Empathy: n. The ability to understand, be aware of, be sensitive to and vicariously experience the feelings, thoughts and experience of another without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience communicated in an objectively explicit manner.
It’s an interesting word. I was still a pre-teen when my mother first introduced me to it. “Empathy,” she explained to me, “is more than feeling sorry for another person. We call that sympathy. Empathy means actually feeling what the other person is feeling.” I struggled for a while with the distinction, and then, years later, when I finally had an understanding of it, I struggled with gaining an appreciation of how to make it a natural part of my skill set in my relationships with others. Fifty years later, I’m still struggling with it.
Rob Portman has apparently learned of the potential impact empathy can have on personal and political views, courtesy of his son. You may recall that the Ohio senator was on the short list for the VP nomination last year before Mitt Romney settled on Paul Ryan. Last week Mr. Portman announced that he is now in favor of the recognition of same-sex marriage. It seems that the senator’s son had revealed to him two years ago that he is gay. Living with that information (and presumably feeling the feelings his son had on the subject) apparently forced the father to change his views on this politically sensitive (especially for a Republican) issue.
To be sympathetic to another’s circumstances is to offer a hug. To be empathetic to them is to cry with them. Sympathy is easy. Empathy is hard, especially if, presumably like Senator Portman, the experience you are trying to empathize with is completely foreign to everything you have known, believed and felt for your entire life. That fact may explain why it took two years for Portman to come to grips with the change he needed to make in his thinking on the issue. The more cynical view would be that he had to wait until the dust had cleared from the presidential election, where he served as a chief Romney surrogate and campaign spokesman. But either way, it’s a safe bet that his views were changed by his empathy for his son.
The Portman story, with the assumptions I’ve made included, suggests that a politician’s ideology can be based on something other than intellectual reasoning. It can also be based on identification with, or empathy for, a particular constituency. And in Senator Portman’s case, that constituency was reduced to one individual on the issue of same-sex marriage.
There is, of course, a paradox in this particular story, one that could be even more interesting if, as I suspect, it explains, at least in part, the policies that those on either side of the ideological divide support or oppose.
If empathy (even if just for a son) is capable of changing a politician’s views on an important issue, then might a politician’s capacity to empathize control much of the politician’s world view? If so, would too much empathy cloud the intellectual judgment that well-reasoned legislation requires? And would too little allow that intellectual judgment to be misguided and even counter-productive?
Consider the current divide between conservatives and liberals on the subject of taxes and spending. Conservatives favor lower taxes, especially for the wealthy, and lower spending, especially for programs that aid the poor specifically and the non-wealthy more generally. Liberals favor higher taxes on the wealthy and greater spending for the poor specifically and for the non-wealthy more generally. To what extent are these conflicting views driven by intellectualization of the issues and to what extent are they controlled by identification with (empathy for) particular constituencies?
Certainly intellectually-derived ideology can be compelling, but doesn’t the Portman story indicate that it can be tempered, if not completely overcome, by empathy for a particular constituent group?
My theory, then, would suggest that we need to get conservative politicians closer to the poor and the disadvantaged in our society, and we need to get liberal politicians more in tune with the lives that the wealthy and better off enjoy. Would Mitt Romney have made his 47% remarks if he had grown up impoverished and had friends who still were? Would Barack Obama continually push for heavier tax burdens for the wealthy if he had grown up with wealth and had amassed huge fortunes in the world of business instead of working as a community organizer for the poor in inner-city Chicago?
I don’t presume to know the answers to those questions, but I do think a certain amount of empathetic ability is desirable in political leaders, and I wish today’s conservatives had more of it while our liberals toned theirs down a bit.
What I’m really projecting here is a bit of the “walk-in-my-shoes” philosophy. Yes, conservatives might well still oppose taxing the rich if they had a better understanding of the plight of the poor, but they might not be so adamant that the wealthy not be taxed one dime more than they are now. And, yes, liberals might still favor taxing the wealthy more than they are taxed now if they had a better feel for how tough it is to keep a business running or to maintain a lifestyle one has worked had to attain, but they might be less condemnatory of the “haves” than they are now.
The problem with my proposed solution is that circumstances like Senator Portman’s are all too rare, and I think that is especially true for conservatives, who are less likely to come close to walking in the shoes of the underprivileged than are liberals to hobnobbing with the financially successful. The process of being an elected politician tends to push you away from the masses. Former community organizers who seek elective office are rare enough. Those who, once elected, maintain those connections are rarer still.
Rob Portman would still be adamantly opposed to same-sex marriage were it not for his son. Most politicians don’t have opportunities like his presented to them; hence, their empathetic skills suffer, and their country does as well.