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Empathy

Father Raymond J de Souza takes a look at empathy in the broader context of today's entertainment industry and socio-political sphere. 

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Topics: Culture, Film
Empathy January 19, 2017  |  By Raymond J. de Souza
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On Friday the curtain lifts on the greatest reality show of them all, Celebrity White House. Courtesy of social media, the whole world is invited to the spectacle of Donald Trump as president. For the past two months, his election victory has brought – as the Clintonian caterwauling rolled across the fruited plain and descended from the heights of the purple mountains majesty – a double measure of morose delectation, as the Christian tradition calls taking delight in the suffering of others. It is not a virtue.

Donald Trump has been in show business most of his adult life. At first the show was the business of Manhattan real estate, from which he quickly moved to the business of ostentatious luxury living, onward to the business of reality television and finally to elected politics. The show has always been The Donald, and just as some actors are versatile enough to do musical theatre as well as stage plays, Trump can take the lead role in golf course developments or landmark hotels or beauty pageants or professional wrestling. Now he has the office formerly known as being leader of the free world. (Having forfeited that title, Barack Obama will not be able to bequeath it to his successor.)

Trump has completed his three score and ten, yet is not looking for a lifetime achievement award. His is, rather, embarking on the role of a lifetime.

Which makes it remarkable that the celebrity-and-entertainment culture that birthed and nursed Trump is so opposed to him, and to his pomps and works. They react in horror and speak of him as the Devil incarnate. They refuse to acknowledge him as one of their own.

The high priestess of the wealthy and self-adulating delivered the bull of excommunication last week upon the occasion of the secular high holy days. Meryl Streep, receiving a lifetime achievement award at the Golden Globes gala, turned her attention to her colleague in show business:

An actor’s only job is to enter the lives of people who are different from us and let you feel what that feels like and there were many, many, many powerful performances this year that did exactly that – breathtaking compassionate work, but there was one performance this year that stunned me.

It sank its hooks in my heart, not because it was good. There was nothing good about it, but it was effective, and it did its job. It made its intended audience laugh and show their teeth. It was that moment when the person asking to sit in the most respected seat in our country imitated a disabled reporter. Someone he outranked in privilege, power, and the capacity to fight back. It kind of broke my heart when I saw it, and I still can’t get it out of my head because it wasn’t in a movie. It was real life. And this instinct to humiliate when it’s modeled by someone in the public platform, by someone powerful, filters down into everybody’s life because it kind of gives permission for other people to do the same thing.

The right reverend Meryl is nothing if not courageous, having taking the bold step of speaking in a room where everybody agreed with her. So fearless was she in receiving the thunderous laudations, so brave in adding her voice to the consensus of all those she knows. She asked for donations from the well-heeled to support the work of a free press and then concluded with a reflection on how marvelous it is to be a Hollywood actress:

Once when I was standing around on the set one day whining about something, you know, we were going to work through supper or the long hours or whatever, Tommy Lee Jones said to me, ‘Isn’t it such a privilege, Meryl, just to be an actor?’ Yeah, it is, and we have to remind each other of the privilege and the responsibility of the act of empathy. We should all be very proud of the work Hollywood honors here tonight. As my friend the dear departed Princess Leia said to me once, ‘Take your broken heart, make it into art.’ Thank you.

As I don’t watch awards shows, I don’t know whether Trump would normally have attended. Certainly he would not be out of place. The Emmy Awards even have a whole category for reality TV shows, in which Trump’s Apprentice has been nominated. Hollywood applauds Streep’s preening, but also has an award for those who have perfected, as she puts it, the “instinct to humiliate,” which is what reality TV is. 

I was struck by Streep’s emphasis on empathy, defining the actor’s “only job” in those terms. To empathize with another is what permits the actor’s art. The actor so thoroughly enters the experience and outlook of another person, fictional or real, as to present it in his or her own voice and aspect. Streep certainly touched on something true, and not just about acting.

If Trump had thought to respond to Streep with something other than insults, he might have made the same point about empathy in the political forum. A candidate has to empathize, at least at some level, with the voters in order to articulate a program that resonates with them. Trump was criticized for not being able to empathize with various segments of society. His improbable victory was driven by his capacity to empathize with other segments who felt other candidates not only did not empathize with them, but overlooked them altogether.

Empathy is not only an artistic or political capacity. In his Theory of Moral Sentiments, Adam Smith argued that it is our capacity to imagine the situation of another – to empathize – that enabled us to work out what our moral obligations are. If I ought to treat another as I would like to be treated myself, then I must be able to imagine how the other is like me, and what I might feel like in the other’s shoes.

While Smith is usually presented as defender of cold-hearted self-interest as a father of economics, it was the same principle that he put at the heart of entrepreneurship. In the Wealth of Nations, it is the capacity to imagine the needs and situation of the other – to empathize with the potential client – that turns producers “as by an invisible hand” toward the interests of their customers.

While we might think the empathizing professions are only those such as nursing or teaching, the capacity for empathy is the basis of a much broader account of human community. The artist needs empathy, as does the politician, as does the entrepreneur. Streep is right that we need more of it in politics. It’s needed in Hollywood too.

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