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'Sympathizer' and 'supporter' are very close in meaning, but are they exactly synonyms? I thought of using 'sympathizer' in a text I'm writing since I thought it is more inclusive than supporters, including those whose support is milder, more abstract and less decisive, at the level of emotional sympathy and nothing that goes beyond it.

However, I googled it and had the impression that 'sympathizer' is mainly used derogatively (e.g. Nazi sympathizer) - so, my question is: can you also talk about 'sympathizers' of a movement without insinuating that it is a bad thing to support it? Have I got the difference between these two words right? Are there other differences in meaning I should be aware of?

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['Sympathizer'] I thought it is more inclusive than supporters, including those whose support is milder, more abstract and less decisive, at the level of emotional sympathy and nothing that goes beyond it.

That is correct - a good definition, although 'Sympathizers' can also express parallel emotions in various minor activities.

However, I googled it and had the impression that 'sympathizer' is mainly used derogatively (e.g. Nazi sympathizer)

"Sympathizer" is, itself, neutral.

(i) one who demonstrates or shares his emotional feelings about someone or an organization

(ii) one who shares the opinions/ideals of someone or an organization.

(i) is used in a more literal, emotional, and a positive sense in such sentences as

"The little girl died in hospital. Sympathizers left flowers and toys at the scene of the accident." and has the meaning of "people who wished to share their similar emotions with the victim's family,"

In (i), there is some action but it is indirect and personally motivated.

(ii) "People who think in some defined or implied way and who broadly and naturally agree with the aims of something/someone but fall short of being members or dedicated followers."

In (ii), 'sympathizer' is often used to imply a natural, mass agreement: the psychological effect on the reader of this catch-all term is "That is not me, but the threat is great!" and thus there is a "group whose thoughts are wrong" and this causes agreement with the writer's opinion.

Thus, with an organization that the writer thinks is abhorrent, 'sympathizer' is negative.

(Compare with the phrase "The Silent Majority" (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Silent_majority, which was used to indicate a mysterious and undefined set of people who share the speaker's opinions and whose opinions are normal.)

My question is: can you also talk about 'sympathizers' of a movement without insinuating that it is a bad thing to support it?

"The call by the Mayor of Manchester for an increase in the state pension for the elderly has gathered many sympathizers, some of whom protested in front of the parliament building." These are “actual and emotional” supporters

“Members of the “Build Flood Defences Now” campaign have gathered many sympathizers who understand that many people in the area will lose their houses in the coming years, but who also see that the huge expense of building such defences is not really justifiable.” These are more “emotional, rather than actual” supporters.

The two nuances have overlap and the circumstances of a positive meaning with an organization are thus possible but rare, as positive sympathizers are those who understand the emotional feelings engendered by the problem but may disagree with the organization’s methods, solution, or overall aim.

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  • All supporters are sympathisers but not vice versa. That's purely about degree. If "Baddie sympathiser" was derogatory except by association, then "Goodie sympathiser" would carry a hint of the same taint. Rather, people rarely have cause to speak of "Goodie sympathisers". That might appear to skew the term towards negativity but IMHO it will be a good few years before that trend solidifies. – Robbie Goodwin Apr 18 at 11:40
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I do not think that using sympathizer to refer to anything political or societal in nature, or to a group or unspecified individual, would come across as synonymous with supporter in a genuine way.

I could maybe see it being used to refer to an interpersonal relationship, one in which genuine sympathy is expressed, rather than ideological approval. In the political and anti political circles in which I engage, sympathizer is always used negatively, synonymous with and often vaguely referencing nazi sympathizers, such as fascist or misogynist sympathizers. People who maintain relationships with a called out abuser, do not confront them, or in the case of celebrities, still enjoy or promote their work, are often called abuse sympathizers or sympathizing with [the abuser(s)].

The only other way it is used is sarcastically, like an inside joke, since it is such a common word in the culture and not used as much outside of it. For example - “not to be a winter sympathizer, but I love snow”, implying that winter is a bad thing that would be not acceptable to the group to speak positively of or support.

A difference between support and sympathizer, I think, is that sympathizers don’t have to do as much, maybe just didn’t delete someone on Facebook, maybe just didn’t do enough to speak out against someone. Often it is speculative thus safer than calling the person a supporter, as being outed as one can damage ones place in the group. A sympathizer doesn’t have to do anything, they can have not done enough. Often they are entirely unaware of the situation, but of course that is when the word is used inappropriately.

Sympathy, rather than empathy, implies negativity. Interpersonally, if I express sympathy towards somebody, it is because of something difficult they are going through (sympathy cards in the greeting card aisles are given to people experiencing illness, death, etc.) In this case the negativity is not a tragedy or difficult time, but a bad ideology or practice.

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