Sympathy for the Devil

The question is simple:

What group of people holding a perspective you completely disagree with, or who have committed actions you abhor do you find yourself having more sympathy/empathy than most others would, and why?

This one has the potential to go off the rails fast, so I ask that in the interests of productive discussion, we not assume the absolute worst on the part of a commenter.

As an example: If someone says, “Trump voters.” How about we not immediately assume that they have a high tolerance for racism and misogyny because they’re assholes? Or worse, that they’re secretly a Trump supporter? By the nature of the prompt all of the sympathy/empathy here will be displayed for people who are kind of terrible or disagreeable in one way or another. It may be a group that you personally have particularly no empathy/sympathy for, and likely for good reason. But also by the nature of the prompt: Understand the commenter in no way condones the behavior or perspective in question. Some people have family ensnared in some particularly nasty business. Others may have left a perspective behind and retain a deep understanding of the people who maintain that perspective.

As to empathy/sympathy: I don’t want to get too hung up in dictionary definitions. Pick the one that you feel describes your attitude best.


I have a lot of sympathy for all sorts of devils. I have a tendency to believe that saying, “No group of people should be dehumanized… unless they’re not people,” has a way of going awry no matter how you slice it. I don’t think, for instance, there’s a lot of space between the attitude that all child molesters should die gruesome deaths, and some truly awful behavior. One too easily (and conveniently) transmutes to the other, as in the horrific antigay violence in Uganda and Russia, often predicated on anti-pedophilia. I don’t buy that it’s merely pretext, either. You don’t have to go far to see the earnestness of the perspective, even if it’s mixed with more naked prejudice. I don’t think humans are good at the justice thing. I don’t think it was something we evolved to be good at, at all. I think every single instinct we have on justice should be suppressed, because we’re so fucking bad at it.

So I often find myself arguing for compassion on this board, in circumstances where people really are not inclined to see the point. I’ve been attacked as condoning or approving a monstrous behavior before, and I likely will again. I see it as important to reflect a lot of the ugliness a lot of people are willing to throw out at people they deem deserving and ask whether that ugliness often has the same source as the monstrosity they so despise. It’s not about moral equivalence… it’s a more utilitarian perspective than that. It’s the idea that we cannot be trusted to excuse our own behavior when outraged.

With that in mind, my answer to the question is that I find I have a lot of empathy for people who buy into the excesses and injustices of their prevailing culture and historical context. There was a time when hanging, drawing, and quartering would have been seen as just. There was a time when the wholesale chattel ownership of human beings was seen as normal. There was a time when putting people in solitary confinement was seen as reasonable and even useful. There was a time when we thought imprisonment was the best form of punishment. There was a time before we could rectify the worst impulses of a human being through radical nanoneurotherapy to change their personalities. There was a time when we thought radical nanoneurotherapy was ethical…

We’re never as enlightened as we think we are. I’m not ignoring the abolitionists of the past, the humanitarians, the peace-makers, or the anti-nanoneurotherapists of the future. They’re all the voices of conscience and reason that make the ethical world move in time and space. But everyone has a way of not being able to see a little further, or reach a little farther. Everyone is trapped behind an ethical horizon created by their history and context.

So I feel a certain sense of pity for the people who dirty themselves with injustice because they literally don’t know any better, or because they found convenience in the injustice of their time. After all, I know that I can’t guarantee that I’d be better or more righteous than society at large if I were born in another place, in another time, to another family, with a different set of experiences. I also know that I’m blind to the injustices I create and allow as I write this. I also know that I bear responsibility for my actions. I cannot reconcile all of these things that I know with a comfortable certainty that I’m not one of these people. That I am different. That I am exceptional. I feel empathy with these people because I’m fairly certain I’m one of them. That I just don’t see the great injustice in my life for what it is.

I feel bad for people, who, but for the set of random circumstances that placed them within their context, could have been better.


I dunno what more I can say… @ActionAbe pretty much covered it all.

Maybe I’ll just add that there’s another reason to be extremely wary of being riled up about paedophiles or terrorists - as soon as we say it’s okay to dehumanise any class of people, we open the gates to the erosion of due process and invite the scum to attack civil liberties in the name of security; that way lies dystopia. Any time I see that sort of rabble-rousing, it raises my hackles.


Abe, I think you overestimate the capabilities of this crowd. One can’t even discuss why people would do evil without being accused of promoting it, the nuance you’re after is not to be found. Just conflating empathy and sympathy for the pedants here is like yelling “squirrel!!!”

People do evil because they get something out of it. Many people, who would not do evil, wouldn’t mind getting that something if they could get it without doing evil. Therefore, they might empathize with those who would. But not ever say so because, well, you know. I’d make a mild example here and play your game, but I’ve been taught that the kind of intellectual exercise you propose is not tolerated here by those assured of their righteousness and omniscience.

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The literal devil as portrayed by Tom Waits in the otherwise uneven The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus.

Waits’ rendition had all the markers of a Great Satan: he was intelligent, well-spoken, well-dressed, compelling, and actually made evil look appealing (otherwise why would anyone be tempted in the first place?). And he’s truly in it for love of the game more than the victory, as evidenced by the part near the end when the title character’s daughter condemns her own soul to hell and a crestfallen Waits remarks “damn… I won.”


Chatted with my sister about this recently.

Our youngest cousin in our “clan” (my dad’s side of the family: think if the Brady Bunch was slightly larger and more dysfunctional and then everyone grew up and had a mess of kids) tends to post alt-right stuff to facebook. It is super easy to see why: he’s young, white, no girlfriend, crappy job and angry at the world that told him he deserved more.

Which I totally get. I was young and angry once, as well. Although to the extent I leaned right it was due more to my father’s influence.

So I make a point to be annoying annoying and respond to his most egregious posts with facts annoying dns references. Which of course starts flame wars with his actual idiot friends. His responses (when he makes them) are generally measured, muted.

Anyways, he is not a bad kid, and will grow up to be just fine. I hope anyways.


I feel deep compassion for those that felt marginalized, yet they didn’t realize how much power they had. My father comes to mind immediately, and he is an excellent object lesson in how you can correct your course.

He could easily have been an alt right evangelist, but through a series of nearly mortal circumstances is one of the most gentle people I know.

Alt right, we have a big tent over here. You have an open invitation, I hope you like good food and warm hearts.


Oh, and cake. We have cake. :sunglasses:


I’ll always have a little extra sympy for any victim that snaps and really loses it, no matter what they do.


Criminals of any sort. From the petty shoplifters, to the mass murderers, to the politicians.

Not because I feel a great deal of empathy for them, but because it seems that few people feel any for them at all.

I’m not exactly a determinist. I think that people can make choices that can change the future. However, I think it’s a little foolish to judge someone’s actions as if their history didn’t limit those choices. If a person is raised to believe that [insert group here] are hurting your friends and family, and that they aren’t real people, then why would they bother to learn the opposite?

I try (and fail, often) to not judge anyone other than myself. For the most part, I know why I do (or don’t do) things. I know the reason why I didn’t say “thank you” to the bus driver is because I was exhausted, not because I was deliberately trying to be rude, and I judge myself less harshly; I know that the reason I was late is because I got distracted reading again and not because of any circumstances out of my own control, and I judge myself more harshly. With someone else’s actions, I can’t know that.

On my worst days, I am a smug, condescending, pretentious, destructive, intolerant asshole. I don’t have days like that very often, but I’ve had them enough to know that that side of me exists. On the other hand, most days, I’m helpful and friendly to pretty much everyone (or, at least, I try to be; for me, “friendly” means “be pleasant when social contact is unavoidable, avoid social contact if it is polite to do so”). I would not want someone to judge who I am as a person by my worst days, and, for most people, how am I supposed to know if their behaviour is because they’re a bad person, or just having a very bad day/week/month/year?

So, when someone does something horrible, I reflect that this person is human, like I am, and that somewhere in me, there’s version of me that was brought up to believe that sinners are bad people who deserve eternal torture, and that whatever brief suffering I bring to them now means nothing next to that, and, if I have exactly the wrong series of really, really bad days, that part of me might come to the forefront. And that if I don’t want it to happen, that that’s exactly what I have to do: to think of these people as people, and not as “sinners” or “criminals” or any other label that strips them of their humanity.

If someone else chooses to see those people as monsters, then, well, I try not to judge them, either. Their choices have been just as restricted. But I do try to convince them to look at the “monsters” the same way I do. Because maybe there will be a day when they are face-to-face with some of their monsters, and my words will have given them a choice to not become a monster themselves.

On another note, I don’t think that “not having sympathy/empathy” is the right concept. The very concept of schadenfreude is that you do feel the pain that the other person is feeling, you know that they’re hurting, and the sympathetic pain gives you pleasure. But I can’t find a better word or saying or whatever to express the concept that we’re going for here, so I’ll just leave it at that.


People who eat ketchup on hotdogs and prefer Red Delicious apples

Look, we were all kids once. I understand. I still go for a Currywurst once in awhile… but that isn’t a hot dog.

And the apples that were available in a small town market aren’t the only apples out there. Try something new, you’ll be delighted. You’ll see that apples aren’t only a vehicle for Peanut Butter if the underlying apple flesh is crisp and tasty.


I almost always think that there are extenuating circumstances. Poverty, lack of education, lack of access to resources, mental health issues, addiction. I honestly think that if we could fix those issues our crime would be reduce to the actual “bad guys”. People that kill with no remorse, or even the white collar bankers, they just don’t fall into the same categories as the others. (as in I think they’re much much worse.)

Man, have you read some of the coverage of the fubar “south etobicoke” mega jail? So fucked up.


Holy crap, you’re not kidding…

I like the idea of “modern incarceration philosophy, which emphasizes rehabilitation over punishment,” but to say that it was poorly implemented in this instance would be like saying the surface temperature of the Sun is “a wee bit warm.”


A thing that gets over looked that bothers my Canadianess… we contracted the food too.
The food is American. In Ontario! We’re a foodbasket province and we’re trucking in industrial processed prison food from America. Thats bonkers.


That’s Entertainment Kickback Profits!


Non-offending pedophiles. There are a lot of people with desires they cannot control who nonetheless control their actions and don’t hurt people, and they don’t get much credit for that. I’m only attracted to adults, but I know I didn’t choose that, and so I’m fortunate to be wired that way.


I can handle the ketchup on hotdogs thing, especially if you don’t have any fresh tomatoes handy, but there’s absolutely no way I will ever accept someone voluntarily eating a Red Delicious apple. Abominations.


Yeah, the use of that term in place of ‘child molester’ or whatever gives me the pedant’s eye-twitch.

It’s like folks have eagerly embraced the paranoia that politicians and talkback radio douchebags try to spread… And thanks to that generalised conflation, civil liberties have taken a beating in recent years.

It’s as if hardly anyone knows that kids face the highest risk of sexual assault from family and friends of family… I tell you who I don’t have sympathy for - anyone who seeks to further distort the already woeful grasp of risk amongst the populace.


I don’t think “child molester” is particularly accurate to describe a person who has never and is working very hard to never molest a child. Thoughts aren’t crimes.