• Empathy and the Internet

    This week I posted a column that was reposted in Washington Monthly about the importance of social insurance programs that Congressman Ron Paul opposes and often regards as unconstitutional. Among other things, I noted that:

    Medicare’s first, often-forgotten achievement was to integrate hospitals throughout the south. A remarkable paper by Almond and colleagues documents that Medicare markedly reduced post-neonatal mortality rates among African-American infants in places such as the Mississippi delta. Medicare pried open the doors of hitherto segregated facilities, saving the lives of striking numbers of black infants who would otherwise have died from pneumonia, dehydration, and other readily-treated ailments. That was the human reality of segregation that federal civil rights laws, and the major Great Society programs, sought to address….

    I also included a picture of my wife Veronica giving her brother Vincent his daily shave.

    Because of Social Security’s disabled adult child program, Medicare, Medicaid, and a host imperfect, sometimes costly, often essential programs, Vincent has been able to spend his adult life in relative dignity, safety, and comfort. Without these programs, Vincent might well have spent his days as so many other people with intellectual disabilities did into the 1970s: whiling away his time within the back wards of some state mental facility.

    It’s remarkable how even somewhat sappy columns such as this tend to elicit such invective in the hot medium of the internet…

    Here, for example, is commenter “Edward.”  He writes:

    Are those violins I hear playing in the background? Cry me a river, sunshine. So, I suppose the US was an inhumane society prior to 1964? Go ahead… try selling that to the voters, while they are being reminded of our GDP to debt ratio in 1963.

    I’m not certain how to take these comments. Perhaps they are intended as some sort of Swiftian satire. I don’t think so. Another commenter told me to “stop being such an uptight little lesbian,” because I thought that Christopher Hitchens should have been more gracious in his polemical advocacy of an atheist perspective.

    Such comments illustrate how the combination of political polarization, relatively unfiltered anonymity, and spontaneity make the internet a wonderful place, but also sometimes such a toxic one. The internet, and the cable TV scream-culture in so many ways encourage us to self-segregate, and to overlook the humanity of people on the other side of various ideological divides. Chris Hayes and his guests, here in his morning MSNBC weekend show, do a nice job of discussing this issue.

    I really like this clip, in part for its evocation of a great cartoon in which a man beckoned to bed by his wife responds: “I can’t…. Someone is wrong on the internet.” I also like this clip because of (for want of a better term) the gentlemanly way that Hayes himself conducts conversation on this program. He emphatically communicates his own perspective. He does so in a civil and reflective way which recognizes that there are human beings on both sides of most serious political debates, and that we might actually learn something if we listened to what other people have to say. I wish other cable TV anchors would emulate this approach.

    I’m starting a book on America’s approach to intellectual disability in public policy. It’s a complex and sometimes a sad subject. There is one bright spot, though. This byway of American social policy is unusually free of the usual partisan invective and culture war rhetoric that disfigure so much of American social policy. Millions of Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives, pro-life and pro-choice Americans have been personally touched by these issues. People who hold each of these perspectives have helped bring about massive social, cultural, and legal progress over the past several decades in matters of intellectual, developmental, and behavioral disabilities.

    People touched by these issues may have very different political and moral beliefs. Yet common experiences, needs, and fears make it harder for liberals and conservatives to regard each other as depersonalized figures on internet or TV news. It makes it a little harder to scream at each other from a distance or to contribute awful entries in a comment thread. That’s a good thing.

    • I’m sorry about the comment from “Edward.” Unfortunately, there does seem to be something about the internet that brings out incivility.

    • As the parent of a young adult with full disabilities I can only say that the social programs like SS, Medicare and Medicaid have enabled my son to live a life of quiet dignity, and that no one who has experienced the great benefit these programs do will ever disagree with you.

      Yes, there are a large number of ignorant people in the world, and selfish men and women who would trade the welfare of millions of disabled and handicapped people for a few dollars of a tax cut.

      Thanks for sharing your storiy with us.

    • What you read in internet comments is really, reflective of many people. I have long said that there are many, many people who actually hate other people who are less fortunate than themselves. They hide in the guise of preaching self-reliance and other such nonsense (as if any of us live w/out help from nobody). I have two brothers who hate ss, medicare, and other gov’t programs. I worked my whole life until I got ms and now live on ssdi. Even with medicare, I cannot get the meds I need as they are too costly. Their response is that we don’t mean you any harm but we cannot (as a society) afford people like you. And these are so-called Christians. That attitude is a lot more common than most people would admit.

      I saw it as a lawyer working with the poor and disadvantaged and see it now first hand.. We are anything but a Christ-like society.

    • I’m sorry — and I very much appreciate this post and your work. I do think, as you suggest, that the tendency of the members of our society to self-segregate is among the conditions that enable otherwise decent people to be so hard hearted about the needs of others less fortunate. I (age 67) think myself fortunate to have grown up in a small town where it was impossible NOT to get to know all of my classmates and many of our townspeople, with different economic and social conditions and various backgrounds. It has made it more difficult for me to assume that they and people like them are total asses/ bad people/ incredibly insensitive/ etc and to try to understand why they see things differently from me such as wanting “Obamacare” to be reversed rather than improved and willing to put Medicare on a path to insufficient funding.

    • I cannot defend the comments of Edward or feel a great deal of generosity towards such callousness. And I thank you for sharing your personal connection to this topic. It adds to the piece as do the strands that explain one reason why Medicare might have elicited resistance and resentment — particularly in certain parts of the country.

      Let me, however, suggest that it is important to try as best as one can the underlying fear that many may feel like Edward. I think if one is truly empathetic one can even empathize with the Edwards of this world even if they are hard to like. In other words it’s not just a question of value which is evidently great but one of cost. You don’t need to convince me. Yet I’m not the only decisionmaker. So it seems to me one needs to lay out some first principles in such an instance.

      In other words, what are society’s obligations and at what price in terms of tradeoffs do we fund program x versus program y? Otherwise one is just talking past those who look at the huge deficits and believe we are fiscally doomed. I am well aware of the arguments that it’s temporary and we need to raise taxes and we need to let the ACA work and so forth. But if it looks like it’s all going to come crashing down to many people, the fact that we have many in society who need this assistance doesn’t really help nor will they be helped if it we all get crushed together. So I think just because Edward is very callous doesn’t mean it’s not wise to address his understandable underlying concern which ultimately has to be all of our concern if things end up being as dire as the Edwards of this world think they will be.

      Thanks again and thanks for your illuminating piece in the Washington Monthly on the recent political history of the drive for national health insurance.

      • What the Edwards of the world fail to grasp (as do many) is that there is plenty of money to ensure that every person in this country has a roof over his/her head, adequate food, clothing, and health care. The very simple problem is that wealth is concentrated in the hands of very few people; who fight like mad to keep it from everyone else. We, as a society, choose to allow such a scenario. A scenario that is quickly turning our country into a society of two classes: the very rich and everyone else; like Brazil for example. Sadly, the only way it will change is probably through revolution. The ballot box has seemed to fail as the wealthy own that and have convinced people like Edward to fight each other for crumbs while the sale of ultra-luxury yachts increases. The wealthy know that the vast majority of Americans are, shall we say, not so bright and are easily led. They count on that fact and really, fear no repercussions for taking most of this country’s wealth.

        • You are welcome to your views and I would prefer not to argue with you on the merits. Some of what you share I am sympathetic to. Some, less so (I don’t think a revolution would be particularly good for those not doing well these days, they are usually bad for everyone, though I know many would like to see some doing well now get their comeuppance).

          However even if I agreed 100% with you, one still needs to address the views of the Edwards given that, aside from his callousness, I think its understandable that he is fearful for our future. He may not understand the current situation. That’s fine. Then we need to find a way to explain where he is off track (not in terms of empathy, obviously, but in terms of understanding the challenges we face). Most public policy efforts cost money as do our daily lives. And so spending money on some things feels to some not like we don’t care about those in need but rather that we are taking what few resources they have available to themselves. I think dismissing the views of people who believe this doesn’t help get us closer to a world in which we both serve those in need but we also understand why and that we can afford to. Thanks.

    • I’m interested to see your book on people with developmental disabilities in the US. I believe the that the social, political and medical view of people with disabilities in US history would give many Americans food for thought about how alienable the rights of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” have been for some of us. Make sure to check out the 19th century children’s stories about children with disabilities, which indicate that death was the most humane outcome for a child with intellectual impairments. We’ve come a long way, but history continues to inform how we frame issues around people with disabilities.

    • Thanks for the great comments.