Tuesday, January 28, 2014

The empathy...gap?

According to the news, we have an "Empathy Gap" in politics. Let's say there is such a thing as an empathy gap - some sort of distance and lack of connection between the people of this country and some (or all) of our elected representatives. 

I believe that a politician's job is to do two things; to represent me (as a leader or decision maker, for some section of this country) and to let me know that I am represented (through talking to me). I can think of two questions about how 'empathy' relates to 'politics': 

1. To represent me - do they need empathy?

In general, I agree with that statement. I believe that when I use empathy in the right way, I see other's point of view much more clearly. When I see others more clearly, I can make decisions that are good for all sides of a debate. 

There are some people out there who would agree with me - who believe we need empathy in our leaders for them to make good policy decisions. Our President has talked about using empathy to make good decisions quite a lot during his political career.*

I also know that not everyone feels that empathy is the right way to make good decisions. 

From listening to Paul Bloom, I see that using empathy wrongly can be harmful. For example, let's say I'm on a jury for a robbery case. If I empathize with the victim's side more than I empathize with the robber's side, I might give the robber a harsher sentence than they deserve. There may be other, more extreme examples of this misapplication of empathy

That's the most difficult aspect of this issue; that empathy is not in itself bad or good; it's a skill. I can learn to use that skill to feel good and to feel a part of this world and to help my fellow beings on this planet. I can also learn to use that skill to cause harm. It's a horrible thought but I believe it to be true. It's just not the way I think empathy should be used. 

(Ugh, now I need to go wash my hands or something.)

I see an empathy gap here; I see a difference in how we view empathy can be used - rightly, or wrongly. But I'm not sure that's what the news is talking about.

2. To communicate with me - can I feel empathy through the TV?

I hear my politicians talk to me all the time - and since I don't have a direct personal connection, most of that 'talking' is happening through the media. Sometimes politicians need to be reminded to show empathy when they speak. 

I don't think that this showing in the media is true empathy - they can't see me and I can't hear them. When politicians talk (to the media) they are really creating an image of themselves - they are creating an image of empathy.

If Senator X talks to a reporter about how he feels for the unemployed, he is trying to find a way to reach the lady sitting on her couch wondering about how she'll heat her house tomorrow. She's wondering if she will find a job - can she hear him? Does he hear her? I see an empathy gap right there - between the politician talking and 

the layers of [TV reporter questions] and 

[the TV producer editing the show] and 

[the Cable TV network that decides what to show] past 

[the commercials telling us what to buy and how best to make salsa].

Past all of that, they need to reach all the way down to that lady sitting on her couch. Politicians don't seem to be as good anymore at showing us an image of empathy that can cut through all those layers. 


Have you been heard?

Would you want to personally connect to a politician, especially to one who you didn't vote for?


*Here's a nice example, from when Obama was a Senator and was talking during the confirmation hearings for a Supreme Court Judge. He said, "...what matters on the Supreme Court is those 5 percent of cases that are truly difficult. In those cases, adherence to precedent and rules of construction and interpretation will only get you through the 25th mile of the marathon. That last mile can only be determined on the basis of one's deepest values, one's core concerns, one's broader perspectives on how the world works, and the depth and breadth of one's empathy."

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