Identity Politics and the Death of Empathy


Dustin Messer

The identity politics being practiced on the left and the right is causing us to view one another as something less than human. We’re each being reduced to mere vehicles, valuable only to the extent that we’re useful in advancing one faction or another.

The recent “bombshell” New York Times piece on Brett Kavanaugh illustrates this point perfectly. If you’ve followed the story, you know the NYT published an article chronicling an alleged episode of sexual harassment by a then college-aged Kavanaugh. What was left out of the original report was the salient fact that the woman who’d reportedly been abused not only didn’t want to discuss the allegation, she didn’t remember the event at all.

The Dehumanization of Identity Politics

In a subsequent interview with WMAL, one of the authors of the piece, Robin Pogrebin, explains why she pursued the story despite the shaky ground upon which it was built: “We decided to go with it because obviously it is of a piece with a kind of behavior.” Pogrebin believed the cultural narrative which the event typified to be true, so she ran with the article despite any misgivings regarding the credibility of this particular story which should’ve been obvious to a seasoned reporter.

This is the natural consequence of identity politics, a phenomenon which is shrinking us all down to empty tokens. The reasoning goes like this, “so what if the story was wrong about the man if it was right about the message?” To the extent that we’ve adopted that sentiment, we’ve abandoned empathy.

“To imagine oneself in the place of another,” says David Dark, “is the only human future.” Why can’t we imagine ourselves in the place of the “other” today? Because our tribal moment has thoroughly dehumanized us all, and Justice Kavanaugh is just one example of that sad fact. We’re so busy worrying about broader cultural trends that we’ve ceased to be able to understand, grapple, and empathize with actual people.

You see, at some point Brett Kavanaugh lost his personhood in our eyes: he became a symbol, a representative of something larger than—and outside of—himself. Thus, one’s position on Kavanaugh’s guilt or innocence signaled one’s position on the right response to sexual harassment.

We’re told that if one acknowledges the unique difficulties woman face in our culture, then one must doubt Kavanaugh’s innocence, and that if one believes Kavanaugh, then one must downplay the harmful way women are treated in our society. This is a false dichotomy. There is a third option.

Learning Empathy

In the fifth grade, I learned something about empathy while at an amusement park with my friend Stacy (not her real name). We were in line for a funnel cake, both of us still drenched from the water slide we’d just been on. A group of men in their 20s were behind us, taunting and gawking at Stacy. They shouted, “we’re just trying to read your shirt!” as they took turns putting their faces up to her chest, obviously seeing through her shirt.

They laughed as we walked away—me in anger, she in equal parts fear and shame. The thought of that little fifth grade girl—head down, arms tightly crossed—always comes to mind when I hear conservatives reflexively insisting that “women have never had it so good.”

My belief that the New York Times article is an example of shameful gaslighting doesn’t mean I must doubt that systemic objectification of women in our culture is a serious problem, just as my anger toward the silent, passive adults in line that day with Stacy and me doesn’t mean I must pick up the pitchfork and join the mob coming after Kavanaugh.

The script being provided by the left and the right casts us each as combatants in the melee of the culture wars—to question your side is tantamount to treason.

As Christ-followers, we must balk at such a role if we’re to keep our integrity. We’ll have to find a new, different way to live in the public square. In our effort to find a fresh path forward, the 16th century Reformer John Calvin can be of help:

Christians ought to imagine themselves in the place of the person who needs their help, and they ought to sympathize with him as though they themselves were suffering; they ought to show real mercy and humanness and offer their assistance as readily as if it were for themselves.


Identity politics forces us to choose between two losing sides in this political proxy war and view every particular incident through that prism, having our judgement motivated by what will help our side and hurt the other. But my belief in what Calvin called “humanness” keeps me from picking sides. Both the right and the left are guilty of the same error, both are withholding empathy by viewing people as something less than human—as instruments, as cogs.

Before we can imagine ourselves in the place of the other, we must again learn to see the other as human, which will require us to abandon the tribalism which got us into this mess in the first place. It won’t be easy—nothing worthwhile ever is—but practicing empathy is the only human future.


Dustin Messer is a theology teacher at Legacy Christian Academy in Frisco, TX and a minister at All Saints Dallas and the author of Secular Sacraments: Finding Grace in the World and Sin in the Church


Image: YouTube


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