Empathy: Let’s Not Be Conservative With It

The seemingly unsurmountable problems in Washington, D.C. have become far too exhausting; it is a tired refrain amongst pundits and the citizenry-alike that our government can achieve nothing.  Any semblance of progress has been halted by our elected officials’ constant bickering, a courageous exploration beyond the boundaries of human patience.  The modern-day Magellans of Congress seem to have confused circumnavigation with circumvention, and the Earth with the dreams, desires, and demands of their constituency.

While the mudslinging dregs of talk radio (and other mediums) have insisted that this stagnation is due to Obama’s unyielding desire to ruin our country, the overwhelming majority of less Rush Limbaugh-ish people have pointed to rigid partisan lines as the main culprit for political gridlock.  And to a certain extent, this is true; the Republican and Democratic Parties have struggled to find a middle ground on most issues, leading to much to do about many things.  Of course, minds that have inquired will likely understand that this has resulted from the Republican agenda of thwarting President Obama and the Democrats at every turn (trying to deny 9/11 first responders health care coverage, come on).

There is, unsurprisingly, an underlying reason for this undermining, underhanded politicking from the right — there are numerous major policy differences between the two parties that have led to the Republicans’ if you can’t beat them, filibuster the shit out of them strategy.  In order to combat this insidious brand of non-governing, it is imperative to focus on the similarities between the two coalitions in order to pinpoint precise areas of disagreement which, if alleviated, could lead to some genuine discourse.

Perhaps the most important aspect of government, and by extension, political parties, is the singular, overarching goal: do what is best for the country.  Practically, even this very general idea is cause for disagreement.  After all, conflicting values, policies, and fealty to lobbyists and corporations all play into the idea of exactly what is best for the country.  But on a more abstract level, it seems that everyone, regardless of position on the political spectrum, is concerned with creating an environment that will allow citizens to maximize their well-being.  If we can agree that this is a commonality between Republicans and Democrats, well by golly we can work with that.

The question then becomes, “What is the base distinction that leads our parties to pursue this goal of well-being in such drastically different ways with such drastically different ideal results?”  Because we should be concerned with the purely ideological contradictions between the two underlying philosophies of our political parties, the groups discussed will be Conservatives and Liberals, as opposed to Republicans and Democrats.  Our political system, based upon pluralism leading to compromise, masks these disparities by pulling politicians to the center, where we can all be equally upset with the middle ground.

So what is the key difference between the core values of un-politicized, unadulterated Conservatism and Progressivism?  When examining a myriad of issues, including (but not limited to): political correctness, societal privilege and circumstance, affirmative action, immigration and xenophobia, income inequality, and profiling, there are consistent elements among ideological lines.  With the Conservative comes an emphasis on the individual, and the Progressive a greater concern for the collective.  This is not to say Conservatives do not care about others: one of the “great” tenets of our Republican Party is a heavy emphasis on family values.  Many Conservatives would gladly lend a hand (financially or otherwise) to a struggling friend and family member — but when it comes to those with whom they are less directly connected, generosity is scarce.  Progressives, on the other hand, are much more concerned with aiding the general populace, and would, of course, hand Granny over to an Obamacare Death Panel if she turned up NCIS too loud, family values be damned.

This difference can be articulated in many ways.  The individual vs. the collective.  Exclusive vs. inclusive.  The most impactful, however, is the tendency common in all of these differences.  While Conservatives historically have come from a place of privilege and homogenous thought, Progressivism was nurtured in the beginnings of multicultural society.  Implicit in this varied-perspective beginning was the development of the radical difference between the two philosophies — a sense of empathy for disparate social groups.

Again, this is not to say that all Conservatives don’t possess a widespread sense of empathy and all Progressives do; rather, as an ideology, Conservatism taken in the context of American history inhibits inclusion of disparate social groups, while Progressivism fosters a climate that allows for diverse, inclusive progress.

American Progressivism began as a reactionary philosophy to massive inequalities against certain segments of society (i.e. women, African Americans, immigrants, etc.).  John Halpin and Marta Cook address this origin in Part 3 of The Progressive Tradition Series, featured on The Center for American Progress:

“Progressivism as a reform tradition has always focused its moral energy against societal injustice, corruption, and inequality. Progressivism was built on a vibrant grassroots foundation, from the Social Gospel and labor movements to women’s suffrage and civil rights to environmentalism, antiwar activism, and gay rights. The activists and leaders of these movements believed deeply in the empowerment and equality of the less privileged in society, the primacy of democracy in American life, and the notion that government should safeguard the common good from unchecked individual and commercial greed. They challenged government to eliminate its own legal injustices and also harnessed the force of government as a vital tool for advancing human freedom and establishing the “more perfect union” envisioned by the Founding Fathers.

Central to all progressive social movements is the belief that the people do not have to wait for change from the top down—that people themselves can be catalysts for change from the bottom up.”

An important aspect of the birth of Progressivism is the fact that it emerged from early multiculturalism — downtrodden minority segments needed to understand each other in order to form a coalition and survive.  By first recognizing each other as similar groups despite ethnic, socioeconomic, and gender differences and focusing on their analogous social circumstances, these groups developed mutual understanding which in turn led to empathy.  As stated, Progressivism began as a movement to improve social circumstance for oppressed groups acting against the status quo.  It relies on the perpetual inclusion of groups that are pushed out of power as power structures become more entrenched in the few (read the one percent): there will always be a group pushed out by a power that isn’t inclusive of all groups; progressivism has the potential to absorb any and all alienated groups until there is complete multicultural recognition and understanding — not a synthesis, but a cultural respect.

Conservatism, by contrast, is concerned with preserving existing power structures and policies.  As defined by the Encyclopedia Britannica, it is a “political doctrine that emphasizes the value of traditional institutions and practices.”  This includes a preference for gradual, stable, continuous change (if any) over the radical, sweeping reforms favored by Progressivism.  Conservatism has always looked to the past as an example for future action (read stagnation), which can be problematic given our rather sordid history.

When the United States first declared independence in 1776, power was afforded not to the people, but a small, wealthy class of white, male landowners who were the (mostly) sole citizens privileged with the right to vote, the primary exercise of power in a democracy.  So one with a Conservative political stance at the time would have advocated for the preservation of such an oligarchy, while a Progressive would have pushed for large-scale upheaval of such an anti-democratic system.  With social reform movements for women’s rights, civil rights, LGBT rights, among many others, Progressives succeeded in such upheavals (that is not to say that there is not much more work to be done in the aforementioned spheres) and forced mainstream politics to adapt to the grassroots successes.  By definition, Conservatism is antithetical to such reforms.  Because an exclusive ruling elite topped the power structure at our nation’s inception   and Conservatism is inherently concerned with preserving the status quo, true Conservatism rejects multiculturalism in favor of rule by a homogenous, privileged establishment.

Because of this rejection of multiculturalism, Conservatism has fostered an insular community that bristles at the mention of new ideas and inclusion of that which is perceived as foreign.  We see this in the racist diatribes of Donald Trump and bigoted undertones of Ben Carson, the current frontrunners for the Republican 2016 Presidential Nomination.  We see it in the fear of Muslims, immigrants and inner-city youth plastered all over Fox News.  In fact, we see this deep-seated mistrust for all groups which do not conform to the narrow Conservative mindset or are largely unknown to the Conservative base.  Because Conservatives have long-ignored these growing American populations, they have failed to develop a meaningful sense of empathy with regard to those who exist outside of their established, self-absorbed schemas.

Progressives, on the other hand, espouse values which are informed by a broad sense of empathy.  Because of their roots as a diverse movement, it has always been of the utmost importance to empathize with groups of differing backgrounds in order to actively share experiences and goals.  This sense of empathy is what motivates behavior beyond pure self-interest.

Empathy alone, however, is not enough.  While it is tempting to believe that empathy will add a net positive to society by producing conscious awareness and compassion for others, studies have shown that the relationship between empathy and altruism is a tenuous one.  Empathy is subject to the relationships of ingroups and outgroups; if applied to only select societal groups, it can actually increase harmful tribalism.

Outgroups are “any social group that an individual doesn’t identify with” and would consider to be the “other”, and they are to be contrasted with ingroups.  A group which a person perceives themselves to be a member of is an ingroup; for example, a caucasian female might see “caucasians, women, and caucasian women” as ingroups, and “males, star trek fans, and gay black preachers” as outgroups (or maybe the opposite, social constructs, am I right).  Our hypothetical woman associates with, will be influenced by, and will tend to favor her ingroups.  She might have a highly developed sense of empathy, but if she has been raised in a very insular community, its possible that she only considers, “white, rich, golf hobbyists from Newport Beach” to be an ingroup.

Because Conservatism recoils from multiculturalism, Conservatives consider massive segments of society to be outgroups and few to be ingroups, which seem to roughly exist along racial/religious/socioeconomic lines.  Whereas a middle-class Progressive might construct a socioeconomic ingroup of “the 99% percent” as opposed to “the 1% outgroup”,  a middle-class Conservative is more likely to see welfare recipients as an outgroup and rich business people as an ingroup.  This is due to their fixation on the idea of personal responsibility and the American Dream, the idea that your station in life is a direct result of your hard work.  So if one considers oneself to be a hard worker, and believes that hard work is the key ingredient to success, one is more likely to be aligned with the successful versus the not successful.  The Conservative thought pattern is one of projection: adherence to personal convictions shaped by a deeply held value for individual liberty manifest themselves in the refusal to see outgroups as anything but an external force.

Neuroscientific studies have detailed the effects of empathy when directed toward both ingroup and outgroup members.  According to a 2014 study regarding neurology and empathy conducted by Claus Lamm and Jasminka Majdanzic, “empathy is sensitive to deeply-rooted parochialism and ingroup bias… for instance, there is substantial and consistent evidence stemming from a variety of experimental approaches and neuroscientific methods that humans show reduced neural responses to pain being inflicted on ethnic outgroup members.”  Furthermore, when an outgroup is perceived as threatening, empathetic reactions are additionally altered.  As stated in an MIT Study on Intergroup empathy, “People with the most empathy for members of their ingroup may thus experience the most schadenfreude toward a threatening outgroup. When an outgroup is perceived as antagonistic, people respond less empathically to outgroup members but also more empathically to ingroup members.”  This means that increased and decreased empathy for ingroups and outgroups, respectively, is in a sense self-progagating, acting in a vicious cycle of fear, schadenfruede, and diminished understanding.

There are many examples of these phenomena in our current political climate, crystallized in ongoing debates over political correctness, societal privilege and circumstance, affirmative action, immigration and xenophobia, income inequality, and profiling.  Political correctness, which has become one of the most contentious issues of our day remains one of the largest rifts between Democrats and Republicans.  What democrats see as basic human decency (see browser extension), Republicans view as a communistic oppression of expression and thought; this is because of their inability/refusal to see from the perspective of the minority/outgroup who benefits from the PC culture.  As one blogger so aptly put it, “We also might think of ‘PC culture’ as ‘empathy culture’.” A conservative likely sees an unemployed but hard-working family member as down on his luck, but a welfare recipient as lazy, even though the likelihood that the recipient is a hard worker is just as likely as the family member.

Because Conservatives, while empathetic to ingroups, harbor few empathetic sentiments towards outgroups, an overall increase in empathy will not necessarily create a more compassionate society; in fact, “it will likely replace egoism by its twin brother: an ingroup-favoring type of altruism – thereby widening rather than diminishing the boundaries between social groups.”

In this sense, we need to build empathy for all groups by transforming perceived outgroups into ingroups.  Only through increasing multicultural understanding thusly will Conservatives be able to gain a wider sense of compassion of those who are now considered “the other.”  Practically speaking, there are two ways to do this: by combating the widespread fear of “the other” and backlash against multiculturalism found in Conservative circles, and by providing meaningful personal experiences that will humanize outgroups for sheltered, close-minded individuals.

Combating the general fear climate of the Conservative base is certainly a daunting prospect.  It starts with addressing the manic fear-mongering/ratings boosting shouting employed by Rush Limbaugh, Bill O’ Reilly, and the like.  There must be a demand for a modicum of media responsibility when it comes to presenting facts, or at least addressing bias in an open manner.  We have to eliminate the idea that we should be in constant fear of terrorists attacks, are in danger of economic collapse from illegal immigrants, and that we must be armed to defend ourselves from the threat of a tyrannical government.  It all comes down to the sweeping platitude: Mexican or Muslim, poor or rich, black or white, we are all part of the human ingroup.

To substantiate this idea, we need to work towards humanizing those whom we purport to not understand.  According to Lamm and Majdanzic’s study,

“Persons whose mental states had been reflected upon were sacrificed less often in scenarios requiring to sacrifice their life to prevent casualties in a greater number of others. This decision bias was therefore acting against the moral principles of utilitarianism, which proposes that one ought to act in a way that maximizes the net social welfare (West, 2013), as well as against the moral principle to treat all people equally (McKerlie, 2013). These moral decisions could be explained by a higher degree of connectedness to and “humanization” of the persons whose mental states one had previously considered, as compared to persons who had not been mentalized with.”

Again, the key is adopting the perspective of another, or experiencing empathy as an avenue for understanding.

While I have mainly focused on American politics in this critique, perhaps no region is in more need of this humanization more than Israel-Palestine.  Thankfully, one café in Israel is answering the proverbial call of duty.  The owner of the Humus Bar, Kobi Tzafrir, is currently offering a 50% discount to Jews and Arabs who will eat together.  This is exactly the kind of meaningful, personal experience that underscores the commonalities between two diametrically opposed social groups — regardless of violent conflict and hatred, everyone belongs to the ingroup that appreciates good humus.  It’s a start.

Bottom line, the reason Progressivism is more inclusive and beneficial for a collective-concerned society is because its roots in multiculturalism have created an environment of inclusion that has increased the potential number of ingroups for those subscribed to the philosophy.  Thus their sense of empathy is targeted to larger segments of society, leading to overall compassion, understanding, and the desire to work together for collective advancement.  Perhaps if Conservatives start to build such a network of care, we will be able to begin the conversation anew and create some tangible change.


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