Moral Empathy

My dissertation is built around a model of postwar American society that was first proposed by Jeffrey Alexander in Fin-de-Siecle Social Theory (1995) and that he has since expanded upon in The Meanings of Social Life: A Cultural Sociology (2003). I picked up a copy of the latter a few weeks ago but haven’t yet had a chance to read it. (That I’m looking forward — with great expectation — to doing so over Christmas break probably says more about my personality than I should freely admit.) Alexander has a welcomed knack for translating the often obtuse language of social theory into workable frameworks. Theory and action — a nice change of pace.

Alexander and Ron Eyerman, co-directors of the Center for Cultural Sociology at Yale University, published a great piece yesterday in Newsday (also available at Common Dreams), in which they argue that the massive economic and social changes necessary to alleviate suffering on a global scale are dependent, finally, upon change of a more fundamental and personal nature:

Only when the privileged can put themselves in the place of others who are less fortunate, when they achieve moral empathy, can reforms be made.

“How do we achieve this?” they then ask. Citing as examples the Civil Rights movement, Ghandi’s performed anti-colonialism, anti-Apartheid efforts, and feminism (among others), Alexander and Eyerman argue that the first step is breaking down the binaries that we’ve constructed to simplify our understanding of the world:

rational/irrational, autonomous/dependent, honest/dishonest, open/secretive, cooperative/aggressive. We cannot have moral empathy for others we perceive as morally incompetent, irrational, dishonest, secretive, aggressive and dependent on authority. In such cases, their fate appears natural and morally justified. But we know that, by representing themselves in terms of the positive attributes, excluded groups can gain empathy among better off people who might come to their aid. Over time the excluded can achieve enough legitimacy in the public sphere to stage social protests that will be taken seriously and lead eventually to reforms. Subordination and inclusion are not static structural conditions; they can be negotiated.

There’s nothing particularly groundbreaking here, of course, but something about that connection between constructed binaries and “moral empathy” really struck me. As I’m prone to do, it got me thinking about the American church and, more specifically, about the ways in which it has been complicit in many of our country’s more regrettable foreign and domestic policy decisions of late. In its efforts to stem the tide of “postmodern relativism” (or something like that), large segments of the church have worked aggressively to reinforce those simple constructions. It pains me, especially, when I hear Christians parrot Bush’s good/evil rhetoric, as if the Bible’s message of grace were somehow applicable only to us but never to them.

Today, on AIDS Day, I’m reminded that three million people have already succumbed this year and that another forty million (three-eighths of them under the age of fifteen) are living with HIV. And I wonder why our churches can’t “stand united” to help, why they can’t muster the “moral empathy” to even care.