Combining Reason and Empathy in 2024 – by Deborah Levine

Originally published in The Chattanooga Times Free Press

Whether you resolve to get more exercise, learn new skills, or avoid doing stupid stuff, January has us thinking about the future. I began 2024 with good works, donating piles of clothing at Goodwill in Eastgate Mall. Driving there, I realized that the process begins with gratitude and humanity. That means being grateful for those who have come before us, who gave us life. We remember that we’re not only their beneficiaries, but also their legacy of how they made a difference.

My mother, Estelle, is the poster child for that legacy. She was a pioneer in Special Education in the 1940s. Her sister, my Aunt Polly, quite accurately called her a saint. Yet, Mom always said that it was my dad who attracted everyone’s attention in the room at gatherings. A former US military intelligence officer, he exuded power. And while her sweet smile telegraphed amazing humanity and empathy, it didn’t matter. No one sought out the soft-spoken, kind woman in the room, including me. 

As a teenager, I loved Mom’s empathy but took it for granted. I thought she was a wimp even when dad informed me, “Never think that your mother is a pushover.” I discovered the truth when I just laughed at her demand that I take the high school’s first offered computer programming course in the 1960s. “This is not a suggestion,” She said and added her intellectual rationale: “This is our future.”  She exuded even more power than dad. “Yes, ma’am!” And I eventually became an IT Director. 

That was decades ago, and folks are even more convinced that empathy opens the door to wimp-hood. It’s no accident that an article in the South Florida Sun Sentinel has the following title: “Florida Democrats want ‘integrity’ in a president. Republicans want ‘leadership.’ Almost no one wants ‘empathy.”  In a Florida Atlantic University poll released last month that asked the state’s voters what personality trait they value the most in a presidential candidate, empathy was dead last. Republicans were at 0%.

Remember 1992 when Bill Clinton was called a virtuoso of empathy, winning over George H.W. Bush to become president? Al Gore’s 2000 defeat was blamed partly on his emotional frigidity. Mitt Romney’s “empathy gap” with Barack Obama got him defeated in 2012.

That all changed in 2016 when Trump ran for president, Dr. Paul Bloom, a professor of psychology at Yale, gave a talk at a conference entitled, “Does Empathy Make Us Immoral?” Bloom claims that empathy can motivate aggression, hate and violence against opponents. He notes leaders don’t need empathy and that “Sob stories are not a good way to make public policy,” he said. “The best leaders have a certain enlightened aloofness.” 

Disagreeing with Bloom is a psychologist at Stanford University who claims that empathy can be guided and  “… choosing empathy affords us opportunities to build more diverse and powerful social connections, and take control of our emotional lives.”

Bloom goes back to Adam Smith’s 1759 view: “It is reason, principle, conscience, the inhabitant of the breast, the man within, the great judge and arbiter of our conduct.” 

We can go back and forth between empathy and reason all year long, and it will be a long journey with the upcoming presidential election. But somehow we must find a way to bring reason and empathy together. You can be stern, but not enraged, You can be rational, but not frigid. You can have integrity and leadership in the same boat, and set sail for calmer seas. As my mother would say, “This is not a suggestion. This is the future.” Be grateful … it’s time to create our own legacy.


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