A Surfeit of Empathy and an Absence of Compassion

A Surfeit of Empathy and an Absence of Compassion

Samuel Veissière
Samuel Veissière
6 min read

As a parent of an ROGD teen, it has been so disheartening to see so few mainstream sources publishing balanced views on this topic. We have glowing “protransition” pieces in the left-wing press, and (often) angry, and even anti-trans pieces in the right-wing or religious press. These articles are just what we need to open up a more balance, less hate filled dialogue. More, please. 
~comment from parent, Psychology Today.

I am an anthropologist and professor of Psychiatry at McGill University. I have published and been mentioned in the media widely on the study of cultural evolution, social media addiction, new internet subcultures, social dimensions of cognition and mental health, and the impact of recent cultural shifts in gender norms on the wellbeing of young people.

As an essayist and popular science commentator, I have written extensively on the evolutionary basis of contemporary issues, from tribalism in politics to cultural paranoia in the wake of #MeToo and nocebo effects in the medicalization of everyday problems. So far, I’ve managed to avoid scandal and outrage almost entirely by offering nuanced, non-partisan pieces that explicitly warn against the risks of Us vs. Them thinking. I felt moderately successful in eliciting meaningful, rational dialogues—until I touched the third rail of transgender identity.

Last week in Psychology Today, I reported on Dr. Lisa Littman’s peer-reviewed study of Rapid-Onset Gender Dysphoria (ROGD), which had caused an uproar among activists for suggesting that in some cases, coming out as trans could be a maladaptive coping strategy for confused adolescents and young adults with other underlying issues. Dr. Littman is an Assistant Professor of the Practice at Brown University School of Public Health and is trained as a public health physician. She extensively surveyed 250 parents whose children (predominantly girls with no prior history of gender dysphoria) had suddenly expressed a desire to come out. Of particular interest (given my areas of expertise) was one of the hypotheses raised by Dr. Littman: the potential role of peer imitation and social media exposure in inspiring youth to express their confusion through the idiom of transgenderism.

On the day of its publication, pressure from activists prompted Brown University to remove a press release about the study, despite support for Dr. Littman from the academic community, including the former Dean of Harvard Medical school. Since that date, any mention of ROGD or calls for further study on the matter have been systematically attacked by activists.

Within one hour of airing my post, Psychology Today editors had already received complaints from activist groups. Soon thereafter, a wave of posts, tweets, and petitions seeking to defame my article and my character were spreading on the internet. My attempt to call for compassion for all sides of this debate in a further Psychology Today piece earned widespread support from parents and clinicians, but only made matters worse with activists. As my inbox was flooding with hate mail, blog posts that grossly misquoted my work were now painting me as a transphobe and misogynist. One commenter in Psychology Today suggested I should “go to prison” for “harming so many children,” while countless others accused Dr. Littman and me of promoting ideologically-driven pseudoscience. Yet, the sources cited by activists to discredit studies of ROGD invariably take one back to a self-referential loop of other blog posts and opinion pieces by activists. It is a strange world indeed when unscientific ideologues accuse scientists of being pseudoscientific ideologues.

It is important to note that Dr. Littman presented empirically derived hypotheses for further investigation, not moral arguments. Activists wish to discredit ROGD as worthy of further study on the grounds that Dr. Littman only surveyed “dismissive” parents who gather on “transphobic” websites. However, the participants heard about the study from one of several sources, including a large pro-gender-affirming Facebook group (Parents of Transgender Children) which posted recruitment information on their own site. The clear majority of study participants also answered that they believe transgender people deserve the same rights and protections as other people in their country.

No serious scientist or clinician denies the clinical evidence for social acceptance and transitioning to help those with gender dysphoria. But gender dysphoria is a rare condition. The matter for investigation here is that something new and worrying is happening with young people, gender, and “identity,” and that transgender ideology is only a piece in the puzzle. Concurrent shifts in epidemic entitlements ushered by “Generation Me” are likely related. So part of the problem in this non-negotiable call for accommodations might be our inability to stand firm against the tyranny of helicopter-parented, internet-educated children in need of leveraging the authoritative prestige of an “oppressed identity.”

Moving too quickly in letting teens in distress make drastic decisions that can permanently alter their body and harm their personal and social adjustment is unproblematically recognized as unwise in other domains. This is why we don’t usually let children get tattoos we know they will regret later or why, as one RODG parent put it, “If we let our kids drive the agenda, they’d never want to go to school and would eat at McDonalds everyday.”

This is where compassion, rather than what Paul Bloom calls “parochial empathy,” is needed.  I might empathize with the suffering of a student who tells me she is too anxious to take my exam, for example, and write a separate test for her to take at a time and place of her choice. In feeling compassion with a further reach, I may also give her a kind, but firm pep talk to convince her that she can take the test, and help her get over her fear of exams. There is plenty of empathy in the culture of victimhood, and not enough compassion.

Like many of my colleagues in recent years, I have become very concerned with the rise of language policing and extreme political correctness on college campuses and activist circles. This culture of victimhood, identity politics and social justice activism promotes a simplistic worldview of noble victims and malevolent victimizers. It is eroding free speech, and spreads a climate of fear and fragility on campus and beyond. That our youth care about justice, democracy, and diversity is a good thing, and we should applaud them for this. But encouraging and glorifying victimhood doesn’t help advance that agenda. Cultivating a sense of victimhood impairs coping and flourishing, breeds resentment and anger, increases conflict, and only succeeds in dividing rather than uniting people.

The same is true of other sincere but terribly misguided cognitive traps promoted by social justice activists: the insistence that people’s feelings constitute the ultimate authority on truth, that ‘power’ is always bad, and that the powerless always know best. Victimhood culture often mistakes expertise and responsibility for “power.” Thus, doctors, parents, and teachers are “powerful” and bad, and patients, children, and students are “powerless” and good. Never mind that in this age of rampant individualism and customer satisfaction, children routinely bully parents and teachers, professors are terrified of their students, and doctors live in fear of litigation. Our “powerless” youth have certainly been successful in setting their agenda—from driving language policing and removing “harmful” content from course syllabi to making public bathrooms deeply awkward for 99 percent of people. Judging by rising rates of mental distress, this is not doing them any good.

In these new culture wars, no issue is more divisive and sacred than the debate around rising rates of transgender teenagers. Conspiracy theorists on the far Right see it as a liberal plot to brainwash children, while activists on the far Left preach absolute acceptance, hormone therapy, and even surgery for all children who wish to change their gender. Those of us who call for nuance, caution, and further investigation don’t fare well in this climate.

As it stands, the scare tactics of activists (who warn that unaccommodated trans teens are at high risk of suicide, and even murder) are preventing an important ethical conversation from taking place, and further instilling a culture of fear and victimhood that is setting a generation up for failure. The label “transphobe” is largely synonymous with such easy slurs as “racist,” “misogynist,” “Islamophobe,” “Zionist,” or even “white male,” “settler colonialist,” or “bad feminist.” Play any version of this card on anyone who wishes to introduce moderation into a sensitive conversation, and it will perform the cheap cognitive trick of placing the critic in the “oppressive” camp, thereby pitting them against noble victims.

The debate on ROGD is only the tip of the iceberg, and it plays a large role in obfuscating larger problems. Indeed, public hysteria about trans children mobilizes attention away from a much more widespread, but inextricably related issue. In the age of mandatory political correctness, young people are growing up with the confusing idea that gender is entirely constructed, that it is false, and that it is bad. As more young women grow up terrified of being victims, and as more young men grow up terrified of being “toxic,” extreme ideologies at both ends of the political spectrum are feeding off each other to drive us further away from compassion and dialogue.  Meanwhile, our addiction to mobile internet is making us lonelier and more anxious, while fake news, herding, and hysteria are on the rise.  No wonder young people are finding it hard to live in the bodies they were “assigned at birth.”

In our highly polarized and fraught moment, bullying and emotional blackmail from activists are destroying resilience, compassion, and free inquiry and making the task of understanding an already complex problem more difficult than it already is. We need to lower the temperature by returning to good faith dialogue and—more than ever—wisdom.