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.

Chet Hanks, Victim Blaming, and the "Weakness" of Suicide

Chet Hanks, son of Tom Hanks and a student here at Northwestern, has this to say about victims of bullying:

Chet's tweet: "Ayo I don't condone bullying but anyone who offs themselves cuz they got picked on is weak."

Credit: Gawker

And then, perhaps in response to people who responded to him (including yours truly), Chet tweeted these followups:

“I say real shit and I always speak my mind if you don’t like it I could give a fuck less.”

“Lol…Haters: I am sorry I do not cater to your demographic: shlubby dudes that don’t get laid enough it’s ok go back to your Internet porn”

“G’head check my feed, all the people hatin are mediocre Lames and cute girls show me love #whatdoesthattellyou

How mature.

Sometimes I wish someone would invent a technology that allows you to connect to someone else’s brain and actually feel what they feel. Because language is a poor substitute.

Maybe if we had such a technology, people would finally understand that mental illness and suicide do not happen to people because they are “weak.”

However, since we don’t have such a technology, the best we can do is educate ourselves about other people, something that college provides a great opportunity to do. It’s too bad that Chet Hanks seems not to be taking advantage of it.

Some of the comments on the Gawker piece I linked to, while generally dismissive of Chet Hanks, are hardly any better:

His expression of emotion is misguided and a bit douche-y, but I second the sentiment. Suicide is a horrible option to exercise as a bullying deterrent. It’s a permanent solution to a potentially temporary problem. It exchanges the pain you feel for the pain of those around you who love you and is essentially a selfish act.
Suicide is selfish and hurts people who care about you, but calling people who are potentially thinking about doing it weak is only going to make things worse. He could have expressed this sentiment in a way that was constructive and helped people, instead of highlighting what an asshat he is.

It’s probably true that some people are psychologically more susceptible to suicide than others, but that difference has nothing to do with “strength” or “weakness.” It also has nothing to do with “willpower” and “selfishness.” To put it broadly, suicide is what happens when a person no longer wants to live–which isn’t necessarily the same thing as wanting to die.

Tragically, most people who commit suicide do so at least in part because they don’t feel like anyone will miss them, and contrary to what the self-righteous commenters above seem to think, not everyone does have friends or family who care about them. It’s also worth noting that, with the exception of people like me who were bullied for being nerdy, kids who get bullied tend to already be marginalized by society in numerous ways–because of fatness or ugliness, mental or physical disability, perceived or real homosexuality, noncompliance with gender roles, and so on. Sometimes, these are the very children who are least likely to have supportive parents, siblings, teachers, and friends cheering them on through their trials.

What Chet seems to miss is that the causal relationship between bullying and suicide isn’t just that a kid goes to school one day and gets called a fag and comes home and tries to kill himself. Bullying is almost never a one-time thing; it can continue over months or years. It’s a constant wearing down of an individual’s self-worth and belief that he/she belongs in this world. Bullies don’t simply call you names and beat you up–they convince you that nobody wants you here.

While supportive friends and family can alleviate these tragic effects somewhat, as I mentioned, not everyone has supportive friends and family. And even if they do, that may not be enough. Children don’t have the freedom that adults have–they’re completely powerless to escape the situation by moving or dropping out of school. The only recourse they generally have is telling an authority figure at school, and that tends to do nothing at best or backfire at worst.

But of course, pretty much everyone reading this blog probably already knows all that. What they probably don’t know is how it actually feels to seriously consider suicide, and how little it has to do with concepts like “weakness” and “selfishness.” If you’d like to hear about it from someone who knows of what she speaks, feel free to ask me personally. Otherwise, I’d recommend this amazing book.

After we read about Chet’s tweet, some of my friends and I started talking about the whole concept of victim blaming and how pervasive it is in our society. Although it’s usually talked about in the context of sexual assault, there really isn’t a single shitty human experience that doesn’t routinely get blamed on its victims: mental illness, bullying, poverty, racism, sexual harassment, you name it. If you have depression, it’s because you’re just not looking on the bright side of life. If you’re getting bullied, it’s because you stick out too much or “react” too much. If you’re poor, it’s because you’re too lazy to get a job. If you’re fat, it’s because you eat crap and don’t exercise. If you feel discriminated against, it’s because you’re “too sensitive.” If you’re getting harassed on the street, your skirt’s too short. And so on and so forth.

(In fact, as Barbara Ehrenreich notes in her brilliant book Bright-sided, even cancer, that ultimate of tragedies, is increasingly getting blamed on its victims. Why? Because they didn’t “think positively” enough.)

Sometimes, it’s really difficult and unpleasant to acknowledge the fact that, even in our pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps, when-there’s-a-will-there’s-a-way sort of culture, sometimes life just screws people. Sometimes it just does.

It’s easier to blame the victim than to make the sort of cultural changes we would need to make sure that people get screwed over as little as possible. Much easier than to figure out how to teach compassion to kids, how to eradicate racism, how to get people to realize that there’s never an excuse for raping people.

But just because we may not yet know how to do those things does not mean we should just throw up our hands and say, “Yeah well, if they off themselves, it’s just cuz they’re weak.”

The more I study psychology, bullying, and the many challenges faced by people that society continually marginalizes, the more I think: If only it were that simple.

*edit* Also, here’s an awesome blog post about this from my friend Derrick.

A Holistic Perspective on Bullying

Recently while hanging out at my local Barnes and Noble, I noticed a display near the kids’ section. It was about “No Name-Calling Week,” which happens to be the week of January 23, and had a bunch of books for children about bullying.

At first, I was skeptical, as I usually am about well-meaning but generally misinformed interventions like these. But when I actually checked out the books, I noticed that they weren’t just about bullying. I bought two of them for my little brother, and they were called Stick Up For Yourself and Speak Up and Get Along.

Before you drown in a puddle of gag reflex, let me assure you that I actually read a good amount of both of these books before I bought them, and I’m proud to say that they are absolutely 100% Psych Major/Former Kid/Big Sister-approved.

More specifically, the books basically consisted of kid-friendly cognitive-behavioral therapy. There were chapters about understanding and naming your feelings, expressing yourself effectively, and figuring out what your dreams are. Relatively little of it was actually directly relevant to bullying; the focus seemed to be children’s mental health in general.

As I wrote in a previous post, our culture mostly ignores mental health in children unless they’re already seriously distressed and/or problematic, in which case it attacks the problem furiously, if ineffectively (i.e. ADHD, alcohol/drug use, and delinquency). In that post, I discussed my ten-year-old brother’s skewed worldview and how it’s been shaped by the way he’s treated by other kids, and how his issues probably won’t be taken seriously until/unless they develop into something that’s listed in the DSM.

But these books are brilliant in that they approach the problem of bullying in a holistic way–by illuminating the ways in which kids would be happier and healthier if they were taught more effective and positive ways of thinking and interacting.

I was bullied as a kid. I’m not nearly masochistic enough to start describing exactly how or how much, although I can say that it wasn’t as severe as it was for many other people. I don’t think it affected my life all that much; although I’m sure depression can be a consequence of childhood bullying, I’m pretty sure my genetics and inborn temperament took care of that on their own.

But even from an early age, I was curious about why people act the way they do. Although I’m certainly not always nice, I’ve never felt the urge to ostracize someone, publicly humiliate them, or spread rumors about them. Some people, though, do have that urge. Why?

Of course, parents, teachers, and psychologists have been trying to answer this question for decades now. The common assumption used to be that bullies are awkward, ugly loners who mess with other kids to feel powerful. Nowadays, the explanations have tended towards the sociological side, with Rachel Simmons’ Odd Girl Out hypothesizing that, at least among girls, bullying is caused by a societal stigma against expressing anger openly and is usually done by popular girls with plenty of social capital.

The real answer, I think, lies somewhere between these two perspectives. It’s clear that most bullies are socially skilled and aware, at least to a certain extent, or else they wouldn’t be able to exert such influence. (Would you really feel that hurt if some loser came up and called you ugly? I’d laugh.) However, there has to be something missing from these kids’ lives if they turn to making others miserable.

A happy, self-confident person of any age has no need to put others down. I think it’s time that we recognize that even young children can and do have mental health issues–not necessarily ones that need medication or therapy, but ones that deserve attention and respect from their families.

That’s why I bought my brother those books. I hope that they’ll be a good starting point to help him figure out how to start looking at the world in a healthier way and how to talk to us about how he feels. We can’t help kids without listening to them–and resisting the urge to respond with “Just ignore it,” “Just get over it,” and “Just calm down.”

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.