America and the Fear-Empathy Dichotomy

A caravan of people are making their way from central America to the United States border. When you are shown a picture of them, what do you see and how do you feel?

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Do you see a pack of gang members, terrorists, and diseased invaders set on destroying American sovereignty?

Or do you see refugees — a huddled mass of humans desperately fleeing the danger, poverty and oppression of their homeland?

When you see this image, do you feel fear or empathy?

Let us travel back in time, to a moment that seems like years ago, when Brett Kavanaugh finished his first day of testimony as part of his Supreme Court confirmation process. As he stood up, he was approached from his right by a bespectacled balding man — a well-dressed, seemingly harmless individual, but a man entirely unfamiliar to the nominee. This man had suffered unspeakable pain just six months earlier, when he learned that his 14-year old daughter Jaime had been among the massacred students of Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.

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In that moment, the hope of Fred Guttenberg was a modest one — he hoped that he might establish the slightest toe-hold of a bond with the soon-to-become Supreme Court Justice, and perhaps pave a way forward for this father-turned-activist to help make the world a little safer for future Jaimes and their parents.

With everything that happened in the weeks that followed — the revealing of alleged sexual assault, the testimony of Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, the additional testimony of Kavanaugh, the FBI investigation and the ultimate confirmation of the nominee as a Supreme Court Justice, this early moment in the introduction of Kavanaugh to the country may have been the most revealing. It was a moment in which the heightened battle between fear and empathy was perfectly framed. At that moment, when Mr. Guttenberg stretched out his hand as both a gesture of engagement and an appeal to Mr. Kavanaugh’s shared humanity, there was a choice to be made between fear and empathy.

As the images and video of the moment clearly reveal, Mr. Kavanaugh’s raw, visceral fear outweighed his empathy. Convinced that the approaching man was a threat to him rather than a figure deserving of our nation’s greatest empathy, he fled the scene.

Now, in defense of Mr. Kavanaugh, it is fair to say that his reaction was, in part, a result of his unfamiliarity with Mr. Guttenberg, but it is also fair to say that his reaction was not really a choice. It was instead a manifestation of his fight-or-flight instinct — a visceral reaction — that compelled him to forgo all rational judgment of the seemingly non-threatening person beside him in favor of self-preservation.

Weeks later, Brett Kavanaugh was elevated to a position in which he would be called upon to make rational judgments about issues that will affect all of us for decades to come.

What can we conclude from these encounters with caravans and Kavanaughs? (Plurals intended, as there have been multiple versions of each).

Our human condition places us in a continuous struggle between fear and empathy. We live in an uncertain, ambiguous world — a constant state in which we gravitate, willingly or instinctively, toward one or the other.

As it relates to the ongoing stream of stimuli bombarding us, it is time we realize that these two concepts are mutually exclusive. Very simply, fear is exclusively about ourselves, whereas empathy is inclusively about others. The powerful forces of self-preservation account for the visceral nature of fear, whereas empathy is more often a choice we make — an intentional act.

There are numerous examples of the fear-empathy dichotomy across the social and political spectrum. For example, it would seem entirely logical that a strong set of enforced gun-control laws that includes thorough background checks would make the world a safer place and reduce the overall carnage that has been exceptionally American. And yet, those laws present a visceral threat to the NRA and militant anti-gun control owners — one based on the irrational “slippery slope” belief that the government is going to repeal the second-amendment, break down their doors and take their guns away. The fear of this possibility entirely outweighs the empathy for the inevitable future victims of mass shootings, even with the knowledge that such modest gun-control proposals will at least reduce some of the carnage. Yet when it comes to gun control, fear has triumphed over empathy.

Now consider this: On April 15th 2013, within a space of 12 seconds, two bombs detonated at the end of the Boston Marathon killing three people. A celebratory moment in thousands of lives was obliterated, causing mass terror. As hundreds fled the area, a small group of first responders ran toward the mortally wounded.

Similarly, on 9/11, hundreds of firemen, policemen and medical professionals did the same, with neither a full awareness nor a dominant concern for their own self-preservation. Yes, responding first may have been their job, but make no mistake: these were events in which their empathy triumphed over their fear.

Repeatedly, we have witnessed events and behaviors in which fear and empathy are poles on a spectrum, a continuum that leads us to an obvious conclusion:

Where there is great fear, there is no empathy. Where there is great empathy, there is no fear.

Fear and empathy are inversely proportional and mutually exclusive, and there is perhaps no better example of that than our current state of politics.

We must first concede that politics is a market-driven institution, in which votes, money and attention are the measures of success. As with any market-driven entity, political parties and news media have oriented themselves to serve a market segment, and these natural market forces — this gravitation toward well-defined market segmentation — explains, as much as anything, the extent of our political polarization.

In our polarized state, Americans have been magnetically attracted to the poles of either fear or empathy — each corresponding to a lucrative market segment — and the parties have followed, configuring their efforts to attract maximum numbers of voters, money and attention from their target market. This leads us to a second irrefutable conclusion:

The Republican Party has become the party of Fear. The Democratic Party has become the party of Empathy.

It was not always this way — in fact it was once just the opposite. And while there are always going to be exceptions, the point on which we fall on the fear-empathy spectrum will almost always determine where we fall on the political spectrum. And so the Republican marketing message of choice for the midterms was fear-based (a marauding caravan), while the Democratic message was empathy-based (preserving access to healthcare).

In fact, almost all political issues have a fear and empathy component, and how we view each issue corresponds to the dominant emotion in each of us.

Do we empathize with the struggles faced by LGBTQ people and therefore believe that they are deserving of full equal rights and protections against discrimination? Or do we see them as sub-human, destined for hell and part of a gay culture that, if given the chance, will raid our public bathrooms and convert our kids into homosexuals?

Do we empathize with women who have been sexually assaulted to the degree that we will grant them sufficient credibility, allowing us to bring those who have assaulted them to justice? Or are these concerns outweighed by our fear for men, young and old, who are now, presumably, more likely to have their lives ruined by a false accusation?

Do we empathize with the risks faced by young black men in a fearful society, or do we fear young black men far too much to empathize with their circumstances?

Do we empathize with working class people who, despite working full time must rely on food stamps because they do not receive a living wage? Or do we fear that raising their wages will destroy the economy and empower them at the expense of our own economic and political power?

Do we empathize with immigrants as we would our own ancestors, who are so often fleeing oppression and seeking the same American dream that brought so many of our ancestors here? Or do we fear that immigration will dilute the “racial purity” of our country and take power away from the long-dominant race?

Do we believe that all men and women are created equal and entitled to the right to vote without obstruction or suppression? Or do we fear that such equality will tip the balance of power away from us and toward them (employing the phony threat of massive voter fraud as our fear-inducing weapon of choice)?

Fear-driven politics comes with its own methodology — one that is meant to purge any remnants of empathy: dehumanization. Throughout history, the act of dehumanizing an opposition has worked, providing a controlling rationale for humanity’s greatest atrocities. It is logical that if one is successful at “other-izing” the enemy — making them something other than humans, as in “animals”, “pigs”, “dogs”, or something similar — then it becomes easier to rationalize doing things like putting them in cages. Or worse.

Whereas slavery reduced humans to the status of property, orthodox misogyny relies on a culture of raw objectification, in which women and girls don’t even achieve animal status. For the fearful, they are instead, just things — biological matter that you can grab where you please; foreign objects that do “disgusting” things like lactate and menstruate; hysterical beings that must be controlled through visual or legal suppression; and at its worst, a threat to male power that must be destroyed through acts of rape, burning, mutilation, denigration and murder.

Within every society and throughout history there has been a segment of men who fear women, especially powerful women, and that visceral fear — and that absence of empathy — is revealed in the statements and behaviors that are intended to control and destroy that which they fear.

It is a noteworthy attribute of humanity that all major religions claim to share a common belief in empathy. Each of them is built around some version of the golden rule that embraces the virtue of doing unto others as we would have them do unto us. But it is equally noteworthy how often we fall short of living by this rule. Our fears frequently overwhelm our ability to empathize, consuming us and compelling us to dehumanize those whom we fear, and as we do, we dehumanize ourselves.

Racism, anti-Semitism, misogyny, homophobia — the prejudices of humanity are numerous, as are their corresponding expressions — hatred, indifference, condemnation, anger, disgust, mockery. But those behaviors are superficial, concealing the single source of all prejudices. Strip any bully of their blustery layers of belligerence, and the cause is consistent, clear and naked.

It is always fear.

When Lincoln sought to put an end to America’s greatest crime, he appealed to “our better angels” — a hopeful call to action based on the belief that we all have within us the empathy to recognize the rights and worthiness of all humans. A century and a half later, we can’t help but wonder if his faith in us was unfounded — if the empathetic propensity that he was calling forth from all of us will ever win the struggle against our lesser angels.

Fear is effective because it is visceral; we don’t perceive ourselves as having a choice when we are in a state of fear. This is why it is such a useful form of behavioral control and a historical feature of all dictatorships.

But in contrast to those dictatorships, the better angels of America have always been about overcoming fear — about taking risks, embracing freedom and celebrating our nation as the one nation that has come from many. The more perfect union that America aspires to be is a vibrant and flourishing constitutional democracy that will forever be grounded in empathy.

We are the home of the brave, not the fearful — a nation brave enough to both believe in and grant freedom and equality as an inalienable right. This is what Lincoln meant, this is the choice we must make, and these are the American values that make us who we are meant to be.

We must be brave enough to choose empathy over fear.

Because where there is great fear, there is no empathy. And where there is great empathy, there is no fear.

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Where there is great fear, there is no empathy. Where there is great empathy, there is no fear.

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