Call Outs and Anti-Social Empathy

This was the first post I made where I really came out about my opposition to cancel culture after many years defending it. I adapted it from a thread I wrote on my mastodon account. It was originally published on Instagram on December 28, 2020.

Call Outs and Anti-Social Empathy

For a long time I’ve been pretty pro- the “call-out culture isn’t real” camp until I read a book over the summer about trauma and neurobiology called Brain Talk by David Schnarch.

While this book on the surface has next to nothing to do with callout culture explicitly, it’s the concepts within that I have slowly begun to apply to my own life that has deeply shaken the way I see the world.

The book introduces a phenomenon called “anti-social empathy.”

To define this briefly, Schnarch defines empathy as the universal animalian ability to sense/understand what another is thinking and feeling. For instance looking at an angry animal and knowing you need to get away. Unlike our common definition, empathy is neutral. However there are two kinds of empathy he defines: pro-social, and anti-social empathy.

Anti-social empathy is simply when we use our capacity to understand others in harmful ways for self-serving purposes. Reasons can range on a spectrum from tactically wanting to get an advantage over someone to literally getting pleasure from someone else’s pain (schadenfreude is an example given in the book).

While some people may tend to operate more from anti-social empathy, it is something that literally everyone engages in. In fact in his other book Passionate Marriage, Schnarch reveals that in working with clients, he cannot work with people who refuse to admit that they sometimes engage in hurting others on purpose.

This book has had me interrogating everything I once believed. Those who follow my newsletter have already read some of my thoughts around this, but a couple of the most intense and difficult realizations I have come to personally have been surrounding abuse interventions and call-out culture. The former because this book has shown me that a method exists for successfully intervening on abuse, and the latter because I have begun to see anti-social empathy all around me.

Something that has helped me reconcile my fervent desire for accountability in communities with my emerging observations about call-out culture is the fact that often in anti-callout culture discourse, I seldom see accurate assessments of harm. This is often what drove me towards the pro-callout camp, and what drives me so strongly towards Schnarch’s work.

Not only does he not justify or excuse harmful behavior, he actively confronts it. More than that, his method assumes that people show up wearing masks.

I have long loathed the post-callout PR statements that exposed abusers write because anyone who knows and understands abuse knows that they are often full of bullshit and evasion of accountability. They give abusers the option to occupy space as a victim or worse, as someone to laud for displaying “accountability.”

Schnarch knows that people often mask and contort the truth in self-serving ways and his method accommodates for that in a way I so seldom see. And beautifully, he addresses these things in a way that is productive and truly helps people to move into new ways of being.

Looking back it’s striking to me how much I normalized anti-social empathy and how much I had to fracture/dissociate in order to justify it. Schnarch discusses this at length in his book- that trauma arises when an event unfolds and we are missing accurate mind maps of the people involved. When you cannot reconcile the memory/or perhaps observation with what the narrative is, your memory fragments causing all kinds of trauma symptoms. Once we access an accurate mind map, often our functioning improves.

To put it briefly- something I have realized is how much energy I have invested into justifying people being cruel, self-righteous, and treating people like garbage.

My struggle to incorporate this has been a long one. I relied on justification to help me satisfy the cognitive dissonance but as time wore on these justifications grew thinner and thinner. But the question was always there. People say call out culture isn’t real because people retain platforms and social capital. People say call-outs are just critique. I used to believe this myself. And while on the pro-call out side there are some truths that need to be reckoned with by those who oppose them, I can’t continue lying to myself that call-outs and cancelling haven’t come to define a strategy on the left that causes immense damage and justifies controlling behaviors.

To continue lying to myself in that way would be to fragment the part of me that works from pro-social empathy and knows when I see anti-social empathy being used to manipulate or to serve ego, versus the part of me that was invested in not challenging the narrative of call outs. Denying that call outs are used to humiliate and punish people was causing me so much internal stress.

Ultimately seeing things through the lens of anti-social empathy has been a game changer, because it gives me something concrete to ground myself in when assessing action. It’s not that hard to tell the difference between someone who wants to hurt or punish someone versus someone who is truly looking for transformation or who has sought it, been denied it, and legitimately decided that the danger was too big not to warn others about.

Rejecting punitive strategies doesn’t mean not critiquing people or holding them accountable. It just means we are aware when our strategies are being used to make ourselves feel powerful and self-righteous at someone’s expense, versus when they are being used towards the growth and liberation of everyone involved.

I’ve posted a lot about callout culture here. I’ve studied the discourse and staked a claim on one side and now that is changing as I grow.

I still reject those who leverage the anti-callout culture discourse to evade accountability for serially abusive behaviors.

But my vision for how to answer for this has changed.

Call Outs and Anti-Social Empathy

For a long time I’ve been pretty pro- the “call-out culture isn’t real” camp until I read a book over the summer about trauma and neurobiology called Brain Talk by David Schnarch.

While this book on the surface has next to nothing to do with callout culture explicitly, it’s the concepts within that I have slowly begun to apply to my own life that has deeply shaken the way I see the world.

The book introduces a phenomenon called “anti-social empathy.”

To define this briefly, Schnarch defines empathy as the universal animalian ability to sense/understand what another is thinking and feeling. For instance looking at an angry animal and knowing you need to get away. Unlike our common definition, empathy is neutral. However there are two kinds of empathy he defines: pro-social, and anti-social empathy.

Anti-social empathy is simply when we use our capacity to understand others in harmful ways for self-serving purposes. Reasons can range on a spectrum from tactically wanting to get an advantage over someone to literally getting pleasure from someone else’s pain (schadenfreude is an example given in the book).

While some people may tend to operate more from anti-social empathy, it is something that literally everyone engages in. In fact in his other book Passionate Marriage, Schnarch reveals that in working with clients, he cannot work with people who refuse to admit that they sometimes engage in hurting others on purpose.

This book has had me interrogating everything I once believed. Those who follow my newsletter have already read some of my thoughts around this, but a couple of the most intense and difficult realizations I have come to personally have been surrounding abuse interventions and call-out culture. The former because this book has shown me that a method exists for successfully intervening on abuse, and the latter because I have begun to see anti-social empathy all around me.

Something that has helped me reconcile my fervent desire for accountability in communities with my emerging observations about call-out culture is the fact that often in anti-callout culture discourse, I seldom see accurate assessments of harm. This is often what drove me towards the pro-callout camp, and what drives me so strongly towards Schnarch’s work.

Not only does he not justify or excuse harmful behavior, he actively confronts it. More than that, his method assumes that people show up wearing masks.

I have long loathed the post-callout PR statements that exposed abusers write because anyone who knows and understands abuse knows that they are often full of bullshit and evasion of accountability. They give abusers the option to occupy space as a victim or worse, as someone to laud for displaying “accountability.”

Schnarch knows that people often mask and contort the truth in self-serving ways and his method accommodates for that in a way I so seldom see. And beautifully, he addresses these things in a way that is productive and truly helps people to move into new ways of being.

Looking back it’s striking to me how much I normalized anti-social empathy and how much I had to fracture/dissociate in order to justify it. Schnarch discusses this at length in his book- that trauma arises when an event unfolds and we are missing accurate mind maps of the people involved. When you cannot reconcile the memory/or perhaps observation with what the narrative is, your memory fragments causing all kinds of trauma symptoms. Once we access an accurate mind map, often our functioning improves.

To put it briefly- something I have realized is how much energy I have invested into justifying people being cruel, self-righteous, and treating people like garbage.

My struggle to incorporate this has been a long one. I relied on justification to help me satisfy the cognitive dissonance but as time wore on these justifications grew thinner and thinner. But the question was always there. People say call out culture isn’t real because people retain platforms and social capital. People say call-outs are just critique. I used to believe this myself. And while on the pro-call out side there are some truths that need to be reckoned with by those who oppose them, I can’t continue lying to myself that call-outs and cancelling haven’t come to define a strategy on the left that causes immense damage and justifies controlling behaviors.

To continue lying to myself in that way would be to fragment the part of me that works from pro-social empathy and knows when I see anti-social empathy being used to manipulate or to serve ego, versus the part of me that was invested in not challenging the narrative of call outs. Denying that call outs are used to humiliate and punish people was causing me so much internal stress.

Ultimately seeing things through the lens of anti-social empathy has been a game changer, because it gives me something concrete to ground myself in when assessing action. It’s not that hard to tell the difference between someone who wants to hurt or punish someone versus someone who is truly looking for transformation or who has sought it, been denied it, and legitimately decided that the danger was too big not to warn others about.

Rejecting punitive strategies doesn’t mean not critiquing people or holding them accountable. It just means we are aware when our strategies are being used to make ourselves feel powerful and self-righteous at someone’s expense, versus when they are being used towards the growth and liberation of everyone involved.

I’ve posted a lot about callout culture here. I’ve studied the discourse and staked a claim on one side and now that is changing as I grow.

I still reject those who leverage the anti-callout culture discourse to evade accountability for serially abusive behaviors.

Those on BOTH sides of this discourse need to be taking personal responsibility for learning how to confront abuse effectively in our communities. Call-outs have arisen out of a need that hasn’t been met and that needs to be acknowledged. The need is for communities that intervene in and address abuse when it is happening, and no matter where you fall in this conversation, if you aren’t doing that, you aren’t doing your part.

But my vision for how to answer for this has changed.Those on BOTH sides of this discourse need to be taking personal responsibility for learning how to confront abuse effectively in our communities. Call-outs have arisen out of a need that hasn’t been met and that needs to be acknowledged. The need is for communities that intervene in and address abuse when it is happening, and no matter where you fall in this conversation, if you aren’t doing that, you aren’t doing your part.

About the Author

You may also like these