Jay Lake (jaylake) wrote,
Jay Lake

[politics] Empathy and imagination

I've commented before that the contemporary American conservative mindset appears to be a failure of both empathy and imagination. I'm not talking about the limited government/strong defense/private enterprise axis of political thought, all of which are perfectly legitimate ideas about which I have varied opinions. I'm talking about the current social and political mindset of many Republican voters, as expressed in the party platforms they support, the candidates they select, and the leaders they elect.

In another part of this country lives a friend of mine with whom I have significant political differences. Not particularly relevant to our friendship, as we simply don't talk about politics much. He's an intelligent, thoughtful, generous guy who genuinely cares about the people around him, enjoys his life, and wants everyone else to enjoy theirs. Yet one day in a discussion about healthcare reform, he said to me, "I worked hard to buy that big screen television. Why should I give it up for someone else who doesn't work as hard as I do?"

Meaning, in effect, why should he pay taxes to support someone less hard working or fortunate than he is?

To me, that's a profound failure of both empathy and imagination on my friend's part. He doesn't see that someone not born into middle class white male privilege would have a much harder time achieving what he has achieved. That for the same amount of work as he's put in, and frankly quite a bit more, some people can barely pay the rent and keep their kids fed. He doesn't see that someone who gets sick and isn't inside our country's dubious healthcare safety net can so easily lose everything no matter how well they've followed the rules and how hard they've tried. He doesn't see that making sure everybody has a decent education and good health and positive working conditions and the right to vote benefits him just as much as it benefits the rest of society.

What he sees is people who don't work as hard as he do, taking his money. Benefits going to the undeserving at his expense.

And that perception has rendered one of our two major political parties into a cesspool of mean-spirited anger, resentment and punishment. Romney's 47% remarks were surprising only in their candor, not their content. What he said is implicit in nearly every state GOP party platform as well as the national platform, in the entire process of the Republican presidential primary, the GOP positions on everything from healthcare reform to women's health.

It's because people like my friend can't imagine themselves in a position of need or dependency. And they don't seem to be able to empathize with those who are. This results in a system where even when help is available, the processes put in place to screen out the undeserving overwhelm those who need help most. (See my multiple posts on the paperwork issues in my healthcare journey.) We prioritize compliance over need every time, precisely because of the need to cater to the conservative failure of empathy and imagination when designing those public programs. And that is when the system is working as designed. God help those people who can't check all the right boxes.

The real dialog should be over how we solve those problems. Not whether they are legitimate, or whether the people who need help are moochers. It isn't about the 47%. It's about being human beings in a humane society. Almost half our country has lost its moral compass with respect to anything beyond its own large screen televisions, and making sure the undeserving don't get more than their share.

Tags: culture, healthcare, personal, politics
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