Other People’s Suffering

Other People’s Suffering

from NYtimes.com
By THOMAS B. EDSALL
The publication last week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of “Higher Social Class Predicts Increased Unethical Behavior” provided fresh fodder for the liberal critique of the Republican Party and the corporate ethic.

The paper, by Paul K. Piff of the University of California, Berkeley, and four colleagues, reports that members of the upper class are more likely than others to behave unethically, to lie during negotiations, to drive illegally and to cheat when competing for a prize.

“Greed is a robust determinant of unethical behavior,” the authors conclude. “Relative to lower-class individuals, individuals from upper-class backgrounds behaved more unethically in both naturalistic and laboratory settings.”

The Piff paper is part of an extensive academic critique of the right. In a paper published last year, “Class and Compassion: Socioeconomic Factors Predict Responses to Suffering,” Jennifer E. Stellar, also of Berkeley, writing with three colleagues, points out that:

Our findings suggest that when a person is suffering, upper-class individuals perceive these signals less well on average, consistent with other findings documenting reduced empathic accuracy in upper-class individuals (Kraus et al., 2010). Taken together, these findings suggest that upper-class individuals may underestimate the distress and suffering in their social environments.
A third scholarly essay, “Power, Distress, and Compassion: Turning a Blind Eye to the Suffering of Others,” produced similarly striking findings. In a test measuring empathy, each participant was assigned to listen, face to face, from two feet away, to someone else describing real personal experiences of suffering and distress.

The listeners’ responses were measured two ways, first by self-reported levels of compassion and second by electrocardiogram readings to determine the intensity of their emotional response. The participants all took a test known as the “sense of power” scale, ranking themselves on such personal strengths and weaknesses as ‘‘I can get people to listen to what I say’’ and ‘‘I can get others to do what I want,” as well as ‘‘My wishes do not carry much weight’’ and ‘‘Even if I voice them, my views have little sway,’’ which are reverse scored.

The findings were noteworthy, to say the least. For “low-power” listeners, compassion levels shot up as the person describing suffering became more distressed. Exactly the opposite happened for “high-power” listeners: their compassion dropped as distress rose.

Who fits the stereotype of the rich and powerful described in this research? Mitt Romney. Empathy: “I’m not concerned about the very poor.” Compassion: “I like being able to fire people who provide services to me.” Sympathy for the disadvantaged: My wife “drives a couple of Cadillacs.” Willingness to lie in negotiations: “I was a severely conservative Republican governor.”

While Romney and many of his fellow Republicans in the House and Senate go over the line on callousness, what about the other side of the aisle? Are Democrats too compassionate?

A Zogby poll of 2,225 likely voters released on June 1 last year found that 48 percent described the Democratic Party as “weak,” compared to 28 percent who described the Republican Party that way. Conversely, 50 percent said the Republican Party is “cold hearted,” compared to 30 percent who said that was true of the Democrats.

Ambivalence has become problematic for each party as the weaknesses of one mirror the strengths of the other. From a conservative point of view, Bill O’Reilly captured this tension in a televised commentary:

This is the war that is raging throughout America. It is between conservatives, who emphasize personal responsibility and achievement, against liberals, who say the government must take from the wealthy and give to the poor. So it will be interesting this week to see if President Obama can rally the country to support his vision of a strong social compact. He has compassion on his side. Few Americans want to see their fellow citizens suffer. But the president does have that fiscal responsibility issue haunting him because the country remains in dire trouble.
Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg has argued that voters see a lack of spine in how his own party has allowed government to work “for the irresponsible, not the responsible.” To counter this, Greenberg argues that liberals and Democrats must shift gears and become “instinctively angry” with government policies that appear to promote irresponsibility “and build their politics from there.”

If the O’Reilly and Greenberg analyses are accurate, Democrats would benefit from the acquisition of some, but not all, of the character traits that make a successful C.E.O.

“Objectification,” for example, is anathema to liberals. But, as Deborah H. Gruenfeld of the Stanford School of Business and three colleagues note in “Power and the Objectification of Social Targets,” the ability to view others in instrumental terms has certain advantages in the corporate arena – advantages applicable to politics as well.

For power holders, the world is viewed through an instrumental lens, and approach is directed toward those individuals who populate the useful parts of the landscape. Our results suggest that power not only channels its possessor’s energy toward goal completion but also targets and attempts to harness the energy of useful others. Thus, power appears to be a great facilitator of goal pursuit through a combination of intrapersonal and interpersonal processes. The nature of the power holder’s goals and interpersonal relationships ultimately determine how power is harnessed and what is accomplished in the end.
Republicans recognize the political usefulness of objectification, capitalizing on “compassion fatigue,” or the exhaustion of empathy, among large swathes of the electorate who are already stressed by the economic collapse of 2008, high levels of unemployment, an epidemic of foreclosures, stagnant wages and a hyper-competitive business arena.

Compassion fatigue was fully evident in Rick Santelli’s 2009 rant on CNBC denouncing a federal plan to prop up “losers’ mortgages” at taxpayer expense, a rant that helped spark the formation of the Tea Party. Republican debates provided further evidence of compassion fatigue when audiences cheered the record-setting use of the death penalty in Texas and applauded the prospect of a gravely ill pauper who, unable to pay medical fees, was allowed to die.

Even Rick Santorum, who has been described by the National Review as holding “unstinting devotion to human dignity” and as fluent in “the struggles of the working class,” wants to slash aid to the poor. At a Feb. 21 gathering of 500 voters in Maricopa County, Ariz., Santorum brought the audience to its feet as he declared:

We need to take everything from food stamps to Medicaid to the housing programs to education and training programs, we need to cut them, cap them, freeze them, send them to the states, say that there has to be a time limit and a work requirement, and be able to give them the flexibility to do those programs here at the state level.
For both parties, one of the driving forces pushing candidates to extremes is the ideological pressure of primary electorates. This pressure was more intense in the Democratic Party in the 1970s and 1980s when the party became home to the anti-war and women’s rights movements, but in recent years the agenda of the Tea Party and the ultra-right has come to dominate the discourse in Republican primaries at all levels.

President Obama has a substantial advantage this year because he does not have a primary challenger, which frees him from the need to emphasize his advocacy for the disempowered — increasing benefits or raising wages for the poor. This allows him to pick and chose the issues he wants to address.

At the same time, compassion fatigue may make it easier for the Republican nominee to overcome the liabilities stemming from his own primary rhetoric, to reach beyond the core of the party to white centrist voters less openly drawn to hard-edged conservatism. With their capacity for empathy frayed by a pervasive sense of diminishing opportunity and encroaching shortfall, will these voters once again become dependable Republicans in 2012?

Thomas B. Edsall, a professor of journalism at Columbia University, is the author of the book “The Age of Austerity: How Scarcity Will Remake American Politics,” which was published in January.

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