What you're talking about here is, to my mind, the most significant divide between liberals and conservatives. Conservatives want to see black and white, right and wrong, and aren't good at shades of gray. When one tries, deliberately, to see all aspects of a situation, one realizes just how many shades there are - and that makes a lot of people very uncomfortable. My pet theory is, that uncomfortable feeling is one of the main reasons that political conservatives also flock to conservative religions, where they're told unequivocably what is right and what is wrong and how to get into heaven.

There are always exceptions, of course, but how many times have we seen individuals absolutely villified by the conservative right for their stance on, say, abortion, when the rest of their policies line up with what can be called the conservative agenda? Or how feeding the poor and clothing the naked is sometimes met with tirades about how the poor are poor because they just can't hold a job and therefore haven't earned a "handout?"

I don't know that there is a way to change this fundamental divide between philosophies, except one person at a time.


Clearly empathy must be a liberal feminist value. Why else would Ann Coulter go off on the "9/11 widows."

As for the defense attorney's reaction to your request that his client receive the maximum sentence, I'm reminded of the old maxim, "when you have the law on your side, pound the law; when you have the facts on your side, pound the facts; when you have neither the law or facts on your side, pound the table." It sounds like he was pounding the table.

A Pang

But isn't saying that there's a "fundamental divide" between conservatives and liberals, and saying that conservatives are like this and liberals like that, itself ignoring shades of gray?


The "problem" with liberal empathy as I see it is how it's applied. I believe in your girlfriend-beater case you applied it correctly, and more importantly, in the right direction, that is, against the beater for having a lack of it. This is not a typical liberal position, as quite often liberals will argue for empathy for the perpetrator. If I had been the defense councel I would have embraced your empathy argument and re-directed it toward my client, as all good liberals are want to do when it comes to bad people. You know, he’s poor, bad upbringing, hooked on drugs, fatherless, uneducated, no hope, etc. The liberal mind often does not know how to stop the empathy at the right point or to even see evil (unless it’s someone who disagrees with them). The problem with liberal empathy is that it is used to argue that everything is relative if you only dig deep enough. This is how terrorists oddly become “insurgents,” and illegal aliens become “undocumented workers.”

The Happy Feminist

Ah, but I think understanding of the perpetrator is important too. When I consider "empathy," I try to figure out where the perpetrator is coming form and why he acted the way he did. Depending on the circumstances, maybe I will consider some of these as "mitigating" factors that should give him a break on sentencing, or maybe not. But the understanding is still important.

What I remove from my definition of "empathy" is the idea of accepting or identifying with the other person's point of view. I will always try to understand and consider the other person's point view -- but I reserve the right to reject or condemn that point of view.


A Pang - it's part of the human condition to want to see things in absolutes, but I find that the political conservative movement has mastered the art of playing to that base value, while individual liberal politicians and those who are interested in politics end up on the defensive. The conservative movement as a whole is almost always "on message," unlike the political liberal movement which can be rightly called "flip-floppers."

People in general, however, are forced to identify with one extreme side or the other, and unfortunately I've seen the liberal side reduced to not much more than "anti-conservative" - mostly due to, I think, the way the media cover politics and our uniquely competitive society that seems to always pit one side against the other. Those who choose not to take sides, who I would argue constitute a majority, either burn out and disengage from the political process entirely, or flirt back and forth depending on the issue at hand. I'd love to see a third party of true moderates, who can see more nuance and blend the best of both sides - that, to my mind, would make up the "real" liberals rather than the reactionaries. The problem is that it is very hard to articulate politics in shades of gray, and therefore anyone who really tries ends up branded as indecisive or wishy-washy.

This is not a typical liberal position, as quite often liberals will argue for empathy for the perpetrator.
Richard, I can't speak for liberals as a group, but as a progressive I see it as pretty straightforward. On an individual level, we should all be accountable for whatever crimes we may commit, but as a society it is in our interest to understand the forces which induce people to become criminals and to work to eliminate those forces (which are disproportionately poverty, abuse, neglect, and the devaluing of people — particularly men — who don't wield power over others).

Happy, I thought this was a great post. There are definite gender issues surrounding empathy. It is much more difficult to develop and sustain empathy when you grow up male in American society. Basically, if you're a boy, empathy just isn't a quality that's valued among your peers (by and large). Or, maybe to a be a bit more precise, its value is far far behind those of having a capacity for violence ("being able to defend yourself"), being cool, and being competitive. Developing a capacity for violence — a requirement which most middle class girls are still largely spared — is antithetical to developing a capacity for empathy for the average boy. I suspect that those who do develop both often do so by splitting their approach along largely gender lines (tough with guys, tender towards women) though this less typical than it used to be.

I also have to add that the lack of empathy towards men is the single most disturbing thing I find at blogs devoted to 'women's perspectives only' feminism.

Marj (aka Thriver)

Empathy is also a key value for me. Thank you for pointing out the fact that empathy is not some fleeting, "new age" fad.

On another note, would you be willing to link your articles on spanking for a blog carnival I'm hosting? It's the Carnival Against Child Abuse. Details are at my blog or Blog Carnival. Thanks for considering!

The Happy Feminist

Hey Marj, I would be happy too. It sounds like an interesting Carnival. Thanks for asking me!


You want empathy for the wife beater you need to focus on his problems (unless you're trying to deny completely that he beats his wife). Why is he doing this. Is there a drug/alcohol problem? Intolerable work stresses? A history of abuse in his family, i.e., was his father and grandfather both wife beaters and that's the only way he knows how to relate to women? Absent father so that he doesn't know how a man is supposed to treat a woman; a mother who slept around? Other mental health problems. Mitigating evidence can build empathy for the wife beater.

Of course, it's not up to the prosecutor to make the wife beater empathetic. That's the defense attorney's position. If the defense attorney is only attacking the prosecutor for putting forth "feminist new age values" and not advocating for the client, the defense attorney is either trying to just collect his fee or close out a file.

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