Friday, 5 June 2009

Re-defining Empathy

Barack Obama: "The empathy to understand what it's like to be poor."

IT was one of those throwaway lines that sets an alarm-bell ringing in the back of your mind. A sneering, belittling tone which makes you wonder. "What was that all about?" Or ask: "Who rattled his cage?"

The line in question appeared in an article by William Langley, a conservative political correspondent for the right-wing British newspaper, The Sunday Telegraph. He was writing about President Obama’s nominee for the US Supreme Court, Sonia Sotomayor, and how she exemplifies the human quality the new American President prizes most: Empathy.

"The word – ", wrote Mr Langley, "a longstanding pop-psychology and self-help manual standby – has been heavily in play since Obama last week proposed Sonia Sotomayor, a New York appeals court judge, as his first Supreme Court pick."

"Whoa there, Billy Boy!" I thought to myself, as I read those words. Since when has "empathy" connoted something as frothy and ultimately superfluous as "pop psychology"? And who, exactly, has decided that the moral impulse which lies at the root of all the world’s great religions; the defining quality of the most exalted human behaviour, should be downgraded to the status of a "self-help manual standby"?

I didn’t have to read much further to discover the answer. According to the man who scripted most of the George Bush Jnr presidency, Karl Rove: "Empathy is the latest code word for liberal activism, for treating the constitution as malleable clay to be kneaded and moulded in whatever form justices want."

Aha! So that’s the caper. President Obama, in the tradition of America’s greatest presidents, is attempting to infuse his countrymen’s’ political discourse with a moral language more nuanced and sophisticated that the Bush Administration’s crude division of the world into a Manichean "Us" (the good guys) versus "Them" (the evil-doers).

This sort of language:

"We need somebody whose got the heart, the empathy, to recognise what it’s like to be a young teenage mom. The empathy to understand what it’s like to be poor, or African-American, or gay, or disabled, or old. And that’s the criteria by which I’m going to be selecting my judges."

Good Lord! No wonder the Right is all a-twitter. For the past thirty years they have enjoyed a virtual monopoly over the use of religious rhetoric. Never mind that it was Old Testament rhetoric – full of "thou shalt nots", and trailing the fire and brimstone of the Pentateuch God. So long as the Left refused to plough this most fertile of all political fields, the Right couldn’t lose.

But President Obama is only too happy to toil in the fields of the Lord, and to confront the Republican Party’s Old Testament rhetoric, with the emancipatory and, yes, empathic language of the New.

It’s there in his Inaugural Address, when he talks about the contribution of the men and women "obscure in their labour, who have carried us up the long rugged path towards prosperity and freedom".

Who can hear those words and not be reminded of Christ’s: "straight is the gate and narrow is the way, that leadeth unto life, and few there be who find it"?

Consider, too, President Obama’s Georgetown University speech, in which he draws explicitly from the Sermon on the Mount:

"We cannot rebuild this economy on the same pile of sand. We must build our house upon a rock."

The President’s New Testament rhetoric strikes at the heart of the Right’s political project in a way that is peculiarly American – and peculiarly effective.

In a nation whose visceral fear and hatred of "Godless Communism" is legendary, Christ’s liberating theology of love and justice has long supplied the American Left with a potent alternative to the class-ridden rhetoric of Marx and Lenin. When that great American revolutionary, Dr Martin Luther King, made out the case for racial emancipation and social solidarity, he did so using the language of the Bible – not Das Kapital.

Empathy – the ability to put yourself in another person’s shoes – is fundamental to President Obama’s redemptive project. By recruiting Jesus to the Democratic cause, and setting him against the Republican’s Jehovah, The President has forced the Right into a theological and political battle it cannot win.

Unless, of course, it first persuades us that empathy – the attribute without which we cannot truly be called human – is nothing but "pop psychology" and a "self-help manual standby".

A version of this essay was originally published in The Timaru Herald, The Taranaki Daily News, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Evening Star of Friday, 5 June 2009.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I think you are right on the money here Chris.

I find it despicable and hilarious that the Right would not want the word empathy introduced into our political discourse.

Do you think this sort of language has any potential in NZ?