When Democrats talk about ‘empathy,’ do conservatives hear ‘free handout?’

Democrats sure love them some empathy!

“Empathy, shmepathy”

From a neurological and psychological perspective, empathy is a specific reaction in the brain, in which we mirror the distress of an “other” and, unless our brains are damaged or we are developmentally abnormal, we are moved to alleviate their suffering.

But when it comes to empathy, psychology and politics obviously exist in two very different worlds. Politically, Democrats believe that empathy should be at the heart of all of our decisions as a society. In fact, Barack Obama famously spoke of the “empathy deficit” being a more pressing political problem than the federal deficit. By making empathy the central focus of what we want in a democracy, Democrats want to ensure that we all have a certain level of freedom, security, and health. Not just an opportunity to obtain those things, but actual policy decisions that ensure them.

Now I’m not sure whether President Obama is right that there’s an overall empathy deficit (he may just be talking about individually rather than politically), or whether social psychologist Jonathan Haidt is right when he argues that conservatives are empathetic, but their worldviews also weigh attributes like fairness, liberty, loyalty, authority and purity/sanctity in equal measure. (His book The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion is an enlightening and sobering read.) Both of those guys are much smarter than I am, so I’m sure they’re both correct.

Maybe the problem is our different perceptions of the word “empathy”

But what if there’s something else going on? But what if it’s not just that empathy is not enough? What if it’s the idea of empathy as a concept that’s the problem? And not the idea of empathizing with the plight of other people (which Paul Bloom argues often makes people too emotional and leads to bad policy decisions), but the idea of being empathetic as being “soft” or “undisciplined?”

What if it’s actually the word “empathy” that’s part of the problem?

When Republicans really want to get under liberals’ skins, they often go on the offensive by using tough-guy terms and phrases like “soft on crime,” “snowflake,” “libtards,” and the more recent (and I’m super reluctant to admit how amusing the term is) “cuckservative.” Conservatives with a top-down, father-figure, might-makes-right worldview hear these words, and though they may not always agree on policy specifics, the words they hear fit right into their belief systems.

So when they hear a word like “empathy,” conservatives might have a negative reaction to it. Just because it sounds weak.

How can Democrats reframe the idea of empathy?

If we look at things from a George Lakoff, linguistic viewpoint, the words we use change the way we think and feel over time. That got me to thinking, is there another way to talk about empathy without it sounding like “sympathy” or, worse, like “we feel badly about other people’s plights, so we should just give them free handouts?”

I’m not sure I have the solution here, but it seems like something worth considering from a messaging standpoint.

As Democrats (hopefully) are working toward solving their message deficit (maybe that’s what Obama should be talking about now instead of an empathy deficit), maybe figuring out how to talk about empathy in a way that fits in with conservatives’ worldview might be a good start. The idea is not to change what we mean by empathy. Just reframe it in a way that makes sense beyond our own interpretation of the word.

“Compassion” might be a better term. Or, in a worldview where morality, right and wrong, and good and evil are clear guideposts for making decisions (despite the actual complexity underlying those decisions), maybe we should be talking about a “morality deficit,” where certain policy decisions, like the current healthcare bill, are inherently evil or morally deficient.

Whatever the solution, it seems like an interesting place to continue defining what the Democratic Party stands for in a way that also works for moderate conservatives as well.