When Republicans complained about President Obama's "empathy" standard, she [Sotomayor] agreed, and politely suggested that they ask the president what he means by it. "We apply law to facts, we don't apply feelings to facts," she said.

sym·pa·thy: the act or capacity of entering into or sharing the feelings or interests of another b: the feeling or mental state brought about by such sensitivity <sympathy for the poor>... synonyms see attraction, pity

em·pa·thy : the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner ; also : the capacity for this

When I first learned the word empathy it was about feelings. You can feel bad for someone. That's sympathy. But if you have the same experience as the person, that's empathy. If you can say "I know how you feel" and that's actually true, that's empathy.

It wasn't until years later that I learned a more subtle definition, one that's about more than feelings. In my original definition, empathy was something that could only be gleaned from personal experience; it can't be learned, it just happens if you and a friend have had the same experience.

But then, in my sophomore year of college, I fell into a pseudo-spokeswoman role for a program called Reacting to the Past, in which students learn philosophy and history through role playing. I have learned Rousseau's Social Contract by playing a Jacobin in the French Revolution, Gandhi's teachings by playing the president of the Indian National Congress, Abul Kalam Azad during India's fight for independence. I have helped students learn about the New Testament through the trial of Anne Hutchinson, Confucius' Analects through a succession crisis in Ming China, and Plato's Republic through the establishment of Democracy in Athens and the trial of Socrates.

Studies about Reacting have found that students in reacting display better public speaking skills than their peers in standard seminars. But the same study also found that Reacting students gain more capacity for empathy. That one always made me a bit skeptical; did Reacting students develop some sort of uncanny ability to really understand how other people feel? Did they become more attached to historical characters? To fictional characters? Are college courses supposed to have that kind of impact on your personality?

The Sotomayor confirmation hearings are forcing me to revisit my definition of empathy. Assuming that it can be learned as is assumed in the Reacting study, empathy can't possibly mean that you have to share the exact same experiences. The last three words of the dictionary definition then become essential: "the capacity for this."

Based on my Reacting experience, I would redefine empathy as the ability to understand the other person's experiences through consideration of his values, history, and way he approaches the world.

I have made a passionate speech about the dangers of a free press. I don't have enough rhetorical skill to make that argument on total B.S. In the context of the French revolution, I really needed to believe that for this shaky nation in need of a functional government, a free press would cause more revolution than order.

Reacting forces students to draw both on experiences they have actually had and on experiences that, prior to the research, they can barely comprehend.

The capacity for empathy, what Obama appears to be looking for in a Supreme Court nominee, is something that is being taught in Reacting classrooms, where you can spend a month being a revolutionary and the next month arguing for the status quo: for a monarchy or a theocracy.

The capacity for empathy appears to be part of being objective, of actually understanding both sides of a story or of an oral argument presented before the Supreme Court; I don't think it has anything to do with feeling bad for anyone, or for using emotions to make decisions.

At least according to the Reacting definition, empathy requires a lot of knowledge, understanding of the facts, and the basic tenets of everyone's beliefs.

0 Responses to 'Is Everyone In The Hearing Room Using The Wrong Definition of Empathy?'

Search This Blog

Contact Me

Written Pyramids is a blog written by a journalist living and working in Washington D.C.

I have left my real name off of the blog so as not to imply that the blog is somehow linked with the journalism I get paid to do. (Still, I never write about my beat on this blog, and rarely express opinions about the day's news regardless of its relationship to my beat).

I would love to hear from you. If you want to contact me directly rather than leaving a comment here, I can be reached at WrittenPyramids@gmail.com.

Blog Archive

Books pyramid image originally from the British website, Explore Writing.