On Empathy: Obama’s, Cheney’s, and Ours

Dick Cheney:
“Lynne and I have a gay daughter, so it’s an issue our family is very familiar with. …With the respect to the question of relationships, my general view is freedom means freedom for everyone. … People ought to be free to enter into any kind of relationship they want to.”

Barack Obama:
“But I have to tell you that over the course of– several years, as I talk to friends and family and neighbors. When I think about– members of my own staff who are incredibly committed, in monogamous relationships, same-sex relationships, who are raising kids together….At a certain point, I’ve just concluded that– for me personally, it is important for me to go ahead and affirm that– I think same-sex couples should be able to get married.”

Every positive development has a negative side (and leave it to me to find it). How fortunate for the cause of marriage equality that there are gay people on the White House staff, and that Dick Cheney has a lesbian daughter. Perhaps if the president had some staffers from Yemen, or the former vice president’s daughter married a Pakistani, they would awaken to the humanity of people in those places too.

But Obama’s recognition of the right of gay Americans to marry is not matched by an awareness of the right of Afghans to live free of airstrikes. Instead, we have an endless succession of horrors like this, sometimes (but not always) followed by apologies that would mean something if only they were followed by the complete abandonment of a strategy that leads inevitably to parents weeping over the lifeless bodies of their children. I doubt Obama would be so cavalier about civilian casualties if they happened in Chicago.

It’s nice that Cheney and Obama overcame a prejudice through personal experience, but no matter how many “friends” we have on Facebook, there will still be segments of society and parts of the world we don’t know well. With that in mind, we would do well to recognize and resist stereotypes habitually, not just when our experiences force us to. The more superficially “different” a group of people seem to be, and the more our communities regard them as pariahs, the more skeptical of our received opinions we should be.

I’ve long advocated what I call “diffuse empathy”. People tend to take more of an interest in the sufferings of others when they can relate to an individual’s story, and see how much they have in common with that person. This can happen through personal acquaintance, through art, or even the news media. For example, movies such as “Schindler’s List” help us feel the abstract horror of genocide acutely by taking us into the lives of particular victims. The problem is that this makes our compassion contingent on the particular stories that happen to reach us. Thus, while it’s important to keep the awful history of the Holocaust in memory, tragedies going on right now – such as in Palestine – rarely seem to gain Hollywood’s attention.

This perilous selectivity is also on display in the attention the U.S. news media pays to victims of war and terrorism. The New York Times devotes an extensive feature to the victims of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, and NPR occasionally does a whole story on an American solder killed in Iraq or Afghanistan, including interviews with friends and family members. All of which is well and good. But when it comes to the innocent victims of U.S. violence, our news media cannot be troubled to even name them. Instead, such people remain anonymous statistics.

But really, it shouldn’t make any difference. Others shouldn’t have to convince us of their humanity to arouse ours. If empathy can be likened to light, a diffuse glow extending everywhere is far better than a powerful but narrow beam focused on a select few, while leaving the rest of the world in darkness.


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