Thanksgiving is a week away. The holiday is uniquely American, grounded in our history rather than our various religions, in a sense of family and community rather than military victories. Increasingly, commercial aspects have intruded on family priorities, but it remains a time when we gather to give thanks for what we have, and hopefully, to recognize and support those less fortunate. I wish it could also be a time for many of us to do more than feel good about spending a few hours serving turkey dinners at a shelter for battered women or homeless families. I wish it could be a time to consider the steps needed to eliminate the poverty, violence and hopelessness that create the need for such places.
But as the holiday approaches our nation confronts the largest levels of income inequality in close to a century. A college education remains a key to economic success but is less affordable every year. These realities are coupled with unrelenting, well-funded efforts that disproportionately effect the poorest among us: women and children; the elderly; those with disabilities.
Attacks against health care reform and the supplemental nutrition assistance program (SNAP), fierce opposition to an increase in the minimum wage, measures to cut off access to safe abortion, are all in the news and on the political playing field. And for some it appears that is exactly what these critical issues are—political play things. Play it right; insure your privileged position. The idea that actual individuals—mothers, grandparents, children, war veterans, caregivers—will suffer and that those most affected are powerless to change the dynamics of the political game seem lost in allegiance to one’s group or one’s ambition, or both.
Political differences are important ingredients in any democracy, but robust measures of compassion and compromise are required as well. Empathy for those living in less fortunate circumstances appears missing from the calculations of some of the most powerful players–those inside as well as outside political office.
How can this be?
Two recent studies offer clues. Research conducted at the University of California, Berkeley revealed that the economically advantaged are less likely to express compassion for others than are people with lower incomes. Jennifer Stellar, the lead author of the study said, “It’s not that the upper classes are cold hearted. They may just not be as adept at recognizing the cues and signals of the suffering because they haven’t had to deal with as many obstacles in their lives.”
A second study by Canadian researchers found that a sense of power can influence how people respond to others by changing the way the brain functions. Feeling powerful tends to diminish brain signals that foster empathy.
Yet obviously many powerful, affluent people are deeply compassionate and emphatic. These research studies are not about inevitable outcomes, they simply point to danger signals.
We live in a country where economic disparities foster experiences that enhance a sense of power among the affluent. These same economic divisions result in communities segregated by income, communities where few personal encounters of any depth take place across socio-economic lines. Understanding the circumstances of others becomes more difficult for everyone.
My wish this Thanksgiving is for time to consider the dangers extreme income inequality, an absence of empathy and failures of compassion pose for our country. Feminists have long pointed out that there are no individual solutions to society-wide problems. Every one of us, politicians included, must find ways to work together if democracy is to flourish.