Tuesday, July 14, 2009

A Lesson in Empathy from the Supreme Court Nomination

Senator Sessions as part of his first day of questioning against the nomination to the Supreme Court made the following statement:

In Ricci, Judge Sotomayor’s empathy for one group of firefighters turned out to be prejudice against another.”

The implied predicate that if you are empathetic to one group you cannot be fair to another is not true. What empathy does is to help you see a person's side of a case from their viewpoint --it does not mean that if I see a problem from one person's view that I have pre-judged the case--in favor of one person or the other. The empathy is what we need from our judges and from our students when examining issues--empathy really describes a quality of attention that you can provide to a matter.
Bias and prejudice really are about negating any real attention to people or facts but simply in a knee jerk fashion to come to a pre-determined result.

Our ability to empathize with people who look don't look and talk like us is generally weaker --so a globally aware perspective dependsd critically on our ability to nurture our abilities in this area. My thesis developed in the book is that technology (particularly the Web 2.0 variety) allows us to use tools to overcome the natural barriers of distance to reach out and understand how despite superficial differences we share the same human qualities and aspirations. It requires teachers to be more open in pointing out the human issues involved in situations that otherwise seem remote to them. Sometimes these situations can only really be explored through following individual stories --so for example we can take on the tragedy of Darfur or a Rwanda (think Hotel Rwanda) through understanding and identifying with the individuals involved. It is a skill we can all develop and improve as we journey through life. We have seen the enormous social and moral catastrophes occur when an entire people's ability to empathize is lost--as politicians find ways to turn people into objects. Our duty as teachers, citizens and even judges is to recognize that empathy is a way to oppose prejudice and stereotyping.

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