Empathy vs. Sympathy

As the Senate debate continues on Elena Kagan’s confirmation, Republicans have used this opportunity to blast Obama for previously stating that judges should have the empathy to understand the lives of ordinary Americans. Republicans argue that possessing “empathy” is synonymous with “liberal judicial activism,” and have attempted to use this standard to oppose Kagan’s nomination.

Yesterday, Sen. Kaufman of Delaware reminded his colleagues of the actual meaning of “empathy”: 

Likewise, President Obama’s promotion of empathy is not, as his critics suggest, the advocacy of bias. “Empathy,” as a quick look at the dictionary will confirm, is not the same as “sympathy.” “Empathy” means understanding the experiences of another, not identification with or bias toward another. Let me repeat that. “Empathy” means understanding the experiences of another, not identification with or bias toward another. Words have meanings, and we should not make arguments that depend on misconstruing those meanings.

Republicans launched their assault on empathy last year during Sonia Sotomayor’s confirmation hearings. What was lost in the hubbub is what the word actually means. Sympathy leads to the kind of bleeding-heart reactionary reasoning that Republicans claim to be afraid of in nominees like Sotomayor and Kagan. Empathy is the quality that enables judges to understand the reasons laws are made, and the real-life implications they have on the lives of Americans. Republicans have access to the same dictionaries as the rest of us—but if they stopped twisting Obama’s words, they would lose one of their favorite empty arguments.

PFAW