Leon Lederman, a Nobel-Prize-winning physicist, once explained how at a lecture he faced an audience member who asked if he had ever seen an atom. At this point, electron microscopes were still advancing, but of course, Lederman’s detectors had “seen” atoms as well as they could be seen. The audience member persisted, “Yes, but have you ever personally seen an atom?” Lederman, flustered, replied, “Have you ever seen the Pope?”
This problem of requiring tactile and tangible proof of some phenomenon before accepting its existence has only gotten worse with the rise of the right-wing noise machine. Empathy is a trait often lost on the right wing, particularly when it forces one to cross ideological boundaries. Just look at the Republican response to Rep. Louise Slaughter’s (D-N.Y.) story of a woman who, without health insurance, had to use her dead sister’s false teeth: “sob story,” “They’re just recycling,” “Da funniest thang evuh!” Let’s set aside for a moment whether an individual’s story should be indicative of a whole movement, and take a look for a second at the lack of empathy. Instead of a logical explanation of the problems inherent in the bill itself (and whether the bill would actually help the woman in question), the response was mocking, insulting and void of any understanding of the woman’s situation.
Yet, when Republicans have a particular, personal cause that makes them close to the issue, in which they have personally experienced its effects, they suddenly find themselves bound to change. Consider Dick Cheney’s support of gay marriage and the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell or Sarah Palin’s defense of disabled rights. It’s no coincidence that Dick Cheney has a lesbian daughter and that Sarah Palin has a son with Down syndrome. The conservative mentality relies heavily upon personal experience to determine one’s beliefs. When a Tea Party protester gets injured without health insurance, he becomes cause celebre for donations, with no one questioning why unemployment should dictate a lack of health insurance.
This experiential mode of understanding makes it difficult to comprehend problems with a longer timeline or effects far from the original source. For example, running a deficit in hard times appears problematic if one considers the nation’s budget much like one’s personal budget. (“Balance the Federal Checkbook,” as one headline blares.) My personal experience tells me that it is bad to incur debts I do not repay; therefore, the nation should do similarly. This leads right wing commentators to make increasingly stupid statements based on personal experience (such as, my favorite, “Why doesn’t the U.S. just default on its loans?”). The nation’s experience with its finances is very different from a person’s experience, but that seems lost in the discussion.
The way the right wing approaches broader problems — global climate change, health care, economics, civil rights, foreign policy — is so determined by personal experience that alternate opinions cannot be tolerated, unless they have a basis in what the viewer has seen or felt firsthand (“We had a lot of snow this year, so there must not be global warming!”). The contemporary conservative worldview rejects the world of those it cannot understand, whose experiences it cannot process. When conservatives try to “reach out” to other groups, Hispanics being the most obvious example, the discourse varies from tone-deaf to insulting.
This is not to say that empirical evidence is a bad thing, but an inability to use evidence through any lens other than one’s own leads to untenable positions and dangerous misconceptions. Sarah Palin’s advocacy for the disabled may be admirable, but when confronted with other groups that have faced similar discrimination, she cannot “feel their pain.” Ask Sarah Palin about gay marriage, and she’ll cheer the constitutional amendment banning it. Ask Sarah Palin about maligned minority groups, and she’ll say they need to quit whining.
I truly believe that empathy is one of our greatest traits, and in an interconnected world, in which we understand how our actions affect the greater whole, the importance of empathy grows only greater. Rather than simply ignoring empathy, the right wing movement has rejected the opinions of others completely, focusing on only its pure-blood followers. The inability of the right wing to see beyond the blinders of its own experiences hurts our discourse and indicates a treacherous path for future debates.