President Obama recently shifted away from speaking about “empathy” as an important quality in a Supreme Court justice, in favor of “an understanding of how the world works and how ordinary people live.” A nice phrase, but I think he should stick with “empathy,” and not let the Right redefine the term as they’ve been doing.
I feel compelled to weigh in on this in part because I introduced the term “empathy deficit disorder” in an article I wrote in the Washington Post in the recent past. There, I argued that our culture suffers from a dearth of empathy; absolutely necessary today for effective functioning, as individuals or a society, within our interconnected, post-globalized world.
Consider this: In the Bible King Solomon asked God for “a heart that listens.” Notice that he didn’t ask for “a head that thinks.” There’s a reason: The head – repository of the mind – is more akin to a processor of information within a logical framework and sequence; like a computer program. It uses reason without context or “real world” judgment.
In contrast, the heart symbolizes the repository of wisdom; of judgment. And that’s based on the accumulation of life experience, broadened perspectives, and tested values, including the consequences of the behavior they generate. Overall, it derives from a leavened character.
Empathy is central to judgment and wisdom. It’s the capacity to step outside of yourself and experience the world of the other from the inside, so to speak. It’s different from sympathy, which is based on identifying with something another person experiences; that is, relating it to your own self. For example, “I feel sympathetic to her situation because that’s what I felt when it happened to me.”
But suppose you can’t relate it to your own experience? That’s where empathy is critical, because it means stepping inside the mindset and emotional experience of the other person. With that immersion, you can make more judicious, fair, and wise assessments in relation to your actions — whether towards friend, foe, or someone who’s neither.
In the Bible, God grants Solomon’s request, in the form of “wisdom in your heart.” Note He didn’t say, “wisdom in your head.” He gave him “discernment in administering justice.” Further, it was said that the whole world sought audience with Solomon to hear the wisdom that God had put in his heart.
The Right is trying to redefine empathy to mean — at best — personal emotional preferences; at worst, irrational emotion that drives behavior. Using this shift, they then advocate “fact-based” judgments, devoid of anything “emotional.” They are wrong in both efforts.
If an important matter in your life was being adjudicated, would you rather come before someone with a developed capacity for empathy, and who can access it in the service of administering justice; or, someone following a flow-chart of logical sequence as the basis for deciding the proper administration of justice?