14 January, 2007

The Sociology and Politics of Sympathy (updated)

I haven't written about the Boxer-Rice dust-up because it was an ugly bit of political theatre, and others have covered it so well. But the other day I got a very sweet comment that revived it for me:


Sorry, this is in the wrong place, but, for some reason, your e-mail contact didn't work for me.

After listening to Senator Boxer claim that someone without children can't possibly understand the cost of war, I thought of you. Thank goodness she doesn't have a clue about - well anything. Imagine her world, where someone like you would be excluded from contributing solely based on personal statistics. For one, it would be a world without Project Valour-IT and all those who have been helped by it. And the list goes on .....

Please note: If I have misunderstood your personal situation, I will apologize now. I just was floored by Boxer's indictment of not only Rice but every man or woman without children.


I started to reply in comments, but I soon realized it was becoming its own post. So...

OhioVoter, thank you so much for your kind thoughts. You are correct about my personal situation.

I have heard the recording of the entire exchange between Boxer and Rice several times, and I actually came away with a different take than most. Yes, Boxer implied that Rice's judgment was somehow flawed or incomplete because she didn't have a personal "stake" in the results of her decisions. But Boxer's comments came after Rice expressed her sorrow for the suffering caused by the war. So it sounded to me like Boxer was saying that the only people who really understand the suffering or really care about the warfighters are those with families who "have a stake in it."

Besides the obvious that we ALL have a stake in it because it concerns the security and welfare of our country, her statement was obnoxious for the subtle implication that us unmarried/childless types don't recognize (with feelings of tremendous guilt) that people suffer horribly for actions done on our behalf--that to us, it's just an academic question (Boxer also seems to dismiss the significance of our having dear friends who directly or indirectly suffer because of the war). Frankly, Boxer can speak for herself as someone who can't understand the fear or suffering since her family members are "the wrong age," or who feels no sense of inadequacy/indebtedness; I refuse to included in that group.

Of course, beyond that, mentioning Rice's lack of family (of any kind) was a rather personal way to get across her point, even if her goal really was merely to point out that military families suffer. Rice is not only childless, but an only child whose parents have passed away. While she is at least a decade older than me, I believe what I've read of her makes me think I understand her. She has spent her life in situations that put a crimp on her romantic prospects. I believe she finds them fulfilling, but I'd bet money there is a significant part of her that longs for things she doesn't have. The reports of the tenderness with which she is welcomed into Bush family holidays, etc., seem to speak to their recognition of her feelings about a lack of biological family. And then there are the whispers that she is gay (by which standards I could be whispered about too, which is absurd on my part, and likely also on hers)...

What it all amounts to is using merely one's outward social status to judge their inward feelings and perceptions.

I sometimes run into a similar attitude when I first encounter military personnel/families who don't know me. It's getting to be more times than I can count that I've watched the lights go out in prospective military employers' eyes when they find out I'm a civilian. Conversely, people who actually take the time to talk to me come away surprised that I am not military.

Most recently, I spent two hours on the phone with a woman who has been nursing her Marine husband back from a very severe brain injury for years. She needed to "unload," and so shared with me some of her worries and day-to-day stressors, including problems caused by the sometimes-silly/painful things her husband does due to his injury. She suddenly blurted out, "I can't tell this kind of stuff to my civilian girlfriends; they freak--'too much information, girl! Too intense.'" I pointed out that she was telling it to me, and I was a civilian, and I was okay with it. I don't believe I have more sympathy than any good-hearted person out there, and it was that sympathy that she was responding to.

It's disturbing that some in the military and a leftist like Boxer both at times have put forth the argument that not having "Been there, done that" disqualifies you from understanding or truly caring about those who have. Though there is a depth of "knowing" and understanding that usually comes only from experiencing, the suggestion that one cannot feel a deep amount of non-pitying sympathy for someone else's suffering and challenges is absurd.
“As two single women,” NBC's Andrea Mitchell shouted as the two were about to walk out of the room, “Do you think that being without children in any way hinders your ability to understand the sacrifices of American families losing their children in war?”

Rice paused, heaved a sigh and turned back to the cameras, a pained expression on her face.

“No,” she said adamantly. “And I also think that being a single woman does not in any way make me incapable of understanding not just those sacrifices, but that nothing of value is ever won without sacrifice.”

Update: On the subject of sympathy despite a lack of familial connections, BCR says it better.