Obama’s empathy problem

How could the US President have failed to exhibit the quality at the heart of his moral code?
Zac Alstin | Nov 18 2010 | comment  

President Obama’s job approval rating has dropped markedly in the past year or so, from 67 per cent in May 2009, down to 43 per cent in November 2010. More Americans now disapprove of the President’s job than approve of it – 49 per cent to 43 per cent. Adding to the President’s woes is the “shellacking” received by the Democrats in the recent Congressional elections, with Obama’s own admission that "we lost track of the ways we connected with the folks who got us here in the first place." The problem was more acutely summarised by retiring Tennessee Governor Phil Bredesen (D):

"There doesn't seem to be anybody in the White House who's got any idea what it's like to lie awake at night worried about money and worried about things slipping away [...] They're all intellectually smart. They've got their numbers. But they don't feel any of it, and I think people sense that."  

Is it possible to read comments such as these and not think immediately of President Obama’s much vaunted empathy?

In a 2006 speech to college graduates, then Senator Barack Obama hailed the importance of empathy:

“There’s a lot of talk in this country about the federal deficit. But I think we should talk more about our empathy deficit — the ability to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes; to see the world through those who are different from us — the child who’s hungry, the laid-off steelworker, the immigrant woman cleaning your dorm room.”

In his book The Audacity of Hope, published two years later, Obama expanded on the theme of empathy:

It is at the heart of my moral code, and it is how I understand the Golden Rule---not simply as a call to sympathy or charity, but as something more demanding, a call to stand in somebody else's shoes and see through their eyes.


I believe a stronger sense of empathy would tilt the balance of our current politics in favour of those people who are struggling in this society. After all, if they are like us, then their struggles are our own. If we fail to help, we diminish ourselves.”

And in case we are in any doubt, Obama's closest colleagues will confirm:

He knows how perceptive he is. He knows what a good reader of people he is. And he knows that he has the ability -- the extraordinary, uncanny ability -- to take a thousand different perspectives, digest them and make sense out of them”

Is it really a lack of empathy that people are sensing from their President – a man who specifically promoted empathy as a personal moral code, a political panacea, even the criterion by which to select Supreme Court Judges? How could Obama have failed to exhibit the very quality at the heart of his personal moral code?

In fairness, it’s not Obama’s fault. Empathy is no more than a recent invention drawn from the fields of philosophy and art appreciation theory, which somehow enjoys special prominence in modern culture. Unfortunately for Obama, it is simply not as grand or important an idea as the present culture would have us believe. Firstly, empathy defies clear definition. Some will call it “putting yourself in another person’s shoes”, an act of thinking. Others will identify it as an act of feeling, to share in the emotional experience of another person. It can also be presented as an amalgam of thinking and feeling, using first one, and then the other to get inside someone else’s footwear.

Why is empathy hard to define? The simple answer is that it doesn’t really exist. The concept – or the word at least – wasn’t invented until 1858, and even then, it was only in German. We Englisch-Sprechende would have to wait until 1903 before we could start empathising formally. Is it really possible that this thing called “empathy” only emerged circa 1900?

Obama defines empathy as “the ability to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes; to see the world through those who are different from us.” But these are just metaphors. The reality behind “putting myself in someone else’s shoes” is simply to imagine myself in that person’s circumstances. But can I really imagine what it is like to be an immigrant woman cleaning dorm rooms? How realistically can I imagine what it is like to be a laid-off steelworker? No wonder Obama says that this act of imagination is more demanding than sympathy and charity. We cannot really put ourselves in someone else’s shoes, because our imagination is always limited and subjective. We can try to understand another person's circumstances, but it borders on condescension to claim that we are able to see the world through someone else's eyes. As an act of imagination, empathy risks becoming mere pretence, deluding ourselves with false insights into other people's lives.

But the real problem is what lies behind empathy. Obama praises empathy as a means “to see the world through those who are different from us — the child who’s hungry, the laid-off steelworker, the immigrant woman cleaning your dorm room.” Yet the point of the Western ethical tradition is that other people are not really different from us at all. It should not take an act of imagination to identify with a hungry child, a laid-off steelworker or an immigrant cleaning-woman, because at heart we all share a common humanity. I do not have to stand in the shoes of a hungry child to know that the child needs and deserves to be fed, nor pretend to be a laid-off steelworker to know that it is terrible for the steelworker to be laid off.

Before 1903, we called it sympathy. Sympathy means “fellow-feeling”, and is based on actual affinity between people. If I stub my toe, you feel my pain; not because you have used observation and imagination to see the world through my eyes, but because you have toes of your own and you too have felt pain. This is our affinity or “sameness”: we feel the same, because we fundamentally are the same.

Somehow, our culture has begun to identify sympathy as a form of condescension, akin to what we now call “pity”. Naturally, we recoil from any suggestion that other people might be looking down on us in our struggles. So empathy has become the new virtue, a contemporary gloss on the golden rule. But empathy is a false virtue, based on a false premise of human difference, and an undue faith in our power to imagine another person's life.

The growing criticisms of Obama's presidency show up the flaws in an empathic approach to life: people do not need a leader who thinks he can imagine how they feel, they need a leader who already shares their feelings and priorities. The president should not have to “see the world through those who are different”, simply because there is no one so different that their ordinary fears and concerns cannot be shared by the highest office-holder in the land.

Zac Alstin works at the Southern Cross Bioethics Institute in Adelaide, South Australia.

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