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.

The Five Stages of Facebook. And Grief.

Yes, we’ve all seen too many parodies of Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’s stages of grief.  This isn’t another one.  Not really.

The Facebook story I planned to write dealt with ways in which people use it toward different ends and the conflict, confusion, and frustration that friends experience when their ends differ. (See the many cartoons mocking political posters and posters of food.)

But man makes plans and God laughs, as they say, and my topic has changed.  From what I’ve seen there are also five, maybe six, stages of our relationship with Facebook.

  1. Denial.  I shied away from Facebook for years.  Shy doesn’t really describe my aversion. “Who has time for that?”  “It’s a fad.  It’ll pass.” “It’s not for serious people.” This stage may include curiosity, “You’re on Facebook.  Can you look up an old high school friend for me?”
  2. Anger. “Facebook reminds me of an ongoing family holiday letter. As if we didn’t get enough of those every December.” An attempt to join quietly just to check it out led to anger and discomfort when I immediately received friend requests from several folks who’d given up their address book to Facebook to make automatic connections.  This creeped me out – too Big Brother – and I immediately canceled my Facebook presence while it was insignificant enough to erase easily.
  3. Bargaining. “I need to use Facebook to monitor what’s going on in social media regarding (fill in your own interest here).”  I began solely to follow a political campaign I worked on – the candidates, the media, supporters, volunteers, and voters.  I thought I could limit my participation to practical political research and work.  Right.
  4. Understanding.  Here’s where the stages for grief and Facebook diverge. Kubler-Ross’s 4th state is Depression.  If Facebook causes depression, opt out.  It’s not important or valuable enough.  Most of us understand its practicality as an easy way to keep in touch, keep up with an interest, or share photos and experiences.
  5. Acceptance.  Facebook may be a huge time suck, but I find enough worthwhile posts that I’d rather continue than quit.  My friends share articles, quotes, and videos I might otherwise miss. Reading their posts adds another set of sources to my news-junkie habit, and it’s nice to see what old friends are up to.
But what do these 5 stages of Facebook have to do with grief?

This week one of my son’s closest friends died.  He was 19.

His parents, who did their best to pretend Adam (not his real name) didn’t exist while he lived, continued their effort.  Adam’s friends and their parents sat in stunned silence as we learned of his parents’ plans.  No funeral.  No obituary.  No release of information as to where our friend is buried or how we can come together as a community to grieve.  As a friend who counsels teens told me, “It is tantamount to denying his existence.”

Of course Adam’s friends decided to organize a service to honor and remember his life.  Facebook allowed easy access, and they began to reach out to his hundreds of contacts.

Then, 4 days after his death, Adam’s parents took down his Facebook page.

As anyone knows who has lost someone recently, especially one who died young, Facebook has become the communal grieving place.  Friends and family leave messages on the walls of the dead for years. They connect with others who share their loss and their grief, and they write letters to the ones who’ve passed away as well.

What kind of parents stand in the way of loving friends who simply want to mourn together?  Knowing their history with Adam and others makes their behavior less surprising, but no less shocking and no less sad.

The young adults and their parents who loved this boy remain devastated, sickened, and so angry.  We will work together to create a memorial for our friend and for ourselves. We will make it happen. There will be laughter, many tears, and profound sadness.

Adam’s Facebook page could have been a helpful tool, and without it we will be missing many mourners.

Eventually our anger will subside, and I believe we will find some peace.  But I’ve entered a new stage with Facebook, one I never expected: deep appreciation.

Everyone doesn’t do it.

(orig. published 10.1.12)

Frustrated w/the “everyone does it” mentality of politics?

Everyone does it. It’s an excuse I’ve often heard from my three sons. And one I’ve heard in political discussions since the 70s.

I remember when the Watergate scandal surfaced, during the 1972 election, even my fellow middle schoolers knew the argument – “Everyone does it, Nixon just got caught,” they told me. They believed it, and they clearly failed to understand the magnitude of what they described as “just cheating.”

Now when I post irrefutable evidence of Republicans lying on Facebook, invariably a “friend” or 2 comment, “They all lie,” or “Politicians!”

But have you noticed it’s always the same side claiming equality of misbehavior? When Republicans criticize the president, most of his supporters – and even objective reporters and pundits – respond with a contradicting fact or an admission that yes, he hasn’t handled everything as ideally as we might have liked. I don’t recall hearing “everyone does that” from our side. Ever.

Rachel Maddow has reported the largely ignored story of Mitt Romney’s claimed residency in Massachusetts. In 2002, Massachusetts Democrats challenged Romney’s eligibility to run for governor based on a state constitutional requirement that you have to have been a Massachusetts resident for seven years to run for governor. They stated that Romney’s tax returns would prove that he hadn’t filed as a resident of the state, and that he was therefore disqualified as a candidate for governor. Romney claimed they were wrong, but he refused to release his taxes as proof, saying (as he often has), “Trust me.”

When you ask people to trust you, especially about something that will very likely become public, you better be telling the truth.

Well, guess what? Romney wasn’t. I know you’re as surprised as I was. Actually, I was a bit surprised about this one, because seriously, who does this stuff?

Romney had listed his house in Utah as his primary residence, and he lied when he claimed he had filed tax returns in both states. Romney then amended his 1999 and 2000 tax returns to retroactively make him a Massachusetts resident. You read that right. Retroactively.

As we Jews say, OY.

Now this Republican candidate for President is asking us to trust him again. About paying all the taxes he owed. About how he’ll close loopholes so the middle class will not pay higher taxes while the wealthiest Americans enjoy the huge tax breaks that his proposed reduced tax rates imply. About how he’ll end Obamacare and replace it with something better. About his ability to lead this country.

When someone has demonstrated not just dishonesty, but a stunning insistence he is trustworthy while blatantly lying, doesn’t that go beyond “everyone does it,” regardless of how little we may trust politicians? Everyone doesn’t do it. And when a proven shameless liar asks voters to trust him, how can anyone listen?