It’s been a while since empathy — the uniquely human capacity to recognize and share the feelings experienced by others, that science even suggests is hardwired in us — when President Obama included it in the qualities he sought in a Supreme Court appointee, and conservatives from Glenn Beck to Sen. Jim Sessions. So I was surprised to see columnist David Brooks turn the spotlight on empathy again.
However, when I put it in the context of popular and growing movements like Occupy Wall Street and We are the 99 Percent, and even the movements in Wisconsin and Ohio, I was not surprised to see Brooks holding forth on the shortcomings of empathy. The success of these progressive movements constitute a powerful challenge to conservatives.
The problem comes when we try to turn feeling into action. Empathy makes you more aware of other people’s suffering, but it’s not clear it actually motivates you to take moral action or prevents you from taking immoral action.
…Empathy orients you toward moral action, but it doesn’t seem to help much when that action comes at a personal cost. You may feel a pang for the homeless guy on the other side of the street, but the odds are that you are not going to cross the street to give him a dollar.
…Nobody is against empathy. Nonetheless, it’s insufficient. These days empathy has become a shortcut. It has become a way to experience delicious moral emotions without confronting the weaknesses in our nature that prevent us from actually acting upon them. It has become a way to experience the illusion of moral progress without having to do the nasty work of making moral judgments. In a culture that is inarticulate about moral categories and touchy about giving offense, teaching empathy is a safe way for schools and other institutions to seem virtuous without risking controversy or hurting anybody’s feelings.
People who actually perform pro-social action don’t only feel for those who are suffering, they feel compelled to act by a sense of duty. Their lives are structured by sacred codes.
Brooks makes an interesting point in the conservative case against empathy, by first arguing that no one is against empathy, and then arguing why sometimes one should be. He instead argues for strong moral codes that allow “pro-social” action without empathy, driven instead by duty. It doesn’t end up with any answers. It doesn’t replace empathy, because with empathy comes compassion, and Brooks almost extolls morality driven action that may be void of compassion.
We take care of the poor because we “must.” Because “God” commands us to. But it doesn’t mean we have to “expand our moral imaginations” (as President Obama put it, in his Tucson speech) and put ourselves in their shoes or put ourselves in their places. Moral judgment like that Brooks favors over empathy allows for a separation between “us” and “them,” it casts “them” as “Other,” and puts a comfortable distance between “us” and “them.” Empathy requires some level of identification with another, and a recognition of some basic degree of commonality.
Empathy makes casting moral judgments upon others more complicated and more difficult, because seeing something of our reality in them gives them a context — a “story” like our own, which frames their choices and actions with complexities that bleed over into our stories and those of others.
For conservatives like Brooks, empathy in government becomes even more troublesome, because it subverts morality by shielding people from the consequences of their sins.
When you are the president in a financial crisis, you have the power to pave roads and hire teachers. That will reduce the suffering of real people who would otherwise be jobless. You have the power to streamline regulations and reduce tax burdens. That will induce a bit more hiring and activity. These are real contributions.
But you don’t have the power to transform the whole situation. Your discrete goods might contribute to an overall turnaround, but that turnaround will be beyond your comprehension and control.
Over the past decades, Americans have developed an absurd view of the power of government. Many voters seem to think that government has the power to protect them from the consequences of their sins. Then they get angry and cynical when it turns out that it can’t.
Sins? Sins, did you say? What sins?
Brooks’ moral case for a “do nothing” (or at little as possible) approach to the economic crisis is not only classic conservatism, but fits nearly into the conservative worldview that George Lakoff nailed in his book Moral Politics: How Liberals and Conservatives Think.
Competition is necessary for a moral world; without it, people would not have to develop discipline and so would not become moral beings. Worldly success is an indicator of sufficient moral strength; lack of success suggests lack of sufficient discipline. Dependency is immoral. The undisciplined will be weak and poor, and deservedly so.
Strict Father Morality demonstrates a natural Moral Order: Those who are moral should be in power. The Moral Order legitimizes traditional power relations as being natural, determining a hierarchy of Moral Authority: God above Man; Man above Nature; Adults above Children; Western Culture above Non-western Culture; America above other nations. (There are other traditional aspects of the Moral Order that are less accepted than they used to be: Straights above Gays; Christians above non-Christians; Men above Women; White above Non-whites.)
Since to participate in the promotion or preservation of immorality is itself immoral, it is a moral requirement to eradicate immorality—through “tough love” if possible but through punishment if necessary—in every aspect of life, both public and private, domestic and foreign.
Put plainly, the better off are better off because they are better people. The poor, the unemployed, the underemployed, the uninsured, etc, are solely to blame for their condition. The have-nots are have-nots because they “have not” the right moral character. The most recent example of this is Herman Cain’s recent statement on joblessness and inequality.
Joblessness, unemployment, the economic crisis, the foreclosure crisis. You name it, conservatives blame it all on the sins of “Others.” Maybe it’s Blacks and Latinos that caused the foreclosure crisis. Maybe its gays and same-sex marriage that caused the economic meltdown. And the over 15 million jobless Americans are jobless because the just are looking and hoping hard enough.
Rounding out this trip through the conservative mindset by way of Brooks and Cain is Ron Paul’s recent appearance on The Daily Show.
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“Do you worry that you trust us more than you should,” Stewart asked, expressing his concern for unregulated markets.
“When I talk to young people, and I talk to a lot of them,” Paul replied. “I say, if we can get your freedom back just remember the decisions you make affect yourself and you can’t come crawling to the government for some help. When I make a decision or the government makes a decision, it’s for everybody. When you make a bad decision, it only hurts you. So, if you have great faith in people, then you have to say, well, the people are the politicians. And quite frankly, the people I know in Washington aren’t capable of telling you what you ought to do.”
But the issue to Stewart is one of public empathy.
“Doesn’t trusting the people also then accept the fact that people won’t let their fellow man be in a position where they fail?” Stewart asked.
It’s worth repeating: “When you make a bad decision it only hurts you.” It runs counter to common sense. If I decide, starting today, to drive on the left side of the road and to ignore speed limits, that’s a decision that’s likely to hurt me. But it’s not only going to hurt me. Given the certainty that my decision will cause an accident, it will hurt the other party. They could suffer a loss of property, depending on the damage to their car. They could suffer a loss of health or even a loss of life if they are severely injured as a result of my decision to flout “government” regulations that “tell me what I ought to do”; like which side of the road I should drive on, or how fast I should go.
What decision would the other party have made that hurt them? Merely to drive home along the same route they always take, and abide by the traffic laws. Now, you could say that it’s their fault because they could have chosen another route, thus avoided me. In other words, It was their fault for being on the road, even if they were following the rules.
But common sense tells you it was my decision that hurt them. The law would certainly see it that way, and my consequences could include a fine and/or jail time for vehicular homicide. Our laws recognize that the choices people make have consequences for other people, whose only fault was doing what they were supposed to be doing. Common sense and the law recognize that situations like these call for accountability.
(Lakoff, again, summarizes the difference between progressives and conservatives as a one of systemic causation vs. direct causation. In a system of “a zillion, zillion interactions” — as Brooks described the economy — small changes and choices by individual actors can have huge impacts across an entire system, resulting in significant consequences even for those whose only fault is being a part of that system. Thus, progressives look for systemic causes like the generational effects of poverty, or the impact of long-term employment on families and communities. Meanwhile conservatives look for direct causation, and thus focus on “individual responsibility,” leading to assertions that the unemployed are simply lazy, the poor are simply immoral, etc.)
Cast the same story in the context of the economic crisis, substitute Wall Street for yours truly, and middle- and working-class Americans for the injured party, and conservatives like Brooks, Cain, and Paul essentially say: It’s their own damn fault.
Brooks says Americans have an “absurd” idea that government exists to “protect them from the consequences of their sins.” But it’s the consequences of the sins of others government protects us from, when it works. The reality is that for decades government has failed to protect us from the sins of others who fall into the category of “corporate persons,” and that’s the source of the anger and cynicism Brooks mentioned.
Steve Benen asks:
Has Brooks ever actually spoken to anyone who’s falling further behind? As poverty rates reach one in six, does the columnist sincerely believe systemic sin is responsible? With unemployment over 9%, is Brooks convinced that all the jobless deserved to be forced from their jobs?
As for the role of the state, Brooks believes the public simply needs to be conditioned — stop thinking government will provide a net, and you won’t be disappointed when government intervention seems inadequate.
The reason that movements like Occupy Wall Street and We Are the 99 Percent have taken off is because millions of Americans have actually spoken with someone who’s falling behind. We do so every day. We don’t have to go far to find them, because they are often our friends, neighbors and family members. Those of us who are still hanging on in this recession live and work beside others who are in the same precarious position, just a step or two from falling — or being pushed — into the abyss.
That’s the reason, as Bryce Covert writes, that the other 99% of us are crying out.
While signs at the protests have many, many messages — from BP to Iran to capital punishment — the affiliated Tumblr, We Are the 99 Percent, exposes what’s motivating people to get on the streets. With over 700 submissions at this point, Americans from all over have been writing down personal stories to explain their frustrations. While those protesting on Wall Street have grievances that are far ranging, those on the Tumblr are almost all sparked by a combination of a few common things: joblessness, debt, and low wages. They are the stories of those who can’t make ends meet. These days, that covers a lot of us.
As spontaneous as these movements seem, the truth is they’ve been building for a long time. As Andy Kroll writes, they stem from a “decade from hell,” for middle- and working-class Americans.
In recent months, a blizzard of new data, the hardest of hard numbers, has laid bare the dilapidated condition of the American economy, and particularly of the once-mighty American middle class. Each report sparks a flurry of news stories and pundit chatter, but never much reflection on what it all means now that we have just enough distance to look back on the first decade of the twenty-first century and see how Americans fared in that turbulent period.
And yet the verdict couldn’t be more clear-cut. For the American middle class, long the pride of this country and the envy of the world, the past 10 years were a bust. A washout. A decade from hell.
Paychecks shrank. Household wealth melted away like so many sandcastles swept off by the incoming tide. Poverty spiked, swallowing an ever-greater share of the population, young and old. “This is truly a lost decade,” Harvard University economist Lawrence Katz said of these last years. “We think of America as a place where every generation is doing better, but we’re looking at a period when the median family is in worse shape than it was in the late 1990s.”
That it happened at the same time that that the top 1% enjoyed record low taxes and captured the lion’s share of income, isn’t lost on the millions of Americans in the other 99%. The 1% took a hit to their stock portfolios when the at the start of the recession, but have since recovered. It’s no coincidence that we see America as more divided between haves and have-nots than ever before.
Take a look at a new poll from the Pew Center on People and Press, showing that the number of Americans who think we’re a country divided into the “haves” and “have nots” shot up by 10 percent over the past three years, after a bit of a decline the year prior:
Brooks’ column against empathy goes a long way towards making the moral case for the Republican austerity agenda, without coming right out and saying so. That’s especially true if you look at it as a moral agenda: one that turns a dispassionate eye towards the people who will bear the brunt of it, and endure a great deal more pain and anxiety in the process
But Americans caught in the teeth of this recession aren’t necessarily buying the conservative moral argument that it’s our own fault. Elizabeth Warren put succinctly the understanding that moved so many to “occupy Wall Street.”
Warren also drew applause for her tough talk on Wall Street. “The people on Wall Street broke this country, and they did it one lousy mortgage at a time. It happened more than three years ago, and there has been no real accountability, and there has been no real effort to fix it.“
Young Americans, joined by everyone from airline pilots to labor unions and U.S. Marines (about as far from “hippies” as one could imagine) have occupied Wall Street for weeks now, because they know who “broke” the economy. Americans are occupying Washington, D.C., because they know who “broke” the economy, who allowed it to happen, and who still hasn’t done much of anything about it. We have been living with the consequences of “sins” not our own, because our government failed to protect us from the sins of others. Namely, Wall Street.
Americans are occupying their own cities all over the country, because they know in a crisis this big, the scene of the crime is in our own cities, our neighborhoods, and sometimes even in our own living rooms; because we have friends or family who are getting laid off because of local/state budget cuts that state/local jobs cuts that are slowing down what passes as a recovery; because we are or have children who are graduating off a cliff into a jobless recovery and an economy with no place for them; because foreclosures have left our neighborhoods struggling with blight; because the future we dreamed up for our children is in peril.
For all these reasons and more, Americans are taking to the streets. There’s a line that runs from the Wisconsin protests, connecting them. Instead of hardening our hearts against each other, the economic crisis has “sharpened our instincts for empathy” and, as President Obama said in his Tucson speech, caused us to “remind ourselves of all the ways that our hopes and dreams are bound together.” We have not used it as an opportunity to turn on each other. Instead, a sense of shared struggles empowers us to demand accountability and justice.
In his opening address to the Take Back The American Dream conference, Van Jones reminded those who were inspired by Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign, “You inspired him first.” What’s happening now — what we’ve seen in Occupy Wall Street, in We Are the 99 Percent, in the protests in Wisconsin and Ohio, etc. — is that we are inspiring each other. We may have inspired Obama again, if the White House’s change in tune is any indication. But the real game-changer beyond 2012 may be that we are inspiring each other. The real game changer may be a belief embodied in the Wisconsin protests, the American Dream movement, and Occupy Wall street, not only that — as Van said — “something can be done,” but that we can make it happen.