Saturday, September 18, 2010

The Dangers of 'Empathy'

“He needs to connect better with the public,” she said. “He cares, but he has to show he cares.”

It was my mom talking, and we’d gotten onto the subject of President Obama. She was making a common point that, with the economy still rocky and the midterm elections looming, the President needs to imbue his speech with a greater sense of compassion. He has to convey that he not only understands, but empathizes with the individual fears, tribulations, and financial woes of the nation. Words, even carefully chosen ones, aren’t enough. His transmissions to us should be one part intellect, two parts feeling, she and many others seem to be implying.

While I mostly agree with this, I was annoyed. Not so much with my mom as with the idea that the President—or anyone, really—should be required to wear every word on his sleeve for others to accept what he’s saying as honest or credible. Given his office, and the fact that he was placed there by electoral vote, shouldn’t the straightforward, grammatically sound answers that the President generally gives to the press and the public be worth something? When he says, simply and seriously, that he knows many Americans are still in a difficult spot, and that his administration is doing what it can to alleviate what was known from the start to be a protracted economic slump, should we dismiss the claim because his face doesn’t seem to betray the right amount of pathos? What exactly do we want from him? For his voice to crack? For him to wring his hands in despair? For his hair to turn even grayer? Isn’t it the role of a leader to take a reserved, confident stance when the rest of us are teetering toward hopelessness?

There’s some reason to be suspicious of the sort of conspicuous passion that Americans seem to be calling for from their commander-in-chief. In Washington, Mr.-Smith-style bluster doesn’t play as well as in the movies, and the most effusive and vociferous public servants often end up looking more foolish than heroic. At the President’s health care address last year, excessive emotion got one congressman from South Carolina (“You lie!”) into trouble. On the other side of the aisle, New York Representative Anthony Weiner, in July, held the House floor with a furious rant when Republicans attempted to delay a bill that would provide health care to 9/11 responders, a spectacle that is fun to watch but ultimately pretty silly-looking (“The gentleman is correct in sitting!”). We may admire, in theory, a politician who’s mad as hell and not going to take it anymore, but do we want that sort of person in the Oval Office? Maybe these are extreme examples, but the fact is that strong visible emotion—good, bad or ugly—is not always an asset when it comes to political discourse. If you watched any of the bipartisan roundtable discussion on health care, which was televised last September, the way in which the President calmly dispensed with the arguments of certain combative right-wingers should have given you at least a sense that it’s nice, sometimes, to have a cool head running the show.

Passion has been big in the news lately. It was passion, or outrage, that helped to turn last week’s 9/11 anniversary into an occasion for as much protest (for or against the Islamic Center near Ground Zero, not to mention the planned burning of the Koran by a Florida pastor) as quiet remembrance. Also dealing in outrage is the Tea Party movement, which seems to thrive on the intense, vague connections forged between rousing speakers and mass crowds. Chief among the agitators is, of course, Glenn Beck, who recently presided over a "Restoring Honor" rally at the National Mall, on the anniversary of Martin Luther King’s “I Have A Dream” speech (a piece of oratory which, most would probably agree, was nothing if not heartfelt). Beck, in spite of his broad following among conservatives, has drawn some criticism for his incendiary antics on his TV and radio shows and his tendency to well up on the air. Do I think he’s faking it? Actually, I’m not sure. Even if he isn’t, it’s precisely the ‘sincerity’ with which he delivers his pronouncements—which are usually sanctimonious or apocalyptic, or both—that troubles me. Beck makes a maudlin show of fighting back patriotic tears, and suddenly an insinuation that the U.S. could be headed in the direction of Nazi Germany (universal health care, apparently, is the first step on the path to eugenics) strikes an emotional chord with hundreds of thousands of viewers. Wow, he really must care about this country. He’s actually crying. He scribbles emphatically on a chalkboard and thrusts his face toward the camera, ranting and raving, and his ideas gain a persuasive weight by virtue of his theatricality.

It’s a similar phenomenon with Sarah Palin, who at her speaking engagements is prone to make impassioned pleas to “take back our country”. From whom exactly? I’m not sure any of the people nodding in assent at a Tea Party rally could answer that question. And if they did, I have a hunch the explanation would be less than convincing. Gusto, however, is convincing, and it can give to even the leakiest arguments a sense of truth and urgency. It can also give the distinct impression that a speaker feels what he or she is expressing more deeply than he or she does. Whether they mean what they’re saying or not, Beck and Palin have a knack for strumming the emotions of their supporters like a star-spangled six-string.

Politics depend on this type of grandiloquence. Succinct, high-flown assurances were Churchill’s specialty during World War II. FDR made the leap to the minds and hearts of citizens over the airwaves, saying, “Together we cannot fail.” Later, Kennedy: “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.” A beautiful turn of phrase, but would most of us actually agree with it today? Much more recently, we have Bill Clinton, who for all his flaws is a master of harnessing the power of social connections. So was John Edwards, though like Clinton he fell hard from grace and left us to wonder just how hollow his words were. I don’t mean to lump in Beck and Palin with these relative heavyweights of articulation. FDR, I’m sure, would have sooner eaten his fedora than said “youbetcha” during one of his fireside chats. And yet, you might argue that the effect of their words and presence, and their appeal, are similar. They inspire people. They get people riled up. And most tellingly, they make those in the audience feel as if the individual and the speaker are sharing the same emotional and ideological space. They project empathy. She’s just like me, is a common sentiment among the scores of “hockey moms” who follow the former governor of Alaska in earnest. “You’re not alone,” Beck confides to the camera, his chin quivering.

In the end, it’s a very fine line between stirring rhetoric and something like manipulation, maybe so fine as to be imperceptible to the naked ear. What counts, I suppose, is where that manipulation is taking you, and what’s behind it. I don’t believe that most Americans could be coerced into taking a position toward which they aren’t already predisposed. A fire can’t be made in a vacuum. But still, a compelling orator is able to fan existing flames this way or that.

As he’s occasionally shown, our President can inspire too. It’s his talent for sweeping statements of optimism that got his career going in the first place, and from time to time—his victory speech at Grant Park, his call for interfaith peace in Cairo, even his eloquent final push for health care reform—the sound of his language reaches a moving, historical pitch. In those moments, he lets us in. We feel we might know him, and he might know us. But the public memory is short, and maybe in recent months we’ve seen too many measured responses to immeasurable problems. In the times ahead we’ll see if the President is made a victim of a perceived coolness and inaccessibility, or if we can learn to trust a leader who, for whatever reason, seems to be saying all the right things in not quite the right way.