Are You Adding to The Empathy Deficit?

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I’m voting for Hillary Clinton. Here’s a quote from my friend Keryl McCord’s Facebook post that explains why:

So tonight I’m calling bullshit on progressives who still think that voting for, well, you know, Voldemort, is okay for progressives because it isn’t. You may want the system to be destroyed but the dogs of war will be unleashed on black and brown people, on Muslims, gays, and women. And if knowing that you still think that’s an option then you are not progressive, nor an ally. You’re just another foot on the neck of the people you supposedly support.

Let me be clear that it isn’t just Voldemort straight up: a vote for the Green or Libertarian candidate is also a vote for Trump, because it does nothing to close the gap between Trump and Clinton. I’m voting for Hillary because voting for Jill Stein, or any other third-party candidate whose views are closer to my own, would help elect Trump. That would be a disaster for the nation as a whole, and most particularly for the groups Keryl listed, those Trump has called out by name.

I’m voting for Hillary Clinton, and trying to wrap my mind around the political viewpoint that prizes personal ideological purity over disastrous consequences for the vulnerable. I supported Bernie. The Bernie-supporters who say they are voting for Stein or Johnson or even Trump inevitably marshal the same arguments: I have to vote my conscience, I can’t support the lesser or two evils, the system is corrupt, Bernie was cheated, and I can’t stomach being part of it.

It reminds me of a Talmudic inquiry. A question is posed: is it better to give one dollar to charity with a full heart, or ten grudgingly? The self-regarding obsession with purity that flavors so much of contemporary politics has to think hard before answering “One dollar with a full heart.” But really, there’s only one answer. Charity exists to benefit those in need. Ten dollars gives ten times more relief. How you feel about it is your problem. At bottom, it’s a simple act of empathy, valuing others’ interests—especially those who would suffer the consequences of a wrong decision on your part—as much as or more than your own.

There’s only one answer to “how shall I cast my ballot to help avoid the election of Donald Trump?” This is a real-world political decision informed by the actual impact of elections and real awareness of consequences. Whatever else is going on, voting for Hillary is a simple act of empathy for those who would bear the brunt of a Trump regime. How you feel about it is your problem.

I’m voting for Hillary Clinton. All the way to the ballot-box and all the way beyond, I’m pushing as hard as I can to move her policies toward freedom, justice, and equity.

Right after Bill Clinton’s Speech at the Democratic National Convention, a well-respected activist I know (who happens to be Muslim) shared Peter Beinart’s piece in The Atlantic calling out one of the former President’s remarks:

”If you’re a Muslim and you love America and freedom and you hate terror, stay here and help us win and make a future together, we want you.” The problem is in the assumption. American Muslims should be viewed exactly the same way other Americans are. If they commit crimes, then they should be prosecuted, just like other Americans. But they should not have to prove that they “love America and freedom” and “hate terror” to “stay here.” Their value as Americans is inherent, not instrumental. Their role as Americans is not to “help us win” the “war on terror.”

(You’ll find an account of other tweets, posts, and comments on Clinton’s words in this excellent Liberal Islamophobia Companion published by Imagine 2050.)

I shared Beinart’s essay on Facebook with this comment: “If this doesn’t make your blood run cold, substitute the name of any other religious or ethnic group for Muslims here. The candidate should apologize for her husband immediately.”

I got lots of comments, many agreeing. (Someone took me to task, saying Bill Clinton should apologize for himself, but I thought it would be best for the candidate to distance herself from remarks that had given offense).

But there were also long strings of back and forth with commenters I mostly didn’t know, all white men, quite angry at me and asserting Bill Clinton’s positive intentions. He didn’t mean it that way. He was only “responding to the RNC’s rhetoric of hatred.” “We don’t know his intent.” “It is inaccurate to condemn him.”

I kept replying with the same point: “What matters more? Your own judgment of his intentions? Or the actual impact of his statement on Muslims as I am hearing it directly from those affected?” The passionate defenses of Clinton’s positive motives, the repeated assertions that he was only trying to respond to Trump’s vitriol—this was so much a collective repetition of the interpersonal experience of being told “you’re just imagining it.” As a Jew, a woman, the child of immigrants, I have had so many opportunities to experience this type of denial, it rang a too-familiar bell.

It doesn’t matter what the feelings of the charity-giver are; what matters is the help given to the recipient. And it doesn’t matter what Bill Clinton’s intentions were; what matters is the impact of his words on those he was talking about.

I ended up writing the following as my final Facebook comment on the post: “I appreciate these responses, because they have made me reflect on what feels like an important question. What is it that makes asserting the innocence of Clinton’s intentions more important than prioritizing the response of those who have good reason to fear they will not be equally accepted or granted equal human rights in this country? For me, if the people most affected by the comment feel it is necessary to speak out, that suffices to justify a correction. Positive intentions seem to mean very little compared to actual impact.”

None of the angry commenters responded. Just as with the progressives Keryl’s comment addressed, it seems the principle of considering harm—and conversely, Cicero’s ancient question, “Who benefits?”—can’t compete with the need to sustain a self-image of purity.

I’m voting for Hillary Clinton. A big part of the reason I’m doing it is how worried I am about the future of this country when I contemplate the massive failure of empathy on the part of the privileged that is becoming increasingly evident in so many political exchanges. Under Trump, political life would be about fighting to hold the line against further incursions into human rights and freedom. Under Clinton, we’ll be able to continue the great and increasingly widespread work being done to cultivate empathy and social imagination. Often, I have observed, it doesn’t take much to strike a spark of compassion. Just helping someone imagine the consequences of a world without the Golden Rule may sometimes be enough.

Think before you vote, I beg you. If you refuse to vote for Clinton, is your choice expressing the conviction that your self-image is more important than the suffering of countless others? Forget about intent. Imagine someone who belongs to Trumps’s vilified categories—perhaps you’ve brought to mind a Muslim who happens to be African American and lesbian. How might that person perceive your choice? When it comes down to real consequences, which side are you on?

Ruby Velle and the Soulphonics, “It’s About Time.”
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