Lea Lane

Lea Lane
Florida, USA
August 26
author, Travel Tales I Couldn't Put in the Guidebooks, available at Amazon.com and on Kindle
“I’ve discovered the secret of life,” Kay Thompson, the eccentric entertainer and “Eloise” author, once said. “A lot of hard work, a lot of sense of humor, a lot of joy and a lot of tra-la-la!” And that's been my life: As a travel writer for over 30 years, I've been around the block (more like around the world), and I write true stories about interesting people and places. (Check out my travel site, Travels With Lea.) I've lived an unconventional life in conventional trappings. Been a corporate VP, worked with foster kids, acted in an Indie ("Nurse 1"), was on Jeopardy!. I've been managing editor of a travel publication, written for the Times, and authored books. OS is my home, but I also blog on The Huffington Post, and I've contributed (mostly anonymously) to everything from encyclopedias to guidebooks. Married young, divorced late; married late, widowed early, I dated lots in-between -- and survived a scary illness. After being happily, peacefully solo for many years, I'm now happily married again. I founded and still edit www.sololady.com, a lifestyle Website for single women. I'm truly grateful for each precious day, each well-earned wrinkle, my family, my cat. Truth, laughter, friendship, late love. And this blog -- on this wonderful site!

Lea Lane's Links

MAY 6, 2009 2:39PM

Since When is Empathy a Pejorative?

Rate: 64 Flag

xsmall-feeding the homeless

"I told you once that I was searching for the nature of evil. I think I've come close to defining it: a lack of empathy. It's the one characteristic that connects all the defendants. A genuine incapacity to feel with their fellow man. Evil, I think, is the absence of empathy." -- Gustav M. Gilbert, German-speaking American prison psychologist at Spandau prison in Berlin, where Nazi war crimes defendants were held, 1945

OK. Let me get this straight. “Torture” is good. And “empathy” is bad. Soon after Obama mentioned empathy as a general criterion for a Supreme Court nominee, many Republicans are trying to make it a pejorative. Mortimer Hayden Smyth did a video piece on what the word means yesterday.  And Dorinda Fox, someone with loads of empathy, encouraged me to write this.

What is empathy? The dictionary has many definitions, but Bill Clinton may have said it best: “I feel your pain.” It’s not just Do Unto Others, as You Would Have Them Do Unto You. It’s feeling others’ joys and sorrows and well-being as you would feel them yourself.

As with most things, you can overdo it. Then you’re a bleeding heart. I had a girlfriend  whose bellman-father tipped 30 percent or more, and had trouble paying the rent. That was something beyond empathy.

You know if you’re empathic or not. Here are some examples I’ve come up with. Feel free to add others.

You have empathy when you

… go to the back to pass a buck to the busboy.

... support gay marriage, even if you're not gay.

... defend someone whom others bully.

… give up your preferred seat on a long flight to let a couple sit together.

… argue against intolerance/injustice even when all others around you disagree.

… step around the man sprawled on  the front step of the office building, and think “There but for the grace of God,” not  “stupid drunk.”

… get up from American Idol and get  the leash when your dog looks urgently in your eyes, not after the show is over.

… yawn when someone else does (scientific theory as written in the  NY Times –yawn and check your friends to see who does and doesn’t).

… feel the sadness of a poignant movie longer than it takes to get out of your seat in the theater.

… ask the new person  to sit next to you.

… listen for long as it takes to a friend’s woes, even though you’d rather be sleeping.

… volunteer to feed the homeless, not just on Thanksgiving.

… invite someone who lives alone to join you for dinner.

… visit your mom’s friend, at a nursing home.

… feel the scrape when your child has a boo-boo.

… give to charity, even when money is tight, and it’s not much.

… swerve to avoid an ant  on the sidewalk; swoosh a fly out the window.

… even avert your eyes at a lobster tank (ok, that might be a bit much, but I do).

… cringe when you see a person getting a paper cut.

… accept a Halfway House in your neighborhood.

… fight racism or bigotry at every chance.

You have empathy when you care about the world, and the dignity and worth of every living creature. Sorry Republicans who are balking at this,  since when is empathy an effing pejorative?


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I'm sure you guys have specific examples. I just don't get why anybody would think empathy is a bad thing.
Empathy = Ability to put your self in that person's place, and understand what their experience is.

Good post.
Well written Lea. I would add these:
you have empathy when,
even without all the facts, your heart says "open up" and give that other person a chance.
you have to change the channel or turn off the TV when you see a story about child or animal abuse.
regardless of how difficult your day is or times are, you can take the time to listen to someone else's troubles and not focus solely on your own.
I could go on and on.....
What OEsheepdog said, except with the following addition/edit at the end of the sentence, "without ever having experienced it yourself."

That last qualifier is the difference between a real empathizer (or liberal, I say) and someone that can only be "pro" something when it benefits them (or a conservative, I say).

Good post.

I think by very definition, to be a "conservative" is to "conserve" empathy. The dittoheads I know would see pretty much each and every one of your examples as something to sneer and jeer at--something only "stupid lib dems" would do.

Republicans are the party of pure, unselfconscious, celebratory selfishness.
i have "empathy" for you writing this blog. thank you.
Empathy isn't just the ability to understand a situation from a position other than your own, but the gift of feeling it as well. And yes, I believe that having empathy is a gift, not a burden or failing.
You're right. It is sad that so many people see empathy as a weakness when it is anything but. Great post!
Empathy== making time to understand the need and wants of others. rated!
My current posting of political humor about empathy and your posting here may indicate a trend. Wouldn't it be great if public discussion opens up on this key topic?
Good post, Lea. I don't want to get all feminine and touchy-feely here (ick!), but it seems you've done a fair amount of thinking about empathy.

I've often thought one small sign of empathy was as simple as a person listening one minute longer to someone describing their experience - and thinking about it - before you jump in with your own story about yourself. I catch myself breaking that rule sometimes.
The Republicans once again put themselves in opposition not only to ordinary people, but to *normal* people. This is hardly surprising, given that our last president is a man (sic) who is barely able to even feign empathy, let alone experience it.

Empathy is the reason I can't watch Saw, Saw II, Saw XIV etc...
I so agree with all here. To have empathy is a blessing. It's what helps us love our fellow man. It's caring. The repubs just think they are blessed. But where's the love of others? Of course, we could debate this for years to come. How many selfish people do we know that are empathetic? ZERO!
Nice to see you empathic folks here. Funny, none of us seems to have a problem with the term.

Just a few comments:

sheep, thanks for the definition.

cartouche, thanks for the additions. Animals do it every time.

ldm, thanks for the empathy.

Reader not writer, yes it's a gift. See also what I wrote to Verbal. And we need you readers, btw.

mary, notice I mentioned American Idol. It would take lots of empathy from me to get up while Adam was singing.

neilpaul, I hope it harms the Republicans, I guess. But that's not empathic, just honest. They need to shape up because we need two parties.

yes, denese, it is hard for some to have empathy for disadvantaged people in other countries, for example, when they can for people here. I don't get that. That's the point you're making.

Conversely, some folks have more empathy for animals than people. Not judging: just wonder what that is.

Verbal, I've often thought that the empathy section of the brain is definitely smaller in Republicans. I cannot speak to other parts.

Hawley, your post is terrific. We are twins.

Man Talk Now, that is such a basic form of empathy and a hard one to do. Listening and caring is a gift to to both.

GeeBee of the scary eye, I know, I avert my eyes too when I see those bloody scenes.

Dorinda, you started it. You're welcome.
Lea, the eye is actually supposed to be more scary. It's an animated gif, and it's supposed to blink occasionally! Perhaps it does on other browsers? Anyone seen that?

I wasn't setting out to be scary; it was just the only small square mildly amusing picture I had laying around on my computer's hard drive.
To be fair (and I am a certifiable liberal), I don't know if "they" actually lack empathy, or if they are simply too caught up in their own rhetoric to do as ManTalkNow suggests, and take minute to consider what they're hearing/seeing. Scared people often go to the rhetoric as if it will save them. I think we scare them. When I'm pissed off, I'm really glad that we scare them, and want to go out of my way to do so. When I'm less pissed, and in my center, I try to find empathy for them - or at least pity - which ain't always easy, let me tell you!
GeeBee, you're being empathic! I actually think it's quite a nice eye, even though it doesn't blink for me.

And Mr. Mustard, I seemed to have skipped over you. I will be my empathic self and say that I like your definition.
Owl, yes they're scared. But many of these folks don't have empathy even when they're not scared. Just something missing either by nature or nurture or both, I think.
It is easier for many to mock those in pain or suffering from cruel injustice than it is to admit that some day that could be them.
For the life of me I'll never understand that group. They are supposed to be Christians and yet it seems that EVERYTHING you hear from them is anything but Christian like. It makes my head hurt when I see all the selfish, greedy, bigoted, racist remarks and ideas they display over and over again.
The ability of their politicians to stand and fight against anything that might help anyone less fortunate than they are is beyond my comprehension. Makes me wonder just what Bible they've been reading.
Wonder what percentage of the Wall Street crowd consider themselves Republican even though it's not cool to admit it in the present atmosphere.
I one is afraid of people in power caring, then one should really reevaluate the road he/she is on. I'm sure they wouldn't look down on empathy we have for our returning veterans. It's not empathy they're against...it's empathy toward certain "kinds" of people.
Actually, Lea I'm thinking of conservative types that rage against universal health care (UHC) until some catastrophe happens, like they lose their jobs and get cancer or fall off of a horse. Then, Oh NO, they are on Capitol Hill protesting the great unfairness of the current health care situation.

You know, even though *now* they might be on board for a policy that I totally support (e.g. UHC) I just don't trust those people. They creep me out.

Too strong?

Rousseau believed that sympathy (and by extension, empathy) is a natural emotion, whereas love is not. It is remarkable that so natural a sentiment can be extirpated from the constitution of so many.
fabflamingo (sorry for skipping), yes it's a form of selfishness.

emma, yes maybe its fear, keeping the wolf at bay. But whatever it is, it is a scary thing that people can feel comfortable arguing against it.

Michael, good point. Anti-Christian by Christians.

noahvose, empathy has to be for all or it is something else.

denese, no, not too strong at all.

Steve, Rousseau may just be wrong. He never met Rush Limbaugh.
Returning to your title question: empathy may have turned pejorative after Republicans began caviling about Jimmy Carter's advocacy of "compassion" as a feature of American policy. (What that crowd wouldn't give now for a fraction of Carter's public approval rating.)

As for when the lack of empathy became a defining characteristic of Republicans: when they decided to subvert Lincoln's vision.

Lack of empathy degrades rapidly and spreads fast, too:

I told you once that I was searching for the nature of evil. I think I've come close to defining it: a lack of empathy. It's the one characteristic that connects all the defendants. A genuine incapacity to feel with their fellow man. Evil, I think, is the absence of empathy.

- Gustav M. Gilbert, German-speaking American prison psychologist at Spandau prison in Berlin, where Nazi war crimes defendants were held, 1945
Lea, good post and I love your examples.

As a counselor, when I was being educated in the subject a careful distinction was made between empathy and sympathy that I have found useful over the years as both a counselor and a pastor.

I am not saying it is a "correct" distinction for everybody in their ordinary lives, but I am saying that in the counseling professions it is a distinction that is helpful. And empathy is considered vital to the counselor whereas sympathy is not.

In that context empathy is the ability to understand and feel the problem of the client while still maintaining a certain distance and objectivity so that you can not be sucked into the emotions of the client and become trapped by them as well.

Sympathy is not only understanding and feeling the pain of the client but absorbing that pain as your own to where you find yourself trapped with the client in the hate, anger or depression, etc. of the client.

When you get to the latter point you have little to offer to the client and can only confirm that what they feel is OK, when clearly it is not or they would not be sitting there talking to you.

As a pastor there were times when I was one or the other depending on the person and the issue. I certainly felt sympathetic when sharing the pain with the family as we awaited the death of their loved one who I had also known and loved.

On the other hand when someone came screaming into my office telling me that his wife was a dirty slut who ran around on him in plain sight of their friends that was not the time to be sympathetic. So while I could feel his pain, a bit of objectivity was in order and empathy the better path, lest we end the meeting plotting together how to shoot the wife and get away with it.

So empathy was important to bring that person back down to earth and be able to discuss quietly what the problem was that was eating away at his insides.

Empathy is feeling bad for the Republicans or Democrats who do not fall under the broad brushes used to sweepingly paint them.
Yeah, I pass the test!

BTW I was as shocked at the "compassionate Conservative" response to empathy as I was to James Dobson declaring Tolerance was a bad thing.
Empathy=When you recognize the person next to you and the person after that, and so on and so on, is a human being, just like you, confused, worried, happy, sad, angry, and everything else under the sun and you feel compassion and connection because of that.

Empathy in Action=When you apply that knowledge of realization, and compassion and connection, into action, by taking the time to connect with that person in some way or communicate your connection or even act to LEGISLATE that connection via any number of laws the move to protect as many as possible in an utterly imperfect world.
Oh, and empathy in my experience isn't something easy but something hard. People often act against their own empathetic urges if confronted by a choice between what is caring and giving and what benefits them best. (that is, if those things conflict)
Phaedo, thank you for those other terms.

Extragent, I appreciate your extradition and used the quote in my post.

Monte, many thanks for the wonderful comment. I found it fascinating, but I doubt the folks putting down empathy care about either.

Marple, Say it again!

Yes, ocularnervosa, tolerance is bad, torture is ok. Help! Rovian-think.

odette, anti-empathy: balking at a liberal-minded Supreme Court judge.
Excellent post. I was impressed with the supporting of gay marriage and the don't eat meat and I also avert the lobster tank, oh, sometimes I just stand there looking at them wondering how we can be so cruel.
Hippy Mike
I would much rather feel another's pain than to
be cut off from feeling anything. I agree with Emma,
it's all about fear.
The ability to feel empathy should be a requirement for any and all positions of power in this country, or for that matter in all countries. People who are unable to feel empathy are sociopaths and cannot be healed. It is extremely disturbing that this is not obvious to all. And this should be a requirement especially for a Supreme Court Justice. How can a person be a good judge if they cannot feel empathy? They can't.
Have you noticed that President Obama always says "God Bless the United States of America?" That's empathy for Canada, Mexico, South America, and Central America. Or that he says "Pakistan" with a "ah" sound instead of the sound in "cat," because that's the way Pakistanis pronounce their own country? That's empathy too. And simple human kindness towards those that are different from himself.
I agree with you and most of the comments here (esp. Neilpaul). However, I never considered that eating meat=lack of empathy, and I also have not found it to be the case that all vegetarians are such b/c they *have* empathy.
BuffyW makes a very good point. I think when most of us say "republican" we really don't mean it as an umbrella. I have neighbors that are Republicans (at least they vote that way) and they are some of the kindest folks I've ever met. Heck, I'm registered independent, but I lean the Dem way, otherwise who could I vote for?
micalpeace, those poor lobsters. We treat the animals we eat with such little dignity.

dakinidancer, fear is one of those things that drives so many of our actions and feelings without us always knowing it.

kathryn, I so agree. It will be an interesting process and we will see if empathy comes up.
Voicegal, I never thought about that. So interesting.

sandra, I don't think you have a lack of empathy if you eat meat. I eat meat, but I have empathy for the animals. And yes, some are vegans for other reasons.

Michael, agreed. I modified my statement a bit.
Well, at least now we know what the Republicans stand for (this should have come as no surprise, but apparently it has to the 60 million or so who voted twice for bush)
Lea: This was in today's HuffPo. Obviously others think like you, too.


To me, empathy is a no brainer. But......

nice post. rated
"… get up from American Idol and get the leash when your dog looks urgently in your eyes, not after the show is over."

We wait until after Adam's performance is over! Does that count for empathy?

Lea: this needed saying and you say it with the right kind of common sense and urgency. Your personal Voice suits this, too. You plead, but with feet planted firmly, for mutual recognition, for the effort of the will that is sharing our humanity

But then you prove it, you take it to Very Good Place, with your examples. Such lovely things, and a few that made me feel it deeply. The bus boy. The halfway house. And one that is especially good to me: walking the dog when we really, really don't want to. Even when we know shitzus feel gratitude for approximately 800 milliseconds.

I add these:

Not letting a friend be a sad sack.

Respecting the oddities and unfriendlinesses of a loved one with cancer.

Giving up opportunity and youth to Do Right.

Giving the gift of normal attention, regular eye contact, to someone who doesn't get it often enough, or feels they don't deserve it. Who never expects it. The old. The homeless. The mentally ill.

Letting someone win, in a fight for status or comeuppance or authority. Someone with more garbage than you, farther to go. And then really letting them still win, instead of letting them know you let them win.

Apologizing to someone online, for a cruel turn of phrase or challenging insult, even when -- especially when -- your larger point or position is Right and True. Sacrificing an intellectual "counting coup" for the better thing, lovingkindness in the world.

Crouching to talk to a child.
"step around the man sprawled on the front step of the office building, and think “There but for the grace of God,” not “stupid drunk.”"
Sorry, but this just made me not want to read the rest of your selfish examples of empathy.
First of all...what a stereotype! I dare you to find someone who has had to step around somebody sprawled on the steps of their office building. It's ludicrous! And empathy would be - what has caused you to be sprawled on these steps? Are you sick? Do you need help?

NOT step around the man.

And some of your other suggestions reek of privilege - accept a halfway house? Good to know you approve.
I'm sorry to go off on you, but empathy is not the same as "understanding the suffering of others".
Or trying to understand - whatever.
I'm so sad to lash out at you this way, but I think you are so condescending in your list.
Taking yourself ot of the circumstance helps with empathy. It's not how YOU feel about it.
I think you are wonderful Lea - I hope this is not too harsh.
@aim - If you live in huge cities where you regualrly encounter the "the man sprawled on the front step of the office building" you've already asked the question of "How did you get here" 1000 times and there are 1000 different answers. I understand Lea's empatathic response. I think you've been a little too knee-jerk here although I understand how and why. Plus, I know Lea so it was easy for me not to misunderstand her!

Anyway, I came to add my empathic responses.
To think conservatives have less empathy than liberals is actually a clear demonstration that you are lacking empathy.
giving someone a Big Hug.
And respectfully kellylark - I was not talking to you.
You don't know anything about me - so back off with your big city know how!
I find it really hard to believe that you are tripping over the homeless!
I am convinced that some among us – serial killers, suicide bombers, corporate bad-doers – are empathy-challenged. Whether they feel empathy and ignore it, or lack that basic human emotion is up for debate; the result for their victims is the same.

Empathy is precisely what most literature and writers (and OS, I believe) attempt to do: expose others to worlds we might not otherwise see and understand, create knowledge of the human experience outside our own selves, and urge us to make the world a better place.

I don’t get how this is a bad thing.
An excellent post on a great topic with superb discussion.

I believe I have empathy because my heart hurts all the time. I am happier than I have ever been personally, but I ache and my heart breaks over the stories I read here; hear on the news; see in person.

I do think that part of empathy is "Do unto others ..." in the respect that empathy might be as simple as treating everyone you meet with respect and dignity, and giving them your real self.

Lea, I always believed busboys were compensated from service staff tips. It's been many years since I worked food service, but we used to tip a percentage to all the service staff. Have I been wrong all these years? Busboys often provide better service than the wait staff! Now, I do make sure the person who shampoos me and massages my head gets her own tip ;-)
Tom, I guess I'm disappointed that other Republicans haven't challenged the comments about empathy that were made by the spokespeople. I don't thin all Republicans lack empathy. But where are the posts like these from Republicans who dissent on the idea of empathic as bad.

Lisa, I'm not surprised that other liberals write about this. Would like to see conservatives take the same stand.

Travis, yes I'd say unless the dog was running in circles, you were empathic. ;)

stellaa, "not in my neighborhood" seems to be the standard limosine liberal response. Accepting this would show true empathy.

luluand phoebe, I assume they know the definition.

greg, thank you. Beautiful examples of empathy.

aim, thanks for your opinion. I have lived in NYC area many years and have heard people say both things about people in the street. Just my observation on empathy.

kelly, thanks for the support.

phm, I have watched Fox news, and have conservative friends, and throughout my life have wondered at the seeming lack of empathy for the little guy. Show me where I'm wrong, generally speaking. I'm sure there are many exceptions. But not in Congress right now.
i called the paramedics when our elderly neighbor fell in his yard.

and when they got there i left, because he hates me. he called the cops on me a week ago (after the fall, after i dug up plants to give him...). he has dementia, and his family has now decided that we have to leave this house we rent to accommodate him. i grant that that's a hard position to be in, but i wish they would have been honest with us about their circumstances. i don't blame a crazy person for being crazy, but it boggles my mind that his family literally seems not to care, and in fact led us to believe that they were trying to address this problem fairly.

empathy is swiftly becoming a liability in our society. i would love to take them to court, but still, i know what they are dealing with, and i would hate to cause anyone excess grief. and most painfully, i think they're counting on this. i'm not trying to prompt an empathic response ;)... i'm just glad to see this discussion.
Lea... Congratulations on both a stirring and a successful post. I don't measure the success by the numbr of comments or ratings (although damn girl)... but I measure it by it's ability to prompt readers to examine their own feelings about a topic. Even if they thought they were already clear about it.
For me empathy was the driving force behind a holiday practice that I followed with some close friends before moving from NYC. We would make massive quantities of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and spend a few evenings handing them out to homeless people and families in the lower Bronx and Manahattan. It was just too easy to envision ourselves in similar straights given a series of unforseen circumstances. Afterward (and during) we always felt fabulous. Nothing that could make you feel that good about yourself... could be a bad thing. Thanks Lea.
Peter, that's a nice way to show affection, and given to the right person can indeed be empathic. Or, just affectionate. But in any case, positive!

maria, lack of empathy is one of the markers of a sociopath. (I'm NOT saying all Repubs are sociopaths.)

aim, kelly is just being kind and supportive. And I am only repeating two different responses I have heard. I am not trying to judge anyone.

kelly, you do come across as empathic, in person. I often pass something to a busboy because I feel they are invisible and probably get stiffed.
Hmm. So empathy is only in the direction of "the little guy?"

I rest my case.
bstrangely, your behavior is a perfect example of empathy. You earn our respect. Exceptional.

Harp, pbjs are a humble, beautiful offering. Kudos to you as well. These stories make us all feel better.
no, I'm all for empathy for all. I just see it for haves more than have nots on Fox. Happy to change my mind with enough examples. But I won't argue this. We just see it differently, and that's what makes for a good argument.
Conservatives have unwittingly marginalized themselves.

I like what you wrote here.
Why would anyone think empathy is a bad thing, indeed. Why have conservatives gone nuts? Even W. talked about "compassionate conservativism," fergawsake. I mean not that he lived it, but the word "compassionate" wasn't a dirty word back then. But oh that's right, we are in Bizarro world now, where Obama is a fascist and other insane inversions of reality occur daily on Fox News and in other conservative circles. I can't keep up - my head is spinning. I know they're scared to death, esp after riding high for 8 years, but honestly, I'm having trouble having empathy for them.
Good list. I also think empathy is a sign of intelligence and the ability to put yourself in another's position to imagine what it is like for them.
Lea, you said:

"yes, denese, it is hard for some to have empathy for disadvantaged people in other countries, for example, when they can for people here. I don't get that. That's the point you're making."

Just for the record, I don't like those people either.

As you can tell, I have a very small circle of friends! :-)

Why isn't this an EP? This piece is absolutely exquisite.
I double checkecked to be sure....Not even front page.
What's up with this?
Very good post. Without empathy, community cannot exist. But, in my opinion, empathy is more than just a feeling. It is a philosophy. Sometimes you DON'T feel for that person, in fact sometimes you might even be angry with them, and yet if you are empathic, you will treat the other with respect and compassion.
Rich, I agree with you.

Silk, yes the words they toss around are pretty remarkably surreal.

Ron, thank you for that. I take whatever comes, but as you can see, this is a great discussion.

Faith, interesting nuance. Did you read Monte's comment?
Tell someone to keep writing when they get discouraged.
Empathy is when, at a certain point, you need to face the fact that you have not always been empathic, at all time, because we are only human. But you need to confront the blow of conciousness and feel it deep down. Many people can´t stand that kind of blow, it would destroy their precarious self-esteem, and that´s why they prefer to underrate empathy. At least that´s my opinion.... Rated for making me think hard at the end of the day!.
Empathy: when you don't know the 5 w's, 1 h, but you know, so you give, or yield, or touch-if possible. Rated and appreciated
people who say that empathy is a bad thing are desperate people clutching at straws to defame someone whom they don't understand. that's all i can come up with. but if your whole political philosophy is built on money and protecting your money and your friends' money so you can have influence and not caring at all about those who are struggling? well, shit, why is this a surprise at all? i'm sure a giant field day was had with Clinton's "i feel your pain" but i can't remember the time before the sex scandal.

this is so accurate. i see tiny examples of this principle all over the place, because of my service dogs. i always explain that they aer working dogs and what they do. some people's immediate response is to say, i wish i could bring my dog everywhere with me me me... while the empathy people say, wow, that's wonderful. you're all so lucky. they immediately see the miracle of my pups and what they do for me and the good life that i give them. this is a tiny example, of course. and most people fall in the middle, rushing up to pet the girls and not listenig to the service dog spiel. it's just kind of fascinating.

these are stupid examples i just realized. sorry. i'm just tired of talking about my sociopathic ex-con mother. :) love lvoe love and gratitude for a great and thought-provoking post.
I'm more of a "walk the talk" kind of person, and stuff like thinking "there but for the grace of god" when you see a drunk is not empathetic. It's soul food and makes you feel good about yourself but doesn't accomplish squat. The true empathisers would actually think that thought AND help him on his way home or a shelter, if not more.

The irony is that deriding Republicans for their lack of empathy in itself represents a lack of empathy, no?
"Empathy," in the GOP's view of incipient SCOTUS nominee context is simply a code word for "judicial activist." IIRC, Orrin Hatch just said that.
Jimmy, aw, I hear you.

Marcela, no one is always empathic or always sociopathic, I would think. But we can try our best.

scupper, beautifully put. Something intangible, but there.

theo, yes, you must hear it every day with the dogs and people's responses.

Rajesh, good point, made before. But I didn't say I had empathy all the time. Just that it has been made into a pejorative.
I love this post, thank you for writing it. I'm pleased to report that I've done many items on your list, except for the 'American Idol' thing - I never watch that show... but then again, I guess I could apply that particular situation with L O S T....


Thanks again. :-)
Lea, I'm just playing devil's advocate - no way empathy is a pejorative and the more such stances the Republicans take, the happier it makes me. Americans are in general empathetic, kind and helpful to those in need, and I can't get enough of Republicans being completely out of touch. Dylan Thomas asked us to rage against the dying of the night, and that is exactly what the GOP is doing.
I meant light, not night

I would have expected nothing less from such a wonderfully person. You're a real treaue to OS and once again, I've enjoyed your post.

Bob Conner

RATED for the empathy of others
...pretend to listen to the missionaries at your front door.
Empathy is that human quality that allows us to recognize that humans all have the same feelings (and animals, too). It's pretty much the basis for doing anything that is not for personal gain or advantage. I think it's an instinct that often gets thwarted. I've seen very small children show empathy.

Sometimes I have too much empathy...when I feel like I'm missing a layer of skin when taking in suffering around me. Incidentally, my being vegetarian is *all* about empathy.

All that said, I think it's important to occasionally turn down the empathy and sympathy toward those who do particularly heinous things. There are those who cause damage to others who don't deserve understanding. ...I'm not suggesting cruelty or torture, just not feeling very sorry for the bad guys.
Hopefully the conservatives mocking of empathy will backfire on them, but it probably won't.
Empathetic: Code word for a human being.
I'm with you on empathy. I tried to get my friend's father to see that the Iraq people have suffered much at our hands, for no good reason, and that torture really isn't a good idea. Otherwise he seemed like an intelligent guy. Unfortunately he watches Fox.
I'm having trouble eating beef after seeing what all stock yards do, and I always avert my eyes at lobster tanks.
Bobby, devigrrl, Rajesh, Bob, Pablo and Carol, thanks for coming by in this discussion. Many of the comments are amazing -- so many ways to see empathy, and now you added being patient with missionaries (not hanging up on telemarketers), and the people of Iraq!
NeilPaul writes: "Coming out against empathy is another bad sign for the Republicans.

I have been thinking the very same thing. The Republican outcry against empathy is a knee-jerk reaction from a group of people that have revealed themselves to be at their core merely "haters" and obstructionists. Empathy seems to be a concept that is anathema to their practice of "Christian" morals.

For example, their contemptuous and perpetual spinning of fear of higher taxes into hateful diatribes against "spreading the wealth" is a perfect reflection of their lack of empathy. More for me, less for you has been their mantra forever, but it is getting old and tiresome. I am all for leveling the playing field to some more fair degree. It will take a massive dose of public empathy to get past the urge not to share with the masses the abundance available in the US for its own citizens.

These days, it is hard to be a Republican, unless you are content to be equated with either elitism or labeled a "hater". The people that cling to the dark side of Republicanism as spouted forth by Rush Limbaugh and Fox News would likely prefer to do just about anything to combat an impulse toward empathy...

I was appalled but enlightened further by the right-wing media's reaction to the President's use of the word. Developing an ability to empathize is the best tool possible to combat the negativity espoused by too many on the right professing to be Christians. I was thrilled the President chose to use that word, as Joe Q Public needs be reminded of the importance of walking a mile in another man's shoes so that they may choose to employ empathy with diligence...Great post, Lea.
lalucas, great and thoughtful comment. Thank you.
There are two separate parts to this, personal empathy and political empathy. At the personal level, most people are capable of empathy, whether they recognize and choose to use it or not. Only true sociopaths lack empathy.

Politically, the Republican Party has its labels: Conservative, Anti-Big Government, Anti-Spending, Anti-Tax Cuts for the Rich, Anti-Health Care Reform, Anti-Election Reform, Anti-Unlimited Civil Liberties, Pro State's Rights, Pro Morality, Pro Wealth. All demonstrate that they are Anti-Most People and empathetic just to People Like Them.

Politically, the Democratic Party has been labeled the Party of the People. Liberal, Pro Union, Pro Election Reform, Pro Choice, Pro Privacy, Pro Full Civil Rights, Pro Tax Cuts & Incentives (for Education, e.g.), Pro Welfare Reform, Pro Health Care, Pro Social Security Overhaul, Anti-Lobbyist, Anti-War, Anti-Torture. Ah, a pattern. We are Pro Humanity. Yes, we're Anti-Crooks, Liars and Evil-Doers. Still, empathy for all, even those we despise we at least understand.

Finally, we understood them enough to get rid of them. That's not weak. That's damn smart.
Our macho male-dominated culture thinks empathy, compassion and understanding to be the traits of "weak" people. We are so un-evolved! We sure do have a long ways to go, eh?
Great comment, as usual Sally. I have learned so much from posting this.
Poet, I haven't heard that many men diss empathy. But then I don't hang out with the far right. I would guess that the Joe the Plumbers, who bandy about words like "queer" would be more prone to that.
This was great. But I have to say that even some Democrats lack the understanding or experience of feeling empathy especially when it comes to the issue of torture. Good post! Thank you for it.
I agree Jill. Empathy comes to anyone, Dem or Repub -- or not. Just depends.
I have known conservatives who care about the welfare of others and do something about that. I have known liberals of whom you could say "they love mankind, its people they cant stand."
But finally, the statement you can clearly make about empathy is that it is the one human drive, without which we stand absolutely zero chance of surviving.
BTW - it should be noted how the President used the term in full context. If you listen to it or read it, what he was saying regarding judicial temperment would be hard to argue with from any side.

Amazing what the Republican congressional types will do when they parse language. Is there really a secret code they are extending to their own or have they just finally gone round the bend? I honestly dont know anymore.
Tim, I think they went around the bend.
Empathy = spending.

Spending = giving away that hard earned work that Republicans did to earn what is being given away.

Empathy is not bad. Empathy spent on the unworthy is bad. Empathy is a precious commodity to be shared only with the worthy. Of course, it's hard to tell who's worthy without getting to know them. Getting to know them means giving them time, which is valuable. Knowing you wanted to give them time means you're giving them empathy. So you can't get to know them. Which means your judgment about whether they are worthy is inherently superficial and based on easy-to-spot-at-a-distance earmarks.

Why do you think flag lapel pins are so important?

I hope this has cleared things up for you.
Actually Kent, it makes more sense than most other explanations I could come up with!
Justice is supposed to be blind. Rich, poor, black, white. Doesn't matter. The law matters.

Empathy is all fine and honorable. Just not in a court of law.
Empathy - to envision your self walking in a man or woman's own shoes.

Torture - Is to place a man or woman in a situation you would never want to find yourself.

The Golden Rule: "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you."

Which of the above words is synonymous and which one is diametrically opposed?

Hypocrisy - 1. The practice of professing beliefs, feelings, or virtues that one does not hold or possess; falseness.
2. An act or instance of such falseness.
I've long been convinced that there is a genetic factor that predisposes people to being either liberal or conservative, and this inherent trait of empathy has always been a part of that; people lacking that trait naturally tend toward conservatism.

Km and Steve, thanks.

Blackflon, empathy means that a poor black man will get as fair a deal as a rich, white powerful one. That is how I see it.

Thanks, Greg. I know you have a passion for justice and despise injustice.

jane, yes MHS was ironic and funny on a tough topic.

Rick, I feel exactly the same way. It's a brain thing.
Blackflon, empathy means that a poor black man will get as fair a deal as a rich, white powerful one. That is how I see it.

Lea Lane
May 09, 2009 10:36 AM

I could not agree with you more but a courtroom is not the place for this to happen. The law is the law. That is why the costitution says "equal treatment under the law". It does say "equal treatment with empathy".

Sometimes it doesn't always work out that way for Blacks, Hispanics, Asians, Chinese and even some Whites.
I don't understand your argument. "The law is the law" has nothing to do with judges who are bigoted. Just don't seek a bigoted judge. Seek a non-bigoted (empathic) one who can see beyond prejudices that make the law better for some than others.
Lea, Great Post -

On one hand you have those who are frightened into an all-or-nothing us vs. them scenario, in which there is no middle ground - this tribal feeilng generates a sense (not necessarily true) of increased safety. The sense that if not everyone, at least 'our little group' will survive. This is the very heart of everything neo-con; it's not hard work, capitalism, military preparedness - it's us annihliating them. It's the kind of thinking so popular during the Bush adminstration and isn't far off from Dr. Stangelove. Fear is the key. I suspect most of us would sacrifice our principles if we could be bamboozled into thinking the survival of the race depended upon it. As for conservatives in general, many I've met are 100% better than their professed policies as individuals.

However, for those who don't see the preservation of Rush Limbaugh as the ultimate achievement of civilization:
Empathy is that Quintessential moment, when you realize that despite our illusions of control and separateness, we are all in it together, and to diminish one is to diminish all.

The Quality of Mercy is not strained.
One recognizes one's own weakness and decides not to exact the highest penalty. Yes, there is a potential cost to it, but the cost of intolerance is to lose our souls as people of faith and the "better angels of our nature" which our founders and preservers had pledged, their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honors to bring about.
DC9, thank you so much for the extremely thoughtful comment.

Really? . . . and EVEN some whites.

Must have been a bad day for them.
Thanks, Dorinda. Fitting for you to have a last word.
Lea Lane,

Dorinda (May12, 2009) does not have the last word.

The FOX News demeaning of President Obama's use of the term empathy has been rankling in my mind ever since the speech you cited. I was prepared to post a treatise that would defend, if not laud, empathy. Then, I found your post. It has left me with nothing to say. I am so glad that I found your post.

marytkelly succinctly hit the reason why some use the word empathy as a pejorative. In their view, if you are emphathetic, you are probably a "softy".

I was very impressed with your readers. Their comments have to be among the most literate, sophisticated, perceptive and, yes, emphathetic that I have read in the short time that I have been on Open Salon.

Lea Lane,

Damn! I misspelled empathetic. (And I tried so hard not to.)
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