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The Case for Empathy—Open Hearts May Open Minds

220Px Rob Portman2 C Official Portrait2 C 112Th Congress

Expand the circle of empathy in public life, urges multimedia journalist Mary C. Curtis.

In the past, Rob Portman has supported the federal Defense of Marriage Act, favored a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage and backed legislation prohibiting gay couples in Washington, D.C., from adopting.

Now, the conservative Republican senator from Ohio has changed his mind. “I have come to believe that if two people are prepared to make a lifetime commitment to love and care for each other in good times and in bad, the government shouldn’t deny them the opportunity to get married,” he wrote in the Columbus Dispatch.

Discovering his son Will is gay “led me to think through my position in a much deeper way,” he said.

I would never question the sincerity of Portman’s change of heart or the thoughtfulness that made him reverse his personal and political opinions. When he said, “We should encourage people to make long-term commitments to each other and build families, so as to foster strong, stable communities and promote personal responsibility,” I believe him.

But I would ask why it took the concerns of someone in his immediate family to move him. For some in Portman’s party, even his family’s truth was no reason to make a policy switch. For Portman, it was shared bloodlines that did the trick.

Empathy for others is not, it seems, a valued quality, especially that which might cross differences in gender or race, economic status or geography—or sexual identity. When President Obama listed it as a pre-requisite for the person he would appoint to replace Justice David H. Souter on the Supreme Court in 2009, he was ridiculed and criticized, as though judges who put themselves, if only for a moment, in someone else’s shoes replace respect for the law with sentimentality and softness, making up legal precedent on the spot.

The president’s choice, Sonia Sotomayor, spent much of her confirmation hearings backing away from any hint of the concept of empathy, saying that “judges can’t rely on what’s in their heart,” as though anyone reading her rulings could come to the conclusion that her rough Bronx upbringing hindered rather than enhanced lessons learned at Princeton and Yale law school.

One of Portman’s fellow Republican conservatives, Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama, grilled Sotomayor and other judicial candidates on the point, even when Obama used other terms to describe his desire for judges who understand how the law affects ordinary people. “It seems to be calling again for judges to be less committed to fidelity to the law and calling for them to reach decisions that somehow endeavor to decide who ought to win,” Sessions told The New York Times.

Curiously, in the current debate, empathy is only a problem when it’s shown toward the less powerful. Does that mean all the cases decided and laws passed in favor of corporations show common sense and legal impartiality?

Portman’s public change of heart makes me wonder where those seeking public office draw the line – at the border of their districts, their blocks, their front doors? If a first cousin needed help to pay for food or medical care, would that be the thing that finally stopped a politician scoring points by demonizing people who cash a government check?

When some Southern lawmakers who welcomed federal aid after Hurricane Katrina balked at approving reciprocal funds for Northeast victims of Sandy, it put literal boundaries on empathy.

The inability to appreciate the life experience of others unfortunately seeps into other parts of our culture, illustrated recently by an offensive Tweet that used a 9-year-old Oscar-nominated African American actress to make a dubious point. When the pranksters at The Onion’s satirical news site named Quvenzhane Wallis in a quip because, presumably, they thought no one could possibly think of her in such a disgusting context, they failed to acknowledge that black women and girls have routinely been insulted, demeaned and sexualized. If not the target, Wallis was collateral damage, continuing that unfortunate and sad pattern.

Those who objected to the site’s eventual apology defended satire that fell flat, choosing instead to stand on their own privilege, a luxury that allowed them to ignore history and the people who indeed “got” the joke – they get it every day – but didn’t like it. Wholeheartedly but without heart they forged ahead, when a little empathy would have helped The Onion and its defenders remove their cultural blinders.

In Steubenville, Ohio, where two high school football players have been found guilty of sexually assaulting a drunken 16-year-old girl, text messages and photos detailed incidents no one thought to stop from happening. It’s as though not one observer thought of the girl as a person worthy of consideration or care. That the perpetrators and witnesses were all teens means that empathy is not among the lessons at least some young people are absorbing.

Of course, you can come up with just as many examples of small kindnesses doled out and exchanged among neighbors and strangers. But too many headline cases point to a prevailing philosophy to hunker down, close ranks and ration emotion, conserving it for those close to us, in belief if not blood. It’s certainly easier to push away people and things we don’t understand, label them the other and figure they deserve everything they do and don’t get.

It may be progress that holding that view could get you into trouble, as GOP presidential hopeful Mitt Romney discovered when his disparaging comments about the 47 percent of the American people who don’t take responsibility for their lives were videotaped and leaked by, it turns out, a bartender at a high-dollar fund-raiser. A little empathy toward the folks pouring the wine and clearing dirty dishes would have saved Romney a lot of trouble and maybe an election.

Perhaps people are realizing that imagining oneself in another's place is a sign of strength. Despite Sotomayor’s confirmation hearing demurrals – since then somewhat belied by her searching questions from the bench – opening your heart can open your mind, as well.

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