Sunday, January 30, 2011

The Empathy Card

Empathy, eh, Mr. President?

An absurd noise arose in 2009 when you said one of the qualities you expected from a SCOTUS nominee was empathy. Right howled and left pondered your meaning. What I heard from the right often was that even mentioning this term seriously showed you a coward, pantywaist and as such unfit to govern.

Art note: Keeping with his attitude, I claim fair use for my transformation of Shepard Fairey's poster.

Perhaps the fairest assumption came from Chris Weigant in the Huffington Post — Because by speaking of "empathy," I think Obama was doing nothing more than signaling he's about to put a woman on the Supreme Court. That fit what actually happened soon and longer afterward.

The actual passing mention at the end of a short set of remarks was benign enough, specifically:
You know, Justice Roberts said he saw himself just as an umpire. But the issues that come before the court are not sport. They're life and death. And we need somebody who's got the heart to recogni-- the empathy to recognize what it's like to be a young, teenaged mom; the empathy to understand what it's like to be poor or African-American or gay or disabled or old. And that's the criteria by which I'm going to be selecting my judges.
As an admitted empathic sort myself, I was hoping this was going to be more and wider and deeper. Until the mess about your comment, I seldom heard the word outside sermons and conversations with friends who are psychologists. Lately, it has been used, mostly misused, pretty commonly.

One Person's Empathy...


Sharpies may recall your previous, slightly more elaborate use in your far-too-young autobiography, The Audacity of Hope. That included a riff on U.S. Sen.Paul Simon:
That last aspect of Paul's character--a sense of empathy---is one that I find myself appreciating more and more as I get older. It is at the heart of my moral code, and it is how I understand the Golden Rule---not simply as a call to sympathy or charity, but as something more demanding, a call to stand in somebody else's shoes and see through their eyes.

Like most of my values, I learned about empathy from my mother. She disdained any kind of cruelty or thoughtlessness or abuse of power, whether it expresses itself in the form of racial prejudice or bullying in the schoolyard or workers being underpaid. Whenever she saw even a hint of such behavior in me she would look me square in the eyes and ask, "How do you think that would make you feel?"
Then your punchline came in a frame about dealing with your grandfather who was raising you in your teens. You admitted to being a jerk, giving him grief about even doing the simplest chores. Then you came to realize there were small things from you but they would make him feel a lot better. So, you cleaned up your act and were, well, civilized and respectful.

That's not feeling what your grandfather felt. That's self-interest with maybe a healthy dose of sympathy. So, what the future President reasoned (not felt deeply) was a sense of compromise to accommodate a loved on. Sorry, that's not empathy. He goes on to describe projecting to the struggles of the less fortunate. In fact, he's stopping at sympathy, albeit, sympathy with a route to some action.

While that is the way many others use empathy, that isn't it. Thus, you likely have never been consistently empathetic and are not in a position to lead the nation in that direction.

Instead, like the lawyer and professor you have been, you would first think the golden rule. Then if it is not too much trouble, act on it. Others would benefit and you'd feel swell.

In fact, I'd bet our President laughs heartily at America's Funniest Home Videos and such. When tots, adults and animals suffer physical pain and humiliation, whether you enjoy the brutal slapstick or feel discomfort in another's agony is a true personality indicator.

Right-wing sorts can almost certainly be comfortable that their unwelcome leader will not go all gushy on them. They already have a Speaker of House to play at least the melodramatic bits of that role.

In Life and Art


When we had our second of our three sons, I thought more of empathy. It was already something I shared with my late grandfather, who played the father role for me. While it could be very inconvenient as a child, sharing other's joys and pains is what I know.

Our middle son, Eli, is much the same. I hate to fall into a recursive loop, but I feel for his feeling. Even in nursery school, the teachers would say how he was empathetic and comforting to the other children and to the teachers. In many ways, this is how an adult should grow into maturity, heeding by lesson and example from family, teachers and religious figures. It's tough along the way though. Particularly when boys are stereotypically to be callous and rough, sharing feelings with others is odd in the least.

The empathy factor became better known to readers and viewers of science fiction. Perhaps the best example was Star Trek's Deanna Troi, telepath and empath. Her character illustrated the perils as well as benefits to the starship in her skills. It may also be telling that the writers of such works had to deal deeply into fantasy to create such a, well, freak.

Now the term and its related study have a body of varied work. There are numerous books for nurses and even physicians on the uses of empathy in treatment and the dangers of emotional fatigue from caring too much, too often. There are similar cautionary tales of what is known in some psychology circles as vicarious embarrassment syndrome. (There are those, however, including me, who do not consider empathy to be a disorder or syndrome.)

If you are like most and don't grok empathy, a scan of the literature on the net or in a library can provide all you can read. I recently thought I'd expand my own knowledge and hit the Boston libraries. That's where I ran across the nursing-oriented and pop (the nicer American) books.

For the real thing though, it was frustrating to see that many of the best books are for in-library use only. Consider:
  • The age of empathy : nature's lessons for a kinder society, Frans B. M. Waal, available for loan
  • The altruism question : toward a social psychological answer, Charles Daniel Batson, in library only
  • The brighter side of human nature : altruism and empathy in everyday life, Alfie Kohn, in library only
  • Empathy and its development, edited by Nancy Eisenberg and Janet Strayer, in library only
  • Mirroring people : the new science of how we connect with others Marco Iacoboni, available for loan
I got Mirroring People delivered for loan to my local branch, and was surprised at what it was and wasn't. Had I examined it in the library, I likely wouldn't have checked it out. While described on Amazon and elsewhere as a book on empathy, it really is the author and other neuro-scientists plugging their findings.

They did the definitive work on humans and great apes on mirror neurons. Their major conclusion is that we are physically predisposed to feel and imitate others due to certain cells in our brains. They surely lean toward the nature, not nurture, argument. Their findings would also imply a lot more empathy in play that I notice daily.

Regardless, that's good background. It also dovetails nicely with concepts of altruism, particularly George Price's.

Right now, at its basest level, it surely is positive that more of us at least pay lip service to empathy. Even if used as loosely as our President does it, bringing people to attention with calls for watching out for each other can only be good.

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