Nothing evokes a nice gloomy feel like the German language. The Germans, a people forged under the gray skies and dark shadows of the Black Forest, are a gloomy people, which is why they have such wonderful words to describe gloomy things.
(For instance, there’s schadenfreude, taking pleasure in the misfortune of others. And fremdschamen, the feeling of being embarrassed for someone else who doesn’t have the good sense of being embarrassed for themselves (think of that feeling you get watching Michael Scott humiliate himself in The Office, or President Trump answering a question from Sean Hannity. See below). And there’s my favorite: futterneid—that feeling of jealousy you get when someone is eating something you want to eat. When I go out to dinner with my wife and she orders better than me, my futterneid fuels the Fair Jessica’s schadenfreude.)
So let’s consider the word Einfühlungsvermögen.
Einfühlungsvermögen means “empathy.” And that English word is just over a century old. It entered the English language in 1909 as a translation of Einfühlungsvermögen. It’s an adaptation of the shorter term Einfühlung, a concept pioneered by the German historicist Johann Herder, one of the founders of German nationalism. Einfühlung literally means “feeling one’s way in.” And it was one of the core concepts of the German historicist school, which is responsible for many bad ideas we won’t discuss here.
But Einfühlung, in isolation, is not a bad idea. What Herder meant by “feeling one’s way in” was that for a historian to understand a particular society, one must grasp on both an intellectual and emotional level the cultural currents of the time. One cannot just look from outside the fishbowl using the scorecards of the moment and judge a society from some modern, abstract, standard. You must dive in and understand people and cultures on their own terms first. This is something the best historians do. They make the reader feel like they understand why people did the things they did without the benefit of knowing how events turned out.
For example, when people condemn the Founders for keeping slavery intact in slave states, they tend to ignore the context the Founders were living in. The choice they faced wasn’t a Constitution with slavery or a Constitution without it. The choice was a Constitution with slavery—or no Constitution at all.
I’m open to arguments that this isn’t true, but not from someone who doesn’t understand that this is the way the Founders—many of whom opposed slavery—understood their choice.
Societies are complex things: Most of the rules that govern them cannot be found in legal texts. These rules are embedded in customs, norms, traditions, and manners that are as often as not unwritten—and even when they are written, most people don’t refer to those texts for guidance. Most of us know not to talk with our mouths full because our parents taught us basic manners, not because we read some Dear Abby column.
A certain kind of modern feminist looks at a stereotypical housewife of, say, the 1920s and feels a kind of contempt or pity for her plight, but not empathy. I understand the feeling. But to understand the housewife you need to understand that she didn’t necessarily share your attitudes about what constitutes a meaningful and rewarding life. Condemning her for falling short of standards she did not hold can be a kind of bigotry.
One thing I find remarkable is that many progressives understand all of this quite intuitively when it comes to other countries. Many of the same people who have contempt for the 1920 housewife will comment about a 2020 housewife in, say, Gaza, “Who are you to judge them? It’s their culture!”
Well, the past is another country, too. And given that the American past is part of your own country, maybe you can have just a bit more Einfühlungsvermögen for it.
Anyway, what got me thinking about all this was something I tweeted about last night.
Jonah Goldberg @JonahDispatch
There is something really horrible, evil even, about going back in time and reminding people of a totally public incident that merited no criticism at the time, and declare it a “scandal” that should threaten someone’s livelihood. https://t.co/hDEKlABvZE
South Florida Sun Sentinel @SunSentinel
What particularly annoyed me is the use of the word “scandal.” A scandal is “an action or event regarded as morally or legally wrong and causing general public outrage.” The actions by Tina Fey and Jimmy Kimmel were not scandals when they happened. They were comedy bits on television that went, to my knowledge, unremarked upon at the time. If unremarkable events of the past—not secret events, not unknown events, but simply run-of-the-mill events of daily life—can retroactively be turned into scandals by a mob of moral scolds, we’re in store for some rough times.
Think of it this way, men dressing as women for comedic effect is a very old staple. Milton Berle, Bob Hope, Flip Wilson, Tom Hanks, Robin Williams, Adam Sandler, Dustin Hoffman, Eddie Murphy, Jamie Foxx: The list goes on and on. It is not unimaginable, given the role of transgenderism in our culture today, that in the years—or days—ahead, we’ll have a similar moral panic over dressing in drag (at least by cis-men) and be told that this is—and was—some kind of hate crime. Will Dustin Hoffman ask AFI to take Tootsie off its 100 best films list? Will Tom Hanks get embroiled in a “scandal” because someone dug up an old VHS of Bosom Buddies? Will Mrs. Doubtfire go the way of Gone with the Wind or Birth of a Nation? And don’t get me started on the intersectional chimera that is White Chicks.
It’s one thing to say, “We should stop doing X.” It’s quite another to say the people who did X when X was entirely normal are now pariahs.
There is something vaguely Maoist about the mood out there. During the Cultural Revolution the young firebrands attacked and humiliated older Communist leaders for the sin of not being sufficiently imbued with the spirit of revolution, or something. The “Black Line” theory of artistic interpretation—which led to the deaths and imprisonment of countless artists and intellectuals —basically held that if you once wrote or painted something “wrong” by the current revolutionary standard, you should be forcibly reeducated, even though what you wrote or painted wasn’t wrong when you painted it.