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On Empathy and Democratic Possibility



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The room was a beehive of activity and just as noisy as one might imagine a collection of bees at work to be. One autistic young man pirouetted about the room as he shouted unintelligible accompaniment, as a means of self-stimulation. In one corner, a young woman with Down Syndrome played the piano while in another a young man sat in front of a video monitor playing a game. And so it went throughout the day support center for the disabled I was visiting, as the staff and those they were assisting awaited a visit from Santa Claus. As we anticipated that event, I talked with two disabled individuals about how excited they were to head home in the coming days for brief visits with their families, and chatted with another, a middle-aged man, who was deeply interested in my alma mater. I interacted with my tablemate, too, a lovely largely non-verbal doe-eyed African-American woman with severe Down Syndrome, who only occasionally smiled to indicate her reaction to a question or interest. But that beatific smile convinced me she was very much aware of me and of my interest in talking with her.

Santa’s arrival occasioned little change in the cacophony that otherwise characterized the room, except for the more or less organized dispatch of gifts and the singing of a carol or two. These activities were followed by a holiday lunch for all. I could not escape the sense as I watched all of this unfold that here were gathered innocents, alive and joyful and very much human, but nonetheless often cast off by their society. None of these people, in all of the bewildering variety and medical complexity of their conditions, could “work” or be gainfully employed as our nation commonly defines those terms, although I learned that one person could do so in structured settings. So, in the parlance of a share of our country’s current political leaders, all of the members of this group are “takers” because reliant at least in part on public support to survive. Moreover, because they evidence a range of mental and physical impairments, these deeply vulnerable people also are easy to ignore politically. They cannot and do not employ well-heeled lawyers and advocates with capacity and resources to exploit statutory loopholes on their behalf or to press to create the same. Nor can they advocate for their own claims in the public square because they cannot afford to do so and, of course, many of their families are ill-positioned to do so, either by dint of their own economic and social standing or out of a shared sense of shame at the discrimination often visited on them and their impaired loved ones.

My own state of Virginia is no different from many others in these terms. Until recently, when forced by the Department of Justice to do otherwise, the Commonwealth followed state and federal law in declaring thousands of individuals eligible for public support of various sorts on the basis of their disability, but then refused to provide that assistance because a sufficient share of the state’s leaders simply did not wish to allocate funds to do so. In short, this “dependent” constituency was and is easy to ignore by leaders who have defined society as a test of individuals’ supposed mettle and declared that those who succeed economically, whether as a result of their own efforts or those of their families or perhaps some combination thereof, somehow morally deserve that standing. Meanwhile, those who could not or did not “succeed” in these terms, for whatever reasons, are declared undeserving by definition.

As I pondered this often cruel social reality of our current political landscape, and looked around the large room and all those gathered within it, I was reminded once more of the critical importance of empathy, not only to any possibility of a free society, but also to democratic leadership. Thomas Hobbes was surely correct in The Leviathan that when one conceives of freedom as individuals’ capacity to gain desires (as we do overwhelmingly today), one is likely to unleash little more than a war of all against all, unless human capacity for self-interest and avarice is somehow disciplined or restrained. And in such a world guided by such a calculus, the most vulnerable people, such as all of those gathered for the holiday party at the center I visited, would quickly come the cropper. For many in our politics today, just as when Hobbes wrote in the 17th century, the disabilities of those at that party would imply their lack of standing because they cannot compete on their own and must rely on the empathy of their fellow citizens literally to survive.

Given this situation, Hobbes famously contended that the only way to prevent human beings from preying on their peers was for all to be subject to an absolute ruler. Those favoring democracy have contested this conclusion by arguing that humans can be trusted to empathize and can discipline their acquisitiveness and self-interest on behalf of the commons when they are acculturated to understand that not so to behave could impair their own liberty as well as that of those targeted. Many in today’s Republican Party, however, have propagated a myth of the individual and argued that all forms of social support foster undue “dependency” in their recipients and bespeak a moral inferiority. In this view, which amounts de facto to an attack on empathy, little binds anyone to society, let alone to his fellows, and certainly not via governance processes.

So, since we shall always have the poor and vulnerable among us, the current penchant to “define those groups down” or “redefine them out” as “takers,” by GOP leaders especially, leads to troubling questions for the character and possibility of our democratic society. Shall we simply identify the poor and vulnerable as “others” and separate them from “us” on grounds of their vulnerability and dependence on us? Absent some measure of empathy and empathetic imagination in our leaders, one can be sure that many among us will be tempted to adopt such a view on grounds of a false certainty that they are “taking advantage of us.”

I have a tonic to dissuade any political leader wishing to forget his or her connections to their fellow human beings, “perfect” or not, “beautiful” or not, “able” or not: a visit to their local day support center for the disabled or afflicted elderly citizens. This should quickly remind them of their own frailty and of their intense ties to these others as a result of their common humanity and shared fate. No democratic society can long survive amidst claims that only some of its number merit dignity and equality while the rest are consigned to a sort of moral purgatory or worse. In short, a substantial share of our nation’s current political leaders is dancing on very thin ice as they seek to “other” significant portions of the population for electoral gain. The very possibility of democracy now hangs in the balance as such mobilization efforts proceed. Sustained attacks on empathy and regard for others in society on a priori grounds of those individuals’ undeserving status undermine the most fundamental connection required for a free society, even as they tear at the bonds of trust that must sustain all. Social connections cannot survive without empathy among citizens and especially among their leaders in the long run, nor can any reasonable facsimile of democratic rights and possibility. If we cannot dignify all we will ultimately assure freedom for none.

Publication Date

January 5, 2014