Fear of Empathy: Senate Republicans Attack Sotomayor

Senator Grassley used a term today at the hearings of Sonia Sotomayor: “The Empathy Standard.” Citing President Obama’s stated criterion that he would nominate someone for the Supreme Court who had a capacity for empathy, Grassley worried that Sonia Sotomayor might be too empathic. And this propensity made him and a number of other Republican senators anxious [See “Obama’s Pick Sotomayor Derided by Conservatives for Empathy,” by Paul Gorrell].

In the Senate these days, “empathy” has become a synonym for “partiality,” “not being objective,” “legislating from the bench,” and, most remarkably, for “prejudice.” (Senator Jeff Sessions, who knows his way around prejudice, calmly declared that empathy has two sides, and that empathy for one side means prejudice against another.) The good Senator Grassley was reminded by NPR’s Robert Siegel that although similar statements concerning ethnic identity and empathy were made by Justice Samuel Alito during his confirmation hearings, Senator Grassley voted to confirm him. The senator responded by simply reiterating his earlier statements rather than admitting his own inconsistency.

Senator Grassley’s difficulties aside, the larger question is what happened in the Senate to the word empathy. Every high school student learns the difference between sympathy and empathy. According to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), empathy is “the power of projecting one’s personality into (and so fully comprehending) the object of contemplation.” The focus here is on comprehension, and while certain definitions of empathy involve feeling, one does not have to feel similarly in order to be empathic, or to imagine oneself in the situation of another.

Sympathy, in contrast, is a question of fellow-feeling, defined by the OED as: “the quality or state of being affected by the condition of another with a feeling similar or corresponding to that of the other; the fact or capacity of entering into or sharing the feelings of another or others; fellow-feeling.” The word sympathy can also imply being influenced by another: it can mean “a feeling or frame of mind evoked by and responsive to some external influence.” And the OED goes on, in a weakened sense, sympathy can mean “a favourable attitude of mind towards a party, cause, etc.; disposition to agree or approve.”

First of all, our good senators need a lesson in semantics. What they meant to say about Judge Sotomayor was that she might be too sympathetic, not too empathic. They were worried about her capacity to be influenced externally by her fellow-feeling, as the OED describes above. But President Obama in contrast seemed to be putting his first-class education to good use by choosing his words carefully when he spoke of empathy. Unlike the senators, he knew what he was talking about. The quality of justice meted out by anyone on the bench clearly necessitates being able to imagine the situation of all parties involved. Judgments by juries made up of laypeople like myself involving things like “premeditation” or “crimes of passion” or “mitigating circumstances,” demand just such powers of imagination.

But basic semantics aside, there is more to this issue. The senators were assuming that empathy was always and everywhere opposed to impartiality, implying that you can’t have one without jeopardizing the other. Scholars of religion know better. In the study of religion we frequently argue about empathy, and the difference between empathy and critique.

We’ve argued for decades about the word, so we know where the pitfalls lie. We know where the pitfalls lie because we study something barely tolerated in the academy: the bizarre choice, on the part of some individuals, to be faithful to something other than reason. And we are caught in a double bind: if we imagine too well the situation of the religious communities we study, then we have abandoned the secular reason of historical and critical thought that grounds our field of study. And if we don’t imagine well enough those same communities, then we have failed in our duty to describe carefully and responsibly that most intriguing of human phenomena that some classify by the English word “religion.”

The debate about this question is very old indeed—as old as the secular study of religion itself.

Its most recent form concerns the role of the scholar of religion in relationship to his or her objects of inquiry. Many scholars, such as Russell McCutcheon, see the work of the scholar as primarily critical; as he writes in Critics Not Caretakers (2001), the public work of the scholar of religion should be making sense of the “data” of religion in social scientific terms. In doing so, scholars should not be afraid to challenge the claims of the religious communities themselves and the leaders within them.

Others, such as Robert Orsi (2001; 2005), argue that scholars have long neglected and ignored the human beings in their studies, and that any moral stance for a scholar of religion must involve identification with the subjects themselves, no matter how difficult that might be. As Orsi writes, we “enter into the otherness of religious practices in search of an understanding of their human ground.” (2001: 106)

Others, such as Thomas Tweed (2006), have taken a middle path, arguing that scholars themselves move and shift positions, alternating between insider and outsider identities, sympathetic and critical positions, presenter and analyzer all in the course of the same study.

Both Orsi and McCutcheon take provocative positions in order to correct what they perceive as intellectual imbalances in the study of religions. But most scholars of religion today operate in this middle ground that Tweed so adeptly describes, and intuitively know that empathy and critique are part and parcel of the same imaginative task. Empathy, for them, is not a dirty word, nor is it a word signifying prejudice in the process of seemingly objective analysis. It is simply the capacity to imagine another’s position while reserving the right to come to one’s own judgment on the subject. Through open and engaging debate, scholars of religion have made some important progress when it comes to the word empathy.

And if scholars can do this when thinking about religion, surely senators can do this when thinking about the law. Most of us misuse words in everyday speech, and most of us would do well to consult a dictionary every now and then. But here we are witnessing the blatant distortion of a word’s meaning for political purposes—nothing new, to be sure, but certainly sad and striking coming from the mouths of our elected officials who claim to care about the judiciousness of the judiciary.

In his NPR interview, Senator Grassley said he would be reassured if he knew that Sonia Sotomayor’s “real love” was a love for and fidelity to the law. Clearly, Senator Grassley is not afraid of using emotional words like “love” when it comes to the law. Why, then, is he so afraid of empathy?