Felicia Muftic: What does empathy mean for politics?
May 10, 2009
Empathy. President Obama used that word to describe one of the traits possessed by the person he wanted to nominate to the Supreme Court. Many folks set about scratching their heads. Was this a new code word for a radical liberal activist judge? After all, our politicians are full of code words, sometimes reduced to a single letter. In fact, the L word got to be such a negative in the Bush years, liberals started to call themselves progressives. Now we have the E word.
The first time I heard the E word was in a class in college. We were reading “A Village in Anatolia”, written in 1954 by Mahmut Makal, who grew up in a remote Turkish village. He described the difference in attitudes between conservative, traditional, not well educated fellow villagers and the ones he encountered in the more westernized Istanbul. The one word that most described the difference was empathy. His thesis: the lack of empathy was a major stumbling block that kept those from traditional societies from accepting new and modern ideas. They could not imagine living any other way than the way his family, community and ancestors had lived. What empathy meant to Makal was the ability to understand how others who were unlike him felt and thought. That definition is the one that has stuck with me and is similar to the one found in dictionaries.
Empathy is different than “sympathy”, which indicates agreement. You can empathize with how someone must feel and think, but you do not necessarily have to agree or support what they advocate. Empathy may temper some preconceived notions, however. The ability to empathize may come from life experiences and some people were just born with a knack for it.
President Bill Clinton never used the E word, but he cited the concept almost ad nauseam. He called it “I feel your pain”. Others have used the phrase “walking in other’s shoes” or “I understand where you are coming from”.
The ultimate example of lack of empathy was Marie Antoinette, who famously reacted to reports that her subjects had no bread and were starving with “let them eat cake”. She had no concept of how her subjects lived or felt.
There are some flagrant examples of lack of empathy I have heard lately. How about those who cavalierly want to let the auto industry in the United States die, throwing three million more souls into unemployment, in addition to the six million already there? I’ll bet those advocating such policies have no understanding what happens to the lives of the unemployed who deal with the stress of losing their homes and keeping their families in food and clothing.
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Then, there is the attitude held by some that all of those folks whose houses went into foreclosure were greedy fools who never should have spent more than they could afford. That certainly was true of a few, but many of those six million who have lost their jobs could have qualified as A credit risks at the time they bought their homes and never anticipated that their positions (some they had held for 25 years) would be eliminated in the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression.
Yes, empathy does figure in our political psyche, either in its absence or in its presence.
When Supreme Court appointees are under consideration, there will always be a tussle between those who want liberal justices who think and feel as they read the black and white of the printed pages of case law and the scholarly presentation of oral arguments and those who want justices who will limit interpretations to the most narrow meaning of the Constitution.
Does this mean that empathetic judges are automatically activists?
The term “activist judge” always puzzled me. Its meaning has devolved from “those who interpret the constitutionality of a case so broadly they appear to write new legislation or expand government powers in a way our forefathers never intended” to the code word for a “judge who rules on social issues that favor positions supported by liberals.” Both liberal and conservative judges are potential activists in my book because whatever they rule might possibly impact me one way or the other, just as legislation would. Any judgment they make could be helpful or harmful to my business, to my environmental concerns, or to my interest as a consumer, or it may expand or limit my rights to pursue happiness or my liberty to make choices.
In any case, the hot button social issues will be grist for the conservative talk show pundit mill from now until confirmation of the nominee and demands from the left, racial, ethnic, and gender groups, will be equally noisy. Hints dropped by the Obama administration have been to Republicans that he is not going to drop a bomb, and to liberals, he may head for the center. No matter how loud voices will be raised, it may not make much difference. Given the size of the Democratic majority in the Senate, odds are Obama’s nominee will be confirmed.
To read more commentary by Felicia Muftic, visit her blog at