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Ways of Seeing: Feel other’s pain, see their viewpoint

When Sen. Rob Portman reversed his position on marriage equality after his son came out as gay, he took a lot of flack. Some of it was from people who objected that the senator was apparently okay denying equal rights to gay and lesbian partners until someone in his family was affected. When the issue became personal, he finally changed his perspective.
It’s not surprising that Sen. Portman didn’t “get it” until his son came out: All of us to some extent restrict our affection and concern to the people closest to us. It’s as if we don’t quite have the energy or imagination to perceive other people in their full reality. Intellectually we know better, and we might say all the right things. But when it comes right down to it,we fail to imagine other people as fully real, as real as we are. We cannot know them in their complexity, their weight, their desires, their needs, their pain.
In 1996 Professor of English Elaine Scarry wrote an important essay on this topic, called “The Difficulty of Imagining Other People.” Scarry argued that our capacity to injure others is in direct proportion to our difficulty imagining them and their feelings. She focused on physical injury, especially torture, noting that we don’t torture other people when we identify with what they are feeling. She argued that the issue turns on this problem of understanding other peoples’ pain. In an interview in the Guardian, she stated, “In political and moral life you must be aware of the pain of people whom you may never see.”
Scarry acknowledges that this is a challenging task. It’s hard enough to focus on the reality of the person standing next to us; when we get to people at the other side of town, it’s harder still; and when we get to huge numbers of people on the other side of the globe — well, let’s just say, it’s not a good idea to rely on our own or our leaders’ capacity to “feel other people’s pain.”
I would take it one step further: it’s even hard for us to imagine ourselves in a different state. The young are notoriously bad at recognizing the needs of elderly people — even though, if they’re lucky, they will one day be among them. On a more banal level, I find it hard to pack a jacket when I am hot and sweaty, and the experience of physical pain — like a toothache, or childbirth — disappears from memory almost as soon as it is over.
One way to approach this problem is to take on the task — both individually and as a society — of widening our sympathies. Scarry herself has described how her own moral imagination has been trained by poetry and literature, which has taught her a lot about other people’s reality.
And yet, says Scarry, our limitations are so fundamental that we cannot rely on “sensitivity training” as sufficient protection against our own capacity to harm other people. We just aren’t very good at holding other people in mind, as history has shown us all too well. And anyway, why should the rights of any group of people be dependent on the generosity and wisdom of others? Clearly we need laws in place to protect human and civil rights. And so this English professor has also devoted herself to working on matters of constitutional law and social contracts.
Getting back to marriage equality, it has frequently been said that this issue has gained momentum because it is personal for all of us: Whether or not we know it, it’s highly likely that someone we love is gay. We don’t want our children to be kept away from the hospital beds of their dying partners. We don’t want our sisters and brothers denied access to their partners’ health insurance and social security. When people closest to us are harmed or treated badly, we do what we can to help. Our imaginations will take us that far.
And when it comes to the people we love, we may also begin to understand that the tide of public sympathy is not a sufficient nor a fair mechanism for establishing and protecting their rights. For that they need not sympathy, but equality under the law.
Devon Jersild, PhD, is a licensed clinical psychologist with a psychotherapy practice in Weybridge. For the time being, this is her last “Ways of Seeing” column.

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