Empathy is a gateway to the most vulgar and intellectually indefensible kind of identity politics, for example the endlessly reiterated observation that because men do not experience pregnancy, they should be circumspect in their opinions on abortion. That is not an argument, notice, but something more like an empty hole in the shape of an argument, an impression left over after the content has been removed, i.e., the classical appeal to empathy. One can — and one should — have sympathy for women in the very difficult circumstance of an unwanted pregnancy, but that does not make dismembering children the right course of action. Empathy renders us willfully blind. It is a curious feature of the abortion debate that the religious camp has the science firmly on its side — the literal biological facts of life involving a living human organism at an early stage of development — while the secular side must take refuge in metaphysics, in this case the legal device of “personhood.” But empathy gets what empathy demands, in this case the negation of thought and the annihilation of tens of millions of human beings apparently unworthy of our concern, empathetic, sympathetic, or otherwise. Empathy is of course applied with the greatest selectivity: You will not hear Barack Obama calling for empathy with the people he intends to loot.
The president, who gives the impression of being none too careful a thinker, says he believes that having “the empathy to recognize what it’s like to be a young, teenaged mom” might illuminate the political questions surrounding abortion, but he never says why he believes that. People who have made the same mistakes as we have can be useful teachers — or they can be bad influences and enablers of destructive habits. Teenaged mothers could learn a great deal from women who did not become teenaged mothers, even if the lack of common experience left those women with little in the way of what the president calls “empathy.” For that matter, those young women could learn a great deal from responsible and mature men, a fact that surely must have occurred to President Obama, who is the father of two daughters.
Why should poor people or disabled people need politicians who know what it is like to be poor or disabled? They already know what it is like to be poor or disabled. (It stinks.) Who would be more useful to an unemployed man: a man who knows what it is like to be unemployed, through long personal experience, or a man who never has been unemployed, because he built a business and employed himself? The main problems of the poor and unemployed do not include a shortage of people able to commiserate with them — their problems are a shortage of money, a shortage of jobs, a shortage of marketable skills, a shortage of economic growth, etc. Scarcity is real, and it cannot be empathized away. Similarly, the very last thing people suffering from addiction, illegitimacy, illiteracy, abuse, violence, or poverty need is our empathy — you’d think four years of high unemployment, growing poverty, and soaring dependency rates, all accompanied by great gobs of empathy, would have taught us that. What they need is our sympathy, which sometimes causes our hearts to direct our heads to communicate certain hard truths, including the facts about the sorts of decisions that can lead one into poverty and misery — or out.
Americans say they reelected Barack Obama for his empathy. As ABC News put it: “Barack Obama neutralized Mitt Romney on the economy, beat him on empathy, and again turned the curve of America’s demographic change to Democratic advantage.” He, too, feels our pain — and voters ignore the fact that his policies are an important source of it. So the president does in fact have an “empathy edge.” His empathy and 43 nickels will get you a cup of coffee, but nickels are in short supply these days and Starbucks has been raising prices.