Monday, April 1, 2013

Our Compassion Deficit

Same sex marriage has become a hot news item with the recent cases heard by the US Supreme Court over the issue.  And although there has been a recent parade of Democratic politicians announcing their support of same sex marriage, those on the Republican side have been standing their ground in opposing it. 

So it was noteworthy when Ohio Republican Senator Rob Portman announced that he now backs same sex marriage after learning that his son is gay. 
“It allowed me to think of this issue from a new perspective, and that’s of a dad who loves his son a lot and wants him to have the same opportunities that his brother and sister would have — to have a relationship like Jane and I have had for over 26 years.”
It is nice that he is so considerate of gay people having the same opportunities as straight people – once he learned that his son was gay.  A similar observation can be made of former VP Dick Cheney who although he is as conservative as they come, supported same sex marriage after one of his daughters became a gay rights activist.  Both can be said to have had both an empathy and a compassion deficit.

So what exactly are these?  The best way to describe empathy is the ability to feel the emotional pain that others are feeling while compassion entails also wanting to do something to relieve that pain. 

Of course it is easy to feel empathy or compassion for those who are much like us.  What is more important is whether we have these qualities when dealing with those who are different from us.  For example, when retiring Georgia Republican Senator Saxby Chambliss was asked whether he would he would follow Portman’s lead on same sex marriage, he said "I'm not gay. So I'm not going to marry one."  So for those who find this attitude to be acceptable, perhaps it would be appropriate to ask them if they are against equal rights for women or minorities if they themselves don’t fall in those categories?

There’s a lot of this going around in America.  For example, many of the well-to-do seem to have a dismissive attitude towards those who need to rely on our shrinking safety net programs to keep their heads above water.  According to a new documentary film A Place at the Table... 
50 million people in the U.S.- one in four children - don’t know where their next meal is coming from, despite our having the means to provide nutritious, affordable food for all Americans. 
How would these people feel if they or a close friend or loved one had to struggle for their next meal?

America is the only industrialized nation in the world that does not provide universal health coverage for its citizens, leaving as many as 50 million people without health insurance – a serious problem that “Obamacare” has been created to address.

While financial hardship including bankruptcies hit those without health insurance especially hard, what is less well known is that despite former presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s ignorance on the subject, people do die for lack of health insurance in America.  The estimated number is about 44,000 annually or about 120 every day.  But instead of addressing this problem, we have people like Michele Bachmann whose latest crazy rant is that Obamacare "kills".

It is tragic enough to lose a friend or loved one prematurely due to an incurable illness.  My question to Bachmann and others of a like mind would be this:  How would you feel about losing a friend or loved one prematurely due to a curable illness – a death that could have been prevented by having adequate health insurance?

So what’s going on here?  Is this lack of empathy and compassion a reflection of an uncaring attitude of many towards their fellow man?  Or is it just a growing disconnect between the haves and have nots in our society?  I say it’s both.

In the last thirty years, there has been a steady conservative narrative that those who are struggling on the bottom rungs of the economic ladder are there because of bad choices or laziness.  And in their minds, one of the best ways to shrink the size of government is to quit supporting those they feel are undeserving.  While there are always a few who will fit this description, it ignores the fact that so many more people have fallen on hard times through no fault of their own from the worst recession we have suffered since the Great Depression.

But what makes this narrative so pervasive is the growing income and wealth gap between the haves and have nots.  When this happens, those who have more affluent lives become more isolated and detached from those who are struggling to make do. When the in-between middle class starts to shrink as it is doing now, the upper and lower classes become more separated and polarized so the well-to-do seldom or never have the occasion to see or experience what those in the lower classes are going through.

The Great Depression gave us these photos of people in soup lines waiting for a meal which made poverty awfully difficult to ignore back then.  Although soup lines have mostly disappeared, we do have a growing number of food banks that are trying to keep up with the growing number of people who need them.  But again, those who live in affluent areas may have never seen a food bank let alone the people waiting there for food.

A more up-to-date example concerns food stamps.  It used to be that seeing people in supermarket checkout lines redeem food stamps made it obvious how many people were struggling to afford enough to eat.  But with these benefits now taking the form of debit cards, it is less obvious who in the checkout line is in need of government assistance to make ends meet.

To support all of this, there are studies of how wealth reduces compassion. 
Who is more likely to lie, cheat, and steal—the poor person or the rich one? It’s temping to think that the wealthier you are, the more likely you are to act fairly. After all, if you already have enough for yourself, it’s easier to think about what others may need. But research suggests the opposite is true: as people climb the social ladder, their compassionate feelings towards other people decline. 
It doesn’t help when the average net worth of those in Congress is close to a million dollars.  This is the same Congress where a number of its members back in January, opposed Hurricane Sandy relief after supporting disaster relief for their own states.

The biggest irony is that the US with its safety net in tatters is a more strongly religious country than most while the countries that make up Scandinavia which are renowned for how well they take care of their people from womb to tomb are largely secular.

Why this is so would require a whole separate discussion, but perhaps the religious community with its emphasis on compassion towards those who are less fortunate may be the key to helping us get our house in order.  This trend has already started with prominent faith leaders condemning Rep. Paul Ryan's budget plans because of the added misery they would impose on the poor to the benefit of the rich.

This is a good start, but it doesn’t go far enough.  Instead of focusing on the all-too-real problems of hunger and poverty in America, too many church groups tend to focus narrowly on issues like abortion or gay rights to determine whom they will support.  In addition, many anti-government people who do feel compassion for those less well off believe it is solely the function of charity and not government to address these problems.  But while charity is a wonderful thing, the scope of the problem is so large that charities can only scratch the surface.

I would like to conclude with this statement by Sister Simone Campbell who has achieved a level of fame as the leader of her traveling Nuns on the Bus tour preaching the gospel of compassion in response to Rep. Ryan’s latest budget plan. 
“We had already strongly protested his budget cuts since it was clear they would harm already struggling families. During our journey we listened to the personal stories of those families and our hearts were deeply touched. Today we are convinced more than ever that the voices of the people must be heard and that Rep. Ryan’s cuts to vital human-needs programs to benefit the wealthy must be defeated. We are a nation for the 100 percent, and his budget cuts are both immoral and counter to our values.”