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Lakoff: GOP ‘Stealth’ Attack Seeks to Reframe Empathy

Today Alternet gives George Lakoff the lead article, “Conservatives Are Waging a War on Empathy — We Can’t Let Them Win.” Lakoff’s concern here is what he sees as an attack on one of the Democratic Party’s defining values, through “reframing.” As Lakoff explains:

The Sotomayor nomination has given radical conservatives new life. They have launched an attack that is nominally aimed at Judge Sotomayor. But it is really a coordinated stealth attack — on President Obama’s central vision, on progressive thought itself, and on Republicans who might stray from the conservative hard line.
…Empathy is at the heart of progressive thought. It is the capacity to put oneself in the shoes of others — not just individuals, but whole categories of people: one’s countrymen, those in other countries, other living beings, especially those who are in some way oppressed, threatened, or harmed. Empathy is the capacity to care, to feel what others feel, to understand what others are facing and what their lives are like. Empathy extends well beyond feeling to understanding, and it extends beyond individuals to groups, communities, peoples, even species. Empathy is at the heart of real rationality, because it goes to the heart of our values, which are the basis of our sense of justice.

Lakoff sees the GOP reframing of empathy as a sort of code for the feelings of the ‘bleeding heart liberal.’ As Lakoff puts it:

Empathy in this sense is a threat to conservatism, which features individual, not social, responsibility and a strict, punitive form of “justice.” It is no surprise that empathy would be a major conservative target in the Sotomayor evaluation.
But the target is not empathy as it really exists. Instead, the conservatives are reframing empathy to make it attackable. Their “empathy” is idiosyncratic, personal feeling for an individual, presumably the defendant in a legal case. With “empathy” reframed in this way, Charles Krauthammer can say, echoing Karl Rove, “Justice is not about empathy.” The argument goes like this: Empathy is a matter personal feelings. Personal feelings should not be the basis of a judicial decision of the Supreme Court. Therefore, “justice is not about empathy.” Reframe the word “empathy” and it not only disqualifies Sotomayor; it delegitimizes Obama’s central moral principle, his approach to government, his understanding of the nature of our democracy, and progressive politics in general.

Lakoff goes on to discuss the spins on empathy by various conservatives, David Brooks, Charles Krauthammer, Newt Gingrich and G. Gordon Liddy. But Lakoff feels it’s important to understand the subtext of their attacks:

The real target here goes beyond Sotomayor. In the last election, conservative populists moved toward Obama. Conservative populists are working people, mostly white men, who have conservative views of the family, of masculinity, and of the military, and who have bought into the idea of the ‘liberal elite” as looking down on them. Right now, they are hurting economically, losing their jobs and their homes. Empathy is something they need. The racist card is an attempt to revive their fears of affirmative action, fears of their jobs — and their pride — being taken by minorities and women. The racist attack has a political purpose, holding onto conservative populists. The overt form of the old conservative argument is made regularly these days: liberalism is identity politics.

But the real danger, according to Lakoff is Democratic complacency in underestimating the power of the Republican echo chamber:

Radical conservatives know that Sotomayor will be confirmed. They also know that their very understanding of the world is being threatened by Obama’s success. But they have a major strength. They have their message machine intact, with trained spokespeople booked on TV and radio shows all over the country. Attacking Sotomayor, even when they know she will win, allows them to rally their forces and get swing-voting conservatives thinking their way again.

And the needed response by Dems — to confront the challenge head-on:

Democrats should go on offense. They need to rally behind empathy — real empathy, not empathy reframed as emotion and personal feeling. They need to speak regularly about empathy as being the basis of our democracy. They need to point out that empathy leads one to notice real social and systemic causes of our troubles and to notice when and how judicial decisions and legislation can harm the most vulnerable of our countrymen. And finally that empathy is the reason that we have the principles of freedom and fairness — which are necessary components of justice…Above all, Democrats should be aware that the attack on Sotomayor is not just about Sotomayor. It is an attack on the basis of our democracy and must be answered.

A worthy challenge, and one which Dems should meet, lest we cede the ability to define our core values to our adversaries.

2 comments on “Lakoff: GOP ‘Stealth’ Attack Seeks to Reframe Empathy

  1. georip on

    Although a given judge might be more or less
    “activist” in ruling on the constitutionality of a law, as is their job, I respect a judge who remarks about the rightness or wrongness of a law upon which they must strictly rule. Is that not what it means to pass a judgement? Don’t we respect the opinions of our judges?

  2. georip on

    There is a reason that a Democratic president such as Obama would have had a strong positive response to Katrina and its victims. It is because of empathy, just cause, a sense of right and wrong.
    It is that sense of right and wrong that a judge must also have. We count on them to exercise good judgement.


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