Empathy is a Virtue, Not a Vice

06/07/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Lance Simmens Author, The Evolution of a Revolution, and Fracktured

I have been struggling hard in the post-partisan world to figure out just exactly what the opposition's rationale or foundation is on any number of issues: stimulus, budget, taxes, torture, and now the Supreme Court nomination. As best as I can tell the overriding nugget of justification seems to be "just say no."

I sincerely doubt that this position warrants serious consideration in a world that is trying mightily to confront the deeply dysfunctional mess left by Obama's predecessors. Intellectual honesty and intellect itself took a beating for the first eight years of the new century. Intricately woven into the mantra of change, I believe, was a yearning by the public for decisions based upon evidence and fact, thought and deliberation, maturity and vision.

Thus, it is with great consternation that I continually witness the conservative right, which has emerged as the primary opposition to the Obama administration, flail at the slightest mention of any suggestions that seemingly reflect the verdict rendered by the people last November.

The latest surreal moment occurred last night on Hardball. There was Utah Senator Orrin Hatch, generally acknowledged as one of the more thoughtful members of the conservative community and a ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, scolding the President for considering empathy to be an appropriate or acceptable prerequisite for a candidate on the Supreme Court.

Empathy! Empathy! What am I missing here? What is the outrage? I decided to check my Webster's dictionary to see what on earth I should know about this "code word" that could evoke such an irrational response from such a rational person.

According to Webster's Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary, empathy is "the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner". Ummm, how awful, could you imagine what havoc an individual might wreak upon society if he/she possessed such dangerous abilities? To interpret laws based upon the actual effects such laws might actually have upon real individuals with real problems? Outrageous!

This is the best they can do? Attack the idea that someone might actually have the ability to understand and feel for those who may be in a different position than themselves?

The good Senator kept referring to empathy as a "code word," assuming in the general hysteria that has permeated the conservative community's intelligentsia, like Limbaugh, Coutler, Hannity, that what the President really means is that he might actually choose someone who under the guise of empathy would seek to undermine our morals, our values, our way of life, our society as we know it. The bad people will win.

This is the reality of the conservative opposition today. They attack for the sake of attacking and then justify the attacks upon secret meanings of words and a general assumption that the real agenda here is to bring down the system, a system they have profited quite handsomely from, and has successfully winnowed out the winners and losers, the good from the bad. Why fix what ain't broken?

Well, since I have my dictionary out, I would like to try out a word on them: paranoia. Webster describes it as "a psychosis characterized by systematized delusions of persecution or grandeur usually without hallucinations."

The vacuousness of their arguments and the dearth of any feasible or constructive alternatives other than to "just say no" reinforces the notion that today's conservatives simply cannot be taken seriously. Meanwhile, the people demand that thoughtfulness dictate solutions to crises that affect them and their neighbors in ways not imaginable to those who deride empathy as a vice, not a virtue.

What is equally disturbing about the apologists for the Bush Administration that are now being trotted out to protect their homespun legacy is that they seem to actually want our country to fail so as to justify their insatiable lust for validation or redemption. Some might be tempted to label them sore losers, or even traitors. I prefer to think of them as unpatriotic.

There is a meanness and vindictiveness there that is not in keeping with the current popularity of a president who enjoys widespread support for a proactive agenda seen as an honest attempt to make things better. Obama will not be sidelined or distracted from the efforts at hand and is almost dismissive of their ankle-biting tendencies. Luckily, at this point they are little more than an annoyance; we need to keep it that way.