Experience is a powerful teacher, and it seems to be working to change the views of certain Republicans. Rob Portman says he decided to support gay marriage because his son is gay and he couldn’t imagine denying him the right to marry. Now Sen. Mark Kirk has announced that his stroke has led him to reconsider his opposition to gay marriage.
Most of me says great; the road to redemption is much less important than arriving. But my inner cynic pulls an alarm. If we wait for Republicans to have personal experiences to change their policy positions, we could be waiting a long time. What would it take to get the party committed to global warming solutions? A series of hurricanes that flood their beach houses? To make them more supportive of the social safety net, do they have to fall on bad times? To support fully evolution as a pillar of our understanding of the universe, do they have to witness the Big Bang?
These cranky questions stem from a frustration that direct experience is not sufficient to govern wisely. You need empathy, the ability to try to understand what fellow human beings are going through and to help them if you can, regardless of whether you have experienced their circumstances. The Republican tendency not to feel the pain of others unless it is their pain is politically relevant. The latest Gallup poll says that the party’s most annoying trait is its rigidity. That’s what lack of empathy will do to you.