Conservatives Are Waging a War on Empathy -- We Can't Let Them Win
Continued from previous page
So how do conservative Republicans get away with the "activist judge" ploy? Democrats hand it to them. Why? Because most Democrats grew up with and still believe a view of reason that has been shown in cognitive science and neuroscience to be false. The sciences of mind have shown that real reason is largely unconscious, requires emotion, uses "models" (frames, metaphors, narratives) and so does not fit the world directly.
But Democrats tend to believe that reason is conscious, can fit the world directly, and works by logic, not frames or metaphors. They thus believe that words have fixed literal meanings that fit the world in itself, regardless of models, frames, metaphors, or narratives. If you believe this, then original meaning could make sense. Democrats don't fight it when they should.
Democrats make another move that allows them to keep their view of reason. They adopt the view of the "living constitution," which opens them up to charges of "judicial activism," charges made by conservative judicial activists. The source of the problem lies in the Democrats lack of understanding of their own unconscious reasoning processes. One of many Democrats deepest beliefs contradicts the facts about the brain and the mind and allows conservative judges to be activists while claiming to be strict constructionists.
Taken together, the attacks on Sotomayor work as attacks on Obama and progressive thought. They are also attacks on "moderate" conservatives, who think with progressives on many issues. The attacks activate radical conservative ideas in the brains of those who voted for Bush and the 47% of the voters who voted for McCain.
Radical conservatives know that Sotomayor will be confirmed. They also know that their very understanding of the world is being threatened by Obama's success. But they have a major strength. They have their message machine intact, with trained spokespeople booked on TV and radio shows all over the country. Attacking Sotomayor, even when they know she will win, allows them to rally their forces and get swing-voting conservatives thinking their way again.
How should Democrats respond?
Democrats should go on offense. They need to rally behind empathy -- real empathy, not empathy reframed as emotion and personal feeling. They need to speak regularly about empathy as being the basis of our democracy. They need to point out that empathy leads one to notice real social and systemic causes of our troubles and to notice when and how judicial decisions and legislation can harm the most vulnerable of our countrymen. And finally that empathy is the reason that we have the principles of freedom and fairness -- which are necessary components of justice.
Above all, Democrats should be aware that the attack on Sotomayor is not just about Sotomayor. It is an attack on the basis of our democracy and must be answered.
George Lakoff is the author of Don't Think of an Elephant: Know Your Values and Frame the Debate ' (Chelsea Green). He is Professor of Linguistics at the University of California at Berkeley and a Senior Fellow of the Rockridge Institute.