David Brooks is a conservative-to-moderate columnist for The New York Times who I usually disagree with, so when we're on the same side of an issue, I figure we've found something the sensible middle will agree on as well. And according to a recent column, we agree on the need for empathy in Supreme Court justices.
According to Brooks, it's ridiculous to think any judge can make a decision devoid of an emotional component. "It is incoherent to say that a judge should base an opinion on reason and not emotion," he writes, "because emotions are an inherent part of decision-making. … People without social emotions like empathy are not objective decision-makers. They are sociopaths who sometimes end up on death row."
Conservatives are flailing around looking for reasons to oppose Obama's nomination of Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court, and they've landed on the "empathy" argument. The sexist and racist undertones are all too apparent. The implication is that a woman, and especially a Hispanic woman, would be too emotional to be a good judge. It didn't bother them when Bush called Justice Thomas empathetic or when Justice Alito says his background as a grandchild of immigrants flavors his decisions on the Court. But when the potential justice's last name is Sotomayor and she is nominated by a man whose full name is Barack Hussein Obama, they want us to see red flags everywhere.
However, that only explains part of the conservative anti-empathy argument. The other part is, the Empathy Gene appears to be missing from conservatives' DNA.
Don't get me wrong. Conservatives can be plenty emotional. Republican politicians know how to play on the emotions of their base like a cheap violin. But they lack the ability to understand the feelings of others as they do their own, which is the essence of empathy. It's easy to understand the feelings of someone who is like you. It's harder to reach out beyond your own experiences and imagine what it might be like to walk around in a very different person's shoes.
Conservatives laugh at "bleeding heart liberals." They scoff at Clinton's signature phrase, "I feel your pain." They consider social programs that help everyone in the country attain a decent quality of life to be as soft-headed as they are soft-hearted. The conservative ideology revolves around selfishness and limited self-interest. "I'll take care of me and mine," conservatives say. "If it helps you but doesn't help me, you're on your own." Empathy is for suckers.
I have rarely seen a less empathetic, more heartless group of people than the Republican state legislators who are advocating for their hack-and-slash budget in Phoenix. They don't give a damn what happens to children in schools or people who depend on health care or other social services to survive.
I want to say they're 100 percent against taxes, but that isn't quite true. Take our own Sen. Al Melvin, a prime example of someone missing the Empathy Gene. Melvin admitted that, much as he stands strong against tax increases to balance the state budget, he voted for a local tax hike to fix our roads.
Melvin can understand the very real pain he experiences in his own sensitive backside every time his car hits a pothole. But he can't understand the pain of a mother who worries her children will be left behind because of an inferior education, or a father who has to decide between putting food on the table and paying medical bills. In public forums, he's been known to make snide, sarcastic, hurtful comments to people who express deep concern about the future of their children.
True, justices must put the Constitution first and foremost, and legislators must make hard economic choices. But a healthy dose of empathy helps both groups arrive at just, caring decisions that work for the best interests of society.
Dave Safier is a regular contributor to Blog for Arizona.