We’ve come a long way, our species. That’s the good news from Jeremy Rifkin’s The Empathic Civilization (2010). He reminds us that just a few hundred years ago the only people who objected to feudalism and slavery were the indentured servants and slaves. Of course, their voices didn’t count for much; for thousands of years they didn’t count. During most of our written history there was nothing illegal or immoral about civilized governments systematically ignoring the feelings, rights, and interests of slaves, children, women, and immigrants, to name just a few of the overlooked. And yet during the last century in the United States we’ve found ways to consider these groups worthy of legal protection, fair pay, the vote, equal education, the right to own property—worthy of being treated as human. Our capacity for empathy is on the rise.
The not so good news is that throughout our history as a species aspiring to civilized living, we’ve demonstrated an impressive capacity for fooling ourselves about the reach of our empathy, our moral integrity. The good white men who signed our Declaration of Independence in support of the proposition that “all men are created equal” had to repress the hypocrisy of these words. They, and all who celebrated this declaration, had to keep invisible the women, the black men, and the non-property-owning white men not included in the interpretation of this ground-breaking phrase.
The powerful avoid being troubled by their lapses in empathy as long as the forgotten remain invisible to them. In the heat of the US civil rights movement in the 1960’s, when women and blacks rose to unprecedented heights of visibility and gained rights unimaginable a generation before, who could have guessed then what the next civil rights frontier would be in this country? No one in the sixties marched for the rights of gay people. Gay people were invisible in this country then, just as they remain invisible today in many developing countries. Was it the AIDS epidemic that galvanized the gay culture to fight for respect and rights? Gay marriage was impossible just 15 years ago. Now it’s legal in 13 states and 15 countries. Our capacity for empathy surprises us.
But there’s another bit of not so good news in spite of our progress in extending the reach of empathy to the formerly overlooked, it’s likely that we’re still fooling ourselves. If our grandparents were oblivious to what we now call egregious discriminations, what will our grandchildren think of the discriminations we ignore today? What’s the next civil rights frontier, the next test of our empathy?
Can you imagine a substantially large group of people in our society who are currently considered invisible and not worthy of empathy, deprived of civil rights and access to basic resources, generally dismissed as a group without regard to their distinguishing differences?
Consider our ex-felon population, the closest thing we have in the U.S. to an underclass branded for life. According to a recent analysis from Princeton University, our felon population has ballooned since 1970 to nearly 20 million—that’s 8.6% of our adult population and around one third of all African-American adult males. As a group, regardless of the distinguishing features of their legal histories, felons are often restricted from employment, housing, voting, welfare eligibility, and access to healthcare. Indefinitely. Most of us dismiss felons as invisible, unworthy, undeserving, dangerous, beyond rehabilitation, and beyond our capacities for empathy. And we’re not much troubled about dismissing them. Rarely do employers ask the distinguishing questions: What crime? When? How many? What rehabilitation? How effective? They’re felons.
Just a generation ago it was legal to dismiss the disabled this way.
What will our grandchildren think?