Save Your Pity
Sympathy and empathy are not interchangeable ingredients in the recipe of sustainable human relationships. Sympathy is feeling pity or sorrow for another’s hardship. It’s the rich pitying the undernourished, a wrist-slapped white collar thug pitying over-incarcerated petty drug transgressors, a haughty cake baker pitying hell-bound sinners. Sympathy is arm’s-length, a reinforcing mechanism for high-walled echo chambers that reverberate with selfishness. Sympathy provides a lazy topping when we see injustices like loving LGBTQ couples denied employment or housing or the freedom to move from city to city with consistent, portable rights.
Sympathy is thoroughly passé: a dry devil’s food on a counter of otherwise highly evolved molten triple fudge.
In 2018, just as we evolve in law and culture, we are called, instead, to empathize: to experience human emotions that rise from hunger, injustice, dehumanization, and capricious greed: to share fear and embarrassment and sorrow and persistent anxiety.
Acting out of mere sympathy reinforces otherness along traditional power gradients. It reinforces misunderstanding and callous aloofness.
Acting out of empathy reinforces camaraderie, it builds a multi-layer village upon an infrastructure of a sweet, shared soul. Empathy removes barriers between neighbors. Empathy remains uncodified except in the human heart: loving like Jesus instead of reifying arcane medieval doctrine.
Shifting from sympathy to empathy is the hard work of judging our own imperfections. It rises beyond the tight chambers of our individual hearts.
Building a social structure upon emotion, though, whether manifest as sympathy or empathy, is a dangerous proposition—kneading the line between saccharin and confection. While individual relationships are best realized through empathy, the subjectivity and difference in maturity levels between neighbors as they evolve from selfishness to sympathy to empathy may not always lead to sustainable policy.
We are bound by a political contract, leavened in the collective soul of the American people.
We, as individuals, rise at different rates, with different experiences, toward the rich realization of empathy’s promises. The Constitution and Rule of Law provide gap-filling, topical solutions where we fail to live up to the challenges—the hard, individual work—of empathizing.
We have laws to drive compromise, in the absence of empathy, between systemic injustice and objective hypocrisy. Where we cannot legislate empathy, we can at least protect commerce and opportunities to arrive at a set of protected rights for all citizens upon an infrastructure of legal contracts.
Local domestic partner registries like that in Hillsborough and Supreme Court decisions like Obergefell are still diluted by poorly baked intentions that would strip LGBTQ rights vis-à-vis competing interpretations of religious expression, however demagogued. Whereas we shouldn’t expect government to enforce empathy—this must spring organically from each person, in their own time—it can enforce equity and competitiveness in commerce. Government, with a mandate from democratically empowered electorates—some driven by pity, others by empathy, and still others out of selfishness—can champion laws that increase the broad commercial rights of all citizens. When large companies like Amazon face pressure against bringing tens of thousands of tax-paying jobs to Florida because its LGBTQ employees and recruits are fearful of living in a state where they, their legal spouses, or their families can be legally discriminated against, commerce suffers for all Floridians.
Because we can’t legislate empathy, we must legislate the primacy of contracts: the timeless recipe of offers, acceptance, consideration, and promises between equal parties. Protecting commercial relationships, balancing established rights of religion and self-expression, remains the proper role of government.
Each year over the last decade, a version of the Florida Competitive Workforce Act has been introduced in the Florida legislature. Each year it’s failed. The FCWA is designed to provide, statewide, the same protections against LGBTQ discrimination in employment, housing, and public accommodations that many municipalities already provide. Such statewide protections would promote commerce for those who want to cross borders without fearing fluctuating liberties and rights.
Building on the momentum of more bipartisan support than ever, FCWA must become law in 2019 for Florida to remain commercially and culturally relevant in the international marketplace. Explicitly dignifying LGBTQ citizenship throughout the state is smart business.
Read more of my poetry, essays, and stories at Momentitiousness.com