A good friend visited last night from New York. He’s thoughtful and well-informed, so I always enjoy talking about social issues with him. As in so many political conversations these days, it wasn’t long before we got around to blowing each other’s minds with the surrealism of everyday public life.
Starting with the baffling case of Arthur Finkelstein — a Republican consultant who helped elect such paragons of inclusion and fairness as Senator Jesse Helms and recently married his male partner without a word of regret about serving those who’d deny him that right (I wrote about this on 10 April, if you want a link to the original story) — we began to explore the gap between general principles and specific human connections.
We both know people who hold general positions that are strongly opposed to same-sex marriage, women’s reproductive rights, public subsidy to the poor and so on, but who grant exceptions for their own friends and families. We traded examples: the people who are opposed to “welfare,” but who gladly accept public assistance when sad circumstances leave a relative disabled (“That’s different, they told my friend, ‘she deserves help'”); the people who are opposed to same-sex marriage, but who are outraged to learn that under current law, their lesbian sister has no right confer with the doctor treating her hospitalized partner; the people who are opposed to reproductive choice, but quietly take their teenager to Planned Parenthood when she and her boyfriend have an “accident.”
Flipping channels the other night I caught a few minutes of a made-for-TV movie in which Rosie O’Donnell played a developmentally disabled woman whose father has died, making her the ward of her sister, played by Andie MacDowell. No doubt the movie had a heartwarming ending, but here’s what happened in the scene I watched: the two sisters visited the supermarket together, and after stowing the groceries in the trunk, the Andie MacDowell character asked the Rosie character to put the shopping cart back. The Rosie character was busy eating something they’d bought; she refused. “Dad does that,” she said. The Andie MacDowell character replied, “Dad’s not here, and somebody might trip over it or get hurt if you leave it in the street.” The Rosie character thought it over for a moment, then said “I don’t know ‘somebody.'”
Today I heard Michael Eric Dyson interviewed on NPR about his new book, countering Bill Cosby’s famously vitriolic indictment of the poor last year, a speech in which he made fun of the names some African Americans give their children, prescribing bootstrap values and social conformity as the antidote to underclass status. Dyson is wonderfully intelligent and articulate, so he attracted a lot of callers. One man said that Cosby’s critique focused on the “irresponsible poor,” not all poor people — these were the kids, he said, who spent their money on fancy hubcaps and bling-bling.
Dyson retorted that if the caller had stopped after the word “irresponsible,” they would have agreed: the irresponsible in every social class create and exacerbate social problems. This also echoed a topic at our dinner table last night: the puzzle of why many Americans are so incensed by what they perceive as cheating by low-income individuals — how exercised people can get over the question of whether they should give a quarter to a panhandler who might use it to buy drink or drugs — and so numbly indifferent to the mega-cheating of Wall Street or Halliburton (for instance).
It seems pretty clear the core issue is empathy and compassion. On the simplest level, it didn’t occur to the NPR caller to empathize with the “irresponsible poor.” Rather, he put them into a category labeled “other.” He slipped like a hand in glove into the viewpoint of those who regard themselves as intrinsically, essentially, respectably “responsible.” And just so, on the simplest level, the folks who take general positions they would be horrified to apply to their own friends and families perceive a solid dividing-line between “us/ours” and “them/theirs,” applying different standards to each category.
Every spiritual tradition that I know of is grounded in the practice and hope of erasing this distance. When people come together in a church, mosque, temple or synagogue, they assert that life is holy, and almost always, its holiness is expressed through prayers, meditation, chant and other practices that praise and seek connection and compassion. The obvious truth, so often expressed with an embarrassment that dismisses it as hopelessly naive, is that if we all practiced in daily life what we preach in spiritual frameworks, our world would be healed. But often, once we’re done praying or meditating, we find it easier to pay lip service to the principles we espouse than to back them up with real dues.
The late and brilliant engaged anthropologist Dorothy Lee focused on this question a great deal: how do cultures shape the relationship between individual and community? Where and how do we draw the line between us and them? As she wrote, “The values of a culture are avenues through which relatedness is channeled.” The common culture of this country — the place where despite all our differences, we intersect — reinforces the idea of us versus them, defacing our empathy with loopholes. We Americans tend to be compassionate in three ways: to those we know personally, whose undeniable humanity trumps any general principle; to those who have been singled out for attention as symbolic members of our immediate national family and so are “grandfathered” into our own families (such as Terry Schiavo, Baby Jessica, who fell into a well in 1987, and Elian Gonzales, the Cuban refugee boy whose father wanted him back in 1999); and to those we perceive as innocent victims (such as Tsunami survivors, to whom Americans gave with great generosity).
Conversely, the flow of compassion drops to a trickle when the recipients are straight-up strangers (in Rosie’s character’s words, “I don’t know ‘somebody'”), perceived as faceless members of a general category of otherness (gays and lesbians, rather than next-door neighbors); or when we believe they are somehow culpable in their own suffering (the NPR caller’s “irresponsible poor”).
This is our national distortion of empathy, and we are reproducing it every day, broadcasting on many channels simultaneously. It is hardening our hearts and clouding our vision.
All of us can understand such discrimination on some level, if only from the Ethics 101 perspective (“If you could save one person from drowning, your best friend’s mother or Mother Theresa, which would you choose?”). It is very difficult to hold oneself to a standard of universal compassion. I don’t have much compassion for Dick Cheney, for instance, who seems to me to have caused a great deal of suffering to others. But when I think about it, I have a hunch someone wasn’t very nice to little Dick years ago to make him such a big one today.
For me, this becomes most urgent as a social question: what impedes our collective compassion for the poor and oppressed? It seems to me extending the boundary of empathy beyond a narrow definition of us and ours is the task. The thing is, when I think about how to accomplish this, my brain starts going into spasm. We need new ways to remind people to apply in practice the common wisdom we’ve heard all our lives, because it feels like the old ways aren’t working.
So far, the ideas that have occurred to me exist in art, rather than life. This isn’t inconsequential: \The Grapes of Wrath\ had a remarkable effect on Americans’ view of Dustbowl poverty and immigration; some French commentators say \The Battle of Algiers\ shamed their nation into granting Algerian independence. One idea I like forms the basis for my novel \Clarity\ (which you can buy by clicking on the link under my picture on my home page). Another is from the new film \Hitchhiker’s Guide to The Galaxy\. The heroes capture a secret weapon: when you shoot this gun at your opponent, he instantly sees everything with perfect empathy for your point of view.
Can someone out there get right on inventing this? I hope so.