Monday, March 04, 2013

An Odd Coincidence: Mark Sandford and Empathy

The coincidence is with the just-for-fun post I wrote on Friday about the need for an empathy pill.  Ed Kilgore writes about this article on Mark Sanford, an American politician who went through a marital infidelity scandal of more than ordinary proportions.  He is now returning to politics.  The quote that matters:

Wherever possible, Sanford steered his answers toward his own difficulties. At one point, he began talking about the importance of empathy. “Unless you’ve felt pain at some level of life, whether it’s self-imposed or otherwise, I don’t think you have the same level of empathy for people who have gone through some level of suffering,” Sanford said. “I empathize with people at a level that I never did before in part because of some pain in my own life.”

Empathy is a dominant theme of Sanford’s campaign, and it came up in my own conversations with him. “I would argue, and again I’m not recommending the curriculum to my worst enemy, but if one fails publicly at something, there’s a new level of empathy toward others that could not have been there before,” he told me.

When I asked Sanford how that new empathy had changed his views on public policy—whether it had made him, for instance, more inclined to support public-assistance programs he’s long denounced as unnecessary—he said it had not. “Convictions are convictions,” he explained. His empathy is for other public figures recovering from sex scandals and personal humiliations. “I used to open the paper and think, How did this person do that? Now it’s all, But by the grace of God go I.”

That's one way of learning empathy, of course.   But it sounds fairly low-level for someone of his age.

Though I'm sure that he feels that limited type of empathy.  Which makes me think of something related:

I think there is a difference between the intellectual "feeling" of empathy and the emotional "feeling" of empathy inside our heads.  I don't really have proper words for how the difference feels but I've "felt" both types.  The closer some situation is to our own experiences, the easier the emotional empathy becomes.  But everyone should be able to figure out the intellectual "feeling."