Empathy and Leadership: Why Romney Would be a Terrible President

What do we look for in a presidential candidate? Political experience, intelligence, charisma, and confidence are probably high up on the list. Good looks and an adherence to Christianity clearly don’t hurt either.

But what about empathy?

What terrifies me the most about the scant possibility of a Romney presidency is not the fact that I disagree with his political ideology. Rather, it’s Romney’s seemingly complete lack of empathy.

This thought first occurred to me back when the “Seamus incident” made the news a few months ago. But one can easily argue that the incident doesn’t exactly prove that Romney is a heartless robot–after all, the victim in question was a dog, not a human, and who really knows how the dog felt anyway?

Slightly less ambiguous is this new bit of insight into Romney’s past:

Friedemann entered Stevens Hall off the school’s collegiate quad to find Romney marching out of his own room ahead of a prep school posse shouting about their plan to cut Lauber’s hair. Friedemann followed them to a nearby room where they came upon Lauber, tackled him and pinned him to the ground. As Lauber, his eyes filling with tears, screamed for help, Romney repeatedly clipped his hair with a pair of scissors.

This is what Mitt Romney did to a classmate at his boarding school when he was a senior. The classmate, John Lauber, was presumed to be gay and wore his bleached-blond hair long–at least, until Romney decided to do something about it.

According to the Washington Post, this story was remembered and corroborated independently by five of Romney’s former classmates. Romney’s response:

“Back in high school, I did some dumb things and if anybody was hurt by that or offended, obviously I apologize for that…I don’t remember that incident,” Romney said, laughing. “I certainly don’t believe that I thought the fellow was homosexual. That was the furthest thing from our minds back in the 1960s, so that was not the case.”

I think it’s interesting that, despite claiming not to remember this incident, Romney nevertheless seems to file it into that large category of Dumb Things Teenagers Do. We all have those things, of course. For me, it was writing bad poetry and crushing on unattainable guys. For more typical teenagers, it’s probably something like getting really drunk when their parents are out of town and throwing up all over the Persian rug.

For the teenage Romney, though, it’s assaulting a fellow student because he’s (ostensibly) gay.

(Incidentally, Romney’s campaign has apparently been trying to get other former classmates of his to speak up in support of him. Good luck with that.)

It’s easy to make the argument that this happened decades ago and that Romney is probably a Completely Different Person now. Perhaps. But one writer on Mother Jones, discussing what “Romney the teenager” can tell us about “Romney the man,” says:

Romney the man has denied, and repeatedly denied yesterday, even remembering this incident. Sure, it was half a century ago, but he led a posse of his friends, tackled John Lauber in a hallway, dragged him into a bathroom, and then chopped off his hair while he struggled in terror. Even if you grant that this kind of extreme behavior was more common in a 1960s prep school than it is today, it’s really not the kind of thing you’d forget.

 

At least, you shouldn’t. So either Romney has done this kind of thing so often that the Lauber incident just blends into all the others, which suggests a far more vicious childhood than he’s owned up to, or else he remembers it just fine and is simply lying about it.

Furthermore, Romney has made his position on LGBT people clear more recently, too. As Governor of Massachusetts, he abolished a group looking into the issue of bullying and suicide in LGBT teenagers. One of his spokespeople outed a transgender woman running for political office in the same state, ending her career. Romney has also signed the National Organization for Marriage’s pledge, stating that he would support a constitutional amendment defining marriage as between a man and a woman, and donated $10,000 to that organization to support Proposition 8 in California. Of his stance on gay marriage as governor of Massachusetts, Romney has said, “On my watch, we fought hard and prevented Massachusetts from becoming the Las Vegas of gay marriage.”

So, while we can be reasonably sure that Romney wouldn’t physically bully anyone these days, I’m not so sure that his ability to empathize with people different from him has evolved at all.

Unfortunately for us–if Romney gets elected–empathy is essential for good leadership. (A U.S. Army Colonel makes that case very persuasively in this Washington Post column.) By definition, leaders are in a place of privilege compared to those they lead, so if they want to know how best to serve the people who elected them, they must be able to understand them and their lives.

For instance, take bullying. It’s one thing to take a stand against bullying because you were once bullied yourself, and another thing entirely to understand the harm that bullying does to individuals, families, communities, and society as a whole, without having experienced it firsthand. Since presidential candidates tend to be male, white, wealthy, Christian, straight, cisgender, able-bodied, and so on, they are unlikely to have experienced things like bullying firsthand. That is why having empathy is essential if they are to understand this increasingly politicized issue.

For a politician, being empathic doesn’t necessarily mean you have to be a bleeding-heart liberal; it just means you have to be able to understand how people different from you actually think, feel, and choose. You could still, for instance, choose to limit government spending for economic reasons while acknowledging and genuinely regretting the fact that your choices may hurt some people. You could propose and support ways of solving issues like social inequality without increasing government spending.You could understand that poor people are not always to blame for their own predicament, even if you don’t think that bringing them out of it is the government’s job.

You could recognize that you disagree with gay marriage because of your religious beliefs, but understand that not everyone shares your beliefs and not everyone should have to live by them. You could disagree with gay marriage because of your religious beliefs, but realize that gay and lesbian teenagers still deserve protection from bullying.

You could, in other words, be a Republican with a heart.

In short, having empathy doesn’t mean being politically liberal. There are plenty of liberals who seem to lack empathy, and there are–hopefully–conservatives who have it. But Romney isn’t one of them. And that, much more so than his politics, is why I really hope he’ll never be President.

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Is Homosexuality “Unnatural”?

Spoiler alert: no.

First, let’s define “natural.” Here’s what Merriam-Webster has to say:

  • “being in accordance with or determined by nature”
  • “having a specified character by nature”
  • “occurring in conformity with the ordinary course of nature : not marvelous or supernatural”
  • “existing in or produced by nature : not artificial”

For something to be “unnatural,” then, it would have to be the opposite of these things.

And now here are some facts about homosexuality:

  • Same-sex attraction exists among humans all over the world.
  • Although there’s no such thing as the “Gay Gene,” plenty of research has suggested that ties do exist between genetics and sexual orientation.
  • While some research has shown that one’s environment can influence their sexual orientation–for instance, a study showed that gay men report less positive interactions with their fathers than straight men–such factors aren’t exactly up to the individual to choose. (Also, one can’t really determine causation in cases like that.)
  • In general, psychological authorities agree that homosexuality is caused by an interaction of countless factors, usually develops in early childhood, and is not a choice.
  • There is no evidence that sexual orientation can be forcibly changed through “conversion therapy” or any other methods. (However, one’s orientation may be fluid and can sometimes change on its own over time, just like other types of sexual preference.)
  • Even animals can be gay! Homosexual behavior has been documented in tons of different animal species, such as penguins, pigeons, vultures, elephants, giraffes, dolphins, lizards, sheep, and, curiously, fruit flies and bedbugs. Bonobos, meanwhile, are almost entirely bisexual.

Compare this list to the definitions of “natural” above. Could it be that homosexuality is just a part of nature?

Some people like to claim that because homosexuality is “unnatural” because it’s maladaptive in terms of evolution–after all, how are you supposed to pass on your genes if you can’t have biological offspring?

First of all, for various reasons that I may elaborate in a future post, I don’t believe we need to let evolutionary concerns dictate our behavior. Second, there are plenty of other conditions that people are born with that aren’t evolutionarily adaptive–albinism, for instance. Nobody goes around railing about how albino people are “unnatural.” (Except perhaps in parts of Africa, where the condition is heavily stigmatized. But it goes without saying that what happens to albino people in some cultures is deplorable.)

That’s not even to mention the fact that, last I checked, it’s not anybody’s business whether or not particular individuals want to pass their genes on to the next generation or not.

The reason I’m writing about all of this is because homosexuality’s supposed “unnaturalness” is a common justification given by bigots for why they oppose gay rights. (For some examples, see here, here, and here.) As usual, however, their arguments have nothing to do with the meaning of the word “natural” or with current research on homosexuality. (At least among Christians, the idea that homosexuality is “unnatural” comes from bible verses such as Leviticus 18:22, which refers to same-sex relations as an “abomination.” There’s a vague line of reasoning if I ever heard one.)

Therefore, I wish they’d just give the real reason they don’t support gay rights–that they don’t like gay people, don’t wish to examine why they feel this way, and would rather the LGBT community just shut up and stop making their lives so difficult.

Bullying as a Social Regulator

If only it worked this way.

I came across a post by Tea Party Nation blogger Dr. Rich Swier called “Bullying, Peer Pressure and Gulf Coast Gives.” (You need a TPN account to see it, unfortunately.) I won’t describe the way in which the contents of my stomach forcibly exited my body upon my reading this, and I will also ignore the homophobia in this article because it’s obvious and there’s no need to comment on it. Rather, I’m going to simply explore an interesting idea that Swier brings up.

In this article, Swier is opposing Gulf Coast Gives, a charity foundation that, among many other things, advocates against LGBT-related bullying. He opposes this foundation because he disagrees with its stance on this issue:

This is not bullying. It is peer pressure and is healthy. There are many bad behaviors such as smoking, under age drinking and drug abuse that are behaviors that cannot be condoned. Homosexuality falls into this category. Homosexuality is simply bad behavior that youth see as such and rightly pressure their peers to stop it…

I agree with Gulf Coast Gives that “LGBT youth are up to five times more likely to attempt suicide than their straight counterparts”. Homosexuality, like drugs, harms young people if they experement with it. That is the greatest tragedy.

Again, I’m going to just ignore the self-evident homophobia and dissect Swier’s concept of bullying as some sort of social regulator. He reframes bullying as “peer pressure” and claims that it prevents young people from engaging in unsafe behaviors, in this case, homosexuality.

Leaving aside for now the fact that, unlike the other behaviors listed here, homosexuality is not a choice, I am left to wonder if Swier somehow managed to completely miss the reasoning behind all the anti-drugs and alcohol campaigns that public school kids are subjected to these days. Peer pressure isn’t typically a force that promotes healthy behavior. If it were, we wouldn’t need all these “just say no” lessons to teach kids how to resist it.

It seems that bullying and peer pressure serve more to encourage “normalcy” than anything else. Luckily for Swier’s argument, heterosexuality happens to be normative. But so are underage drinking and, in some circles, smoking and drug use. People don’t get bullied for doing things that are unsafe; they get bullied for doing things that are “weird.” Contrary to Swier’s argument, kids and teens don’t see homosexuality as “bad behavior.” They see it as weird.

Not only do kids not bully each other for doing things that are actually unsafe, but they frequently bully each other for doing things that most adults would see as positive. I’m sure that even social conservatives would agree with me that reading books is good for kids. Yet every avid reader I know, myself included, was made fun of for it in grade school. To quote the great Bill O’Reilly, you can’t explain that.

Of course, norms change. Homosexuality is becoming increasingly accepted in American society, so it’s only a matter of time before that acceptance starts trickling down to kids and teens and Swier’s argument starts falling apart, like all Tea Party arguments inevitably do.