Empathetic imagination

I have a backlog of things I want to blog about. There’s a good reason for this: I’ve moved into the active writing phase of working on my dissertation. For the next year, give or take, other writing comes second, so I may be quieter than usual hereabouts. On the other hand, today there’s a number of things that I think are loosely related that I want to write about, so here goes:

It’s moving to hear about a politician who learns first-hand what it’s like to struggle through a certain situation, and gains empathy in the process. That’s a touching story, but it shouldn’t be a necessary one. We should be doing this kind of work, of putting ourselves in the position of those we’re thinking about and dealing with, on a regular basis. Among other things, we don’t have time for everybody to learn this first-hand.

Other politicians are seriously lacking in this empathy. They can talk about their distress when their “people are literally freezing in the winter and they’re without food and they’re without shelter and they’re without clothing,” in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, but why haven’t they been worrying about these very same bad things happening to people every day? Those others must be, in some indefinable way, not theirs. It makes me want to ask the old Christian Sunday school question: Who is your neighbor?

This is not just the lack of something, it’s also a necessary precondition to hatred. Here are two separate examples of conservative Christians who are associated in various ways with hate groups denying not only the value of empathetic imagination, but the very possibility of it: First, homophobes are incapable of imagining that someone who is straight would want to support rights for QUILTBAG folks, and second, an argument that assumes only parents and children are capable of caring for each other across generations.

Actually, I’m not anti-social for refusing to have children because I’m capable of caring about people – both older than me and younger than me – who are not my family. That’s how Social Security, and Medicare, and Medicaid, and a whole host of other things work.

I don’t care whether you call it the Golden Rule or the Rule of Three or the Law of Return or what, but the hard work of extending that kind of empathetic imagination is at the heart of how I do ethics. It’s sad to see the hypocrisy exposed in a politician who is suddenly shocked, shocked, to discover that his party doesn’t care about people who are having a hard time. It’s more revealing to notice people denying that this empathetic imagination can exist at all.

When you hear someone say that, look out – because they most certainly will not be willing to extend it to you if you once step out of their little box of “people like me.”

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About Literata

Literata is a Wiccan priestess and writer. She edited Crossing the River: An Anthology in Honor of Sacred Journeys, and her poetry, rituals, and nonfiction have appeared in works such as Mandragora, Unto Herself, and Anointed as well as multiple periodicals. Literata has presented rituals and workshops at Sacred Space conference, Fertile Ground Gathering, and other mid-Atlantic venues. Literata offers healing and divination services as well as customized life-cycle rituals. She is currently completing her doctoral dissertation in history with the support of her husband and four cats.
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