Monthly Archives: March 2013

Willful Empathy

As last week ended, empathy was in the news again. (How long has it been? Since Obama specified it as a criterion for his Supreme Court nominees?) This time, the context was marriage equality, and identity politics at their most personal. When Senator Rob Portman (R-OH) reversed his previously staunch opposition to marriage equality for same-sex-gender couples, because, as he explained in a Columbus Dispatch opinion piece Thursday, his son Will is gay, he triggered a fourth category storm of empathy references that not even the internet could contain. The word “empathy” appeared in blog posts, news stories, and at least one headline about Portman’s reversal before blowing over into primetime HBO, where Bill Maher asked his guests if not the tragic flaw of the GOP was, indeed, its limited capacity for empathy.

At Firedoglake, the lack of empathy in the absence of a family coming-out saddened Pam Spaulding, and similarly, at NPR, Liz Halloran observed that some Columbus Dispatch readers posted comments criticizing Portman for “failing to have empathy for gay Americans before his son came out.” Susie Madrak, posting at Crooks and Liars, called Portman’s path to empathy the “traditional wingnut way: his son came out.” She also wished, “Now if only one of his kids would be affected by global warming.” At Roll Call, exceptionally, the headline for Jonathan Strong’s piece concerned itself with empathy for Portman at CPAC, not Portman’s new-found or previously lacking empathy for queerkind. In perhaps my favorite online empathy citation, Joshua Pugh, posting at The Detroit Free News, managed to allude to the last time empathy was in the news, setting the Portman reversal alongside his observations of a scoffing conservative audience listening to a speaker at a Citizens for Traditional Values event warn against the “clear and present danger” of empathetic judges.  Matthew Yglesias, posting at Slate, added a bit of polish to the meme, decrying what he characterized as Portman’s political narcissism and recalling the term Mark Schmitt coined for the phenomenon of conservatives showcasing their moderation on a single issue: Miss America Compassion. Yglesias’ was perhaps the most powerful exhortation to Portman and his peers:

But what Portman is telling us here is that on this one issue, his previous position was driven by a lack of compassion and empathy. Once he looked at the issue through his son’s eyes, he realized he was wrong. Shouldn’t that lead to some broader soul-searching? Is it just a coincidence that his son is gay, and also gay rights is the one issue on which a lack of empathy was leading him astray? That, it seems to me, would be a pretty remarkable coincidence. The great challenge for a senator isn’t to go to Washington and represent the problems of his own family. It’s to try to obtain the intellectual and moral perspective necessary to represent the problems of the people who don’t have direct access to the corridors of power.

Senators basically never have poor kids. That’s something members of Congress should think about. Especially members of Congress who know personally that realizing an issue affects their own children changes their thinking.

Sitting in for MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow on Friday night, Chris Hayes catalogued several instances of conservative reversals having turned on insights of personal empathy. His is perhaps the most powerful exhortation to the rest of us:

Empathy, especially in elected officials, is a good thing, but there is also something frustratingly blinkered and limited about this form of persuasion. If it’s going to take every anti-gay politician having a gay son for gay people to be treated like other human beings in this country, then equal rights are going to take longer to achieve than they should. That’s why THIS [referring to video footage of Harvey Milk] is still necessary in order for change to happen: things that turn those moments of personal empathy into civil rights advancements. That’s the work of activists and social movements and organizing; they build on top of the moments of personal empathy and build them into votes in city councils and state legislatures and congress. They build the sentiments of the Rob Portmans of the world into civil rights laws and protections and they build them into a new society. They build the bridge between the personal and the political.

The conceptualization of empathy as the seed-germ of political advocacy resonates powerfully for me. As I’ve written elsewhere in these pages, I uphold empathy as a core queer value. Together with authenticity and mutual care, I believe empathy is paradigmatic to queer character; the awakening of our queer empathy frequently concurs with our recognition of our own “otherness,” seems somehow connected with it, and may well depend on it.

Movie audiences may have forgotten that celebrated film director Mike Nichols (The Graduate, Catch-22, The Birdcage) began his career on the stage in tandem with the inimitable Elaine May, but in an “unprecedented joint interview” of Nichols and May (Vanity Fair, January 2013), Sam Kashner reminded readers why history will likely credit the duo as the principal originators of modern sketch comedy. Wisely, Kashner interposes very little, and the result is an interview no less entertaining than an original Nichols and May improv circa 1957, but it was the following exchange between Nichols and May that really caught my attention, because herein Nichols seems to hint at the underlying dynamics, or precursors, to the very experiential process whereby otherness produces empathy. Kashner reports that May had taken the list of prepared questions from his hand to assume the interviewer’s role:

“What have you learned, Mike?”

“I’ve learned that many of the worst things lead to the best things, that no great thing is achieved without a couple of bad, bad things on the way to them, and that the bad things that happen to you bring, in some cases, the good things. For instance, if you grow up odd and — what is it when you’re left out? You’re not an extrovert –”


“No, when you grow up—”


“Peculiar. Different,” Mike continued. “The degree to which you’re peculiar and different is the degree to which you must learn to hear people thinking. Just in self-defense you have to learn, where is their kindness? Where is their danger? Where is their generosity? If you survive, because you’ve gotten lucky – and there’s no other reason ever to survive except luck – you will find that the ability to hear people thinking is incredibly useful, especially in the theatre.”

Aside from the recognition that many of the skills and qualities useful in the theatre served as tools for queer survival throughout eras of concealment, and aside from my personal identification with the “luck” of survival, Nichols’ digression resonates with me because it suggests at least a trailhead to a path towards empathy, if not the path itself.  If I disregard Mays’ subsequent assertion that being able to hear people’s thoughts was the basis of their shared hostility towards their peers at the University of Chicago where they met, Nichols could be describing an empathetic awakening, here. Learning to “hear people thinking” precedes and prompts learning to feel people feeling, and Nichols’ statement would have been no less accurate if he had ventured, “The degree to which you’re peculiar and different is the degree to which you can’t help but learn to feel people feeling.” Whether as a rudimentary, intellectualized sympathy with the thoughts of others, or a deeper, emotional empathy with the feelings of others, this capacity of connecting consciously with others permits a deconstruction of otherness itself.

In either expression, this capacity is perhaps even more useful in politics than in the theatre, and all the more so if we would expect our politics to ever stretch beyond the merely theatrical, and, like Hayes’ bridges, reach back to the personal. That all identity politics is personal need not be the only lesson from the Portman spectacle, moreover, for the senator’s reversal also teaches that the limits of identity politics are not proscribed so much by the nature of politics as by the nature of identity; Portman’s failure to identify with the difficulties imposed by unequal marriage laws, even among other affluent white Christians like himself, until he had taken two years to absorb the truth of his son’s declaration, is not Portman’s failure alone. But for this universal limitation, intergroup contact theory, as understood by criminologists, psychologists, and sociologists, might prove predictive, and it is more than evidently not so. Like Portman, everyone is bound, each to one’s own sense of self, and only to the degree that one can expand one’s sense of self can one expect to expand the range of one’s true empathy. For myself, this exertion is the beating heart of queer practice.

Empathy was also evident on Wednesday at the Senate Armed Services Committee’s Personnel Subcommittee Hearing on Sexual Assaults in the Military, though not in the person of ranking member Lindsay Graham, whose opening remarks inappropriately and insensitively muddled the issue at hand by invoking both consensual fraternization and false accusations. Rather, one of the veterans who testified, Rebekah Havrilla, was the one who demonstrated the expansion of self-identity demanded by true empathy, in response to Graham’s rather leading question about why the chain of command might be so “hostile” to the claims of sexual assault victims (as if commanders might have a legitimate reason for it):

One of the things that I really do stress is: it is about the leadership. The hostility really isn’t necessarily even about women. The hostility is towards the feminine: the perception of being less than, the perception of being weak. Even though I was the only female in my unit, I was not the only one that was targeted for abuse. We had two other males in my unit that were targeted regularly for sexual harassment and sexual abuse that were – that went through a lot of the same stuff that I did. It was not a gender issue. It was a “we are targeting what we see as less than,” and just by me being a woman, I was automatically less than, even though I was just as good as they were. So the mindset, when you had that mentality, and then, again, you had the leadership that allows it to continue every day – I can’t tell you a single day that…didn’t go by without some type of rape joke, sex joke, sex play, simulated sex play between men; I mean, it was: we had a sexual assault and harassment training that we went through; one of our sergeants got up on a table, stripped naked, and laughed at it. I mean, that was the kind of culture that I lived in on a daily basis. So…then, when you deploy, you’re stuck with these people in very small units, in very small spaces and…why would I go to a chain of command that I knew was going to allow those things? So, it’s not even a hostility towards women in general; that’s the kind of culture some of these unit commanders allow to thrive, and when you have that type of culture, this type, these types of issues are going to continue to be perpetuated.

In her answer, Havrilla revealed that she had stepped out of her own feelings, imaginably even feelings of relief that someone else was being targeted, to recognize that the two men being harassed were suffering the same abusive experience she was. Any woman in her situation would have been forgiven for grouping all the men together, identifying with none of them, her victimizers all. Instead, Havrilla seems to have been stretching, allowing the usual boundaries of self-identity to dissolve in favor of a larger identity, one that included her implicitly less-than-masculine colleagues, perhaps also the sailor sitting beside her who was the first male victim ever to testify before congress about military sexual assault and, even, to some degree, some of the victimizers, too; Havrilla’s testimony suggests that, in their own way, the victimizers were also in the corrupt grip of an abusive culture.

Havrilla served in Afghanastan as an Army specialist in Explosive Ordinance Disposal (EOD), disarming deadly devices. That she was the only woman in her unit is unsurprising; hers was a decidedly male-dominated field, and in a blog post at Service Women’s Action Network (SWAN), Havrilla acknowledges, “I have always been willing to do things outside my gender norm…” I’ll say: soldiers who do Havrilla’s dangerous and difficult job must possess the supposedly masculine virtues in surfeit. So, did Havrilla’s experiences with her own gender non-conformity possibly contribute to her empathetic understanding?

Empathy is also what moved PFC Bradley Manning, according to his seventy minute testimony before the providence inquiry two weeks ago, to release thousands of pages of classified documents to Wikileaks: empathy for children being needlessly killed in combat engagements, empathy for journalists wrongly gunned down by US forces, empathy for legitimate political opponents of the Maliki government being imprisoned and tortured by the Iraqi Federal Police. No one was harmed by the release of the documents, and many stand to benefit should the release engender appropriate public debate and action to reform US foreign policy and military operations, and yet, for his empathy, Manning may pay with life in prison. Because he openly identifies as gay, and referred in his statement to the isolation he felt among his peers in Iraq, citing as an example his roommate’s “discomfort” with his “perceived sexual orientation,” I again wonder: did not his experience of queerness likely inform his empathy?

My mother, Janis, who taught me a thing or two about empathy.

My mother, Janis, who taught me a thing or two about empathy.

Of course, experience is not our only way to empathy. Literature and art and example have long set their powers to the arousal of our Einfühling. My mother, who grew up in segregated Little Rock, Arkansas, in the years after the Second World War, recalls how a Japanese schoolgirl’s firsthand account of atomic aftermath stirred her first feelings of empathy, an empathy that would grow into solidarity with the civil rights movement and prove itself experientially, no doubt, when she found herself “othered” for daring to teach an adult literacy class attended by black men. Whatever the pathway thereto, empathy informs our moral yearnings, guiding us towards actions that comport to the needs and feelings of others as well as ourselves, so, regardless whether our empathy depends on our experience of queerness, our experience of queerness does seem to demand our pursuit of empathy.

When the storm of empathy references finally made landfall, surging against the wind-slowing topographies of first Monday’s and then Tuesday’s news cycles like a hurricane against the shore, it had merited headlines at Huffpost (Why Was Rob Portman’s Stroke of Empathy So Shocking?), and Slate (Rob Portman’s Empathy Problem); it had kept the phones ringing at the Brian Lehrer Show on WNYC (Empathy, Politics, and Civil Rights); it had left the internet strewn with the litter of  its phrases like so much flotsam on the beach: empathy deficit, empathy gap, empathy fail. Still, whether voices rose in defense of Portman or to criticize him, all acknowledged the heart-turning, politics-changing potential of empathy, and not just incidental empathy, incidence apparently being Portman’s worst offense, but purposeful, deliberate empathy, empathy pursued and pursuing empathy, empathy as social and political practice.

Maybe Will Portman will now lead his entire family, including the senator, on precisely such a pursuit, or perhaps, as Lawrence O’Donnell mused on his broadcast Monday night, the Portman reversal is merely another instance of identity politics that is so personal as to be utterly selfish, like legislators, O’Donnell recalled, who privately sought to amend, in ways favorable to self, family, or friends, bills for which they never intended to vote, but which they expected to pass.

I must admit, one might easily construe much of my past politics to be selfish, too. To save our lives, we ever demanded more or new AIDS research/funding/drugs, but we were at our best when we demanded universal healthcare for all. To ease our deaths, at least, if not save our lives, we demanded single-patient investigational new drug (IND) protocols for marijuana, but we were at our best when we unequivocally demanded the end of the unjust “war on drugs” that was always just a war on us. To preserve our sexual freedom, we demanded the Washington, DC police stop arresting denizens of certain establishments for sodomy, but we were at our best when we demanded an end to all sodomy laws, like the one that continues to apply to military service members regardless of their sex-genders or the sex-genders of their partners.

Perhaps our most immediate, selfish purposes qualified as tactical, or even operational goals, requisite to the achievement of broader strategic goals – or not. Perhaps I’ll never gain the distance on it required to discern the difference. It was all so personal, after all.

Yet, moral uncertainty about the past must never dissuade us from seeking accord with our queer consciences in the present, employing our fabulous imaginations to stretch ourselves to encompass others, and so undo the otherness: Einfühling, all queer together, altogether queered. The resulting connections to other politically active communities, the resulting deep alliances we might form in the pursuit of an ever-widening empathy, will require no Miss America Compassion, no contact theory, no petty, personal identity politics of the utterly selfish for its maintenance or progress, and might help propel humanity from its apparent anthropocentric inertia to confront the planetary calamity we have caused, and which now threatens ever-growing numbers of non-human species.

The degree to which one is peculiar or different is the degree to which one must learn to hear what other people are thinking. The degree to which one is peculiar or different is the degree to which one must learn to feel what other people are feeling.

So, how peculiar must how many of us finally be, to save the shining polar bears that roam the Arctic Sea?