When I was a boy, I was very impressed by an old 1936 movie based on an H.G. Wells short story called “The Man Who Could Work Miracles.” I am about to spoil the movie for you.
George McWhirter Fotheringay is given the power to perform miracles. He stumbles about getting used to these strange new powers, and readying himself to use them to make the world a better place. But he finds that there is one thing he cannot bring about; he cannot make somebody love him.
(There’s a modern version of Wells’s story, Jim Carrey’s “Bruce Almighty.”)
The attempt to force people to love, trust, feel compassion, or to feel anything for that matter, is magical, wishful thinking. People can be manipulated, persuaded and inspired. But this takes co-operation on some level.
Anyone who has ever tried to force a child to apologize for something they aren’t at all sorry for has experienced this powerlessness firsthand. You may hear the words, but you can never make them mean it.
What Liberals call their Progressive Movement is built upon such wishful thinking. Perhaps you’ve noticed that Liberals don’t want to be called liberals anymore − they insist on being called “progressives” now, like they did back in the days of Woodrow Wilson.
Liberal Progressivism is a dangerous mixture of our powers of abstraction, our need to create meaningful lives and our tendency to, at times, lack empathy.
A chronic lack of conscience is a very serious condition; it means that you are without a capacity for empathy, in the sense that a blind person is without vision or a deaf person is without hearing. It is a state of missing entirely this human capacity to care and have feelings for the condition of another human being.
This is what fundamentally diagnoses one as a psychopath. It is also a relatively rare condition, as a percentage of the population.
But every one of us has at one time or another experienced a lack of empathy. In fact, our awareness of the experiences of others ebbs and flows much as does our awareness of our own feelings. It comes and goes like your awareness of the clock ticking in the room, or what there is to be seen outside the window when you’re focused elsewhere inside.
When you are thinking about somebody, or interacting with somebody, without holding the awareness that this is another human being with feelings and a world of their own, you are not having much empathy in that moment. Bring this awareness to mind, and under normal circumstances the empathy flows in.
There is nothing wrong with this ebb and flow of empathy; it’s simply a matter of attention and focus. But by this example you can see how easy it could be for a person to lose sight of this under the right conditions.
Seeing the obvious hurt and hardship that can be brought about by a more severe and continuous lack of empathy is fairly straightforward. It’s easy to see when a kid is bullied, or a mate is violent or cruel, or a criminal does physical harm or destroys or takes property. We can look at the horrors of history and judge a Stalin, a Hitler, a Khomeini or a Mao for their monstrous cruelty and ruthlessness.
But what’s less obvious to many people is that this is not just a characteristic of some cold-hearted other person. It is a human trait and it is expressed in many different ways, running the range from fairly harmless and natural to truly terrible.
There is, however, another manifestation of a lack of empathy, which is: It is possible, and fairly common, for us to lose our sense of empathy for actual, living human beings, in the service of trying to make humanity better.
This is the great danger and harm from the Progressive movement. Our capacity for abstraction, coupled with our capacity to lose empathy for other human beings has lead to the greatest threat to our liberty and the greatest potential compromise in our individual practice of empathy toward real people.
Empathy is fundamentally an experience of one person toward another. It is a response of concrete, living, breathing caring for another human being. It is an emotion that is a function of relationship, not abstraction.
The Progressive Movement, on the other hand, is primarily an attempt to act on empathy in the abstract, in order to create a sense of meaning and purpose for the administrator of progressive programs and their supporters.
The Liberals’ Progressive mission is to make people “better,” to make society “better” and to use the full power of government to enact laws and social structures that will force people to behave in ways that mimic empathy.
But forcing people to do public service, or to cough up 50, 60, 70% of their income to give to government so that government can theoretically help others, or to speak only acceptable words − or regulating businesses to behave in idealized ways − has nothing to do with empathy. It is an attempt to apply a quality of personal relationship to an abstract ideal through bureaucratic directive − which means as it always does regarding government, at the point of a gun.
In a sense, it’s cheating. It’s the attempt to use the full force of government to leverage the effectiveness of one person or a few people to theoretically improve the lives of others, and to reward those who use this leverage with a sense of meaning, purpose, and greatness − for doing so very much for others.
But it doesn’t work that way. We aren’t made that way. We do not care or feel on command.
Think of a person who has affected you deeply in your life, in terms of understanding you, caring about you, and genuinely helping you to live a better life. I can almost guarantee that this was someone who you knew personally, with whom you had a relationship and whose effect on you was unique and special.
There’s a magic to such relationships. It is the magic of genuine, concrete love and caring between two unique individuals. This is not something that can be replicated on demand, by force. It is something that arises as an organic process of relationship.
During the presidential campaign Obama was interviewed by Rick Warren. One of the things he said stuck with me, when asked what he thought was the greatest moral failure of America:
“I think America’s greatest moral failure in my lifetime has been that we … still don’t abide by that … basic precept in Matthew that: ‘whatever you do for the least of my brothers, you do for me.’ And that notion of − that basic principle applies to poverty. It applies to racism and sexism. It applies to, you know, not … thinking about providing ladders of opportunity for people to get into the middle class.”
What a beautiful sentiment in that passage from Matthew; focusing on the importance of caring, compassion and tangible help, and the personal connection with Christ that it allows.
But Obama didn’t mean what he said in the sense that he’d like to see people naturally do this more in their personal lives to grow their own spiritual connection. He meant it − and this is completely congruent with the liberal progressive mission − in the sense that government should use its full power to administer this human quality, to force it to happen materially and collectively. And he judges the relative absence of force to achieve such a vision as a moral failure of America.
This says volumes about this man, and the political and moral philosophy that he and his progressive movement lives by.
This is not love; it is not caring. The force used is in fact the kind of thing that drains the genuine love and caring from acts of charity and kindness that otherwise flow freely from the human heart. It takes a moral act and removes from it the uncertainty of human agency. It is as removed and disconnected from true caring as a rape is from true love.
Our kids do not learn love and caring from requiring them to do 16 hours of community service per year to graduate High School. They learn love and caring from their relationships. I am much more impressed and moved by my kid’s spontaneous acts of generosity or compassion toward a friend or acquaintance than I am in their fulfillment of forced hours at the local food bank.
The government cannot force people to love, to care, to feel compassion for others. It can only force people to comply with certain behavior in the face of threats. This is as far from empathy and compassion as it gets.
The Progressives, both Democrat and Republican, are like George McWhirter Fotheringay: They think they can work miracles by forcing us to love, to act the way they think we should and to feel great personal satisfaction for having been relieved of our agency.
But they are not miracle workers with magic powers and we are not objects to be played with in pursuit of their noble vision. Compassion and empathy are not commodities to be leveraged and multiplied through force; they are a genuine and very personal expression of love, expressed from one unique individual to another.
Joel F. Wade, Ph.D. is the author of Mastering Happiness.