Issues in Philosophy Against Lynching as a Case "Against Empathy"

Against Lynching as a Case “Against Empathy”

by Kathryn J. Norlock, Trent University


When I first heard about Paul Bloom’s book, Against Empathy, I was keen to be persuaded to his view. I knew the bare outline of it and thought it sounded intriguing: Bloom holds that empathy for members of groups subjected to harm can lead to atrocity against other groups. However, it is jarring that he repeatedly uses lynching as an example of an empathy-fed atrocity.

Bloom’s presentation to the Canadian Philosophical Association this month was almost identical to an essay he contributed to The Atlantic in 2015. He is nothing if not consistent. The example of lynching appears there too, although more briefly than in his recent talk.

Bloom is a professor of psychology at Yale, so it should not surprise that he gets something importantly right about the science of empathy for those that we see suffer from a harm. He provides empirical evidence for Adam Smith’s observation in The Theory of Moral Sentiments from 1759, which Bloom quotes at length in his Atlantic essay:

Adam Smith observes that when we see someone harmed by another, we feed off his desire for vengeance: “We are rejoiced to see him attack his adversary in his turn, and eager and ready to assist him.” Even if he dies, our imagination does the trick: “We enter, as it were, into his body, and in our imaginations, in some measure, animate anew the deformed and mangled carcass of the slain, [and] bring home in this manner his case to our bosoms.”

Bloom reports that this is verified in recent research. In studies where participants read stories of someone who was wronged and were then put in a position to inflict some minor pain on the agent who caused the suffering, participants chose to inflict more pain when the victim reported suffering from the wrong instead of feeling unbothered. Demonstrating similar findings in his own research, Bloom concludes that empathic people [are] more aggressive when exposed to the suffering of strangers.” This is compelling, and plausible, built on an experience of witnessing pain.

“There is a history,” Bloom notes, to political manipulations of “this dark side of empathy.” He’s not wrong. There are both old and new examples of politicians offering sad stories of victims to audiences they wish to move to vengeance. For a recent example, Bloom appeals to Donald Trump’s use of Kate Steinle, “murdered in San Francisco by an undocumented immigrant, and Trump wants to make her real to his audience, to make vivid his talk of Mexican killers.” Kate Steinle, of course, was a real person and, whether the intention is to incur empathy in us or something else, one can feel pain, seeing the image of a person whose life was cut short. It is at least possible that, whatever the manipulative aim of the politician, the result was that some audience members felt empathy for the person killed.

Yet then Bloom quickly trots out lynching as an example: “Lynchings in the American South were often sparked by stories of white women who were assaulted by blacks, and anti-Semitic attacks prior to the Holocaust were often motivated by tales of Jews preying on innocent German children. Who isn’t enraged by someone who hurts a child?” At the conference last week, Bloom helpfully provided images to illustrate each. I looked at the image of the Black man hanging from a noose and thought that I was glad to be forearmed with the insightful work of Ida B. Wells.

Most Americans today know that Ida B. Wells was a writer and newspaper editor who, in the 1890s, bravely researched and reported on lynching. She also actively worked for women’s rights and organized suffrage groups. She painstakingly documented over a thousand lynching tortures and murders, providing a historical record of African American suffering. Wells identified the motivations of lynching, noting that only 16% of lynching victims between 1889 and 1929 were accused of rape. “Nearly 700 of these persons were lynched for any other reason which could be manufactured by a mob wishing to indulge in a lynching bee,” Wells pointed out (2014 [1895]: 79). The motivation for lynching was the desire to exert power over Black people and terrify witnesses into subservience.

As philosopher Ladelle McWhorter writes, it is “a pernicious misinterpretation of the historical record” (2009: 157) to suggest that lynching parties at the time were motivated by any actual concern for existing raped white women. As she says in Racism and Sexual Oppression in Anglo-America, “in many cases there was simply no effort to trump up a charge of wrongdoing of any kind (158). Lynching was motivated by a keen desire to maintain white supremacy. “This fact was no secret in communities where lynching occurred. White people didn’t need the excuse of a rape charge” when “uppitiness” would do as a charge against “any black person who succeeded at business, bought land, or tried to cast a vote.” When white people, even those merely reporting on the lynching craze, claimed that feeling for white women “drove the lynching craze, they were saying something they knew to be less than entirely true (158).

If anything, I’d add that the mechanism of appeal to empathy for raped white women had the secondary aim to startle white women into further believing they needed white male protection, encouraging their investment in white supremacist ideology, in addition to the primary aim of terrorizing Black Americans. Until very recently, there has never been a measurable abundance of actual empathy for raped women of any demographic in America. It surprises me that anyone would be otherwise than completely skeptical of a causal claim that moving people to care about a rape victim in America led to the lynchings of the 1890s. Where Bloom sees a handy illustrative example in service of an argument against empathy, I see a model of uncritically grabbing the nearest dominant narrative to justify an argument. One might point out that Bloom only said it “often sparked” lynchings. I’d point out in reply that he offered it in a book “against empathy.”

That this remains a dominant narrative signals other, lingering cultural problems. Why might anyone still be drawn to the transparently suspicious story that anything like empathy for rape victims motivated lynching? After all, it doesn’t take a lot of research to find out how false this is. I located the sources that I only semi-remembered, the works of Ladelle McWhorter and Ida B. Wells, within one minute of firing up a research index and using the uncomplicated search term, “lynching.” And I’m not a scholar of lynching or Ida B. Wells. But like McWhorter, I am a feminist scholar, and feminist scholarship on rape is well-established. One need only read a portion of it to learn enough to know that purported concern for women on the part of men interested in justifying acts of torture and murder is, in the history of rape culture, a pretext at best and an ad hoc justification of domestic terrorism at worst.

There have always been narratives to justify the barbaric practices of slavery and lynching,” Elizabeth Alexander writes (1994, 80), and I wonder if the regularity with which those narratives get repeated may form the understanding even of those who do not endorse the justification, but believe the narrative, that the justification is sincere. “Black bodies in pain for public consumption have been an American national spectacle for centuries,” Alexander observes (78); citing her observation, Christina Sharpe emphasizes that “terror has a history, and at least one branch of that history is constituted through the ocular and aural spectacle of violence against black flesh that is positioned by the gaze and the law as deviant and in need of disciplining” (2012, 829). To be responsible academics, and to advance anti-racist practices, we need to bear in mind that history as we construct our own scholarship, and be alert to the dangers of replicating the spectacle in the course of obediently recycling the narratives of those who justified lynching. I am not saying that one can never make appeals to lynching as an illustrative example of the evils one opposes. Instead, I’m suggesting that the incautious and casual reference to lynching as motivated by empathy of any kind is another form of replicating the spectacle, and perpetuating a narrative that we ought to question rather than assume to be trustworthy.

The suspicious narratives surrounding lynching and rape are inextricably intertwined in North American history. This should be obvious. After all, I write this because it was an undisturbed room in which a speaker could briefly comment that it is reasonable to be against empathy in part because lynching was sparked by empathy with rape victims. One would have to accept longstanding narratives of justifications for lynching and protectiveness of rape victims to be as peaceful as that audience was. Claudia Card was one of many feminists to draw attention to the “protection racket” that comprises traditional American narratives of the threat of rape. “The ever-present threat of rape from childhood through old age produces a society of women oriented toward serving men, women who are animated by hopes of securing protection as a reward and who eventually feel bound to the men through misplaced gratitude for ‘protection’ that is mostly only a withholding of abuse,” she wrote in The Atrocity Paradigm (2002: 126). Card also drew attention to the tendency among scholars to identify with judges and administrators of punishment rather than with the victims of torture. Would an approach to empathy that identified with nonwhite victims of torture and with feminine pawns in protection rackets fall back on the old narrative of lynching as sparked by empathy for women? What if centering the accounts of terrorized Black Americans, as Wells excellently documented, and the accounts of secondarily manipulated women was the method of study, instead?

In short, I’m suggesting that a wiser approach to thinking about lynching would be the result of more empathy rather than less. If Bloom’s criticism of empathy is that it is local and overly constricted, then here’s a better solution that would avoid the error of hand-waving in the direction of lynching as indicative of a problem with empathy: let’s consider, not the point of view of lynchers, but the perspectives of those lynched, those who witnessed torture and murder, those who wrote about it in the press and suffered the consequences (Wells, in turn, was harassed and threatened, her presses smashed). Let’s read their narratives, take to heart the words of the victims instead of imagining the presence of empathy in the torturers. Empathy may be personal, but we have capacities to appreciate the personal even when we, ourselves, are strangers. In our abilities to be moved by the testimony of those who suffer and reflect on whose perspectives we attend to as important, we can retain some hope for better understanding. We can, at least, stop perpetuating a pernicious misinterpretation of history.


Kathryn J. Norlock is The Kenneth Mark Drain Chair in Ethics and Professor of Philosophy at Trent University in Peterborough, Ontario (2010-). She was formerly an associate professor at St. Mary’s College of Maryland (2001-2010) and earned her Ph.D. from University of Wisconsin-Madison (2001). She is a co-founder and co-editor of Feminist Philosophy Quarterly, a peer-reviewed, open-access journal free to authors and readers.


  1. Part of the reason we no longer have public executions or “routine” death penalty executions is that we are loath to endorse killing as a means of dispute resolution for citizens. Societies that have public executions can be more violent, tolerant of killing and value human life and rights less.

    So I think there is probably a distinction here between “spectacle” or social empathy/mob mentality v. personal empathy that is wisely pointed out here.

  2. A very well written recycling of the socially sanctioned group consensus politically correct dogmas. Let’s consider the perspective of those being lynched, truly revolutionary.

  3. Briefly: After 17 years of the US war on terror—a colossal over-reaction to the Sept. 11th terror-attack which has inflicted horrible suffering and death on millions of innocent people, justified, by some accounts, by the suffering of the roughly three thousand victims of that attack—I’d say I don’t think We, the American People, are in any danger of displaying too much sympathy for the victims. No, in fact, I don’t think We, the American People can be considered guilty of showing much empathy at all for the countless victims of Post-911 US foreign and domestic policy, whether the victims are the tens of thousands of innocent people killed by the US bombings of Mosul and Raqqa, the hundreds of thousands of innocent sufferers from the US war on terror held in refugee camps and detention camps without US humanitarian aid or US medical assistance, or the millions of Syrian Yemeni Somalian or Afghani terror-refugees denied US entry by the Trump Muslim ban.

    Unless you want to claim (however implausibly…) that the victims are US? But then, I also don’t see much evidence of excessive sympathy for the three thousand or so victims of the Sept. 11th attacks, who have long since faded from the American mind, either. And I don’t see much evidence of excessive sympathy for the thousands of US troops who have borne the costs of the US war on terror, and who have lost limbs or suffered psychological damage or committed suicide in large numbers, as a result. I’d say, contrarily, a little more empathy for the victims of the US war on terror and a little less rationalization of the war crimes and atrocities carried out in pursuit of the security and wealth of the privileged pampered American citizens (i.e. US), who cannot plausibly claim to be the victims of terror-attacks carried out in Muslim countries under US occupation or US drone-and-bombing missions, might help to stop the suffering and pain of those innocent civilians in Afghanistan Iraq Syria and Libya, who continue to suffer from the terrible side-effects and horrific collateral damage of the US war on terror.

    And I’d just add that the greatest atrocities of the 20th Century—the Soviet terror-famines in the Ukraine, the Nazi Holocaust or Jewish Shoah, the British firebombing of the German cities, the US nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Vietnam War, etc.—were not perpetrated in irrational fits of emotional frenzy or religious fervor motivated by sympathy for the supposed victims, but were carried out as scientifically-calculated programs of mass-extermination of certain human populations considered undesirable for supposed reasons of national security class solidarity or racial health, and were further rationalized by the scientific calculations of the technicians and bureaucrats who also produced the propaganda for those war-crimes and atrocities. And it is scientific rationality and technological calculation, not romantic emotionalism or religious fervor, which currently represent the greatest threat to the survival of biological life on the planet earth, whether through the weapons of mass destruction and electronic warfare technology which have been created by that scientific rationality, or through the simple exploitation of the earth’s resources and contamination of the biosphere by the poisons and pollutants which are the side-effects of that scientific rationality and its technology of mass destruction…

    And when I see the slightest evidence of sympathy for Iraqi refugees Syrian torture victims Muslim detainees Afghanistan terror attack casualties or Palestinian women medics shot in the back by Israeli snipers maybe I’ll start worrying that We the American People are displaying too much empathy for the victims…


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