I can empathize with MSNBC's Tucker Carlson. It's not easy, but I can do it. Maybe even with President Bush. Our religious traditions and classical philosophers extol the importance of seeing with the eyes of others.
Carlson attacked Senator Barack Obama for speaking about the importance of empathy in our shared public life. "He sounds like a pothead to me," Carlson said of Obama. "Tell me what you're for. I don't want to hear about the empathy..."
And Bush's former Surgeon General, Richard H. Carmona, also told Congress this week that he was told by the Administration not to attend the Special Olympics because the Kennedy family support the organization. "I was specifically told by a senior person, 'Why would you want to help those people?'"
If we are to make sense of a top government official's "those people" comment and Carlson's opinion that there is no place in political life for talk of empathy and understanding, we need to see the issues through their eyes. We need to do the very thing they are implicitly telling us not to do in our public lives.
Here's what Obama said:
"Somehow we have lost the capacity to recognize ourselves in each other. You know, people talk a lot about the federal deficit, but one of the things I always talk about is an empathy deficit."
This is no idle observation. It happens to be true. Our capacity for empathy in public life has been diminished, and not solely because of inattention or callousness. Habit, custom, and our political and philosophical theoretical orientations have conspired to make the political sphere a colder place.
Since the Enlightenment, empathy, friendship, intimacy, and companionship have been all but exiled from the political sphere, a place ideally reserved for dispassionate and objective deliberation about brute facts. This was a radical break from classical political theories. Aristotle believed the health of the polis depended upon close bonds of friendship among citizens. But Kant believed ethical relations must be based on universal, disembodied reason. Empathetic acts might be good, but they are not legitimate cases of moral action because they are not based upon purely reasoned obligation and duties. Adam Smith, of course, believed the invisible hand of the free market could do for us what fleshly hand-holding could not do in modern society: reduce frictions among people and make for more amiable if more superficial interpersonal relations based upon commercial transactions.
Furthermore, empathetic bonds between citizens threaten loyalty to the state, or even to lesser organizations like businesses. How many of us have had bosses whose management strategies included the interruption of friendships or alliances among inferiors? Here's how Kurt Riezler, philosopher, pre-World War I assistant to the German chancellor, and friend of Leo Strauss, summed up authority's dread of interpersal bonds among its subjects. His is not an extreme view. He just had the guts to say out loud what other theorists of authority disguised in less blunt language.
"Whichever way friendship is defined in a given society, whether it is considered a private concern or a public matter, it always is a political phenomenon...friendship can easily become the basis of conspiracy. Every dictator and tyrant is aware of the potential threat of friendship. Dictators know that friendship often provides a bond more enduring than other social bonds and hence can become a power base from which their power can be assailed. In political persecutions and proscriptions of all manner, inquisitors have always included the friends of their primary enemies in their attack. History has numerous examples to support this point. If one becomes a victim of the Stalin purges in Russia, one's friends were likely to be implicated also."
We are beginning to see the issue as Carlson sees it. Empathy has no place in the rough and tumble world of politics. Modernist political science has taught us that. Kant taught us that. The lessons of authority teach us to see friendship among our obedient followers as suspicious and destabilizing. The social sciences, which see people as interchangeable variables in statistical arrays, have had little good to say about emotional bonds among flesh-and-blood people. We are not talking about the importance one might place on empathy in one's intimate relations. Tucker Carlson might be very empathetic, have very close friends, be loyal and willing to sacrifice for their betterment. But those qualities don't extend, and shouldn't be extended, to our relationships with others in the political sphere. Citizens are not empathetic friends.
Add to this a dose of insecure masculine fear of intimacy and we can begin to see from Carlson's point of view that Obama's use of the word "empathy" in a political context was jarring and, really, intolerable. Empathy is analogized to pot-smoking. Both put us in a fog and make us less fit to make the kind of tough, hyper-rational, and un-emotional decisions one must make in a dog-eat-dog world.
The problem is that Carlson's view, shaped as it is by custom, habit and dominant philosophical considerations, is wrong. Human beings are not who the Enlightenment thought they were. Reason is emotional. Thought is embodied. Empathy is critical to human development. Children learn language because of networks in their brains which allow them to mimic the movements and utterances of others. Empathy allows us to engage in what anthropologists call "shared intentionality." We can work together on a project because I am able - in simple tasks and complex ones as well - to see the task from your point of view and organize my movements to complement yours.
People with brain injuries or development difficulties that inhibit empathy are often unable to engage fully with others in cooperative play or work. Autistic people, for instance. And doesn't it sometimes seem that our disconnections with other Americans are so profound that the word "autistic" might be becoming a condition of our culture and not just an individual debilitation?
As George Lakoff has written, our political values are shaped by metaphors extended from models of the ideal family. There is the nurturant model, in which care and responsibility are central, and there is the strict father model, in which obedience and discipline are central. Most people carry both values with them. They are nurturant and empathetic in some parts of their lives and authoritarian in others. For classical thinkers - and to ancient and contemporary members of smaller and less complex political organizations, tribes, nomads, etc. - there was a place for empathy and more dispassionate authority. By rejecting empathy as inappropriate in political conversation, Tucker Carlson is, in a sense, rejecting a key part of our humanity.
At a time of growing domestic tension and division, at a time of increased awareness of global interdependence, the failure to recognize the place of empathy and friendship in our political relationships is not just an emotional setback. It may leave us with no friends at all.
Glenn W. Smith is a Senior Fellow at The Rockridge Institute