Empathy with an Agenda
Empathy and compassion seem to be at an all-time low for republican lawmakers increasingly hell-bent on rewarding the vastly wealthy and powerful while stripping away the needs of our most vulnerable populations. However, there are always salient examples of conservative politicians deviating from the party line when those views have real-life implications on their families: Dick Cheney with LGBTQ rights, Nancy Reagan with stem-cell research, Jeb Bush with immigration, etc.
Building on this casuistry, a common liberal tactic (one I have used many times) is to try to foster conservative empathy by framing policies through the lens of personal interest:
- What if it was YOUR kid that got shot at school?
- What if YOUR family was fleeing violence to come to the U.S.?
- What if YOUR spouse didn’t have medical coverage?
- What if YOU were unfairly targeted because of race?
The extent to which this strategy is effective is anyone’s guess. In my experience, such pleas for empathy and acknowledgement of hypocrisy are usually met with, “Yes, but…” followed by an exculpatory clause for why that person’s family is different.
Stephen Miller’s uncle wrote a piece for Politico recently that works this same angle: Miller should care about immigrants because of his own family’s history with bigotry and necessary exodus to the United States. It’s a well-written piece that ends with a sobering reminder of the progression of tyranny: “Today others may be the target, but tomorrow it might just as easily be you or me.”
Reading this essay gives way to a larger philosophical question: Why must we posit a personal connection to garner conservative support for humane policy? Maybe I’m splitting hairs here, but I think our motives matter. I’m not against callous immigration tactics because my family members were once immigrants; I’m against them because immigrants are human beings. I don’t oppose policies promoting discrimination for fear that my number may be next; I oppose them because oppression of any person should never be tolerated. We should be able to replace all the “your family member” what-ifs with “literally any human being” and make equally strong cases for lawmakers and policies that put people first.
- What if (anyone) got shot at school?
- What if (another person) was fleeing violence to come to the U.S.?
- What if (a fellow human) didn’t have medical coverage?
- What if (literally anybody) was unfairly targeted because of race?
The potential benefit or harm of a policy should be assessed by how it affects other human beings, as a whole, not just when we perceive a personal tie or future risk. Our stake in the pursuit of a more tolerant, just, and equitable society extends beyond our own genetic and social circles. Recognition of our shared humanity should always be enough.