The power of empathy in Christine Blasey Ford's words

September 27, 2018

 The power of Dr. Christine Blasey Ford's words and experiences were broadcast live on every network across the nation today. The reason her words are so powerful are because they evoke largely unconscious emotions in almost every person watching - even most Republicans. It's empathy, and there's nothing anyone can do to stop it once it's evoked in such a powerful way. Which is why progressives and Democrats need to keep evoking empathy on every issue, and at every opportunity.


It's the only way to change a terrible, destructive idea that has far too long dominated our culture and society - an idea being represented and defended by the Trumps and Kavanaughs of the world. Cognitive framing research tells us the idea that defines their behavior says that men inherently ought to hold power over women - and the more rich and powerful you are, the more power you hold over women. This belief is apparent not only in their behavior, but what is said in defense of their actions. Consider Kavanaugh's largely self-centered ("I...") and authoritarian (as someone in a high position of power over others) defense of himself as someone who is a moral actor; and dismissal of the person who was harmed as being a fatally flawed individual. Evoking empathy is the only way to finally give this authoritarian, hierarchical idea the burial it deserves. 


First, what is empathy?


Empathy is a largely unconscious emotion. And empathy is powerful - it is at the core of who we are, and drives our need to connect with others for our very survival. In fact, there is growing research that we have a biological mechanism for empathy in oxytocin. The vast majority of people are capable of experiencing and acting on empathy, and the testimony given by Dr. Ford was powerful in its ability to evoke empathy across the political divide. All through the day, there have been media accounts of people "feeling with" Dr. Ford. Prominent psychologist Brene Brown has a great, short video that explains the importance of empathy, and the difference between empathy and sympathy:



Empathy in this case is critical, because Dr. Ford's words were able to make an authentic connection with people based on the honesty of her emotions and words. In essence, this is the true test of honesty and authenticity - because people "feel" it unconsciously, without hesitation. We often hear people say, "I don't know why, it just feels right." Connecting with Dr. Ford for most people happened physically in their brains, and unconsciously before they even knew it. Why? Because most people, at one point in their lives, felt powerless and violated at the hands of those who we viewed as having power over us. This is empathy at work in our physical brain.


There is no empathy in the testimony of Kavanaugh. Even the "factual" accounts of his so-called "calendar" are focused on his power, his achievements, his discipline, and what HE stands to lose. This will cause a disconnection with anyone who is "feeling with" Dr. Ford through empathy - which will be most people. 


What does this mean for Progressives and Democrats?


Any person looking to change public discourse, and how our culture views and treats women, can look to the power of empathy at work in Dr. Ford's testimony. There are few people incapable of authentically empathizing with someone who has been violated, abused, wronged, or held down by those we view as having power over us. Because most of us have had that experience - or we care about someone who has had that experience. This gives us a physical connection with Dr. Ford - and it applies to all the important of issues of our time. 


In the words of the great Robert M. LaFollette:


"The supreme issue, involving all the others, is the encroachment of the powerful few upon the rights of the many." 


It's time that Progressives and Democrats start evoking ideas and acting on every policy, every issue, that communicate and evoke what is fundamentally a "Golden Rule." Treat others as you would want to be treated by others. Further, and most importantly, that our freedoms and prosperity come with a moral responsibility for others' freedoms and responsibility, because of our connections with others. By that measure, if we view ourselves and act as having power over others, and use that power to diminish the freedoms and prosperity of others, we are acting immorally - inconsistent with our values. This presents a positive moral vision of acts and behavior that directly counters any behavioral rationalization of men like Trump and Kavanaugh, and lays bare their hollow rationalization. Even when they tear up - not out of empathy, but out of self-interest.


This is how progressives can change the world, for good.