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Empathy -- sideshow or prelude?

Empathy-roots David Brooks has an interesting take on empathy in today's New York Times.

In brief, he thinks it's highly over-rated.

"It has become a way to experience delicious moral emotions without confronting the weaknesses in our nature that prevent us from actually acting upon them," he writes. "It has become a way to experience the illusion of moral progress without having to do the nasty work of making moral judgments."

His biggest beef with empathy is that it doesn't necessarily lead to action. For that, he says, people need a strong "sense of obligation to some religious, military, social or philosophic code."

But from where does he think those "codes" spring? Could they be the product of an emotion, hardwired into our stone age brains over generations, that we call "empathy"?  

It seems to me that the particularly human capacity to feel another's pain -- and to share their joy -- plays an important role in the construction of our moral codes.

Brooks, of course, is correct that empathy is no cure-all. It’s easily manipulated, no more motivating than a good three-hanky movie, easier to muster for those who are near, and highly vulnerable to bias and selectivity.   

But when empathy is fully developed it can be a powerful brake on our more dangerous demons. A long series of experiments have demonstrated that the simple act of purposefully considering someone else’s point of view can reduce prejudice and deflate stereotypes, even of outcasts. 

Empathy isn't a "sideshow," as Brooks suggests.  It's only the first act in the process of developing the very codes of behavior he admires. And essential to confronting the weaknesses he decries.



What this country needs is a good spanking

Spank W
hat single factor best predicts who voted for George W. Bush?  

Party affiliation?  Race? Income? Level of education?  

Well, it turns out that one's atitude toward corporal punishment trumps them all.  

At least that's what Jonathan Weiler, co-author of Authoritarianism and Polarization in American Politics, says. Weiler made this assertion in a talk he gave at the Clinton Library back in February 2011.  The correlation between corporal punishment and voting Republican held in the 2008 presidental election as well.

Weiler doesn't think that all Republicans believe "spare the rod, spoil the child."  But he does believe party affiliation reflects the same worldview as one's approach to child-rearing.

Weiler believes the divide in American politics is basically personality-driven.

On one side are people who believe issues are simple, choices black and white, and tradition a reliable guide to action; on the other are people who think issues are more complex, choices less clear, and change inevitable. 

Over the last 40 years, he says, an accumulation of issues -- from race, to feminism, abortion, and gay rights -- have become politically salient.  Where people stand on each issue depends in large measure on their basic sense of right and wrong. And he has the data to back up the assertion. 

What divides us, he believes, is our fundamental notion of how the world should work. At one extreme are people who trust authority, believe in clear moral distinctions, and consider tradition a good guide in making decisions.  At the other extreme are people who think people have to figure things out for themselves, issues are more complex, and change inevitable.  

Weiler terms these fundamentally different worldviews "authoritarian" and "non-authoritarian." He estimates that about 20% of the electorate believes in a maximum measure of authoritarianism, while 10% are at the other end of the pole. That third of the electorate is apparently enough to create political gridlock. 

It's a provocative theory and dovetails with Jonathan Haidt's research on moral foundations, which I discuss in Otherwise.

Unfortunately, Weiler doesn't seem optimistic that there is a bridge across this particular divide. 




Judges are crazy too

Thou-Shalt-Not-Judge1 A
whole chapter of Otherwise is entitled "People Are Crazy."

The idea is that, before trying to understand the Other, it's important to remember that other people as rational as we are. Which is not saying much.

The chapter cites a number of psychological and social studies that demonstrate the extent to which our supposedly rational judgments are influenced -- and sometimes even spring from -- factors outside our conscious experience.

Here's a recent study that would have made it into the book had I not already delivered the manuscript (and weren't inclined to test my editor's already strained patience):

Researchers at Ben Gurion University in Israel and Columbia University have concluded that the scales of justice tip in favor of defendants when the judge has had a good meal.

Researchers examined more than 1,000 rulings on convicts’ parole requests. Judges granted 65 percent of requests they heard at the beginning of the day’s session and almost none at the end. Right after a snack break, approvals jumped back to 65 percent again.

Justice isn't blind.  Just hungry.





Roses R
ick Hertzberg, over at the New Yorker, caps a recent posting with the following executive summary:  

"If roses were called 'snotflowers,' they would smell as sweet. But they would not sell as well."

How true.  The Bard of Avon could not have said it better.

It's the conclusion of an interesting post that discusses how the wording of survey questions can slant answers.  

For example, he speculates that people would be more likely to favor a reduction in "payroll taxes" than in "Social Security taxes." His guess is that "many people, have a viscerally negative reaction to the words 'Reducing Social Security,' even if followed by the dread word 'taxes'.”

I don't know if he's right on that point, but his larger thesis is clearly correct -- words matter.  More broadly, framing -- the context around ideas -- define the terms of debate.  

That's why the GOP spends so much time, money, and effort testing words, like "job creators" and "job killing."   Remember when they turned "estate taxes" into "death taxes"?

I wonder why the Democrats have been so slow to adopt the same practice. On the other hand, I suspect even if they were to hire the equivalent of Frank Luntz -- the GOP's messaging guru  -- they wouldn't have the discipline to stick to the playbook. 

Meanwhile, Obama's job plan is going nowhere even though Gallup discovered that a majority of both Democrats and Republicans favor its constituent parts, which was Hertzberg's even larger point. 

How do you like those flowers?






Give them bootstraps

Bootstraps The Wall Street Journal's weekend "Review" is one of my favorite reads, despite its conservative bent.

Last Saturday's profile of Juan Rangel is a good example of its provocative fare.

Rangel is CEO of Chicago's United Neighborhood Organization (UNO), which runs an 11-school charter network in Chicago.

UNO serves 5,500 students, 98% of whom are Hispanic (mostly immigrant families from Mexico) and 93% of whom are at or below the poverty line. UNO's schools outperform the city's public schools handily.

Rangel and his organization are a natural for the Journal. First of all, the paper's editorial page has been a long-time fan of charter schools.  But even better, Rangel is a strong opponent of the "narrative of victimhood" that the Journal has long believed "Democrats are so intent" on promulgating. 

The profile quotes Rangel declaring, "Democrats are so intent on making Hispanics the next victimized minority seeking entitlement programs and all that, that the Republicans are starting to believe it! And they're wrong on both ends." 

Rangel is certainly entitled to his opinion.  And a friend who happens to be Hispanic tells me, "Rangel's cause has merit, especially if it's used to motivate."  

She acknowledges that it's tempting to attribute the social problems in any minority community to a uniform narrative of victimhood.  But social problems usually have multiple causes that vary among groups. "For example, she notes, "suicide rates are high in Japan and Russia, but I suspect the causes have little in common."

On the other hand, she also suspects "it's easier to eschew the identity of 'a victimized minority group' if you are a Cuban in Miami (which she is) than if you are a Chicano out West."

In other words, one shouldn't be too hasty to dismiss the lingering effects of past racism as one of those "multiple causes." 

And the Hispanic community does suffer significant social ills. For example, the UNO Mission Statement notes that Hispanics have "the nation's largest dropout rate, gang violence, and teenage pregnancy." 

That assertion surprised me so much I decided to do some research. The facts: 

The Hispanic dropout rate is nearly twice as high as Blacks' (17.6% vs. 9.3%) according to the U. S. Department of Education.

The Hispanic teen pregnancy rate is three times higher than for Non-Hispanic Whites (12.7% vs. 4%) according to the Guttmacher Institute

Gang membership is 47% Hispanic, 31% Black, and 13% Non-Hispanic White according to the Department of Justice.

It seems to me that these statistics are at least in part the legacy of past racism which put many Hispanics in substandard housing, poor schools, and bad neighborhoods with few job prospects.  (Cubans in Miami may be an exception.)  

All of which may sound like "a narrative of victimhood," I guess.  But addressing these problems has to go further than telling the victims to stop whining.

Those of us in the dominant culture need to treat these statistics as a "common evil" akin to pollution.  And to develop public policies that encourage the right kind of behavior while discouraging the wrong.

We need to break the cycle of poverty by reintegrating people who suffer the consequences of past discrimination into mainstream society.  That will require better inner-city education and more job training for starters.

I suppose telling Hispanic teens to pick themselves up by their own bootstraps may be a free-market appeal to rugged individualism.  

But kids who can't afford more than flip-flops don't have bootstraps. 




Polarized America?

Growing-Divide-in-American-Politics-Lead Is America polarized?  

Most surveys would suggest we are not.

Stanford's Morris Fiorina, for example, wrote a book, now in its third edition, debunking the idea.  "It doesn't matter how you cut the electorate-it's not polarized," he says. "We have an electorate that is, by and large, centrist."

Indeed, on practically every hot political issue -- from the proper role of government to the circumstances under which abortion might be justified -- Americans are surprisingly close to the middle.

So why do we feel so fractured?

Some suggest it's because those people who really do have extreme views on these issues, though small in number, are loud in volume. For example, most surveys suggest that members of the Tea Party movement represent only 11 to 13 percent of voters.

Nevertheless, the Tea Party casts a very large shadow over the GOP and -- by its ability to influence the selection of Republican candidates -- over the whole country.

What makes this especially dangerous are studies that find a very high correlation between Tea Party membership and racial resentment. See here and here.

Americans may not be as polarized as the popular media suggests, but the body politic is riddled with dangerous fractures.