Wednesday, April 20, 2011

On empathy, politics and feminism

Anyone who has been reading for any length of time knows that I've been struggling this semester with teaching a 20th century political history course far outside my background or training.  I just got done teaching The Conservative Ascendancy by Donald Critchlow and Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory by Randall Balmer.  Critchlow writes about the social/political changes propelling the far right wing of the GOP into power since the defeat of Goldwater in 1964, and Balmer focuses on the social and emotional pull of evangelical Christianity in America.  What it's gotten me thinking about is the place of empathy in both politics and feminism.  Both Historiann and Echidne are relevant background readings for today's class.

The current narrative in politics seems to me to be about excising empathy from politics.  Barney Frank has called government "the name we give to those things we choose to do together."  The National Review, a right-wing publication, has called this "meaningless and stupid."  That, to me, sums up the problem we (in the US, and possibly Canada and the UK, with their right-leaning governments) are currently facing in the Right's rush to defund what social insurance the Progressive era won for the poor and middle class.  Government, even that which is not based on a Christian framework, should be about serving the least among us.

When your framework is selfishness (or some mythical context-free individual liberty), as Flint Knits recently posted about, government action and even individual charitable action becomes unnecessary and even an impediment to those at the bottom of the economy.  The free market and voluntary regulation which this philosophy seeks to "reinstate" not only never existed, as any thinking historian of either Adam Smith or the late 19th century will tell you, but it also does not work. It assumes the privilege of the upper middle class applies to everyone, even as the middle and lower middle class erodes into simply a gap between the working and upper middle class, because the upper middle class perceive themselves to be the norm.  As the NYTimes and Dean Dad have pointed out, markers of a well rounded, upper middle class liberal arts education like unpaid internships exacerbate the income gap by shutting out middle and lower middle class college student from the credentials race.

So what does that mean about government?
 It's just one example of how the bootstraps mentality exacerbates existing social inequality rather than lessen it.  By reducing government funding for higher education and allowing scams like unpaid internships proliferate unregulated, we leave open the door for exploitation of those able to enter college programs with internships and the exclusion of those unable to.  Of course unpaid internships are available to anyone at qualifying institutions.  Of course those highly selective undergraduate institutions are available to anyone who can meet their standards and pay their tuition.  Of course that's easier to do if you attend a good high school and have parents who can fit the bill, or connections to ensure a job after college to help get you out from under the crippling debt necessary to fund tuition.  Of course there are always scholarships, which many first generation college students are unaware of or who have too little time or support to navigate.  All of this exacerbates existing social inequality, making college once more the preserve of the elite.

And what does this have to do with compassion?  The normalizing of the upper middle or middle middle class creates a lack of compassion for those without that class privilege, or those in those classes who are otherwise marginalized.  The GOP's current defunding campaign disproportionately affects women, the elderly, the poor, the sick, people of color and the otherwise marginalized.  Besides simply attacking the fundamental sanctity of women's bodies and personal control of those bodies, the GOP is attempting to shift the burden of care back onto women in families.  The unpaid labor of family care still disproportionately falls on women, even in European countries with strong social welfare systems.

By assuming everyone has the personal or family resources to invest in retirement, or college, or whatever (despite the recent recession) that the upper middle class does, the GOP forces the burden of compassion on women of all classes, and disproportionately middle and lower class women.  The libertarian, I suppose, would argue that the government ought not impose a burden of compassion on anyone, even to relieve some of their burden.  But the position that collective good ought not impose on individual good is an untenable one: collective good ought not impose on the individual good to a certain extent. 

The TSA invasively searching a child, a sexual assault survivor, a person who is presumed to be without guilt by the US Constitution, seems to me an undue imposition of the collective good on the individual good, because it imposes on the most basic of bodily autonomy.  But a tax burden which funds the support of education or health care for others imposes a reduction of options rather than lack of options per se.  The choice is not be searched or do not fly, but rather, pay taxes and spend less.  (This is assuming a comparison between individual taxpayers in all cases; the corporate tax rate of zero or less is so laughable that I can't even begin to cover it here.).

Which is all to say this: feminism, the idea that men, women, and differently gendered people ought bear a similar burden in the perpetuation of society regardless of biological determinism, is blatantly pushed aside in the recent US conservative turn.  A feminism which argues for social justice and reduction of social inequality reduces the burden on part of the population by increasing it for everyone.  As in Ursula K LeGuin's short story The One Who Walk Away From Omelas (full text pdf), we are none of us blameless for the sins committed by society in our names.  By accepting the status quo, or even portions of it, we accept the price exacted.  A fuller philosophy of social responsibility ought encompass a way of mitigating and spreading the social cost of our prosperity.

Only a philosophy which considers women as less than full people can regard the spreading of the burden of compassion to all people as an imposition on personal liberty.  Although it results in the increase of  burden for some, it spreads the over all burden, resulting in greater utility.

 (My college philosophy prof would be shocked to see me making this argument; I used to be an ardent anti-utilitarian).

There's more rattling around in my head on this; I would appreciate hearing any and all thoughts on the place of compassion and empathy in politics and social life.  I think that compassion and emotion have for so long been conceived of as separate from the rational, political world, that it's difficult even conceiving of terms in which to discuss a compassionate politics.  Is there a place for compassion in politics?  Ought billiion-dollar funding decisions be made on questionably suspect objectivity alone?

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