bern 2018

I am employed two or three weekends a month as a minder or “Betreuer” at a treatment centre and halfway house for recovering drug addicts in Zurich. My duties include spending the night at the facility as the lone member of supervisory staff, eating meals with the clients, supervising their activities and accompanying their outings, taking urine samples and administering breathalyzer tests, distributing a variety of antidepressants and other prescription meds, and joining them for sessions of meditation and self-led group therapy.

Our clients typically come from the Swiss middle and working class, are predominantly white and “European”, and have in common with other addicts of my acquaintance a marked tendency to egocentrism and either a concomitant failure of empathy or, in reaction to the affective over-sensitivity that has come to be associated with addiction (particularly in the case of celebrity overdose victims such as Philip Seymour Hoffman), a self-protective closing of the border between self and other, whether by chemical, behavioral, or neurotic means.

Among my unspoken responsibilities as a minder, therefore, and in line with the principles of the self-help program that serve the center as an unofficial “philosophy”, is the performance of a living example: of empathy in action; of open-mindedness regarding others and their sensibilities or “struggles”; of humility and the will to serve, rather than simply to use, exploit, and consume. And as a consequence, the recovering addicts in my charge are, implicitly, to learn how to belong to a group rather than to go it alone, as they have been wont to do in active addiction.

For instance, in order to avoid the impression of unequal treatment, they are forbidden to receive gifts from their visitors, and may not listen to private music over headphones during group activities. They are thus led to replace the “I” of the using addict with the “we” of fellowship; and, by means of the brilliantly paradoxical alchemy common to all 12-steps practices, they are to “share” exclusively their own “experience, strength, and hope” in group meetings, speaking only in “I” statements and refraining from “crosstalk”, or offering advice or censure to other members – so that by thus rebuilding their damaged selves they may become plausible and empathetic interlocutors for others.

Some time ago, these mainly native (and occasionally “half-Swiss” or “international”) clients were joined by a young man from an African nation – I will call him Ahmed – who had come to Switzerland as an asylum-seeker, taken up work as a dishwasher in a local restaurant while sleeping on a colleague’s sofa, and fallen into the abuse of alcohol and THC. Ahmed was extremely polite, not to say courtly in his manners, with a tendency to pay elaborate compliments to female members of staff that were on occasion construed as flirting. He was reserved with the other clients, in part because, although he had excellent English in addition to his native tongue, his command of the local tongue was rudimentary, limited to the sort of semi-bureaucratic patois that is the lingua franca of many migrants caught in the limbo of application for status and the need to make good on their relative privilege by remitting their paltry earnings to indigent family members at home.

Furthermore, the staff were encouraged, indeed enjoined to speak to Ahmed only in Schriftdeutsch or “written German”, and not in any of the Swiss-German dialects shared by his fellow clients, ostensibly with an eye to furthering his eventual integration into the local school system (continuing studies under the supervision of an itinerant tutor are laid on at the home). The result, of course, was that Ahmed’s difference from his fellow clients was exaggerated: not only was he (at the time) the only dark-skinned resident, a practicing African Muslim surrounded by nominally Christian “westerners” (or rather northerners), and the sole provider of remittances among recipients of family and state largesse, he also spoke only “written German”, which obliged his interlocutors to address him in that awkward, semi-foreign tongue, reserved by nominally German-speaking Swiss for the contexts of education and conscription, before gradually subsiding into their various versions of Mundart, or “spoken language”, out of which Babel of idiolects it would then be my thankless task to recall them, time and again.

When Ahmed eventually broke off his therapy (having disobeyed a social worker’s instructions to remain indoors one afternoon when he was intent on transferring funds to his mother back home), left our facility for an asylum-seekers’ shelter, returned to his work as dishwasher, and had to be rescued by the police from a suicide attempt at the railway station, I was moved to think about the intersection of heterogeneity and ethical modelling I had witnessed and participated in against the context of the reception of refugees in various European countries currently ongoing. For what we had attempted to do in our therapeutic setting, after all, was a miniaturized version of the integration of refugees into Europe societies: we had set out rules to be followed and expectations to be met, in return for acceptance into the community and the promise of health, whether psychological or economic. We had expected Ahmed to feel his way into our local affective experience, to demonstrate a sort of pragmatic empathy for the lived reality of German-speaking Switzerland, albeit in its iteration as a community of recovering addicts.

Among our expectations, however, the insistence on Ahmed’s speaking and being spoken to only in the official, and not the popular, language, had further marked him as other, for all that it intended to facilitate his entry into the mechanism of “scholarization” that produces cultural capital and regulates social privilege. Were there other instances of such well-meaning but lopsided, or indeed frankly counter-productive, treatment to be observed in the course of the contemporary refugee-reception process, I wondered: cases in which the empathy called for from prospective recipients of asylum – the ability to feel their way into the mentality of a would-be host society in return for that society’s de facto compassion for their plight – had in the end only served to alienate them further?

In Gegen den Hass (“Against Hatred”, 2016), the journalist and philosopher Carolin Emcke has written of the importance to a democratic society of a sense of the past rooted in a hope for the future; and, in the contemporary German context, of the need for predominantly Syrian refugees to grasp and appreciate the central place of the Shoah in their host country’s “moral grammar”. What is expected of asylum-seekers in this construction is a form of ethical empathy, an understanding for the socio-historical experience of their host country’s (traditional) minorities as well as for the traditions and customs of the German Leitkultur or “majority culture”. Of course, even as that German majority culture “frees” itself, more or less recklessly, from the burden of its criminal past, the insistence by would-be “foreign” members of that society on its nefarious history risks alienating them from the newly emancipated culture. And it must be said that the expectation that Syrians – of mostly Muslim and Christian backgrounds – empathize with the sufferings of Jews and others victimized by the Third Reich is in fact a thinly veiled requirement that they “distance” themselves from the antisemitism and anti-Occidentalism perceived as inherent to “their” world view, an ideological “means test” that further distances them from the status of “acceptable” social actor. (In an interesting twist, a recent German film, Der Fall Collini, deploys this exigency to a suspenseful narrative end as a German-born lawyer of Turkish extraction insists on the continuing culpability of the Third Reich in the face of resistance on the part of “ethnic” Germans.)

Such a problematic call for ethical integration is echoed, in a different cultural and historical context, by Ian Buruma in his Murder in Amsterdam (2006), reflections on the assassination of the filmmaker Theo van Gogh by the Dutch-born Islamist Mohammed Bouyeri and the conflict within Dutch society between an aspirational culture of “tolerance”, on the one hand, and mounting anxieties on the part of the European majority about the Muslim minority. Buruma’s conclusion in 2006 was that the chief reproach leveled by liberal, ex-Christian Dutch cultural relativists against Muslim immigrants in Holland, mainly from rural, traditional Morocco, is their lack of tolerance, a virtue, akin to empathy, developed by the “white” Dutch majority in the course of its liberation from an onerous fundamentalist-Calvinist legacy, and hence now expected of aspirants to its ranks. (In other words, immigrants to Holland have been expected to repudiate their own fundamentalist tradition even as they paradoxically espouse a posture of cultural relativism and “tolerance” that would presumably allow them to live and, literally, let live.) Once again, what is expected here of would-be members of a “western” society is that they adopt an ethical stance typical of the host culture that could potentially set them at odds with the tradition from which they have come, and may even serve to distinguish them further from that same host culture by inclining them to an attitude of aloof and critical reason in the face of an entire ideological spectrum.

For as the philosopher Susan Neiman has noted, riffing on Goethe’s dictum that “to tolerate means to insult”: tolerance, far from being an expression of universal benevolence, may in fact be the manifestation of a latent impotence and contempt; one tolerates, after all, that which one cannot, or will not, eliminate. And “diversity” – of culture, religion, or creed – is not necessarily conducive to socio-political symbiosis; indeed, Tony Judt, the late, great champion of social democracy, in Ill Fares the Land (2010), presented statistical evidence for the potential advantages of ethnic homogeneity to the smooth functioning of liberal institutions (without for all that, of course, advocating such mono-ethnic political entities).

But then, empathy is not the same as tolerance, which recognizes and maintains difference even as it denies or seeks to minimize its effect on cooperation among a given group of actors. To be sure, empathy is also contingent upon difference, which, however, it resolves as fraternity: as a commonality of individuals united, in the Bosnian-American essayist and novelist Aleksandar Hemon’s fine formulation, by the fact that there is only one of each of them. Perhaps, rather than understanding (or practicing) empathy as the art of feeling one’s way into the lived experience of an Other, what one needs to do is to allow that Other’s lived experience to infiltrate one’s own: to experience oneself as an Other, with specific boundaries, freedoms, appetites, behavioral patterns, and constraints, born out of physical and historical circumstances, which that Other may share with certain members of a particular community, perhaps not the community one calls one’s own, but which may be the source of Otherness even within the Other’s ostensibly “homogeneous” culture of origin.

And perhaps empathy may thus become a way to constructively problematize the notion of national homogeneity as it is currently bedeviling the reception of refugees by societies whose ideal of “tolerance” has grown threadbare.