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Game of Thrones and politics agree: lack of empathy = bad news

Empathy is missing too much from our politics today, and often life in general. Empathy for others, their perspective, and their humanity. One doesn’t have to agree with opposing points of view, but one can disagree without hate.

Don’t believe hate is bad? I give you Daenerys Targaryen and Grey Worm losing going gonzo in the latest installment of Game of Thrones. Have a little empathy: conquer the city and the Seven Kingdoms with mitigated loss of life and destruction. Succumb to rage: genocide-level slaughter and near-razing of greatest city in Westeros.

Sometimes it’s easy to have empathy. Or it should be. Perhaps you saw the recent story of a school district in Rhode Island that made news for not only serving students with delinquent lunch accounts a sunflower butter & jelly sandwich, they did so while chasing debts under a dollar.

Food shaming is bad. Spending scarce administrative resources going after negative account balances measured in dimes rather than dollars is outright foolish.

Chobani later stepped in to pay off the cumulative debt, but it’s not as if this controversial policy by the school district was a first. It’s been an issue for some time, covered at some length in the national media in previous years (examples here and here).

So much of an issue that some schools have earned negative publicity by going so far as to throw away lunches, otherwise ready to be served to students, when a student’s account has a negative balance. Lest one think such displays of a lack of empathy – presuming there are better ways to handle such unpleasant problems than tossing a hungry kid’s lunch in front of them – are rare, a little googling finds such stories across the country quite easily (here, here, here and here for example).

Rest assured, such displays of stupidity has not been limited to throwing away food, someone thought putting a stamp on the kid’s hand to alert the offending parent was a totes good solution to the problem. In the 21st century.

These stories prove people are not always bright, let alone empathetic. But the school lunch payment account problem has become significant enough there are actual state legislative strategies to address such school lunch shaming. Because apparently some adults need state laws not to act like jerks.

It should be relatively easy, especially as a parent, to empathize with the potential impact on the child of this approach to the parent’s unpaid bills. Hearing first hand stories is even more compelling. This from a well-known, left-of-center activist is a moving thread on the subject:

We also need not let empathy be a response to difficult situations. Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella credits empathy, both for colleagues and customers, as a driving factor in his company’s recent success. And by success here, we mean making Microsoft a true corporate powerhouse again. Just like it’s first pinnacle of success in the 1990’s…minus the arrogant, monopolistic business practices.

There is no surprise to anyone sentient observing our American politics that empathy isn’t exactly a dominant feature in today’s divisive era. Empathy might indeed be dead for now.

One can argue about the wisdom of diagnosing psychological conditions from a distance (it’s probably very bad), but only the most loyal Trump die hard would argue the current President doesn’t externally display a number of the criteria associated with someone possessing narcissistic and sociopathic tendencies. Appealing to the better angels of our nature is not exactly Trumpian.

There are some in the realm of politics attempting it. On the right, Marco Rubio talks about issues like paid family leave and relief for student loans as earnestly as Elizabeth Warren, but with very different ideological foundations for a solution. Why? He clearly cares about the challenges facing working families, likely rooted in his own humble up-bringing.

On the left, Cory Booker launched his Presidential campaign talking about “common purpose” and love.

Problem: that’s theme may not be the easiest sell in a Democratic party more eager to defeat a President with a famous Twitter account and truly atrocious hair than to unite behind a positive, forward-facing agenda.

Rubio failed in his Presidential run. Booker is likely to do the same. But both are planting seeds. It’s unclear when they’ll blossom, but they’re necessary. Politics can’t be all about an eternal, hyper-partisan, tribal brawl.

People without empathy won’t rally to such a banner. They might even toss some kids’ lunch – or do something similarly unhelpful – along the way.

But, for all the angst Game of Thrones has wrought this season with its rushed pacing and resulting jarring twists of character development, it has reminded us of a clear lesson of human history: man is fallen. He or she is capable of good, but prone to be nasty and brutish when left to wallow in our worst faults.

And right now our society could use more Tyrions and Samwells. Less Daenys and Grey Worms, please.


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