Friday, July 17, 2009

Oneself as Another at the Sotomajor Hearings

In a country whose president launched a completely misguided “war on terror,” maybe it shouldn’t be surprising that a U.S. Senator could engage in a ridiculous skirmish against empathy.

The senator was named Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), and he claims President Obama is "outside the mainstream" because Obama believes that one of the many qualities needed in a Supreme Court justice is a sense of empathy.

Sen. Kyl's antics recall the charcater in Alice in Wonderland who said "a word means only what I say it means." Forunately, language is more resilient than that, and a confused and mean-spirited U.S. senator cannot single-handedly reshape a word signifying a concept central to our humanity. Without empathy − intuitive understanding, emotional intelligence, the ability to imagine oneself as another − each of us is trapped within a metaphorical prison: the prison of the self. It is a commonplace that people without empathy are otherwise known as sociopaths.

Sen. Jeff Sessions R-Alabama), one of Kyl’s Republican colleagues, seemed to realize this when he asked Judge Sotomajor at her Supreme Court confirmation hearings about the New Haven firefighters case. Trying to comply with Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, the City of New Haven threw out the results of a promotional exam for firefighters in which no blacks had qualified for advancement. In Ricci v. DeStephano, white firefighers sued, claiming racial bias. Judge Sotomajor was part of a three-judge panel of the Second US Circuit Court of Appeals that upheld the city’s decision. The Supreme Court reversed the Second Circuit’s ruling in June, setting the stage for an attempt by Republican opponents of Judge Sotomajor’s nomination to make some political hay − or at least try to.

Sen. Sessions wanted to know whether Judge Sotomajor cared about what the white firefighters may have felt when the appeals panel she served on rejected their racial bias arguments in a three-paragraph ruling. In other words, he was asking whether she empathized with them. Did Sessions appreciate the irony of this, given the overt attack on empathy made by his colleague Kyl? Good cop, bad cop: one senator says Sotomajor shouldn't be empathetic; the other says she
wasn't empathetic enough.

Capitol Hill dust-ups come and go, often leaving deeper issues unexamined entirely. For me, this one provides the impetus to connect with Paul Ricoeur’s book Oneself as Another. We cling too closely to individual identity in America, and our lack of empathy, both personally and collectively, reflects emotional impoverishment in the materially richest country in the world.

1 comment:

  1. First, "community service" was maligned, and now, "empathy?" Does it begin to seem as if some people are desperately grasping at straws and seeking to invent controversy where none can be reasonably detected??