The Republican Empathy Deficit

I applaud Senator Rob Portman for recognizing the right of gays and lesbians to marry, but why do Republicans need personal experience with an issue to recognize the importance of others’ civil rights? How about empathy for those you don’t know or with whom you have nothing in common? And while we’re at it, how about more than one Republican senator jumping on the bandwagon?

Comments on Portman’s reversal fall into two camps, those who cheer his belated move into the twentieth century and those who wish he also had children who were poor, uninsured, living in areas with high crime or failing schools, undocumented, or members of any other slighted minority. If only those who work to limit the rights of others could see things from those others’ points of view. Imagining how a law will affect others is the type of thought experiment that leads to changes in perspective and changes of heart.

Most of us put ourselves in others’ positions, hypothetically, every day. We make decisions on what we should say or do based on what we believe will make others feel good, or help them understand something, or do what we’d like them to do. Most of us are capable of  understanding others’ feelings. We were born with empathy, weren’t we? So how did so many Republicans seem to lose it?

I’ve wondered about this for decades. When George Will, the conservative columnist who disparaged every government program, sung the praises of special education, it seemed out of character – until I learned his son had Down’s syndrome. When Sen. Orrin Hatch took a stand against mandatory school prayer I applauded his atypical enlightened stance – then found out that as a Mormon he spent his childhood feeling uncomfortable with the Protestant prayers mandated in his classrooms.

Vice President Dan Quayle, a staunch conservative and anti-choice candidate for reelection in 1992, famously told Larry King that if his young daughter became pregnant, “I would counsel her, and talk to her and support her on whatever decision she made.” Other women should have no access to abortions, but he would support his own  daughter’s right to choose, even if he disagreed with her decision.

Among current Republican newsmakers, Sarah Palin approves of social spending on disabled children, as her own son is disabled. Senator Mark Kirk has promised to look more carefully at Medicaid, having benefited from his own government healthcare following a stroke last year. Governor Chris Christie values hurricane relief after dealing with his home state’s post-Sandy devastation. Even Darth Vader himself, Dick Cheney, supports gay marriage because he sees how important it is in the life of his daughter.

Why can some of us empathize while others can’t imagine a different point of view? A recent 60 Minutes story followed baby researchers at Yale who found that children as young as 6 to10 months exhibit empathy.  But these infants also favor those they believe to be similar to themselves over those perceived as different, even when the difference is as insignificant as choosing the same snack (cheerios vs. graham crackers). If discriminatory judgments begin in infancy, how can we identify and elect legislators who show greater compassion and understanding than fear? Most of us likely agree with the Oscar Hammerstein II lyric that “you’ve got to be carefully taught” to “hate and fear”. If you don’t, if we are born fearing, what hope do we have?

Rob Portman doesn’t want to see his son denied the benefit of married life, but prior to knowing about his son he was apparently not disturbed by denying marriage to the sons of others. In a piece Portman’s son wrote in the Yale Daily News, Will Portman shares the story of coming out to his parents……..two years ago. So for the last two years Senator Portman must have been more comfortable continuing to deny civil rights to gays than he was to publicly change his position.

The Journals of Gerontology published a study, cited in the January 9-10, 2013 Wall Street Journal, finding that empathy peaks when people are in their 50s and that women generally are more empathic than men. I’m not sure we need to elect more folks in their 50s or more women, but there is little doubt we will benefit from choosing more empathic legislators who don’t require a direct, personal experience with an issue to legislate with understanding, compassion, and fairness.