Global Ethics Review: "Homo Empathicus" & the Pandemic, with Alexander Görlach

April 14, 2021

ALEX WOODSON: Welcome to Global Ethics Review. I'm Alex Woodson from Carnegie Council, the world's catalyst for ethical action. 

In this podcast series, we'll be connecting Carnegie Council's work and current events with our senior fellows, senior staff, and friends of our organization. You'll hear from leading experts on artificial intelligence and technology, migration, climate change governance, and U.S. foreign policy and global engagement. 

In this episode, I'm speaking with Alexander Görlach. Dr. Görlach is a senior fellow at Carnegie Council, a research associate at the Oxford Internet Institute, and a senior advisor to the Berggruen Institute

He is also the author of Homo Empathicus: On Scapegoats, Populists & Saving Democracy. This book was recently published in the United States and was the basis of our talk today. We discussed the COVID-19 pandemic and politics, human rights and China, and some early impressions of the Biden administration

Here's my talk with Dr. Alexander Görlach. 

Alexander Görlach, great to speak with you again. I think we talked about two years ago, so it is good to have you back.

We are going to be talking about your book, Homo Empathicus: On Scapegoats, Populists, and Saving Democracy. Just to start, tell us a little bit about the book. What exactly does "homo empathicus" mean, and what motivated you to write this book?

ALEXANDER GÖRLACH: Thank you, Alex. It is a great pleasure to be here again with you and conversing about my work.

Homo empathicus—there have been numerous reasons in the past to reflect on the nature of how we have to be to live in a good and a just society. America has just been out of four Trump years, but we have still many places in the world where resentment rather than empathy is driving politics, and it is also moving people. I felt it was about time to look at these different types of politics in order to highlight what we have achieved in the democratic free world and what we are up against.

ALEX WOODSON: Great. This book was published, at least in Germany, before the pandemic. We have all been through a lot in the past year or so. Thinking back about your book, what led you to write the book, and some of the conclusions you came to in the book, as the pandemic started and as you look at it today, has it turned out how you imagined it might based on these issues that you covered in the book, or have things surprised you? What has been your overall impression of that?

ALEXANDER GÖRLACH: The pandemic was one of the examples that you could test this theory of homo empathicus on obviously. We saw this by the beginning already and over the course of the pandemic, at least the first half-year, in the comparison between the People's Republic of China, where the virus originated, and how it was coped with by politics over there, being an autocratic system, and in other parts of the world, like in Taiwan, next door to China. Both of these countries hxave the same heritage and speak the same language, but they have a different recent past. China became more and more autocratic, and Taiwan since the early 1990s is a democracy.

But that also has been said of China and America or Europe and China, and other autocratic and democratic countries. Some would say, "Oh, if you were only an autocracy, you could just say in the morning we just lock off a whole city and millions of people have to stay home." Frankly we also saw that we could do that in a democracy too. The only thing is that the politician who does that is to be held accountable and has to explain to people what actually the aim of this policy is. We have seen, be it Spain or France, people did not cheer about last summer when they all had to stay inside and were not even allowed to leave the house, but still people complied, so you do not need an autocracy to have good and effective governance.

ALEX WOODSON: It is interesting that you mentioned Taiwan. About a year ago both you and I had separate interviews with Audrey Tang, the digital minister of Taiwan. As you said, Taiwan is a democracy. They have completely beaten back COVID-19. I have not checked recently, but the last time I checked they barely had a pandemic. Why was Taiwan able to handle this so well compared to countries like the United States, the United Kingdom, and maybe even Germany, which we will talk about a little bit later? Just in speaking with Audrey Tang and learning about Taiwan, what do you think they were able to do that a lot of other democracies were not able to do?

ALEXANDER GÖRLACH: Taiwan and the United States is actually a good example. Last year the mayhem—in my opinion, and I was in New York at the time—in the United States was that the federal government did not take any action and did not have any prerogative and did not take any initiative to tackle the pandemic, so there was clearly a lack of empathy, and that led to a variety of ideologically driven measures. I would say, "Okay, Taiwan is much smaller, but having lived in Taiwan there is a high investment of the people in their civil society." That also led to a greater eagerness to share data, to have a unified approach to data and how the data is used. I feel that is the difference.

You can now see the United States doing much better, and now I am abroad in Germany, and I feel that is because the central government has been taking on some initiative when it comes to vaccination. Also, America has lots of natural disasters where you know how to cope with it, so you have something to roll that out, but still now we have a bigger initiative by the central government.

You could say this is also empathy. I don't know. Good governance is also like a tool that you need to know how to use, but I feel like that is why Taiwan was so specifically good at it, because people are very much invested in their free society.

ALEX WOODSON: Speaking about empathy, that has been one of Joe Biden's hallmarks as he has come into office. He spoke about empathy a lot, and that seems to be driving a lot of his decisions. Is that how you see it, looking from Germany, looking at this from a different perspective? Do you think that empathy has taken a role in U.S. politics in the last couple of months?

ALEXANDER GÖRLACH: Empathy as a tool of good governance, as good policy, has been around and discussed since antiquity, also in the antiquity in Asia and China, or the Greek and Roman antiquity. So it is a tool rather than a soft skill. It means that you have to be able to assess what other people who share the space that you live with, all those you chose to live with, what their ideas are, where they are coming from, in order then to just figure out solutions for the questions at hand. If you do not bother, then the opponent of this empathy is resentment.

To explain what empathy is, you can look into resentment-driven societies where minorities are scapegoated for whatever, like homosexuals in Russia or transgender people everywhere in the world, basically also in the right-wing camp in the United States, which is a replacement of real politics. You just use your resentment in order to fuel and mobilize people but to no end, whereas empathy has a clear and an efficient end. It is about finding a solution. It is very constructive.

If you look into the policies in the United States, it is very interesting that under Obama I feel more people were deported back to Mexico and to Latin America than under Trump, so you might say: "Oh, it's only like a front-end thing. You cannot just only talk empathy and never do it." However, you see a clear difference between the detainment of children in the Trump era and how it was discussed in the Obama era.

But Mr. Biden [does not have to prove] that he is capable of empathy. His career speaks for itself, also the habitual knowledge that alliances matter. I feel that is deeply ingrained in him. But what does it mean? To what end do we unify now?

He is talking about A League of Democracies: Cosmopolitanism, Consolidation Arguments, and Global Public Goods very often, and John Davenport of Fordham, I believe, wrote that. I also write about this in Homo Empathicus, but then it is like: What is this supposed to mean? Clearly from Taiwan to Canada, New Zealand to Germany, and that includes also South Korea, Japan, you name it, all democracies, they all rest on the same values and the acknowledgment of human dignity and human rights, and it is clear that countries like China do not, but in what way? I feel here he has also to become almost a theoretical leader or a leader in theories as FDR was his "Four Freedoms," just to define an ideological background on which the policies the league of democracies will conduct.

ALEX WOODSON: It is going to be very interesting to see how that plays out.

Going back to the pandemic, as you said, you were in New York at the beginning of the pandemic. I believe you were in Queens, same as me. As you said, it was a terrible time, very chaotic. 

At a certain point, you came to Germany. We were talking a little bit before we started recording, but what did you notice in the difference between Germany and the United States—or, I should probably say Germany and New York City because different parts of the country had different responses? Were the differences that you saw down to national character or were they down to something different when you got back to Germany?

ALEXANDER GÖRLACH: In Homo Empathicus I also lay things out that point right at this question. If you live in a democracy that is empathy-driven, then this democracy wants everyone to shine. To be able to shine—and that is a very liberal assessment, also like liberal in the Republican and Democratic sense—is like we all have these talents and we need to be able to use these talents. Presidents from Reagan to Obama have talked about this.

In such a society, in order to achieve that you need free access to education and also affordable access to healthcare. If you are deprived of that, if you think, Oh, my god, if I'm sick, what am I going to do? If I cannot go to school, that means also I will not have a good life afterwards in material terms, then of course you cannot live up to the promise of democracy. In that sense I am very sad to report the obvious, that the United States falls pretty short on that record.

Also, having lived in New York through the Black Lives Matter protests of last summer, shows another shortcoming of the United States. Clearly if President Biden is not addressing those, he will continue the ruin of American democracy. The moment when he rolled back on his promise regarding student debt and the minimum wage it was for me like, "Oh, my god." It's not about party tactics or to appease the Sanders camp or something. American democracy is lacking essentials that we do have in the rest of the democratic world.

This is like Adam Smith, the Scottish liberal economist who was highly revered at the beginning of the American republic. He was also read on the continent in Europe. As you know, Great Britain and America deployed another idea of how they see economy, politics, and society, but in Central Europe, in Germany, where Bismarck, by far not a leftist, saw the inequality that capitalism can deploy and how it played out in society. He introduced health insurance against accidents and whatnot in order to soften the hardship that capitalism can show. That is the main difference still today between the United States and all other democracies in the world that I know. America desperately has to work on these issues, not just only like window dressing but essentially.

ALEX WOODSON: That's great. I want to get into that.

You mentioned one very important tangible thing that the United States can do—guarantee health care for its citizens. I think that is a goal that we should work for. I am not saying that as a political point. That is just a human point.

What else needs to be done to make American democracy more empathetic? You say that there are big differences between democracy in the United States and democracy in Europe and other places. We talked about healthcare. What else needs to be done to repair American democracy?

ALEXANDER GÖRLACH: I feel like health care and affordable schooling and university are already a big task. As I just mentioned, the now-president did step back from his campaign promises regarding those two. I feel like that is still an issue we need to be talking about.

That is already enough. You have many other problems, for example, when it comes to gerrymandering electoral districts, a thing that is continuing. After the vote for women was introduced in the United States, they tried for women of color not to be able to vote. You also see—the Republicans do this more than the Democrats I believe—the idea that one should be able to gerrymander and thereby impose or inflict on the election results is already a thing that should not be happening in a real democracy.

However, and I refer to the recent meeting between Chinese officials and American officials when the Chinese side felt compelled to let the American side know about the shortcomings of their democracy, which I feel were not wrong to be mentioned, Secretary of State Blinken said something very studied and absolutely correct, in my opinion: "The shortcomings of democracy are in bright daylight in the United States, and they are widely discussed, and if you discuss them, you do not end up in prison. If you are a doctor who discovers a deadly virus, you will not be shut out by the police and die." This is something that will not happen in the United States.

That means that a bad democracy like America is still better than a well-run autocracy like China. You have some severe points to work on, and I feel health care and education are the most profound ones. But having said that, America also has the strength within its population, within its institutions, and with its history and narrative of freedom and democracy to actually achieve that goal, whereas countries like China that are run on the fear of its populace will not permit constructive criticism and having things discussed openly in broad daylight. 

ALEX WOODSON: I want to talk about China a little bit. You wrote an article a couple of months ago in Deutsche Welle titled "China is capitalizing on the COVID crisis." You had some criticisms of China. How are they capitalizing on the COVID-19 crisis? What did you mean by that, and what did you say in that article?

ALEXANDER GÖRLACH: China has deployed first masks and other medical garments and equipment and is now distributing vaccines, so that is basically what I was saying. That in itself is of course not a problem. Also, the Vatican sent out facemasks and now the United States wants to give out vaccine doses.

The point is that is not the only way China is trying to capitalize and have influence in the world. The Belt and Road Initiative is a grand approach to influence foreign policy throughout the planet. Many of these infrastructure projects that are funded by loans by the People's Republic of China are not being given according to an economic metric and how certain it is or not that the loan will be paid back, but rather with an overarching political and geostrategic interest. That is something that we can say China is trying step by step on many levels to expand its political influence.

The difference, however, to a legitimate way of doing this is that—I don't know where to start: infringement on democracy in Hong Kong, the breaking of contracts with them; the daily infringements on other trade contracts and patents. You have Xinjiang, where you have a million people being incarcerated in concentration camps. You have horrible stories. So this ethnonationalism that is now deployed by this new dictator in Beijing, who made his name and idea of socialism of Chinese characteristics being enshrined in the Chinese constitution, this is where the whole country or the policy of this country goes totally astray, and you cannot just let such a country exercise diplomatic efforts unchallenged.

ALEX WOODSON: I think we talked about this two years ago and had a very similar conversation. Unfortunately things have not changed. They have probably gotten worse in a lot of respects with regards to China and human rights, at least from certain perspectives.

ALEXANDER GÖRLACH: If I may say, it also just makes clearer how important it is that this league of democracies really comes about and defines its goals, its theory, its ideology, its beliefs, however you want to call it, and then formulates policies and then addresses these policies in the body, let's say, of the United Nations or directly towards the countries they want to deal with.

You see how anachronistic the world has become—Australia criticizing China and being punished one-sidedly, and their goods will just be rotting in the harbor of Shanghai. At the same time, in November of last year there was a new free trade arrangement where Australia is a signatory with China.

This cannot go on forever. There is so much disconnect in the frame that you have to—and this is already happening—connect trade issues, economic issues, with human rights issues, environmental issues, workers' protection issues, and so on. You see the recent thing going with China boycotting France, who said: "You know what? We don't want to have forced labor wool and cotton in our products."

China said: "Whoa. You infringe on the freedom of people of Xinjiang to be oppressed and to be put in concentration camps and work for us." That is the logic behind it.

So you see, we cannot afford much longer to not come to terms with what the autocracies do, and China is just one of them. There is Russia, Turkey, the Philippines, and Brazil. In the European Union we have with Poland and Hungary two countries that do not actually belong any longer to this Union. When they were made like every other Member to sign the Rechtsstaat, the mechanism of the rule of law—it's a German long word, and I don't know how to translate it properly into English—they said, "No, we are not going to do this." But this is the foundation of values we all rest on, so why do you Polish and Hungarian governments not want to sign this? So you see there are plenty of countries whose policies need to be addressed.

As a last point, when you remember that Huntington wrote about a "clash of civilizations" and Fukuyama about "the victory of liberal democracy," you would say none of them were entirely right, but none of them were also entirely wrong. We have again a bipolar world, which would say to Huntington, no, you were not right, it's not seven or eleven "spheres" that somehow cosmically balance themselves out in their interests of power, but you also have to say that Fukuyama in a sense was right that the appeal of democracy is unbroken. We saw this in Thailand last year.

There are several examples—Hong Kong is one of the examples obviously—where people say if we have the choice between such authoritarianism presented by Xi Jinping or democracy, we want democracy. This is where action is needed because people still want democracy, but it is under pressure from autocratic states and governments.

ALEX WOODSON: You are discussing all of these issues about China and things that need to be addressed. I was glad to see some of this addressed in the meeting in Alaska between Secretary Blinken and his counterparts from China. But it occurs to me that we are still interconnected with China, with Brazil, with Turkey, and with all of these nations that you mentioned. We have the Olympics coming up in China next year, obviously the United Nations, and all these different economic entanglements.

It is not really much of a question, but what do we do in this situation? I assume that you think that something like what happened in Alaska is a good thing and that we need to keep confronting these nations when they do things that are against our values.

ALEXANDER GÖRLACH: The hope now is that there are some fields in which we can work together, like environmental protection. I would hope so too, but I am skeptical. What I said earlier, if your policy and ideology is resentment-driven, it is very hard—even if some maybe in the Party would want that in China—to then constructively work. If you label other countries, other religions, and other peoples as your enemy, you might think this is a better export, but that will affect the psyche of your country and also your psyche and every autocratic society becomes paranoiac over time. You already have a surveillance state in China as we all know.

The point I want to make is that the chance for constructive isolated fields of policy becomes slimmer. I would hope it is not impossible, but I would wonder if that works.

Having said that, at the same time in the free world, in the United States but not only, you have hatred against people of Asian descent or who look Asian. That is also resentment and that was also fueled by Donald Trump and his minions. But calling the virus the "kung flu" or something is certainly not helping. We saw this with the riots at the Capitol on January 6 as well. So we also have these forces within our democratic countries that try to destabilize them from within.

We cannot only point our fingers at these other countries and at China all the time. That is the point they tried to make in Alaska, which Blinken rebuked in my opinion marvelously, but still it remains as a fact that if you are an old woman of Chinese descent, you fear to be beaten up by some young thugs in Flushing or in Chinatown in Manhattan. We have to address that too.

ALEX WOODSON: Definitely.

The last thing I wanted to speak about—and we can end the conversation with this—you wrote in the book about powerful images and how powerful images can be used. You talked about how the images of the migrant crisis in Europe were used by right-wing groups to fuel resentment. After this year of the pandemic and maybe the year of the George Floyd protests, 2020 is going to be a landmark year for everyone. What are the powerful images that you think will last from 2020?

ALEXANDER GÖRLACH: At the time when the pandemic hit and we lived in New York we hardly left the house in the first weeks. After four weeks or something we took our first bike ride into Manhattan from Long Island City, just over the bridge. That was like some horror/future/sci-fi dystopian movie stuff. The whole city was empty. Central Park was empty. You could ride down Fifth Avenue on bikes by St. Patrick's and the Public Library. It was insane. You will never forget it. It is remarkable in a sense.

I remember one day the Pope would give a speech on St. Peter's Square in Rome and a prayer, and he would walk alone up these stone stairs where usually there are thousands of people, but there was no one. It was very frightening again, but also it had something to it. I cannot really put my finger on it. I feel that these will be images of this last year, of the pandemic per se.

ALEX WOODSON: What will those images be used for? Thinking optimistically, will they be used to usher in an era of empathy, or will they be used by populists for some other means?

ALEXANDER GÖRLACH: I mention one photo in this book, and it is "Earthrise" by Apollo 8, the first photo from outer space of our sweet, little, tiny, blue planet. It motivated peace and environmental movements back then in the late 1960s and beyond. It was the first time humankind could see their home from outer space, and clearly the reaction was to say: "Whoa. This is where we live. Around it is all black and dark. So why don't we just get our act together and work together to make it so that this remains a habitable place for the generations to come?"

The pandemic now has shown us how connected we are, in fact. It also really doesn't matter where it originated. It is important for some questions, but for what we are now discussing it does not. People travel the whole time, the whole planet, within their countries for work, outside the country for work, so this is an event that proves that we need global governance, we need global empathy. Also, now when it comes to the distribution of vaccines. I can understand every country that says, "We need to also vaccinate our people," but at the same time you should not forget that there are other people too.

It is the old question of cosmopolitanism: How much do we help? It is clear we help, but how much do we help? That is also in the book, different modes, if you will, of cosmopolitanism. I feel that is the challenge of the hour we have to live up to, to make this event actually in hindsight not one where resentment prevailed but where empathy prevailed.

ALEX WOODSON: Okay. Alexander Görlach, thank you very much.

ALEXANDER GÖRLACH: Thank you for having me, Alex. It has been a pleasure as always.

ALEX WOODSON: That was Dr. Alexander Gorlach, Carnegie Council senior fellow and author of Homo Empathicus. For more from Dr. Gorlach, including my previous podcasts with him, please go to carnegiecouncil.org

Thanks for listening and stay safe and healthy. 

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