Where's the Empathy?

Why is it so hard for some to imagine misfortune until it happens to them?
Florida Governor's Office

If you haven’t yet read Ann Helms’ blog post on the Observer’s website this morning, take a few minutes.

It’s about Luis Lang, a Fort Mill, S.C., man who shunned health insurance, priding himself on paying for everything out of pocket, until he developed diabetes and suffered a series of small strokes that now threaten to leave him blind.

Lang won’t be able to sign up for coverage under the Affordable Care Act until early next year. His medical bills are piling up, and his condition prevents him from working as a self-employed handyman. Lang also lives in one of 21 states where Republican leaders turned down the ACA’s expansion of Medicaid, which would have covered his expenses.

Lang, a Republican, says he knew the act required him to get coverage but he chose not to do so. But he thought help would be available in an emergency. He and his wife blame President Obama and Congressional Democrats for passing a complex and flawed bill.

“(My husband) should be at the front of the line because he doesn’t work and because he has medical issues,” Mary Lang [Luis Lang’s wife] said last week. “We call it the Not Fair Health Care Act.”

On one level, this story has a simple moral. Strip the ideology and policy away, and you’re left with Lang’s choice not to purchase health insurance, which is inexplicable (and, under the ACA, illegal) regardless of which party he favors. That’s a basic law of insurance. You can gamble by not buying it, but you have to accept the consequences if you lose.

But something else bugs me about this story. It raises questions I can’t answer: How can anyone fail to imagine the possibility that he one day might fall ill and need help? And how can anyone lack the basic empathy needed to imagine someone else in that kind of predicament?

You can mount a rational argument against the ACA, or against socialized medicine in general. I’m talking about something else. Lang’s story reminded me of Florida Gov. Rick Scott, who two years ago reversed his tea party-inspired course and allowed a three-year expansion of Medicaid. “I cannot, in good conscience, deny the uninsured access to care,” Scott said.

What turned his head around? He thought about his mother, Esther, who had died the year before:

As I wrestled with this decision, I thought about my Mom’s struggles raising five kids with very little money.

I remember my Mom’s heartbreak when she could not afford to give my younger brother the treatment he needed when we learned he had a hip disease. She eventually found him a Shriner’s Children’s Hospital hundreds of miles away…where my brother would go back and forth for treatment.

My Mom was a proud, strong woman who wanted to make it on her own without help. But how would she have felt if she knew she was denied help that she was already paying for? …

No mother, or father, should despair over whether or not they can afford—or access—the health care their child needs.

Good for Scott, I guess. But that’s what it took? Did the governor of Florida actually lack the capacity to imagine anyone buried under medical bills and in dire need of decent health care until it happened to his own family?

There’s a growing body of research that indicates that, as it’s often cast, liberals’ and conservatives’ minds work differently—that, among other things, “In order for [conservatives] to find an idea valuable, it has to be meaningful for them personally. It needs to trigger empathy,” according to this Discover Magazine piece. “Meaning, they need some kind of emotional attachment to it, such as family, or a group of individuals they are close to in some way.”

I don’t know. That seems a bit too reductive to me. But Lang’s and Scott’s examples seem to uncover some vacant spot where ideology and psychology meet. It’s a mystery to me why they can’t, or won’t, cross the mental bridge from people’s lives to public life until events in their own lives force them to.

Categories: Poking the Hornet’s Nest