In many K-12 schools throughout the world, empathy has been prominently included in programs meant to help children learn how to be more emotionally literate, more self-aware, relate better with others, and better understand the people, literature, and historical eras they study.
So, until recently, I never imagined that empathy itself or teaching about it could be so controversial, but many GOP are doing all they can to change that. Of course, with all the trauma, stress, and illness that has plagued us over the last three to seven years, doctors, nurses, teachers, first responders, and others have been reporting increasing burn out from all the pain and suffering they’ve witnessed. But that’s different from banning it.
If empathy is a human ability to “walk in someone else’s shoes,” and experience the world as we think someone else is experiencing it, then it can definitely help us in our studies, and it can help create a more supportive culture. It can involve “feeling with another,” as the roots of the word are en meaning near, at, within and pathos meaning passion, feeling, suffering. Or sometimes it’s just an ability to read other people.
In contrast with empathy, compassion is not just a feeling but more a readiness to act to improve other’s well-being. Sometimes, it builds on empathy; sometimes, it develops from a sense of what’s right to do, or from kindness. In his book Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion, psychology professor Paul Bloom describes empathy as like a spotlight, narrowing our attention to one place or person; but we can get caught there. Compassion is broader in outlook, with less of a chance of distress. But both are crucially important in our lives.
What we’re seeing now by many GOP is a fear of empathy itself and an attempt to outlaw teaching how to strengthen empathy in ourselves and others⎼ how it can help stabilize relationships and communities. Their fear and threats are walling them away from anyone with different views. Who could’ve imagined a major political party would be opposed to strengthening human relationships? If they are so threatened by empathy, compassion must be terrifying.
Two right-wing parents in Pennsylvania are suing a school district for teaching empathy and kindness through a program called “Character Strong.” They argue the program violates their Christian beliefs, although they refuse to state which lessons violate their religion. The suit is supported by groups who aim to stop any teaching of social-emotional learning, the history of US racism, and the implementation of restorative justice policies. Maybe for them Christ’s teaching to “love thy neighbor” is also a violation of Christian beliefs. Is empathy now a sin for such Christians?
Arkansas GOP Governor Sarah Huckabee Sanders signed a law this year allowing children under 16 to be hired more easily and without first obtaining a work permit, which means they can work without parent permission and other protections. This followed the actions of the US Labor Department to fine and stop an Arkansas company from using children, as young as 13, to clean “razor sharp claws” in a meat-packing plant and to work with caustic chemicals. Sanders shamelessly defended the freedom of corporations to make a profit over the protection of children.
The New York Times reported that migrant children, who were separated from their parents and driven by economic desperation, were being forced into brutal jobs across the US. The jobs involve work that grinds them into exhaustion until they fear they’re trapped for life in awful conditions they can’t escape. The DJT administration turned a blind eye to this, and only in the last two years has the federal government taken action to stop it.
If empathy were allowed free reign, such efforts to exploit children and repeal laws that have been in place in the U. S. to protect them for over a hundred years would never be considered or permitted.
If empathy were allowed free reign, hate wouldn’t be so easily manipulated and spread. When DJT was in office, the number of known hate crimes in this country increased dramatically⎼ by 20%, and that includes only reported crimes. Counties where he held a rally suffered a 226% increase in such crimes. DJT and many GOP are still inciting hate, for political purposes, causing the hate-rate to continue to rise. Shouldn’t this be a crime?
If empathy were allowed free reign, a political party would not dare to make attacking women’s health the focal point of their political action. Or attacking Social Security, which for many Seniors is their only retirement income. Or taking away money for feeding the hungry. Due to federal funding that was part of a COVID-relief package, the poverty rate of 11.8% in 2019 fell in 2021 to 7.8% and was anticipated to continue to fall until the program ended this month. The GOP refuse to renew that legislation.
If empathy were allowed free reign, public education and the teaching of history and critical thinking would be glorified instead of attacked. Many GOP have been pushing “gag bills” to stifle teaching the history of racism, or anything about gender identity, the holocaust, or how to be sexually responsible and aware.
If empathy were allowed free reign, reading books and libraries would be fully supported, not attacked and banned. The US today would have almost no disciples of Nazi Germany and Putin’s Russia; and those who value democracy would be ubiquitous. Who would’ve thought that reading itself would be endangered?
If empathy were allowed free reign, instead of what former President Obama called an “empathy deficit,” we’d be experiencing a revolution in caring and compassion, of the strengthening of communities, healthcare, and democracy. We’d feel and speak more about the kindness that is present in our nature, and there’d be less politically manipulated division, fewer incidents of violence, injustice, and attacks on democracy. We all suffer when hate is the message.
If only empathy were allowed free reign.
This Post is republished on Medium.
Photo credit: iStock