Thursday, March 21, 2013

Empathy - the real shortage

In pretty much every issue in the news today - the Steubenville rape case, the debate about guns, the federal government's fiscal challenges, and even Senator Portman's recent conversion on marriage equality - our leaders seem to be unable to feel empathy.

Let's start with Senator Portman's change of heart.  Until very recently, he has walked in lockstep with the Republican insistence on discriminating against same sex couples who wish to marry each other.  He has been proud to treat some Americans as second class citizens who do not deserve to be allowed to legally codify their loving commitment to each other.  But since his adult son called him and told him that he is gay, the good senator has decided that, all of a sudden, those gays must be people too.

I am disgusted by his conversion.  He's supposed to be a leader, a protector of all citizens.  But it takes a blood relative's plight as being oppressed in order for him to see that oppression?  WTF?  I guess those of use who aren't related to the Senator will just have to hope his kids marry a hugely diverse group of spouses before we can hope to deserve his representation or empathy.

I've been having conversations about gun rights with some friends.  The gun rights side has been very intent on protecting the "individual civil rights" of gun owners (their words, not mine).  They have been adamant that their right to bear whatever arms they feel like should not be infringed in almost any case. And when it should be infringed (criminal conviction, mental illness, etc), the government's tools to enforce that infringement should be so limited as to be almost entirely ineffective (my characterization of their allowed remedies).  They seem to have no ability whatsoever to connect that the unrestricted commerce in guns is what floods poor and black urban neighborhoods with guns, and that that flood of guns is a necessary contributing factor to the level of gun violence there.  They simply cannot see themselves in a world wish is awash in poverty, anger, unemployment and see that adding guns to that mix will (and has) result in more misery and more death.  Or maybe they just don't care because those who are suffering aren't them or their families.

The Steubenville case is, of course, even more shocking. The perpetrators of this attack on this girl victimized her in full view of several classmates.  Only one of those spectators apparently even raised any objections at all, and many of them took pictures and videos and posted them to social media - victimizing the girl in new ways (and, ironically, making the prosecution of the perpetrators possible).  To add further injury to the initial injuries, mainstream media then expressed empathy for the plight of the rapists!  For. The. Rapists.  WTF?!?  Empathy about how their lives were forever ruined by their conviction, as if the conviction, rather than the act, was what brought these difficulties into their lives.  Perhaps it was easier to see themselves as promising young student athletes than as a vulnerable kid who had had too much to drink and was unable to defend herself.

Rape culture being what it is, much of the response to this case has been about the girl's behavior, her drunkenness, whether she "asked for it," whether she had had sex previously, what clothes she might have been wearing.  One well meaning response is to say to potential rapists "what if it was your sister/daughter/mother?"  NO!!!  We shouldn't have to imagine a direct blood relative being victimized in order to know that raping, RAPING, people is wrong.

In all of these examples - the drunk teenage girl in a room of male athletes, the kid who wants to play on the sidewalk outside of his apartment without being shot, the gay couple who wants to simply live their commitment free from interference by others - the inability to see the situation from the perspective of the least powerful person in the mix is what allows us to be indifferent.  To not care.  To blame.  To oppress.

I think that if you look at any issue in the world now - from the wars in the middle east, to climate change, to funding education - a lack of empathy for the least powerful is getting in the way of making progress.  The good news is that empathy is free.  The bad news is that we seem to have no idea about how to sell it.  Maybe that's the real problem... since no one makes a profit on empathy (in fact, some profits would decrease with more of it), we just don't have good tools to spread it.  Or maybe those tools have been hidden from our view.  I don't know.  But I sure wish we had more of it.  A lot more.

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