1 year ago: Empathy is always one possible option

1 year ago: Empathy is always one possible option July 1, 2013

July 1, 2012, on this blog: Empathy is always one possible option

Chief Justice John Roberts suffers from a chronic, pre-existing medical condition of precisely the sort that would have made it impossible, before the Affordable Care Act, for him to purchase insurance in the private sector.

Some right-wing commentators think this influenced Roberts’ decision upholding the ACA. But they don’t imagine that this might have influenced his decision due to the revelatory insight or empathy this personal experience provides. No, they’re just claiming that Roberts’ epilepsy medicine clouded his cognitive functions.

Once again, these people do not believe in empathy. They don’t understand the concept. They don’t even allow for the possibility of it.


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  • Matri

    No no no, Fred. These people are very well aware of what empathy is.

    It’s one of those Satanic emotions, of course. No Real True Christian should ever feel empathy, cause then you’d be one of Them.

  • Funnily enough, I’ve been reading up on mirror neurons; they are the ones which trigger empathy. I’ve come to think that Right Wingers do feel empathy; they just handle it entirely differently than a more flexible thinker does.

    Part of having a Fundamentalist mindset is that you DON’T think; you’ve been told how to react. So when I see someone unable to find work, I can come up with myriad reasons, ranging from the lousy economy, to a possible resume blunder. If we discuss the situation, we can explore the possibilities, but I’m too politically involved to not realize how much of it is lousy business practices and Republican obstruction; my first response is never to blame the victim.

    But a Fundy thinker ALWAYS blames the victim, first. And usually never gets around to entertaining a different point of view, because blaming the victim deflects their own anxieties, so well.

    They feel in control of their destiny! And they don’t want to let go of that.

  • The_L1985

    I still find it slightly selfish when someone with tons of money doesn’t see any need to solve a problem that hurts millions until it suddenly becomes their problem. I’m glad that Justice Roberts developed empathy from his experience, but it still looks kinda icky.

    I support medical research and better healthcare for people in poverty, because I know what it’s like to lose a loved one to disease and have to basically just sit there and watch it happen. My cousin/godmother, my grandfather, and my favorite aunt all died of various cancers. I can only imagine it must be worse if, instead of “There’s nothing anyone can do at this point,” the thought process of the ill person’s friends and family was, “There are ways to fix this, but we can’t afford any of them.” I don’t want either of those scenarios to have to happen to anyone anymore, regardless of whether I’m the one with the disease or not.

  • Carstonio

    TW: abuse

    That desire for control resembles the mentality of people abused by their parents. They’ve internalized the parents’ attitudes not just about themselves but about siblings and others. If they acknowledged that the abuse wasn’t deserved, they would be forced to conclude that not only were they helpless to stop the abuse, but that their parents were undeserving of their love or worship. That would explain the fundamentalists’ reaction to atheism, like it’s a defamation of their parents.

  • Lori

    The thing that feels really icky is that this self-motivated approximation of empathy leaves the rest of us in the position of having to hope that something bad will happen to a Republican just so other people can get help. That’s not right.

  • Jeff

    I don’t think we want the Supreme Court basing decisions on empathy; whether or not Justice Roberts personally likes the ACA or empathizes with those that are helped by it really has no bearing on whether the law is consitutional or not, and that’s the only basis that the Court should be using.
    (The Savage quote at the link is completely absurd. But what I guess I find interesting is that the “empathy” explanation puts Roberts in no more of a favorable light than the other explanations for his vote to uphold the ACA.)

  • Kubricks_Rube

    “Influenced by” is not the same as “basing on.”

  • I think this ties in with the striking lack of imagination among Fundamentalists. They have never been encouraged to imagine; quite the reverse. And so they literally cannot place themselves in someone else’s situation. It’s like asking someone who never learned addition to do calculus.

  • Often stuff has to happen to you before you can understand it. But people with empathy accept this and still push for other people’s lives to be better, even when they can’t really understand those lives. Without empathy, there would be no straight people who supported non-straight rights; no white people who supported non-white rights; no men who supported non-male rights; no rich people who supported non-rich people’s rights (that’s sadly close to true); and no animal rights activists whatsoever.

  • Why should a lack of empathy stop someone from doing what’s right? These sociopaths are amateurs. :p

  • Law without empathy is absolute nonsense. It makes laws into D&D rules or something, but worse. Government law only exists to make life better for people — any upholding of a law that goes against that makes it into a fetish, a superstition, a big fat nothing that we’re worshiping for no reason.

  • Jeff

    All of that may be true, but is completely beside the point with respect to the role that the Court plays in the process of determining a law’s constitutionality.

  • Then we may as well replace the justices of the Supreme Court with computers.

  • Jeff

    Of course we want the justices to be empathetic /people/, just as we hope that elected officials will all be empathetic people. But again, that’s neither here nor there.
    You said government law exists to make life better for people — that’s fine as far as it goes, but there are limits imposed on the government as to how it goes about doing that, and those are enumerated in the Constitution. The court’s job isn’t to determine whether a law is adequate to make lives better; it is to determine whether a law is permissible /under the Constitution/. If the intent of the law is sound but the law is unconstitutional, a better law can be written or the Constituion can be amended. What we absolutely don’t want is for a justice to say or think anything that’s within a thousand miles of “this law is flagrantly unconstitutional, but I like the result that it achieves, so I’ll vote for it to be upheld.”

  • At this point, there are so many reasons to hope something bad will happen to a Republican, I think “Because they actually might become less reprehensible” is about the kindest of them.

  • Lori

    Sadly true.

  • I feel compelled to point out again that John Roberts’ medical privacy has been protected pretty well and we have no idea what health conditions he may or may not be being treated for. As someone with epilepsy myself, I confess to being curious about what drugs he may or may not have tried and how his possible health problems may or may not have affected his ability to empathize with others; but I’ll just copy & paste a comment I posted last year:

    To be more accurate, we know that Chief Justice John Roberts has suffered from two seizures, one in 1993 and another in 2007. Someone who has had two unprovoked epileptic seizures may be diagnosed with epilepsy, but someone whose only known seizures were fourteen years apart is unlikely to be actively treated for the condition. Most doctors would probably take a wait-and-see attitude unless there were other seizure-like episodes the general public hasn’t heard about. Maybe the Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court would be more likely to get treatment for it, but it’s also possible that doctors would advice Roberts not to take brain-altering drugs without reason to believe he’s likely to have a third seizure.

    Basically, some conservative bloggers who don’t like what Roberts did have taken a technically accurate diagnosis of epilepsy, then decided that he must be taking anti-epileptic medication, and then decided that they know precisely which side effects that hypothetical medication has caused Roberts to endure. Heck, he could be taking a drug that gives him a cognitive boost, for all we know (levetiracetam can be very good for some people’s brains, though my own experiences with it haven’t been all that thrilling).

    Basically, some “conservative” commentators grabbed one known fact about Roberts’ life and turned it into a steaming pile of BS. Though this isn’t unusual behavior for such commentators,I still think it’s a good idea to point out that the BS we’re dealing with isn’t actually a steaming pile of vegetables drenched in butter.

  • FearlessSon

    I tend to think that empathy is less motivated by having sensitive emotions, and more motivated by having a good imagination.

    It reminds me of something a friend of mine told me. Said friend is from Louisiana, and aspires to become an animator (working at Pixar would be her dream job) so she moved up to Seattle to study. One thing she found difficult to do in her home state was be able to express her imagination. She said that for so many people there, her immediate family included, they were very unimaginative and had trouble seeing what the appeal in creativity was.

    I do not know how well the part of Louisiana generalizes to the rest of the south, but if it does that would explain a lot…

  • Are you defining empathy in terms of having emotional response or having the capacity to imagine an emotional response?

  • FearlessSon

    The later, which as a fellow high-functioning sociopath I assume you would understand.

    I do not need to bite a doughnut to it is sweet, nor to break my own leg to know it hurts. But I can imagine how someone doing those things might feel.

  • Most people seem to define empathy as having an emotional response approximating a person’s condition, but if you define it as the latter, then — yeah, very curious. I would still have problems understanding people, but my imagination is certainly not lacking. I have a hard time keeping my feet on this particular plane of reality. :p

  • FearlessSon

    I have heard that one of the professions that sociopaths do really well in is that of paramedics. They have to deal with people who are often in a state of intense pain or shock when they get to them, then give them first stage treatment and get them prepared for further medical attention. During that time, they need to be able to understand the kind of pain a person is going through, but also keep from being overwhelmed by that pain. To be sympathetic without being attached, to make snap decisions which are logical and practical without ignoring the pain of the person in front of them.

  • Interesting. I can liken it to my experience counseling people (on an unofficial basis) — I can readily understand how someone feels, but it doesn’t really affect me directly. I could never be a paramedic though; I don’t do well in high stress environments (which is most environments, unfortunately).

  • smrnda

    This kind of reminds me of a perspective on prejudice which has gained a lot of traction among social psychologists – that we should think of prejudice as more of a cognitive failure than a moral one. Part of this is that a lot of prejudice is unconscious – a person doesn’t say, outright believe that Black people make bad employees, but their hiring patterns might show a bias against Black applicants but the person is always convinced that they rejected the applicant for some other reason.

    An empathy failure might just be the inability to hear about a bad situation a person is in, and to mentally construct a plausible narrative for how they got there. If I hear that a college educated person is living in poverty, I can imagine this happening since I can imagine how even a person with more or less in demand skills could end up that way. A person with less imagination can only see the possibility of laziness.

  • One thing I’ve heard is that there is some kind of cognitive mechanism that allows humans to recognize each other as “like oneself”, only for some people it works less well, so that when skin color becomes drastically different from one’s own, the mechanism that would normally say “this person in front of me is still like me and therefore a member of my species”, it falls silent and it becomes easier to accept racist depictions of that group of people to which the individual belongs.