Imagination is key to our capacity to extend sympathy to others, but can be easily exploited by the powerful as a tool to overshadow systemic injustices.


People take news of other people’s suffering in different ways. In March, on hearing that Boris Johnson had contracted coronavirus, a friend of mine who is a staunch atheist, texted me to quip: ‘There is a god!’ I laughed, knowing that it was her faith in science that lay behind her exclamation of divine justice.

In boasting about shaking the hands of patients with coronavirus, surely Johnson had no-one but himself to blame for not taking protective measures? In believing himself to be above other, less fortunate others, the virus proved that Johnson was not immune from the consequences of his own actions.

Some have since argued that only an impersonal threat, invisible microbes, could manage to escape the dark art of the spin-doctor, as any medical one. Populist politics may trade in emotions rather than facts, but this leaves leaders such as Trump and Johnson vulnerable to certain truths when laid bare for all to see.

This last weekend, an alternative reading of power was offered by another friend. I was surprised to hear an NHS worker admit that she identified with Dominic Cummings wanting to be with his family and so felt unable to condemn him for his law-breaking. Good people, it seems, naturally extend their own human response towards others.

Fellow-feeling was exploited by members of The Cabinet in defense of Dominic Cummings, with Michael Gove urging us all to concede that ‘caring for your wife and child’ is ‘not a crime’. This supportive tweet followed-up on Cumming’s wife’s own slot on Radio Four’s Thought For The Day, which saw the power of prayer further invoked into the discourse surrounding her husband’s (good) fortune and (good) character. ‘An extremely kind man’.

The question of what kinds of empathy are appropriate to extend to those in positions of power is a subject of speculation beyond my circle of friends. In Against Empathy, Paul Bloom argues against thinking that our ‘ability to feel the suffering of others for ourselves’ is the ‘source of all good behaviour’. While empathy inspires act of care and protection in personal relationships, Bloom argues that it has the ‘opposite effect’ in the wider world. Research in psychology and neuroscience shows that ‘we feel empathy most for those we find attractive and who seem similar to us and not at all for those who are different, distant or anonymous’.

David Graeber also offers useful insights into patterns of ‘sympathetic identification’. In his book The Utopia of Rules, he references Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments to argue that while human beings naturally identify with each other’s joys and sorrows, limits are placed on how these extend to the unfortunate. ‘Compassion fatigue’ follows from trying to extend our feelings to the poor and those so ‘consistently miserable’ that we feel ‘simply overwhelmed’ by their plight. Graeber says how we are ‘forced, without realising it, to blot out their existence entirely’.

His words remind us of how the sheer scale of the number of deaths from coronavirus can serve to obscure and numb feelings of grief. Graeber’s description of the ‘lopsided structures of the imagination’ seemed all the more pertinent on the same weekend that Cummings was threatened with receiving his comeuppance.

That same Sunday, The New York Times published a list of a thousand victims of the pandemic in the US on its front pages. The visual message, so unlike any regular headline, sought to present facts as emotional truths. It brought to mind other attempts to lend ‘imagination’ to mass death, as with the visualisation of scale provided by the AIDS quilt (or Names Project). This also strove to give human dimension to a pandemic, through taking-up public space in a novel way.

We know that the poor have been disproportionately affected by the virus, with maps of New York districts mirroring the unequal effects of the virus as accurately as the maps of London’s poor that were produced in the Victorian era (when Engels first coined the term ‘social murder’ for those who perished before their time in Manchester’s slums.)

However, instead of lingering on the NY Times long columns, my eyes were drawn to Cummings own visual strategies. Carrying a child’s bike and ball in hand, he climbed into his car to admonish the press photographers for not ‘standing 2m apart’. These theatrical props were designed to support his narrative of being a caring parent rather than an unaccountable autocrat. (It was also resonant of other ‘supporting’ frames used by guilty men – Harvey Weinstein pushing his zimmer frame walker to the courtroom.)

Pressed into an extraordinary public performance on Bank Holiday Monday, Cummings once again utilised the signifiers of domesticity, nature and innocence – a jug of clear water, white clothing, a sweetly fragrant rose garden. This setting was intended to suggest lack of artifice – by contrast the nearby podium of power, behind which Boris would later appear.

Asked about the credibility of Cummings story – that he drove to a beauty sport to ‘test his eyesight’ – the PM commented: ‘I have to wear specs…eyesight can be a problem associated with coronavirus.’ Turning a blind eye was, quite literally, presented by Johnson as medical side effect of the virus.

Graeber’s words seemed to resonate across these bizarre events all too clearly. He acknowledges how ‘imagination tends to bring with it sympathy… but the result is that the victims of structural violence tend to care about its beneficiaries far more than those beneficiaries care about them.’ Relationships of unequal power distort our capacity to see clearly how we view the humanity of others in relation to our own.

In drawing attention to familial feeling, Cumming’s effects seems to have saved his political skin, for now, at least. Pundits have concluded that Cummings can now only be judged in the ‘court of public opinion’. One tweet proffered the psychological observation that ‘sociopaths have no regard for the social contract, but know how to use it to their advantage… I am sure that if the devil existed, he would want us to feel very sorry for him.’ While by the end of the weekend, my NHS friend had re-assessed her earlier opinion, along with a significant proportion of the British public. Yet Cummings remains.

The PM final excuse was that he behave like ‘every father and every parent’. Graeber concludes his analysis with a chilling note on the effectiveness of promoting a divisive unity of false equivalence: ‘This might well be, after the violence itself, the single most powerful force preserving such relations’.


Dr Frances Williams recently completed a PhD at Manchester Metropolitan University where she studied the relation of the field of practice known as ‘arts in health’ to discourses of devolution.  She is a Visiting Researcher at Glyndwr University.