Empathy and Post-Election Dynamisms

If you’re an American with intellectual and emotional overexcitability, it’s probably been a rough month for you.

That my first post-election entry features the Theory of Positive Disintegration (TPD) is no contrived effort to stick to a theme.  As I reflected on those first few days after the Calamity, when feelings churned across Facebook like waves rebounding off breakwaters into still more waves, it struck me that this is what a collective experience of disintegration looks like.  Though I can’t call it a positive disintegration for the country in general, TPD’s insights nevertheless seem applicable to anyone who feels driven to become a human catalyst—and we sure are going to need such people.

In particular, I’d like to talk about TPD’s dynamisms: the forces created when our instincts and intellectual processes merge with our emotions.  They cause our mental structures to disintegrate—and, once we’ve developed sufficiently, to reintegrate.  Two dynamisms strike me as immediately relevant: hierarchization of values and empathy.

To see them unfold, let’s go back to when those waves were freshly churning.


After the shock of the Calamity came the anger.  It wasn’t just from the disappointed: the victors, too, were angry.  How could you suggest I’m a racist?!  In the midst of a national social media meta-discussion, it was not necessary to actually call a given person racist; the implication was in the air.

I engage Trump supporters because I do want to understand—a word that some have maligned lately because of its misapplication by a subset of self-flagellating liberals.  Let’s be clear: understand in this context means not sympathize with or condone, but merely comprehend, to gain useful knowledge to apply to a goal.  I maintain that it is important to understand, as I am afraid that the DNC will refuse to learn anything from their catastrophic loss.  That’s a post for another time; suffice it for now to say merely that I do not think that everyone who voted for Trump is actively motivated by an unshakable hate.  But beyond that, as someone with intellectual overexcitability, I’m constitutionally incapable of abandoning efforts to understand.  Even when it feels like I’m repeatedly stabbing myself in the face with a spork.

On top of that, emotional overexcitability provides another reason to engage in discussion with to Trump supporters.  In my state of shock, I was looking for an explanation for this that did not confirm my worst fears.  A conversation I had read in an AP report in July represented what I hoped explained the Trump phenomenon. It quotes some of his supporters in West Virginia, who did express qualms:

Adams [who hung a “Make America Great Again” banner in his house] doesn’t like everything Trump has to say, particularly about immigration. He imagines immigrants are a lot like West Virginians: hard workers, doomed by the place of their birth to be down on their luck, looking for a better life. Adams’ business partner, Leslie Arthur, isn’t quite sure Trump should be trusted with the nuclear codes. Mike Honaker, who runs the local funeral home, doesn’t appreciate how he talks about women. Mike Kirk in the pawn shop cringes when he hurls schoolyard taunts.

Well, that’s something to cling to: these people did seem to be put off by the same things I was.  While I disagree strongly with their judgment as to which evil was lesser in this election, they did at least acknowledge that they were voting for an evil.

But few Trump supporters seemed willing to say as much in the immediate aftermath of the realization of their hopes.  Instead, discussions I’ve had and observed with Trump supporters since the Calamity tended to degenerate into appeals to emotion.  Underneath blatant dismissals of evidence contrary to their beliefs, this is what I think I heard: I feel judged and I don’t like that.

To such a person, I would say, I understand that any given Trump voter may not be at the conferences where white supremacists claim that white people built this country all by themselves for themselves; however, I have yet to see a Trump voter stand and condemn this.  I have not heard Trump supporters disavow his treatment of women.  And don’t even get me started on his mocking a disabled man.  How could anyone I respect vote for such a man, without at least wanting to caveat their vote?  I don’t understand.

But if you aren’t inclined to help me assuage my intellectual OE, that’s fine.  I don’t fault anyone for not being into debate.

What troubles me is that I see no empathy.

Trump supporters at the National Policy Institute, a white supremacist organization, tweeted this photo on November 19, 2016.

As I was pondering all this, I happened upon this 1976 article on positive disintegration and moral education, which refers back to a book Dabrowski had written two years earlier.  The emphasis here is mine:

Perhaps Dabrowski’s most remarkable “moral treatise” (still only in mimeo form) is his 1974 publication Multilevelness of Emotional and Instinctive Functions, Vol I, in which he considers more than fifty functions ranging from laughter to suicide and differentiates five levels for each of these functions. For example, justice ranges from primitive self-protective forms to its highest levels—justice through self giving with an “all encompassing universal love above justice” (p 151).

This passage resonates when I think about some of the most ominous and controversial of the many ideas floated in the Trump campaign.  Those who are in favor deporting illegal immigrants generally appeal to “fairness,” while those who condemn Trump’s plan envision the suffering it will cause fellow human beings.  There is also an emotional foundation: those who would support a Muslim registry seem to be fueled by fear, while those who are horrified by the very mention are driven by the mixture of emotions they felt when they studied the history of our country and our world, including both pride in our national ideals and shame when we failed to live up to them.

There are higher and lower emotions.  There are paths that lead us toward our ideals and paths that lead away from them.  Shame, incidentally, is a Level III dynamism, and national ideals are not far off of the only Level V dynamism: that of a personality ideal at which we are all aiming.  When a person recognizes this multilevelness, they’re experiencing a dynamism central to positive disintegration called hierarchization of values.  No one disputes, for instance, that “fairness” is, in isolation, a positive value.  But what does fairness mean?  On what scale?  Is it fair that some are condemned to suffer because of where they were born?  Where does fairness rank compared to other values that might also be relevant?


Empathy is also a dynamism.  TPD defines true empathy—the kind that is a force for growth—as a higher form of something called syntony.  Syntony simply means being responsive to one’s environment, including the people in it.  When some liberals condemn efforts to “understand” Trump’s supporters, I presume they are speaking about this type of reflexive action, meant merely to protect people from discomfort, or to give them what they want because otherwise they’ll throw a fit.

High level empathy, which emerges alongside a hierarchy of values, does not simply mean coddling feelings.  Politeness, like fairness, has value, but it also may fall rather low on a person’s hierarchy of values.  It is possible to have empathy for the life struggles and concerns of a given person of a different political persuasion without condoning everything they believe; I will continue to try to do this, because they, too, are fellow humans.  Being who I am, I remain willing to engage with anyone who wants to have a discussion—up to a point.

But there are things that Trump and his allies have said that do indeed cross a line, and at this point, my hierarchy of values and my empathy for fellow human beings compel me to take a stand.  Dear Trump supporters, if you would not be painted with the same brush as white supremacists, rape apologists, and general thugs and bullies, then I urge you to condemn them in the strongest possible terms.  If this is not who you are, make it known.  We don’t assume anything anymore: the world we thought we knew has disintegrated.

Which brings me to another passage from the 1976 article I quoted above:

Negative adjustment is adjustment to “what is.” Positive adjustment is adjustment to  “what ought to be.” Moral judgements move from levels determined by instincts of self preservation and “keeping out of trouble,” to a balanced concern for oneself in the context of other human beings and things.

Essentially, those who exhort us to “give him a chance” are upset with our positive maladjustment.  But what we are seeing now are things to which it’s not healthy to be “well adjusted.”  If you are concerned about others’ judgment, I have only this to say: we have nothing to hate but hate itself.

And I do hate it.

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