Sunday, September 18, 2011

President Obama on Empathy

Just watch and listen...

And from then-Senator Obama's speech at the 2004 Democratic Convention:

...for alongside our famous individualism, there’s another ingredient in the American saga, a belief that we’re all connected as one people. If there is a child on the south side of Chicago who can’t read, that matters to me, even if it’s not my child. If there is a senior citizen somewhere who can’t pay for their prescription drugs, and having to choose between medicine and the rent, that makes my life poorer, even if it’s not my grandparent. If there’s an Arab American family being rounded up without benefit of an attorney or due process, that threatens my civil liberties.

It is that fundamental belief -- It is that fundamental belief: I am my brother’s keeper. I am my sister’s keeper that makes this country work. It’s what allows us to pursue our individual dreams and yet still come together as one American family.

E pluribus unum: "Out of many, one."

Those are just two examples. But President Obama has been saying this in one form or another in almost every major speech he's made for a very long time. As a matter of fact, the folks at Culture of Empathy put together a video of all the clips they could find of him talking about empathy. The final video is just a little less than 2 hours if you'd like to check it out.

But President Obama's sense of empathy isn't some pie-in-the-sky do-gooderism of extending it only to those who will appreciate it or laud you for it. Like many visionaries of our past, he pushes things beyond the comfortable to the hard and difficult places. James Kloppenberg developed this understanding by reading Obama's books.

Almost everything you need to know about Obama is there on the printed page. In contrast to the charges coming now from right and left, Obama is neither a rigid ideologue nor a spineless wimp. The Obama who wrote Dreams and Audacity stands in a long tradition of American reform, wary of absolutes and universals, and committed to a Christian tradition that prizes humility and social service over dogmatic statements of unbending principle. A child of the philosophical pragmatists William James and John Dewey, Obama distrusts pat formulas and prefers experimentation.

Throughout his career, Obama has refused to demonize his opponents. Instead, he has sought them out and listened to them. He has tried to understand how they think and why they see the world as they do. His mother encouraged this sense of empathy, and it’s a lesson Obama learned well. Since January 2009, Obama has watched his efforts at reconciliation, experimentation, and -consensus--building bounce off the hard surfaces of political self-interest and entrenched partisanship, but there is no reason to think he will abandon that strategy now. He knows that disagreement is a vital part of the American fabric, and that our differences are neither shallow nor trivial.

Although Obama’s reform agenda echoes aspects of those advanced by many Democrats over the last century, he has admitted—and this is the decisive point in understanding his outlook—that his opponents hold principles rooted as deeply in American history as his own. “I am obligated to try to see the world through George Bush’s eyes, no matter how much I may disagree with him,” he wrote in Audacity. “That’s what empathy does—it calls us all to task, the conservative and the liberal … We are all shaken out of our complacency.” Obama rejects dogma, embraces uncertainty, and dismisses the fables that often pass for history among partisans on both sides who need heroes and villains, and who resist more-nuanced understandings of the past and the present.
(Emphasis mine)

President Obama knows that there is a very profound difference between empathy and agreement. But he also realizes the slippery slope on which we embark when we demonize our opponents and cast them as enemies.

And so he calls us to empathy - for "the least of these" in our communities, but also for those we would consider our opponents. I know that too often I don't live up to the standard he's setting for us. But its his vision and courage to do so that is my challenge on a daily basis.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for posting this. I voted for President Obama, because of this. I read both books he wrote. Ever since his keynote address for Kerry in 2004 he always spoke about there only being one America, and that we are our brother's and sister's keeper and that we should take care of the least of us. He has been very consistent that he wants to improve our country for all Americans and move our country forward.