Beyond the Backlash: Imaginative Empathy

First there was the self esteem backlash. You know, in response to awards and medals being handed out right and left for simply showing up, the preferred response became to tell kids they're worthless unless they achieve all sorts of things. Thanks, Tiger Mom. Now we're in the empathy backlash. This started, I think, when President Obama praised Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayer as being empathetic. She distanced herself from that remark, but it was too late. Now we are told that feeling someone else's pain is a waste of time. But there might be something to this.

The problem is the emphasis on feeling. I honestly don't feel pain for the various victims around the world (after all, I sleep at night). But if I employ what is called imaginative empathy, I can think my way into their circumstances and imagine what it is like to see through their eyes. I don't have to lose loved ones to a drone attack to know that I would react as people in areas of strife do, pledging fierce opposition to the perpetrators of the attack. Imaginative empathy assumes that at a fundamental level we are all pretty similar and respond to circumstances in similar ways. Employment of imaginative empathy can help us to then shape policies and pursue strategies that are more just.

Sometimes experiencing something can kick-start our imaginative empathy. Once when I was unemployed I bought generic razor blades to save money. The trouble was that they were lousy quality and as I was preparing for an interview I cut my face, thus lowering my chances, however slightly, of making a good impression. An extremely minor incident, but it only took me a little imagination to extrapolate out and see that environmental or external conditions faced by the poor actually impede their ability to compete on a level playing field.

The trick is to require as few kick starts as possible. I remember how Sarah Palin suddenly became a champion of special ed after the birth of her son, Trig, who has Down syndrome. Preferably one could see the value of special ed programs without the direct experience. On the left, we can envision any number of people who don't understand the burden of excessive or pointless business regulations until they experience it themselves. A non-business person, my own awareness around this was kick-started when I learned about the way the growth of the craft beer industry in Massachusetts is being suppressed by regulations that favor the large distributors.


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