Summary of Edwin Friedman’s ‘A Failure of Nerve’: Part 4

Other Posts in Series: Part 1Part 2, Part 3, Part 5, Part 6

The Fallacy of Empathy

Friedman now proceeds to take aim at the ‘fallacy of empathy’. He observes the way in which the political rhetoric of sensitivity can hijack agendas. We should not be held responsible for the feelings of others who lack the ability to distinguish between feelings and opinions and between a sense of offense and actual harm. ‘Dialogue is only possible when we can learn to distinguish feelings from opinions and recognize that the background or personality of a person is totally irrelevant to the validity of what he or she is saying’ (133).

Empathy is a concept that seems laudable and desirable. However, Friedman believes that it commonly serves as ‘a disguise for anxiety, a rationalization for the failure to define a position, and a power tool in the hands of the “sensitive”.’ Those who are most inclined to use the concept of empathy are people who feel powerless, and want to ‘use the togetherness force of a regressed society to get those whom they perceive to have power to adapt to them.’ Much of the power of this approach results from the failure of nerve among leaders. However, the focus on ‘understanding’ or feeling with other people can be no less invasive than more coercive approaches. We should rather be focusing upon responsibility over empathy.

In any relational system, disintegrating and un-self-regulating forces or elements are invariably unresponsive to empathy. By their very nature they are all take and no give. In trying to show empathy in such a context, we are making much the same mistake as Chamberlain made with Hitler: one should not try to be reasonable with a virus. In a similar manner, we should not allow our societies or families to become adapted to their least mature or most dysfunctional members. In the face of such persons, the ‘self-regulation’ of the leader, whereby they focus on their own needs and those of the group that they lead, should enable them to resist the temptation to meet such persons halfway (and are such un-self-regulated persons ever satisfied with that?). Feeling for others is quite a liability in such cases, causing leaders to lose their nerve.

The alternative to the empathy approach is one of ‘promoting responsibility for self in another through challenge’ (135). By focusing upon showing empathy for others rather than being responsible for our own integrity, we can actually decrease other people’s pain thresholds, ‘helping them to avoid challenge and compromising the mobilization of their “nerve”.’ The more empathic we are, the more that we discourage responsibility and growth to maturity.

Friedman believes that the increased popularity of empathy in recent decades is in large measure a symptom of the ‘herding/togetherness force characteristic of an anxious society’ (136). While feeling for, caring for, and identifying with others are essential components in the leader’s relationship to others, these things will not themselves encourage people to become more self-aware, responsible, self-regulating, or mature. Empathy is in many respects a ‘luxury afforded only to those who do not have to make tough decisions’ (137). Tough decisions are almost invariably decisions whose consequences are painful to others (which should not be confused with their being harmful to others), decisions that are made with the recognition that what people need is not to be confused with what they want or feel that they need. Empathy can only be afforded when leaders have successfully resisted the invasive character of factions that would derail necessary change, and have regulated systemic anxiety. ‘The kind of “sensitivity” that leaders most require is a sensitivity to the degree of chronic anxiety and the lack of self-differentiation in the system that surrounds them.’

Destructive Entities

The key feature that all entities that are destructive to other entities share in common is their inability to self-regulate. Un-self-regulating entities will constantly be invading the space of others. They lack the capacity to learn from experience.

Friedman illustrates his point using the examples of viruses and malignant cells. Viruses can change, but they cannot ‘evolve’. They have no ‘self’. Malignant cells do not properly self-differentiate, they form un-self-regulating colonies, they are unconnected with and uninfluenced by others, they reproduce uncontrollable, without subordinating reproduction to a higher purpose, and they don’t know when to quit. The ‘selfishness’ of such cells has to do with a lack of self.

Certain human beings and factions in society can function in the same way. Lacking self-regulation and a ‘nucleus’ they act in a purely reactive, rather than ‘inner-directed’ fashion (142). They are incapable of modifying their behaviour and are purely parasitic, drawing energy from others, rather than their own resources, unable or unprepared to form mutualistic arrangements. Unless such persons are resisted, they will contaminate the entire organism in which they exist.

Applying this to the case of parenting, Friedman suggests that, faced with the unregulated child, parents are far better off resisting the urge to focus on techniques (e.g. empathy, tough love) to modify the child, and concern themselves more with developing an immune response, concentrating on their own integrity, and not allowing the unruly child to set the agenda. As long as a parent is focused on modifying the unruly child, it will sap their stamina. However, when parents refocus upon their own welfare, their stamina will increase.

Nurturing growth always follows two principles. One is: Stay out of its way; you cannot “grow” another by will or technique. But the second is: Do not let it “overgrow” you. (144)

When parents learn to self-differentiate from their children in such a manner, the children themselves learn to self-differentiate. Until the parent learns to self-differentiate, the child is unlikely to.

Malignant Members of Institutions

Friedman lists some of the characteristics of ‘malignant’ members of institutions. They are ‘injustice-collectors’ who are ‘given to victim attitudes’ (he suggests that it is ‘as if they had no outer membrane to ensure their integrity’). They ‘idolize’ or ‘crucify’ their leaders. They do not see themselves as destructive, in fact they can articulate their position in the most compelling and moving of terms; their destructivity is ‘rather a byproduct of their doing what comes naturally’ (145). They have a primitive and binary ‘repertoire of responses’, which is unable to tolerate difference or dissent. They focus on procedure and the content of issues in a manner blind to the underlying emotional processes. Light and truth is toxic to them: they thrive in the ‘darkness of conspiracy’. They are highly reactive, narrowly responsive, and deadly serious. Lacking self-regulation, they ‘ooze into’, interfere, infect, or invade relationships between others. They easily fuse into an undifferentiated mass. They are relentless. It is not the presence of a characteristic that makes them so relentless, but the absence of self-regulation, which is why battles of will will generally be fought in vain. They never mature or grow, they only get larger.

Such persons, however, ‘only have power in the face of a failed immune response in the body politic’ (146). Empathy won’t change them. They must be taught that, if they want to be part of the community, they must adapt to it, rather than it adapting to them. They need to learn to be self-regulating and accountable, and our attempts to be empathic achieve little in this regard. This isn’t about dictatorial imposition of opinions, but about expecting a ‘conformity of behavior to the democratic process’ (147).

The totalitarian nation exhibits these characteristics on a larger level. It invades the space of its citizens, and the space of other nations. These two things are connected by the absence of self-regulation, and self-differentiation. One should not believe that either reason or empathy will stop a nation constitutionally incapable of self-regulation. History repeatedly illustrates that sensitive and understanding approaches fail to stave off war with such nations.

Democracies and the peace-loving often allow such forces to get their way as they cannot muster the will and stamina to resist them. The same can be seen in many families and institutions, where persistent troublemakers, disruptive, or invasive elements start to set the agenda, because no one has the capacity to stand up to them. It is crucial that we remember that such elements are incapable of creating pathology on their own: there also must be a lack of self-regulation on the part of the host.

Surviving in a Hostile Environment

The task of the leader is to be the immune system within the institution, through their ‘non-anxious, self-defined presence’ (151). This is not about mere ‘self-defense or hawkish retaliation’: the leader ensures the integrity of the institution against attack.

When it comes to a crisis situation, chances of survival are far greater when we have imaginative horizons that go far beyond our immediate ones. In fact, our very perception of being in crisis may often be in large measure dependent upon the breadth of our imaginative horizons. In any crisis situation, the three key factors are the physical reality, dumb luck, and the response of the organism, which can often affect the level of influence of the other two (154). When anxiety is high, whether in an individual or a society, almost all attention will become fixed on the first two factors and the possibility of addressing problems by modifying the organism’s own response will be neglected.

There are a number of ways in which an organism’s (whether a natural system, a person, a society, or institution) response can avert or overcome such a crisis situation. First, the organism can mobilize its resources of resiliency, hope, determination, and self-regulation. Second, the organism can transform itself to increase its capacity to deal with crisis. Third, the organism can modify the ‘toxicity of the environment’ by, for instance, lowering the levels of anxiety through a non-reactive, self-regulating response.

However, changes to the environment alone are unlikely to produce lasting changes without a change in the response of organisms. In society this means that equal rights and opportunities, or allocation of resources alone cannot be the solution to social ills. Of themselves they are not sufficient to produce maturity. We should also recognize the possibility that an entire system may be adapting for the better, even though the ‘toxicity of the environment’ may temporarily be increasing.

Leaders need to stay in touch with reactive groups, without allowing the issues of such groups to throw them off course. Their increased differentiation can be the means to get others to adapt to their self-regulation, helping the entire group to grow. When we focus primarily upon empathy, pathology, and pain, such possibilities aren’t adequately recognized. Empathic approaches are unable ‘to help people to mature and make more responsibility for their own emotional being and destiny’ (157).


The following are a few thoughts that arise from my reading of this section of Friedman, which probably contains some of his most controversial points.

First, it seems to me that Friedman’s work has considerably relevance to the area of discourse between people of differing theological parties and to dialogue between Christians and non-Christians. If Christians can often be characterized by a pathological reactivity and invasiveness in their discourse with those that differ from them, the solution is not necessarily to be found in greater empathy with opposing opinions, or in a capitulation to sensitivities that close down all challenging discourse. Rather, our approach should be one of self-differentiation and self-regulation, in which we take responsibility for our own feelings and develop thicker skins. It must also involve a far higher pain threshold for the offense of others, and refusing to give ground to those who want to reorganize public discourse around people’s sensitivities (whether those sensitivities belong to Christians or non-Christians). This is the only way that the ‘integrity’ of our discourse (in the fullest sense of that term) can be maintained.

While some characterize this in terms of our right to ‘insult’ and be insulted, this is a serious misnomer. Insulting others – taking direct aim at their sensitivities – is a reactive form of behaviour, a behaviour in which self-differentiated people do not typically engage. Self-differentiated persons, while seeking to speak the truth, will not do so in a manner that is invasive. They do not seek to offend, even though they sometimes will, but to speak the truth (the reactive person, although they may claim that this is true of them, will always tend to ‘speak the truth’ offensively as they cannot abide the proximity of difference). Their discourse is not reactive, locked with the feelings of the other party, whether through excessive empathy or through a blind and mimetic antagonism. Through their separation of their feelings from those of the other party, the anxiety levels in discourse decrease significantly and debates don’t become heated in the same way (when is the last time that you changed someone’s mind through an argument?). Strong ideological differences no longer function as, and are no longer experienced as a personal attack.

Secondly, if evangelical approaches to evangelism and relationships with the world tend to risk being reactive and invasive, liberal and post-evangelical approaches in this area are frequently characterized by a dangerous sensitivity. This sensitivity produces a loss of theological nerve and a compromising of orthodoxy to make it more palatable to people who would never ‘adapt’ to it. The false assumption is that people will come around to the gospel the more that it adapts to them. Of course, if people ever do ‘come around’ under such circumstances, it tends to be to a gospel that hardly means anything any longer. Rather than being a non-anxious presence in society, facing the world with the challenge of the call of Christ, the Church adapts to its context, and nothing changes. A primary focus upon reasoning or empathizing with the world will always tend towards a compromising the integrity of the Church and its message. On account of its low threshold for the pain and offense of others, liberal Christianity has always struggled to maintain integrity in its faith, and has always been vulnerable to the false guilt-manipulation and rights-driven discourse that encourages the spread of un-self-regulated parties.

Thirdly, it is worth remembering how frequently a high threshold for the pain and offense of others is treated as a qualifying mark of biblical leadership. God’s criticisms of poor leaders often focuses on their low pain threshold for the sensitivities, offense, and suffering of others when decisive action needed to be taken for the sake of the integrity of the nation. We can think of Eli’s failure to discipline his sons, Saul’s failure to kill Agag, Aaron’s failure to stand up to the nation in the golden calf incident, etc. Conversely, the actions by which people were set apart or marked out for rule were frequently ones where they exhibited a high pain threshold for the suffering or offense of others when decisive action was needed to maintain the integrity of the people of God (Phinehas killing the Midianite and the Israelite, the Levites slaying 3,000 of their Israelite brethren, Moses killing the Egyptian, etc.). Such leaders were not devoid of pity and concern for the people of God – quite the opposite! – but they had very high pain thresholds when decisive action was required for their health.

Finally, I believe that Friedman presents us with important insights for helping people in need in our communities and elsewhere. While his approach might sound cold and callous, I don’t believe that it is. Friedman believes that sensitivity to others and concern for them is very important. His point, however, is that this cannot stop malignant and invasive elements, nor can they produce maturity in others. Consequently, well-meaning approaches driven primarily by empathy risk sustaining and metastasizing the very problems that they seek to address.

Many approaches to poverty encourage the spread of the characteristics of the un-self-regulated mindset mentioned above. Such approaches are focused upon pathology and weakness. Dysfunctional persons, driven purely by a sense of entitlement, expect society to adapt to them. Sensitive liberals, who have an extremely low pain threshold for people suffering the consequences of their actions, produce a leadership without nerve. Consequently, rather than empowering and encouraging responsibility, and taking an uncompromising line with pathological, parasitic, and malignant elements of society, irresponsibility, dependency, and blame displacement are encouraged. It isn’t hard to see, if you are looking, that, far from fostering responsibility and maturity, such methods lead to its opposite and destroy the immune system and self-regulating capacity of portions of society that most rely upon it (this is why I am always heartened to hear of churches that provide alternatives to welfare, which are geared to empower people to become self-regulating, rather than dependent upon the state).

I believe that an alternative approach would focus more upon the strengths of those in need in society, rather than their pathologies, and upon their capacity for self-differentiating and self-regulating action. It seems to me that this is a wonderful example of the sort of approach that Friedman’s insights would encourage. Rather than underwriting pathologies, resources would be channelled towards the strengths whereby communities will be able to address and overcome their pathologies. In many respects the greatest challenge of such an approach would be that of maintaining society’s nerve in the face of malignant elements, which refuse to be self-regulating. The goal would be that of creating a society in which self-regulation and responsibility would be an attainable prospect for everyone within it, in which no one lacks the means by which to take charge of their life (this most definitely would not do away with the need for a social safety net).

About Alastair Roberts

Alastair Roberts (PhD, Durham University) writes in the areas of biblical theology and ethics, but frequently trespasses beyond these bounds. He participates in the weekly Mere Fidelity podcast, blogs at Alastair’s Adversaria, and tweets at @zugzwanged.
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8 Responses to Summary of Edwin Friedman’s ‘A Failure of Nerve’: Part 4

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