Rational Empathy

In 2009, a Wall Street Journal editorial headlined "The 'Empathy' Nominee: Is Sonia Sotomayor judically [sic] superior to 'a white male'?" included the following passage (background):
In the President's now-famous word, judging should be shaped by "empathy" as much or more than by reason.
Here, then, was the conservative view laid bare: Empathy and reason are mutually exclusive concepts.

This dichotomy is once again at play during this election, as President Obama is cast as a socialist (if only!), a bleeding heart wealth-redistributor who wants to uplift the downtrodden at the expense of hard-working job creators. He doesn't understand the cold, hard realities of the world, Republicans are fond of saying. He is out of depth. He ignores facts. He is not reasonable. He, instead, has empathy. Which is even worse than cooties.

In the conservative frame, it is never reasonable to be empathetic.

And, truly, if one's worldview is structured principally of self-interest, empathy isn't reasonable, but is, in fact, a catastrophic risk to the privileged beneficiaries of an ideology built upon their informed lack of compassion and their rank-and-file's ignorant lack of compassion.

Empathy is what happens when racist white parents discover their child's best friend at school is black, and they begin to revisit their prejudices. Empathy is what happens when a homophobic woman finds out that male coworker she really likes is gay, and she begins to reconsider all those biases she's held for so long. Empathy is what happens when real life, real people, prove obviously, demonstrably wrong all those conservative bedtime stories about gays and immigrants and castrating feminazis that go bump in the night.

Empathy is what happens when good conservatives, who have long mistaken patronizing pity for compassion, suddenly realize that being white, or male, or straight, or cisgender, or Christian, or rich, or thin, or able-bodied, or USian, or educated, or in any other way not Other, doesn't make them better people; it merely makes them privileged people.

Empathy is what turns people into progressives.

Lest one imagine I am positing that progressives are somehow selfless martyrs with nary a shred of self-interest, I assure you I am not. To care passionately and wholly about others does not require an abdication of ambition nor a subjugation of agency; it requires, rather, a determination to achieve and succeed and have and be without exploiting or marginalizing others in the process. That is no small thing, but it is not the stuff of saints, either.

Progressives, at our best, merely recognize that we're all in this together—even the people who won't get our backs, the bullies who attack us just to feel less put upon themselves, the self-loathing enablers who harbor foolish dreams of being invited to the table of privilege one day, the barrel-chested barons of a new Gilded Age who stand astride the bodies of those condemned to less fortunate fates, singing the praises of social Darwinism, bellowing about the superfluity of a social safety net, and declaring "The government never gave me anything!" as they deposit seven-figure bonuses made possible by a taxpayer-funded bailout.

Progressives know we are all in the same leaky, creaky, unreliable boat. And knowing that means understanding even the most voracious self-interest is best served by egalitarianism: A fortune is worth nothing at the bottom of the ocean, less than a single penny carried safely to shore.

Empathy is what happens when people turn away from the gossamer promise of a treasure that never materializes, and turn to their neighbors and say, "I don't care about our differences; I'll help you carry the penny."

It's a totally rational decision to make—really, the only rational decision for most people. And once they come upon it, a space in which empathy and reason are regarded as an either-or proposition is no space in which they can comfortably exist. One mustn't be a raging altruist to appreciate both the decency and pragmatism of empathy in a diverse culture.

But one must be a conservative to fail to see either.

[Originally published in similar form in May 2009.]

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