Guest author, Jim Terr (www.JimTerr.com), presented the following on June 2, 2009 on KUNM in Albuquerque. He said what I’ve been thinking throughout this nomination of Sonia Sotomayor and the negative turn of the word empathy.
Empathy By Jim Terr Click for mp-3 audio
You can also hear the live version at http://kunm.org/audiohurl.php?s0=060209TERREMPATHY.mp3&t=Y
I’ll bet you didn’t know “empathy” was a bad word. In fact, in my book, it’s one of the best words, one of the best qualities, a person could have. If I had kids, I think I’d be most proud to hear them described as honest, fair-minded and kind – which is pretty much synonymous with “empathetic.” Empathy meaning the tendency or ability to put yourself in another’s shoes – a necessary quality for being able to follow the golden rule.
But even before President Obama nominated Sonia Sotomayor to be the next Supreme Court justice, the right-wing spin machine was complaining that he had mentioned “empathy” – the ability to bring the human dimension, a human understanding, to judicial decision-making – as a quality he was looking for. The right wing opinion makers were on a roll, declaring that such a communist, socialist, anarchist quality as “empathy” had no place in Supreme Court decisions. Except, of course, in cases to be decided in their favor. But hypocrisy is another essay.
Millions of people who couldn’t cite one court case as an example of being strictly decided on a so-called “constructionist” basis, versus one decided on a nuanced, real-life, human basis, were suddenly incensed at the idea that “empathy” could be brought into play in judicial decision making. Which of course they’ll hope like hell it is, if they’re ever brought before the court.
Evidently Frank Luntz got a 3 a.m. phone call on this one, the request to come up with a key word to sink the Obama nomination before it even occurred. Frank Luntz is the political wordsmith who’s hired to help re-frame invasions as “liberations”, inheritance taxes as “death taxes”, and all those pesky little issues that can be swung just the right way if only they’re re-titled with the correct word – which is actually about all it takes.
The right wing is three times, five times, maybe TEN times as expert at this as the Democrats, in case you haven’t noticed. But maybe they’ve mis-fired on this one, maybe Frank Luntz was a little groggy or mis-heard the assignment when he got the 3 a.m. call. After all, isn’t “empathy” – assuming most people even heard the word before this week – sort of essential to the Christian faith and the American way? I HOPE so.
President Obama, as usual, is missing a golden opportunity to face this issue head-on. I’m referring to the issue of Spin, this wordsmithing and demagoguing which muddies almost every important issue. He’s being presented with yet another “teaching moment” where he could point out, from his very visible and respectable platform, how this spinning is done, how well-chosen words are used to turn everything on its head.
He seems to think that by speaking in his clear, earnest, fair-minded manner, he can make reason prevail. He may be right, but he’s done nothing to raise awareness of this process of spinning and re-framing which will ultimately bring him down and sink his best efforts, as it does everyone’s. Watch the word “socialism”; watch the term “single payer.”
If judges were able to judge without bringing human values and “empathy” to bear, there would be no need for judges, would there? It could all be done by computer, thus saving the salaries of those nine Supreme Court judges and their clerks – and all that empathy!