In the past few months, I’ve admitted to three of my best friends that I have an extreme lack of empathy. When extreme bad shit happens to people around me, I don’t get upset or feel sorry for them. As Thomas Hobbes said, life is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.”
I once suggested in this blog that Republicans tend to be less empathetic to people outside the American mainstream because Republicans often have less exposure to those outside the mainstream. But while that may explain why I’m a Republican; it doesn’t explain why I lack empathy.
Alternative explanations might include my ethnicity – i.e., my German DNA – or my upbringing – self-reliant farming stock.
Regardless, I am certainly afflicted with this character flaw, which I first remember noticing when Michael Dukakis was asked in a presidential debate about capital punishment in the context of his wife being hypothetically murdered. Dukakis responded dispassionately about why he still opposed capital punishment and was roundly criticized in the press for failing to passionately describe the hate he would feel for the murderer. Like Dukakis, I would have the same tendency to focus on the right answer instead of articulating empathy – more Spock and less Bill Clinton.
Earlier today on Facebook, my Spock-esque empathy got me into lots of trouble. One of my most political and highly emotional friends (young, pretty social worker) posted something about her SA grandmother getting mugged for some cash. As you might expect, she demanded capital punishment if the thug is ever caught. The following items are her initial post and follow-up comments in response to various notes of support:
- There are no words for how I feel right now. I’m angry. Angry. Livid. OMG I want to punch something. Ugh. I’m so livid right now. Grrrrrrrrrrr!!!!
- Someone robbed a family member of mine.
- She had just cashed her check and they robbed her forcibly. God forgive me but I hope they die in a violent car accident!!!!
- No one fucks with my family!!!
- Seriously I hope the burglar dies in a horrible car accident or something. I know it’s mean but tonight I don’t care!
- Badly shaken up. Which makes me furious!!!!
- I just don’t know what the fuck is wrong with people??? People who mess with the elderly are pretty fucking low and worthless!!
- If I had been there I would’ve hurt someone for sure!!!!
Of course, me with my Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus mentality of Mike Dukakis, skipped past the empathy and sympathy thing because a dozen people had already covered that aspect of the situation. What no one had pointed out was that for the past few days my Facebook social worker wanted to lynch Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson and the entire criminal justice system in America because of the harsh way that Michael Brown was treated after robbing an elderly Korean shopkeeper. Wasn’t there some cognitive dissonance going on here? So I posted:
- “What about that old Korean shopkeeper in Ferguson who was robbed? He was someone’s family member, too. Oh yeah, his shop and a dozen others were burned down by rioters who thought the police officer should have been able to subdue the 300-pound, charging robber without shooting him.”
Not surprisingly, my social-worker friend was displeased:
- “Mike Kueber, at no point have you ever heard me condone the rioting of Ferguson. Please don’t make this a political point when it comes to my grandmother getting mugged, k?
Of course, she wasn’t the only one displeased. Several of her friends took me to task, and my friend thanked them for their support. E.g.,:
- “Thank you I. T. You said something I wanted to say but was floored about an unnecessary political potshot over something I have never condoned at all but someone felt the need to make an opportunity out of it rather than show sympathy for my grandmother. Must feel so big and proud I guess? Whatever turns someone’s motor I guess.
Because I accepted my faux paus in wanting to discuss Mars, while everyone else wanted to discuss Venus, I decided against pushing the cognitive-dissonance argument:
- “Ana Alicia Perez, I’m sorry for failing to compartmentalize the two incidents. The Ferguson issue just really bothers me, especially after seeing all the fawning press yesterday approve the St. Louis Five protest. Tim Tebow gets excoriated for his gesture, but the Five has license to mock the police – Hands Up, Don’t Shoot.”
And my friend seemed to accept this dénouement:
- “I understand Mike. Look back on my feed and I posted an article about the guys who stopped the rioters from destroying a family-owned shop… Probably I posted it two or three days ago. I have never condoned the rioting as it doesn’t make sense how anyone is going to make a point by destroying their own city. It is stupid. Did I agree with the legal decision? No. Did I agree with a bunch of people costing millions in damages to their city and hurting small businesses that Jeromy and I support rather than big business? No. I don’t know anything about the Tim Tebow thing other than he is homophobic so I don’t like him anyway. And as for the nfl thing I saw that and rolled my eyes. It was tacky and I don’t think the NFL can be anything of a moral high ground considering the players who have been caught with drugs, beating their wives, dog fighting, etc.”
But later a straggler friend of hers weighed in:
- Oh I hate it when someone commits a violent crime such as that on elderly citizens. There should be a double or triple penalty for idiots that do this. I can truly and sincerely understand your frustration in that they rot in hell. I totally agree with you. And that gentleman speaking about Ferguson needs to just shut up. Anna, anyone in the neighborhood that can describe this person? Any witnesses ?!?! OMG. I hate to hear this. Sounds like an assault as well. We need to speak to our elders & tell them to please be aware of their surroundings. I walked into Valero last evening to use ATM and a line of 6 hoods lined up behind me …. Waiting …. I grabbed my card and split !!! I know what they wanted !!! Rectums !!! They’re everywhere. Be careful Peeps !!! I am SO sorry, Ana. God bless your poor granny. She’s in my prayers. Hoping the men in blue find that dork.
I might have overlooked the “shut up” suggestion, although I find particularly abhorrent, but the reference to the “men in blue” was too much to pass up. So I responded directly to the straggler:
- [Straggler], pray tell, what do you want the men in blue to do when they find the robber. Darren Wilson wants to know. I love it how so-called liberal-minded people casually throw around the term, “shut up.” “Shut up” about abortion if you don’t have a vagina; “shut up” about immigration if you aren’t a native American. Great arguments.
The straggler, who has a graduate degree from UTSA, weakly defended her position by saying:
- “They know their Job description. Ask them. Thnx.”
And that finally ended our conversation, with I suspect no minds changed. They see this as heavy-handed police and prosecutors, and I see it as a conscientious policemen dealing properly with a thug. Although I have a hard time empathizing with young black males going around with chips on their shoulders (e.g., Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown), I don’t understand their failure to empathize with a policeman having to patrol Ferguson and deal with a known robber who has already tried to take your gun while you were sitting in your car.
Someone, however, who has done a good job of empathizing with everyone, is NO Saints tight end, Benjamin Watson, who posted the following on his Facebook wall (and who also posted a 48 on the NFL’s Wonderlic test, tied for 3rd highest ever):
At some point while I was playing or preparing to play Monday Night Football, the news broke about the Ferguson Decision. After trying to figure out how I felt, I decided to write it down. Here are my thoughts:
- I’M ANGRY because the stories of injustice that have been passed down for generations seem to be continuing before our very eyes.
- I’M FRUSTRATED, because pop culture, music and movies glorify these types of police citizen altercations and promote an invincible attitude that continues to get young men killed in real life, away from safety movie sets and music studios.
- I’M FEARFUL because in the back of my mind I know that although I’m a law abiding citizen I could still be looked upon as a “threat” to those who don’t know me. So I will continue to have to go the extra mile to earn the benefit of the doubt.
- I’M EMBARRASSED because the looting, violent protests, and law breaking only confirm, and in the minds of many, validate, the stereotypes and thus the inferior treatment.
- I’M SAD, because another young life was lost from his family, the racial divide has widened, a community is in shambles, accusations, insensitivity hurt and hatred are boiling over, and we may never know the truth about what happened that day.
- I’M SYMPATHETIC, because I wasn’t there so I don’t know exactly what happened. Maybe Darren Wilson acted within his rights and duty as an officer of the law and killed Michael Brown in self defense like any of us would in the circumstance. Now he has to fear the backlash against himself and his loved ones when he was only doing his job. What a horrible thing to endure. OR maybe he provoked Michael and ignited the series of events that led to him eventually murdering the young man to prove a point.
- I’M OFFENDED, because of the insulting comments I’ve seen that are not only insensitive but dismissive to the painful experiences of others.
- I’M CONFUSED, because I don’t know why it’s so hard to obey a policeman. You will not win!!! And I don’t know why some policeman abuse their power. Power is a responsibility, not a weapon to brandish and lord over the populace.
- I’M INTROSPECTIVE, because sometimes I want to take “our” side without looking at the facts in situations like these. Sometimes I feel like it’s us against them. Sometimes I’m just as prejudiced as people I point fingers at. And that’s not right. How can I look at white skin and make assumptions but not want assumptions made about me? That’s not right.
- I’M HOPELESS, because I’ve lived long enough to expect things like this to continue to happen. I’m not surprised and at some point my little children are going to inherit the weight of being a minority and all that it entails.
- I’M HOPEFUL, because I know that while we still have race issues in America, we enjoy a much different normal than those of our parents and grandparents. I see it in my personal relationships with teammates, friends and mentors. And it’s a beautiful thing.
- I’M ENCOURAGED, because ultimately the problem is not a SKIN problem, it is a SIN problem. SIN is the reason we rebel against authority. SIN is the reason we abuse our authority. SIN is the reason we are racist, prejudiced and lie to cover for our own. SIN is the reason we riot, loot and burn. BUT I’M ENCOURAGED because God has provided a solution for sin through the his son Jesus and with it, a transformed heart and mind. One that’s capable of looking past the outward and seeing what’s truly important in every human being. The cure for the Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice and Eric Garner tragedies is not education or exposure. It’s the Gospel. So, finally, I’M ENCOURAGED because the Gospel gives mankind hope.