Wednesday, June 03, 2009

George Lakoff - Conservatives Are Waging a War on Empathy -- We Can't Let Them Win

The right has waged a war on empathy under the guise of opposition to the Judge Sotomayor Supreme Court nomination. Obama opened the door for this specific attack by suggesting publicly that he wanted a justice for the Court who had empathy for the American experience.

As Lakoff points out, empathy is that heart of progressive thought, but it runs counter the authoritarian conservative view.

Before reading Lakoff's article, here is an example of what he is talking about, courtesy of Big Hollywood, a far right blog.

Daily Gut: I Lack Empathy for Empathy

by Greg Gutfeld

So, when it comes to empathy, I’ve lost all empathy. Yep, I’m over it – at least when it comes to the modern version, which seems less like empathy and more like exclusion. Imagine original “empathy” as a giant club where everyone understands the way life is - that no matter where you come from, there will always be suffering, loss, and ultimately, death. Empathy these days, however, is like a row of smaller nightclubs, where you only get in if you look exactly like the club’s respective bouncers.

As a short, white guy with a weird late night show – I suppose I should only empathize with other short white guys with weird late night shows. I certainly cannot empathize with a Latina, or a black person, or anyone else for that matter – because in the oppressed/oppressor Marxist model, my racial identity is deemed far more important than our shared humanity. I know: I am a Caucasian white male. Not a real human being.

But that’s not how empathy is supposed to work. I mean, if you lost a parent, you can empathize with someone, black or white, who lost a parent. If you’re short, you can empathize with short people - even if they’re from Spain (true). If your Japanese friend loses a job, you empathize – because you remember how that felt when it happened to you (and you’re not even Japanese!). Married men empathize with ALL married man, regardless of ethnic identity. Women empathize with all women across the board, because men are a pain in the ass to live with. You see, empathy was supposed to be inclusive – a way to initiate contact with others, instead of excluding those who don’t seem to fit.

Empathy – as I also remember - was why dudes at bars listen to sob stories from hot chicks about their stymied modeling career. It truly is amazing how all men can empathize with women half their age looking to advance their careers.

Turn on any station that still plays music videos – and watch as young women showing too much skin try to fake tears over the harshness of life. You probably can’t empathize with them, can you? But you would if it meant getting lucky. Bill Clinton once defined empathy so perfectly: “I feel your pain.” And boy did he.

He’d make a great judge!

Now here is Lakoff's argument against allowing the right to dictate the conversation on this topic. If the right prevails, the progressive foundation is corrupted.

Conservatives Are Waging a War on Empathy -- We Can't Let Them Win

By George Lakoff, AlterNet. Posted June 1, 2009.

Conservatives are trying to redefine empathy as irrational personal feeling. In fact, empathy is the basis of our democracy and must be defended.

The Sotomayor nomination has given radical conservatives new life. They have launched an attack that is nominally aimed at Judge Sotomayor. But it is really a coordinated stealth attack -- on President Obama's central vision, on progressive thought itself, and on Republicans who might stray from the conservative hard line.

There are several fronts: Empathy, feelings, racism, activist judges. Each one has a hidden dimension. And if progressives think conservative attacks are just about Sotomayor, they may wind up helping conservatives regroup.

Conservatives believe that Sotomayor will be confirmed, and so their attacks may seem irrational to Democrats, a last gasp, a grasping at straws, a sign that the party is breaking up.

Actually, something sneakier and possibly dangerous is going on.

Let's start with the attack on empathy. Why empathy? Isn't empathy a good thing?

Empathy is at the heart of progressive thought. It is the capacity to put oneself in the shoes of others -- not just individuals, but whole categories of people: one's countrymen, those in other countries, other living beings, especially those who are in some way oppressed, threatened, or harmed. Empathy is the capacity to care, to feel what others feel, to understand what others are facing and what their lives are like. Empathy extends well beyond feeling to understanding, and it extends beyond individuals to groups, communities, peoples, even species. Empathy is at the heart of real rationality, because it goes to the heart of our values, which are the basis of our sense of justice.

Progressives care about others as well as themselves. They have a moral obligation to act on their empathy -- a social responsibility in addition to personal responsibility, a responsibility to make the world better by making themselves better. This leads to a view of a government that cares about its citizens and has a moral obligation to protect and empower them. Protection includes worker, consumer, and environmental protection as well as safety nets and health care. Empowerment includes what is in the President's stimulus plan: infrastructure, education, communication, energy, the availability of credit from banks, a stock market that works. No one can earn anything at all in this country without protection and empowerment by the government. All progressive legislation is made on this basis.

The president wrote of empathy in The Audacity of Hope, "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."

President Obama has argued that empathy is the basis of our democracy. Why do we promote freedom and fairness for everyone, not just ourselves or the rich and powerful? The answer is empathy. We care about our countrymen and have an obligation to act on that care and to set up a government for the protection and empowerment of all. That is at the heart of everything he does.

The link between empathy and democracy has been established historically by Professor Lynn Hunt of UCLA in her important book, Inventing Human Rights. Hear her speak here.

The link between empathy and progressive thought is spelled out in my book Moral Politics and in my new book The Political Mind, just out in paperback.

In describing his ideal Supreme Court justice, President Obama cited empathy as a major desideratum. Why? Because that is what our democracy is about. A justice has to take empathy into account because his or her decisions will affect the lives of others. Before making a decision you have to put yourself in the shoes of those who your decision will affect. Similarly, in judging causation, fairness requires that social causes as well as individual causes be taken into account. Empathy forces you to notice what is crucial in so many Supreme Court cases: systemic and social causes and who a decision can harm. As such, empathy correctly understood is crucial to judgment. A judge without empathy is a judge unfit for a democracy.

President Obama has described Justice Sotomayor in empathetic terms -- a life story that would lead her to understand people who live through oppression and deprivation and what it does to them. In other words, a life story that would allow her to appreciate the consequences of judicial decisions and the causal effects of living in an unequal society.

Empathy in this sense is a threat to conservatism, which features individual, not social, responsibility and a strict, punitive form of "justice." It is no surprise that empathy would be a major conservative target in the Sotomayor evaluation.

But the target is not empathy as it really exists. Instead, the conservatives are reframing empathy to make it attackable. Their "empathy" is idiosyncratic, personal feeling for an individual, presumably the defendant in a legal case. With "empathy" reframed in this way, Charles Krauthammer can say, echoing Karl Rove, "Justice is not about empathy." The argument goes like this: Empathy is a matter personal feelings. Personal feelings should not be the basis of a judicial decision of the Supreme Court. Therefore, "justice is not about empathy." Reframe the word "empathy" and it not only disqualifies Sotomayor; it delegitimizes Obama's central moral principle, his approach to government, his understanding of the nature of our democracy, and progressive politics in general.

Read the whole article.

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