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Empathy for Russia after Trump's ascent



We do not know what the contours of a Trump presidency will look like. Nevertheless, I think that there is already one important lesson we can draw from what has come as a huge surprise to most people: the need for empathy to supplement information.

xxxxxWe talk, glibly, of 'information technology'. The internet and the power of mass computing mean that those lucky enough to have access to a computer can, with the click of a mouse, discover the details of everything from the Investiture Controversy to the Krebs cycle. Those who run security services can, as Edward Snowden and others have told us, tell you much more besides — the contents of your emails, who you spoke to last week or who is slated for annihilation by drone.

Yet all this information can actually be downright misleading. The fact that there is just so much of it sloshing around means we have to filter it somehow. Human nature being what it is, we tend to live in an echo chamber, only listening to the news we like.

Of course, to some degree it was ever thus: Greens voters don't usually buy the Tele and One Nation supporters rarely read The Guardian. With the rise in electronic media, however, this tendency is magnified: by choosing what you see and hear, you never have to know what your neighbour thinks. That way, you also don't have to talk to them, have your views challenged or grow in understanding.

While this impoverishes individuals, cutting them off from others, breeding intolerance and stifling the healthy debates which were supposed to be part of the essence of free speech in a democratic society, it also has lethal effects on the political stage.

The US election serves as Exhibit A. Because they listened only to like-minded people, pollsters, pundits and pollies were blindsided by a Trump victory and are now scrambling to formulate a response.

Yet the deep-seated sense of alienation of people laid off in a globalising world and suffering from economic austerity has been visible (for those who would see it) for years: in the Greek protests against austerity, the rise of Berlusconi and later Grillo in Italy, the Brexit vote, the rise of One Nation and now Trump. Yet somehow, each of these things was always regarded as just one more aberration.

How quickly we forget the desperation of millions when they felt discarded and humiliated in the Europe of the 1920s and 1930s and the way in which unscrupulous tyrants harnessed them. Yet, in our defence, who knew? 


"If a failure of empathy marks our understanding of internal politics, its effects are magnified, with even worse results, in the international arena."


In an age where interception of communications makes the STASI look like rank amateurs, no-one was listening to the little people. Their world was so far removed from the circles of the good and the great (for whom globalisation was all roses and sunshine) upon which the media focussed that no-one paid real attention to the fear and anger — preferring to mock the uncouth demagogue who, like others before him, saw a shortcut to power by channelling that hurt and hate and focusing it on his preferred targets.

If a failure of empathy marks our understanding of internal politics, its effects are magnified, with even worse results, in the international arena. A classic example is Russia. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, the West has failed to take Russian interests seriously. They lost the Cold War, after all, and should now be expected to take their medicine quietly. Ironically, Vladimir Putin rules using the same constitution which the west's drunken darling Boris Yeltsin imposed on Russia after turning artillery on parliament in 1993. Its provisions then were hailed as a triumph of democracy. The feelings of a beaten and fleeced people were not regarded as worth noting.

What the west sees as militaristic revanchism by a mad dictator is seen by many Russians as an attempt at regaining self-respect. Rightly or wrongly, the encounter in Syria and America's recent threats to shoot down Russian aircraft there have led to nuclear warfare civil defence drills in Russia. These fears are stoked by western talk of nuclear primacy over Russia and actual NATO military build-up on its borders as well as memories of past encirclement and invasion by everyone from Prussian knights to Hitler.

Again, I stress that I endorse neither the Russian government nor its point of view. However, knowing that the other side has a point of view and what it is is vital in avoiding miscalculations. You don't get a second chance with nuclear weapons.

Empathy saves lives and, who knows, maybe all life.


Justin GlynFr Justin Glyn SJ is studying canon law in Canada. Previously he practised law in South Africa and New Zealand and has a PhD in administrative and international law.

Topic tags: Justin Glyn, Donald Trump, US, nuclear war, Russia, Putin



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Existing comments

Well said, Justin. Of perhaps better, "Well written". Power to your arm.

Brendan Byrne | 15 November 2016  

Sorry but this sounds awfully like appeasement to me

Maureen clarke | 16 November 2016  

Maureen clarke : "Sorry but this sounds awfully like appeasement to me ". To an attuned ear it might sound more like a caution against over-reacting, which could lead to disaster

Robert Liddy | 16 November 2016  

The collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War should have seen Russia and the West come together. However at the time of German reunification, George Bush Snr apparently told or indicated to Russia that there would be no eastward expansion of NATO (there is some dispute as to what exactly was said). Bill Clinton then reneged on this apparent agreement, which put an end to any chance of Russia and the West becoming allies. In fact it only confirmed Russian distrust of the West. The US has been carrying the burden of the military defence of the West since WW2, and Trump wants Europe and its other allies to contribute more. As Trump will be inheriting a $20 trillion debt, his demands are fair enough. Trump also seems to get along reasonably well with Putin which augurs well for the future.

Ross Howard | 17 November 2016  

Russia is the home of the largest of the sister churches to the Roman Catholic Church. If we are going to ask God at every Mass to "look not on our sins but on the faith of your church", perhaps at least the Catholics in the Christian West should look not on the sins of Putin but on the faith of the Russian Orthodox Church as the reason for encouraging honest relations with Russia.

Roy Chen Yee | 18 November 2016  

Thanks Justin. A great admonition to either know or respect our adversary as Chinese wisdom always suggested. But to understand the whole of the population not just the writing elites. Just noticed on the Guardian that there were 50,000 hate tweets in the month following the murder of Jo Cox. What were they feeling and what were they thinking and who listened to them despite their ugly utterances?

Michael D. Breen | 27 November 2016  

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