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Civil Empathy

Updated: Jan 28, 2021

As I watch the important news for today, June 15, 2020, my mind reels at the inescapable connection between all of the news stories which fill our screens. Whether it be Covid-19, severe weather, ground water contamination pretty much anywhere, a SWAT team in Florida resigning because their council members kneeled with black rights protestors, another death of an unarmed Black man in Atlanta, or the 6-3 Supreme Court decision making it the law of the land that employers cannot fire trans or queer workers because of their sexual orientation, all these topics deal with the definition of what it means to protect justice.

Justice is the overriding principle which separates a civilized society from a death camp. In the latter example, an unelected group gets to decide, usually by force, whom to subjugate or destroy. In a civilized society the people, or their designated representatives decide how best to protect every citizen from injustice of every kind.

When we discuss social justice as an abstract principle, it can be explained as the way in which society ensures equal treatment to those who find themselves at the margins; inhabiting those imperiled spaces which are repeatedly "underserved". I do not like the use of the word "political" as I see it being used in the first two decades of the 21st century, but I feel completely comfortable with its use within this observation: "underserved" is a political word, a euphemism for powerless and neglected.

In my writing and my professional life, the societal perception of "underserved" varies radically depending upon which citizen you ask. Middle Class White males in my home state of Georgia believe the economic system underserves their needs and expectations. The parent of a second grader in a wheelchair in rural Iowa believes the school system which does not provide full ADA accessibility within its buildings is underserving the needs of a child's disability. A Black mother whose son is shot in the back for fleeing in blind terror from police officers who have lost the trust of much of the populace whom they have sworn to protect believes the criminal justice system is underserving her people of color.

Is it my place, or that of any single person, or even small subset of society, to discriminate as to who is most worthy of being heard?

A democracy posits that all citizens are to be viewed as equal. If one builds upon that logic, then all of these suffering groups must be given a voice and respected. If they are not, then the democracy will flounder. History books are filled to the brim with examples of government which persists in ignoring this basic, fragile underpinning of democracy, and their denouement is always the same.

I remember a dinner party conversation with three of my closest girlfriends in South Carolina wherein we debated the merits versus the shortcomings of what now is referred to as Obamacare. I was the only of our group of four who believed deeply and vociferously that Obamacare was an essential positive change for our country. Like many of our debates, this conversation was lively, but in the final analysis the point of contention rested with whether or not a tangible safety net existed for those underserved by the current private health insurance-based model in our country.

I said there absolutely was not, and that this entrenched inequity was not sustainable within a democracy. They asserted that 'anyone could go to the emergency room' if they did not have insurance, in order to get needed healthcare. I then asked if any of them would choose to obtain their healthcare regularly for themselves or anyone they loved by going to sit, potentially for hours, in the nearest emergency room. They said flatly no, but that their point was that a safety net did exist for those too poor to benefit from the privileged system they enjoyed and wished to keep in place.

That answer stunned me. More than any policy discussion I have ever had, my friends' (all of whom are mothers) unhesitant comfort level with relegating others to medical treatment they would consider insufficient for themselves did not coincide with the type of people I believed them to be. I discussed my shock later with my teenage child who stated simply, "Mom, what you are stuck on is your empathy, and the lack of it in somebody else."

The pearl of wisdom I have finally pried from the stinking, pluff-mud-laden oyster holding the slimy mass of dark news bites besieging us for the past three months is that if we cannot envision the way in which we would feel were we to suffer the same pain we watch another experience, we cannot truly hear or validate that suffering. We then proceed to discount its relevance to us, or say we are just too busy to be bothered.

I did not have perfect parents or grandparents, but both sets of role models repeatedly and indelibly imprinted the precept into my brain that I must always try to put myself in another's place when that person is suffering. I do not find this personal philosophy to be something that has made me a more generous or unselfish person, but it has deeply grounded me in the expectation that civilizations require this philosophy of their citizens.

Perhaps because we all know that if left to our own primal devices, without the scrutiny and redirects of others, we might not be able to live up to the ideals of a democratic society. In the end it is a calculated decision which could make some of us better citizens, but at the very least requires that those who would avoid the problem be brought inside of the solution.

While watching the horrors which spill across our devices, ask yourself, "how would I feel in that situation?"

If your answer is that you would never be in that situation, then I wish you unusually good luck.


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