What is Dyspathy?
Dyspathy isn’t a familiar term. It would perhaps be easiest to understand it through its nearest synonym ‘antipathy.’ Yet this feels imprecise. Dyspathy is more suited to being seen as being in opposition to empathy. Unlike antipathy, mere aversion or disgust, dyspathy is more aggressive seeking to actively inhibit understanding that is, as Lynn Cameron formulates it, “to be prevented from or to be without an understanding of how it is to be the Other.” (Dyspathy The dynamic complement of empathy)
For Cameron, dyspathy “refers to processes, capacities and phenomena of resisting or blocking empathy” encountered through “dialogue and interaction.” We can conceive of dyspathy as being actions which “blocks connections between Self and Other; constructs a barrier between Self and Other; resists connections between Self and Other; distances the Other so that connections cannot be made; excludes the Other from the space of the Self; hides or shields the Self from the Other.”
Dyspathy doesn’t just prevent empathy, it actively attempts to dissolve the very possibility of it. It is a sequestering practice premised on exclusion intent on surrounding the Self with only those persons who demand nothing from the individual but will buttress it ad infinitum. It seems as though the foreign and domestic policy of the current US president (Trumpism) is deeply engaged in dyspathy.
Entangling Alliances with None
I doubt it is difficult to accommodate the notion the United States is, fundamentally, an isolationist country. Certainly, many would argue the US is more unilateral in its decision-making and national interests, but I would contend it is often overly influenced by the populist desire for non-intervention. Also, while the nation’s populist sentiments are isolationist, it still actively endorses colonialist and imperialist action meaning a hard craving for the benefits of internationalism but a deep refusal to take on the responsibilities coming with it.
The last two weeks have seen some truly bizarre claims by the current US president (the purchasing of Greenland, the assertion he’s King of Israel, and using nuclear weapons on hurricanes). We can look at these scenes, as it were, and the recent performance of the president at the G7 meeting and notice how they fit the temperament of the populist electorate and worldview of Trumpism.
When the notion of purchasing Greenland emerged in the media, it was initially treated as a sort of put-on. Soon it became clear the idea was presented in earnest leading to it and the president who suggested it to be roundly mocked. There is an irony here given how part of the strategy that elected Trump involved the assertion former President Obama was seen as a laughingstock by the international community. This, of course, is profoundly untrue but the tactic, a type of gaslighting, is a common maneuver in Trumpism. It posit the speaker’s faults, insecurities especially, onto others in an attempt at deflection. While it might appear as though this is done unconsciously, I would contend the president is fully self-aware when using the tactic.
Thus, when rebuffed in a rather banal manner for such a ridiculous speculation, the president lashed out: “I thought it was a very not nice way of saying I can’t buy Greenland. They could have just told me no. You don’t talk to the United States like that at least under me.” There are two traits coming to the fore here which illuminate how the president sees himself and by extension the nation.
Firstly, this isn’t merely a case of the president unwilling to take ‘no’ for an answer (although, that is certainly present). Rather, it shows us how Trumpism conceives of its relations with our European allies. The president regularly conflates himself with the nation believing his whim to be synonymous with the will of the people. This falls in line with the kind of populism that brought him into power. Going further, however, he now clearly refuses to admit the notion he (and by proxy the United States) can’t have what it wants whenever it wants it. Secondly, the president’s reaction to Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen’s dismissal of his interest was couched in the president’s own deep seeded misogyny (using the term ‘nasty,’ which was infamously deployed against Sec. Clinton in the 2016 election). The two traits are intertwined. This isn’t a tantrum per se, it’s an assertion of privilege believed to be an earned right. Trumpism will not accept it has made any errors in judgment or mistakes and, further, it will not allow itself to be addressed by those it sees as inferior (in this case, a woman).
Allies in Trumpism do not criticize, blame, defy, or confront. If any of these things are done, the nominal ally has revealed themselves to be an adversary and must either be brought to heel or held in contempt for their distasteful display. We’ve seen this in nearly every diplomatic interaction the current president has had with our nation’s longtime allies, and it is complimented by the president’s courting of established foes due to those leaders possessing the traits highlighted. The administration’s cozying up to North Korea, Russia, Turkey, and Philippines among others isn’t due to any strategic reasoning but to the dictatorial magnetism.
So, as a preamble to the G7 meetings, the Greenland scene set a particular tone—the United States does not negotiate in good faith or as a willful partner but expects its whim and will to be not just accepted but embraced. This may have been one of the many reasons French president Emmanuel Macron orchestrated a ‘private’ lunch with the American president upon his arrival at the meeting. The one-on-one did produce a proposal but one only approved by advisers and not the president.
Quite simply “his disdain for multilateral institutions like the United Nations, Nato and the World Trade Organisation has undermined the expectation of cooperation and collaboration” leaving nearly all US allies scrambling.
What makes this maneuver different than traditional isolationism is the way in which the president isn’t recoiling from the international community but inciting it to recoil from him (and by proxy, the United States). We are witnessing an embrace not of isolationism or even extreme unilateralism but a kind of willful ignorance prompting aversion in other nations. The United States isn’t retreating but making itself intentionally distasteful; Trumpism provokes dyspathy.
For some, it may be difficult to admit dyspathy on the diplomatic level but domestically, the administration has made it no secret it sees immigrants as acutely Other. So much so, its xenophobia has turned to fascist tactics to expunge the perceived threat. This position of anti-immigration is extreme but it is not new. Let’s not forget, in 2012 the eventual Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney advocated for ‘self deportation’ as a means to address populist anxieties about immigration from southern North America.
As this anxiety grew into a full blown bitter nationalism. This nationalism quickly took on fascistic traits becoming deeply entrenched in white supremacy. The current administration is doing everything it can both legally and illegally to expel as many individuals who fail to fit what its sees as a true citizen. Using ICE as a brute squad to terrorize individuals and communities, the administration has established concentration camps not just at the southern border but throughout the nation.
These concentration camps are now being augmented by refusing vaccines to migrants. This October a rule will go into effect allowing “immigration officials to deny green cards to immigrants because they utilize government public assistance programs like food stamps, housing vouchers, or Medicaid—or simply because they are poor.” As Daniel Summers has written “It is not because of insurmountable complexity that the Trump administration is withholding flu shots from detained migrants. It is because they simply do not care to protect them.” But this action goes beyond indifference sitting squarely in contempt. These are but two examples of action–practical policy–intentionally looking to excise individuals, to cull them, from the population. It is an act where the Other is aggressively pushed away creating a climate of hostility towards the Other leading to the dissolution of the possibility of empathy. In this way, Trumpism’s domestic policy is one of dyspathy.
The intent is to expel and discourage anyone seeing ‘America’ as a place open and free. However, Trumpism ingrains not just a fear of the Other but an abiding contempt. The two emotions combined make demands for a wall and the assertion those on the other side are barely human seem reasonable. Essentially, Trumpism encourages a country club mentality but at the national scale. The president wants to be surrounded by those like himself. Again, he desires a citizenry who are vocally and voraciously approving, uncritical, and economically beholden to himself and his class. The foreign policy and domestic policy of Trumpism uses dyspathy to eliminate the Other or have them bend to the will and whim of the president. By dissolving the nation’s capacity for empathy, the dyspathy of of Trumpism encourages a craven homogeneity.