Friday, May 08, 2009

Emerson for the Day

"The moral nature is not a patch of light here, whilst the social world is a lump of darkness there, but tends incessantly to rectify and ennoble the whole circumference of facts." Emerson, journal November 6, 1839

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Though this photo is from awhile ago, it's been a moody, rainy start to May so far. So why not more empathy in politics talk, in the posts below? And happy Cinquo de Mayo!

The Other Side of Empathy

Empathy is not just about identifying with the good guys. It's also getting into the heads of people who do destructive stuff. PBS just finished running the latest BBC dramatic version of Little Dorrit, the novel by Charles Dickens, and Dickens made a living getting into the heads and hearts and souls of heroes and villains, and especially the people who switch between being one to being the other.

President Obama has a contemporary novelist's approach when he talked to a writer for the New York Times Magazine on the subject of the financial future. He started out being deftly analytical, saying that the financial sector is not going to be the same even after recovery. But when asked whether we'd "miss it" he went straight to the kind of detail that a novelist would notice:

"We will miss it in the sense that as a consequence of 25-year-olds getting million-dollar bonuses, they were willing to pay $100 for a steak dinner and that waiter was getting the kinds of tips that would make a college professor envious. And so some of the dynamic of the financial sector will have some trickle-down effects, particularly in a place like Manhattan. "

It's a portrait of a culture of excess that Dickens would appreciate. We can laugh at that 25-year old, or react with envy, anger or satisfaction that this will change. But Obama knows that for these people--the young executives and the waiters--life is going to change in ways they may not like or be prepared for. It's a human problem, for them as well as for the unemployed auto worker in Detroit, or the young and sincere starting their careers and their families in companies and jobs that are going to change, having nothing to do with anything they personally did or didn't do.

But Dickens, like Obama, would also see the larger picture. (A key plot point in Little Dorrit after all is a financial bubble and a Ponzi scheme, with familiarly devastating effects.) Obama continued:

But I actually think that there was always an unsustainable feel about what had happened on Wall Street over the last 10, 15 years.... Wall Street will remain a big, important part of our economy, just as it was in the ’70s and the ’80s. It just won’t be half of our economy. And that means that more talent, more resources will be going to other sectors of the economy. And I actually think that’s healthy. We don’t want every single college grad with mathematical aptitude to become a derivatives trader. We want some of them to go into engineering, and we want some of them to be going into computer design."

He also talked about some of the kinds of jobs in the new green economy that use skills that mean something of value to the people who have them, like jobs "where you’ve got a bunch of welders and tradesmen who are now retrofitting buildings. They’re not performing the same kind of manufacturing that their fathers might have, but with similar skill sets they are now making hospitals and schools and office buildings much more energy efficient, and then that’s providing enormous value to the economy as a whole."

There's empathy that informs ideas of what's needed in a positive sense, but also a kind of empathy to understand the impacts and therefore the resistance to change. This means that President Obama doesn't just listen to the point of view of opponents as different positions on issues, but from their perspective as people. This is a key to two-way communication. He may not convince every corporation that enjoys tax havens overseas to support his proposals to close those loopholes, announced Monday. But he's going to convince some--especially those who are doing it because their competitors are doing it.

Having empathy with someone doesn't mean therefore you're going to change your principles or policies. It isn't weakness, though our conflict-driven media storylines would like to depict it as such. It's part of understanding, that informs intelligent action, and helps to both form policy and communicate the need for it.

Monday, May 04, 2009

The Justice of Empathy

President Obama speaks frequently about the need for empathy. He did so in outlining the qualities he will be looking for in choosing a new Supreme Court Justice to replace David Souter, who announced that he'd like to retire at the end of the current Court term in June.

Even before he named the usual judicial qualities--respect for the rule of law, deep understanding of the Constitution, President Obama said:

"Now, the process of selecting someone to replace Justice Souter is among my most serious responsibilities as President. So I will seek somebody with a sharp and independent mind and a record of excellence and integrity. I will seek someone who understands that justice isn't about some abstract legal theory or footnote in a case book. It is also about how our laws affect the daily realities of people's lives -- whether they can make a living and care for their families; whether they feel safe in their homes and welcome in their own nation.

I view that quality of empathy, of understanding and identifying with people's hopes and struggles as an essential ingredient for arriving as just decisions and outcomes..."

Obama is likely the first President to repeatedly use the term "empathy." The "pathy" part (from the Greek) is about feeling. The "em" (also from the Greek) in this case means "to cause [one] to be in [another.] Sympathy is close but different, both in practice and in its roots. "Sym" is a prefix similiar to "co-," so it means "with" or "together."

Sometimes the difference is described as: "I feel sympathy for what you are going through." Whereas empathy is more like "I feel what you are going through." Sympathy may be more general, but empathy--while it can lead to wider action--begins with the very specific. As the terms are used, sympathy often implies pity, assuming the superior position of one over another. Empathy implies equality.

Both sympathy and empathy require acts of imagination, but the imaginative identification for empathy is arguably stronger. Empathy often requires the power of story. President Obama reads ten letters from Americans each day, to learn their stories. He renews his empathy.

But often the stories that evoke empathy in many of us require imaginative telling as well as hearing. This is why good storytelling--in dramatic and literary forms--is as important to a sense of justice and a society that values equality as any legislation or social or political action in a democracy. This special kind of dreaming is important to the soul of the future, which must cultivate, value and commit to empathy.

In a recent Times Literary Supplement review of a novel by Nobel Laureate J. M. G. Le Clezio of France, Natasha Lehrer wrote: "If empathy is at the heart of the novelist's undertaking, then there is no doubt that Le Clezio deserves his accolades." This sense that empathy is at the heart of the novelist's undertaking is a salutary thought for all of us, including novelists.

Sunday, May 03, 2009

"I am to invite men drenched in Time to recover themselves and come out of time, and taste their native immortal air. I am to fire with what skill I can the artillery of sympathy and emotion. I am to indicate constantly, though all unworthy, the Ideal and Holy Life, the life within life, the Forgotten Good, the Unknown Cause in which we sprawl and sin. I am to try the magic of sincerity, that luxury permitted only to kings and poets. I am to celebrate the spiritual powers in their infinite contrast to the mechanical powers and the mechanical philosophy of this time. I am to console the brave sufferers under evils whose end they cannot see by appeals to the great optimism, self-affirmed in all bosums."
R.W. Emerson, Journal entry, October 18, 1839.