Empathy Not/Empathy

From Fred Clark at Slacktivist, who’s one of the most thoughtful, kindest, truly Christian people around. Go read the rest, and discuss:

The wonkier blogs of the left and right have been discussing what they’re calling “epistemic closure” among American conservatives.

It’s a criticism of the way the activist, indignant right has begun to cut off and cauterize whole realms of thought and inquiry — purging dissent, punishing questioners, banishing internal critics.

The recent conservative opposition to empathy might seem like a symptom of this epistemic closure, but I think it’s more than that. I think it’s a cause — maybe even the root cause.

Empathy, at its most basic level, is epistemic. It is sometimes discussed as though it is identical to love, respect or regard for others, but really it precedes that. It is what makes such love, respect or regard for others possible — what informs it. Empathy is a way of seeing, and therefore a way of knowing. To avoid empathy is to limit one’s own perspective to only one’s own perspective — to choose not to see and therefore to choose not to know. Worse than that — it is to choose not to be able to know.

Empathy, in other words, makes you smarter and wiser. Rejecting empathy makes you dumber and more foolish. To choose not to see what empathy shows us is to choose stupidity.

Stupidity has become a major, if not wholly acknowledged, theme in recent American politics. From Arizona to Massachusetts, it is a glaringly obvious fact of our political discourse, but one that is rarely spoken of directly.

Let’s set such timid delicacy aside and state the obvious: The tea partiers are stupid. Look at them, listen to them — these are stupid people behaving stupidly. They are hideously ill-informed and monstrously unconcerned with the fact of their being so ill-informed. Their stupidity fuels their anger and their anger fuels their stupidity. Spend five minutes listening to them and the overwhelming impression of resentful stupidity will only be reinforced. Spend hours listening to the speakers receiving the cheers at their rallies and hours more listening to Glenn Beck or Sarah Palin or Rush Limbaugh or any of the other demagogic leaders of this mob of a movement and the conclusion becomes undeniably confirmed: Stupid, stupid, stupid.

It is widely regarded as impolite, or uncharitable, or counterproductive to speak of this egregious stupidity. To call it what it clearly is is considered “condescending.”

But to view this as condescending is to misunderstand and misrepresent the stupidity of the tea partiers as something both innate and intractable. It is neither.

These stupid people do not have to be stupid. Their stupidity is a choice, an act of will. Or, rather, an ongoing series of acts of will. And their only hope for liberation is for them to make better choices — to choose to see what can be seen if only they would stop actively choosing not to see it. To choose, among other things, to be receptive to empathy.

The stupidity of the tea partiers has nothing to do with innate intelligence or with acquired intelligence. It has nothing to do with smartness or brainpower or where anyone falls on the bell curve of Stanford-Binet test scores. It is, rather, a moral stupidity, a moral imbecilism that produces simple imbecilism — the inevitable intellectual consequence of a selfish refusal to listen to what empathy is shouting from all sides.

3 thoughts on “Empathy Not/Empathy

  1. It’s too bad their ministers don’t have the guts to tell their parishioners to remember: “there but for the grace of God go I!
    We all wind up needy at some time in our lives, some too late to learn this lesson. Rush and the other idiots will learn this when they are helpless in bed. The people they said to hate will be taking care of them; most will be kind and efficacious; others may extract their pinch of pain.

  2. True, so true!

    America is full of stupid people. Let’s just snort the coffee on that one…

    I do like the notion that I’m not being condescending when I describe the facts on the ground… because these people do CHOOSE stupidity and aren’t simply born that way…

  3. Of all the thousands of things we call “sayings”, those pearls of wisdom we keep and remember throughout history, there is only one that I know of which is easily, provably and logically false. That is, “Money is the root of all evil”. Some say “The love of money is the root of all evil” but in either case, Any example of evil, without financial gain, destroys both statements. They are simply not true. That is not to say that there is no root to all evil. Most people just never take the time to look for it because they already think they already know it. When you can take every action that may be considered truly evil, from murder, to the life ruining theft found in the stock market collapse and everything between to a single point of origin, then you’ve found it. The root to all evil. You have to first recognize that evil is done by humans alone. Our society determines what it is and you have to be part of human society to be capable of evil. If a bear eats your baby it’s not evil, it’s nature, but if your neighbor eats your baby it’s clearly evil. It’s when a human being “decides” to take or not take action where the result will cause harm and suffering for others that we have evil. When the murderer decides he doesn’t care about the life he’ll soon take or the stock broker chooses his paycheck over the life savings and future security of his investors that we see the common thread. We have found the root of all evil. The absence of empathy is always where evil begins. All evil.

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