Ideology and Empathy

My relationship with my parents has been stressed. It’s not just this past campaign season and the elections, but it does have to do with politics in general. I’ve seen this coming for years (by which I mean the larger social trends beyond just my parents), even if I couldn’t predict the personal impact it would have on my parents.

Back in the Bush presidency, I began to more fully understand the trends that were shaping the future. Conservatives thought they were on top of the world. Their narrative had dominated national politics since Reagan, even finding ways to capitalize during Clinton’s presidency. They had been angry and righteous for a long time, and it made them feel powerful, almost untouchable. They knew that they were the Real Americans. They knew they were the moral majority. The problem was that their knowledge was incomplete and not perfectly correlated to certain social realities.

George W. Bush was the culmination of the entire Southern Strategy: white Texan good ol’ boy (at least in persona), born-again Evangelical who spoke in grand religious terms (of America as a Christian nation and of good vs evil), social conservative who gave up alcohol and funded abstinence-only sex education, fiscal conservative who pushed tax breaks (especially for the “job-creators”) and trickle-down economics, and on and on. But it all ended in failure. It turned out to not be all that they dreamed of. They were lost and confused, and then they were defeated.

Along came Obama. He had vision and narrative, just like they once had. He pointed out the failures of conservative rule. The anger and righteousness of conservatives was magnified a thousandfold, verging on bitterness and cynicism. Out of this, the Tea Party formed and swayed the entire Republican Party along with the entire right-wing media.

Now, conservatives like my parents claim that Bush never was a real conservative and that they never cared about him, but they sure didn’t feel that way at the time. Anyone who questioned the Great, Wise Leader (particularly in his first term) was considered un-American and possibly a terrorist or at least a terrorist sympathizer, definitely someone of questionable morality and allegiances. I find it odd that my dad in the past often reacted with sensitivity to any criticism of Bush as if it had been a personal insult, yet now doesn’t even consider Bush a conservative. If it’s fine for “real conservatives” to criticize Bush, why isn’t it fine for everyone else to do so?

I’m not blaming my parents for changing their minds. I wouldn’t like a conservative call it flip-flopping for as a liberal I highly value the ability to change one’s mind. It would just be nice for them to acknowledge how much they once praised Bush and how they didn’t at the time argue that Bush wasn’t a real conservative.

I spend a lot of time with my parents. I care about them. Even as I judge conservatives, I all too well understand there is a personal side that goes beyond mere politics. My parents feel hurt and attacked, as if people like them no longer matter. From their perspective, they’re just trying to be good people, just trying to be responsible citizens. They’ve always played by the rules. They’ve worked hard. They don’t understand how everything went so wrong. They just don’t understand and they don’t feel understood.

What I wish they understood is that everyone wants to be understood. It seems to me that they want something that they haven’t always been willing to offer to others.

Yes, my parents have worked hard. But so have many others. There are hundreds of millions of people in America and billions of people in the world who have lived more difficult lives than my parents. Most of these people have suffered and struggled for no fault of their own, just circumstances of their birth. They get less understanding than my parents have received. They get less benefit of the doubt. They get fewer opportunities and fewer second chances. My parents have never known the lowest depths of poverty, extended unemployment and welfare (or, worse, depending on welfare despite being employed, never being able to make ends meet with minimum wage), having to choose between paying the bills or feeding one’s children, a life of homelessness with few if any prospects of escaping the streets, being treated with negative prejudice by the police and courts because of their skin color, etc. Relatively speaking, my parents have lived a life of privilege (and so have I, although my generation fared worse than did theirs).

Conservatives like my parents often feel very little empathy and compassion towards those deemed different or other. It’s not that conservatives are intentionally trying to be mean-spirited. They just don’t feel it on a gut-level. It’s not a part of who they are, not part of their life experience. The undocumented immigrant seeking to escape the violence and poverty of Mexico (that Americans have helped to cause), well too bad for them, they are foreigners, not ‘us’. The poor who have known generations of poverty along with oppression and prejudice, well too bad for them, it’s their own fault, they should quit complaining and work harder. Obviously, this isn’t the response Jesus would give, but that doesn’t seem to bother many conservatives, if they ever think about it. That said, my parents are more likely to think about it than some conservatives, but I’m not sure it often causes them to deeply question their own privilege.

In the end, I want to understand conservatives, even if many conservatives are unwilling or unable to return the favor to others. The reason I want to understand is that I have that basic liberal/leftist sense of all of us being products of our circumstances. My parents didn’t choose to be the way they are and I didn’t choose to be the way I am. There is no credit to be taken or blame to be given. People are just people, doing the best they can for the situation they find themselves in. Sometimes understanding is the best thing we can offer to others.

What frustrates me the most is knowing that my parents genuinely are good people. I’m sure most conservatives, like most people, are good people. It’s not that my parents lack the ability to empathize, but it’s just not their first response when dealing with people they don’t personally know or identify with, especially when it comes to groups that have been made into political scapegoats.

Let me return to the example of undocumented migrants from Mexico.

Mexican immigrants aren’t coming here for the fun of it or even for the free goodies (e.g., welfare). They are coming out of desperation. They risk their very lives to cross the border. They could die of heat, be murdered, kidnapped, sold into slavery, or any number of horrible ends… yet they come anyways, risking everything, many of them putting their entire faith in God to protect them and their families. They are that desperate, but most conservatives still wouldn’t naturally think to first compassionately empathize or to consider how American policies contribute to their misery. The US War on Drugs has created a thriving black market. American money funds Mexican drug cartels, criminals and corrupt politicians. American guns go across the border to help fuel the endless violence (and then Americans complain when a tiny fraction of that violence spills back over). All of us Americans are part of the problem for our government is part of the problem, but it never occurs to most conservatives to accept responsibility for being a part of the problem; instead, they blame the victims who are just trying to escape the misery.

I could present all of this to my parents. If I pushed the case hard enough, I might be able to get them to give a more empathetic response. However, they wouldn’t likely come to such a response on their own, at least not about such issues as undocumented immigrants. I don’t want to twist someone’s arm just to try to get some empathy. I’d like to live in a world where most people respond with empathy as their default position, idealist that I am.

I was just now reminded of the quote conservatives like to repeat: “A conservative is a liberal who got mugged the night before.” There is some truth to it. Fear will make even liberals more conservative-minded, even if only temporarily. But the underlying worldview is questionable, that fear represents the norm of reality and mugging represents the norm of human behavior. I wouldn’t claim that the conservative response is always wrong, but it is problematic if one is stuck within a worldview of fear. When fear closes down the normal human response of empathy, that is when people act without compassion such as mugging others. A lack of empathy sadly too often leads to a lack of empathy, fear to fear, violence to violence to even more violence; a vicious cycle of crime leading to desperation and desperation leading to crime, ever escalating (as seen with the War on Drugs which has led to an increase of drug use, drug sales and drug-related incarcerations; and similar to what is seen with abstinence-only education and abortion bans which lead to an increase of teen pregnancies, unwanted pregnancies, abortions and STDs).

In considering the conservative response, I see something even more fundamental going on. It’s not just an issue of ideologically moralizing about empathy and compassion. It goes to a deeper level of how we view the world and experience reality, a level of the psyche that isn’t easily accessed by the conscious mind for our fundamental worldview is formed prior to even our sense of self being fully formed. This has to do with how one is raised or rather the environment in which one is raised. I keep coming back to the research that showed kids who grew up in multicultural environments tended to become socially liberal as adults (and vice versa for kids who grew up with monocultural environments).

That is essentially what differentiates my parents and I. A simple, yet crucial difference. More importantly, a difference that neither my parents nor I chose for ourselves, like everyone else simply a given of the social world we were born into.

This is why it’s so frustrating. After reaching adulthood, people rarely change. My parents experienced plenty of multiculturalism as adults, but they didn’t experience it during the key formative periods of youth. They can’t fundamentally understand what it means to be raised in a multicultural world, just as I can’t fundamentally understand what it means to be raised in a monocultural world. Morality and ideology fails us in this conundrum.

I can’t say my parents are objectively wrong for putting their principles before empathy. All I can do is argue that principles not based on and instead contrary to empathy aren’t worthy principles… but that is an opinion that is only persuasive to those who already agree with me.

Is there a way to frame the discussion so that conservatives would understand the central value of compassionate empathy? I know my parents would like to be empathetically understood by others. Such a desire is a potential beginning point for developing an ability and willingness to offer this to others. But why does the plea for mutual understanding almost always end up being characterized as a liberal agenda? Doesn’t mutual understanding benefit all, conservatives included? Is there a reason conservatives don’t want mutual understanding? Do they think some people don’t deserve it because they didn’t morally earn it? Do they see understanding offered freely as a moral danger, both to the person receiving and the person giving?

As always, I wish I understood.