Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Why We All Need Empathy and Compassion

It was only a short while after posting my most recent article on the subject of Why We Need Empathy and Compassion on the Supreme Court that we got former VP Dick Cheney's thoughts in favor of gay marriage. Indeed this underscores the value of empathy and compassion in all of our public servants — not to mention those of us who select them.
"I think freedom means freedom for everyone," Cheney said. "As many of you know, one of my daughters is gay, something that we've lived with for a long time in our family."
Cheney's daughter, Mary Cheney, is gay and gave birth to a son in 2007, whom she is raising with her longtime partner, Heather Poe.

Of course it is a curiosity when a hard-line conservative Republican endorses a position in favor of gay marriage that is too liberal for even most Democrats (e.g. Barack Obama and Joe Biden).

For a person who certainly is not known for his sensitivity to others, it is not a stretch to say that this isolated example of empathy is due to sharing the family experience of what his gay daughter has had to go through. Or put another way; what would be the chances of Cheney ever supporting gay marriage if both of his children had turned out to be straight?

While this little bit of empathy is better than none, it does raise a disturbing question — Why are so many (especially on the conservative side of the political spectrum) unable to feel the pain of others unless they are exposed to it themselves?

Another example: Those of us in favor of embryonic stem-cell research applaud the efforts of Nancy Reagan despite
resistance from President Bush and other pro-life Republicans. But surely the motivation was a possible cure for Alzheimer’s which struck her beloved husband. Would she ever have ever gotten behind such a controversial issue to conservative Republicans otherwise?

And then there is the cold assertion by Cheney that waterboarding is not really torture.

I don't believe we engaged in torture. There were three people who were waterboarded, not a large number. In fact, it was done under the overall guidance of the central elements of the Central Intelligence Agency and the Department of Justice and I thought it was well done.

Conservative Chicago talk show host Mancow Muller didn’t feel that waterboarding was torture either — until he agreed to try and prove his point by being waterboarded himself as shown in this video. As a visibly shaken Mancow said afterwards, “I hate to say this...that’s torture…I mean, that’s drowning!”

Again, would he ever agree that waterboarding was torture if he hadn’t experienced it himself?

So what is the cause of this apparent lack of empathy in so many people? In my view, much of the blame lies at the feet of our politicians, especially those who championed the conservative doctrine of the Bush administration. Despite people suffering economic hardship especially in places like Ohio and Michigan during the 2004 election year, Bush downplayed their suffering and proclaimed the economy to be strong on his way to reelection. And later when more people were becoming aware of the suffering of those without access to health care, it was Bush who said:

"I mean, people have access to health care in America. After all, you just go to an emergency room."

But in fairness, incumbent politicians of both parties have to share some of the blame. Few, if any want to dwell on the difficulties of those who struggling while running for reelection — especially when their rivals are using this as a reason to get them elected. And let’s face it, it’s human nature to not want to think about things like unemployment and sickness unless they or someone close to them are affected. But the result has been a general state of denial in recognizing other peoples' hardships — until the problems became so widespread that denial was no longer possible.

So this lack of empathy can not only be a social problem. It can also make fixing our problems that much more difficult when we have to wait for enough people to be convinced there really is a problem to begin with! For example, this is the fight that those warning about the effects of climate change are waging.

But as discussed in my previous blog article, empathy is not enough. We also need compassion! Empathy is the understanding of what others are going through; compassion is the willingness to help as Nancy Reagan has done for Alzheimer’s victims.

And while Cheney apparently has empathy for gays in wanting to marry, he clearly had no willingness to help them while he was in power as the VP.

Throughout the Bush administration, the Vice President refrained from directly discussing his daughter's personal life and avoided questions on whether gay couples should be able to marry. In 2007, Cheney bristled when CNN's Wolf Blitzer asked him to respond to political criticism of his daughter's pregnancy, saying to Blitzer, "Frankly, you're out of line with that question." Today he said gay couples should have "any kind of arrangement they wish."

So if this is how he really felt, why didn’t he provide a voice for moderation on this issue while serving as Bush’s VP? While it likely wouldn’t have changed the policies of the Bush administration, it may have helped to promote more tolerance for gay rights by the Republican Party which is supposedly looking to be more inclusive.

And while some would say that Cheney was just being an obedient VP by not raising the issue, clearly he pulled the levers of power behind the scenes for issues he really cared about — not the least of which was helping to persuade his boss to go to war with Iraq.

So maybe it all comes down to attitude. When we see people struggling with poverty, unemployment, sickness and the like, a person without empathy and compassion sees it as their problems for them to solve. But a person with empathy and compassion will see the struggles of others as being our problems for us to solve. It is these people who working together will truly make our world a better place!

No comments: