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   perversion of empathy
Thursday, February 24 2005
I was out being a do-gooder at the Catskill Animal Sanctuary today, actually managing to get their closest thing to a computer network to function. As I worked I found myself growing steadily famished. The solution to my hunger pangs ended up being Kentucky Fried Chicken, ironic given the fact that my donated efforts had been in support of an organization that stresses empathy and compassion for farm animals. But every few months or so I can't help myself and I have to eat fried chicken. I want to do right by the factory farmed animals of the world, but biological urges are a powerful solvent for our post noble intentions. As I greedily ate my chicken, I found myself thinking about empathy. What about these poor chickens who had given their pathetic little lives so that I could gluttonize while driving down Ulster Avenue? Then I noticed that some of the meat had been bruised. These chickens hadn't just had their lives stolen, they'd been handled with unnecessary roughness as well.
There are those who are selfish, preoccupied with who they know and who they wish to resemble. Their days are filled with local thoughts and global acts. For them the low point of a typical day is waiting for another car to pass on the big road so they can get their turn to merge into traffic. Then there are those who are burdened by empathy. They see a sad dog chained to a tree in front of a trailer and imagine what it would be like to be that dog. That's a completely different kind of daily low point. Can these two different kinds of people even belong to the same species?
I found myself thinking about the respective empathic burdens of different groups of people. In any given society there is a natural mix of people with various levels of empathy. Obviously a society couldn't function if we were all Jeffrey Dahmers selfishly stocking our freezers with the body parts of our neighbors. But we'd also be in trouble if our civilization lacked people cold-blooded enough to gun down imperialist invaders from, say, Texas. On a more mundane level, many more people in our society eat beef than would happily murder a cow, while relatively few people consider the concerns of a tick when they discover one sucking their blood. A functioning society requires a range of empathic endowment among its members. On occasion it may even require its individuals to accept changes in their empathic set points.
Generally, though, empathic facility is a fixed parameter of a human personality. Interestingly, at least at this stage of the American experiment, it even seems to correlate closely with political affiliation. Ever since the Democratic party was abandoned by southern whites, it has largely lived up to its stereotype of being the party of "bleeding heart liberals." Such people believe in safeguards for the poor, women, minorities, the environment, and even animals. Some among the farthest fringe of the Democrats on occasion actually ponder the costs to the Iraqi population of the war being perpetually waged by our nation in their homeland. Today's Democrats don't need to fall on hard times or experience personal tragedy as a prerequisite for comprehending the misfortune of others. Their hearts "bleed" and they empathize. Bill Clinton was famously quoted (and, by Republicans, mocked) for saying "I feel your pain." But by saying that he was merely using the primal roots of our language to convey the original Greek concept of being empathetic. All he was doing was confirming that he hadn't become a Republican, something many of us liberals then feared.
Republicans, on the other hand, have very little empathy. In almost every case where a Republican seems to be demonstrating concern about the welfare of another, it turns out that the other person is either a family member or the means to an end. Take, as just one of many examples, the case of Nancy Reagan and her famous crusade for stem cell research on behalf, supposedly, of those with neurological disorders. But her "empathy" wasn't really for hypothetical people she didn't know. It was for her husband. My guess is that her interest in stem cell research has been on the wane ever since her beloved Ronnie kicked the bucket.
It isn't just that the empathic system has atrophied in Republicans, because that's not the full story. What remains of Republican empathy actually seems to have been hijacked to the point where the entities for which Republicans feel empathy aren't the kind that can actually suffer. While Democrats decry the gay kid being kicked around the playground or the rabbit used for testing the eye-burning potential of shampoo, Republicans fret about the fate of 128-cell blastocysts, a corporation coping with onerous environmental regulations, and (my personal favorite) "the sanctity of marriage."

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