Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Sotomayor, Empathy, and Perspectival Realism

U.S. President Barack Obama has nominated Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court. Her confirmation seems inevitable, and she will be the third woman and the first Hispanic to serve on this highest Court. Pundits report that she is the most experienced nominee in a century. Certainly her nomination is also a nod to diversity: female, Latina. But, while some might think diversity would have been better served by, say, a lesbian nominee, there is significance in Sotomayor’s postmodern view that it is “important to acknowledge the influence that personal experience could have on decisions.”

Psychoanalysis, too, is entering an era where there is no longer an objective authority, where individual subjectivity can no longer be ignored as if it does not have influence. Who each of us is, including all our experiences, influences every thought, every action, every relationship, even as we strive as analysts to be with our patients.

And if Sotomayor’s breadth of experiences, including those with loss, poverty, and illness, as well as motherhood, Ivy League education, and as a judge, allow for more of the “empathy factor” (empathy: the ability to put yourself in another’s shoes) then I am with Chris Kelly when he jokes in his “Empathy for the Devil: …I can’t imagine how it feels to be against empathy.” Empathy is not only a mainstay in our therapeutic work, but it is a too pervasively absent quality on the world’s political stage. Should it not also pervade the judicial system where both fairness and mercy must be held in balance?

Sotomayor, who quipped that a "wise Latina" could reach a better decision than a man, admits she “fell flat” when trying to play off Sandra Day O’Connor’s comment that a wise old woman would probably arrive at the same decision as a wise old man. Much has been made of Sotomayor’s injudicious comment. Though poorly expressed, Sotomayor makes a valid point about the value of differing perspectives in applying the law.

On NPR this morning, the host said it differently, “Lots of different people can have lots of valuable experience.” This is what we might call perspectival realism: that no one has a god’s-eye view, instead each of us brings only a tiny slice of reality of experience from a vast array of possibilities in experiencing of an idea or an event. I might hope that an old woman might arrive, not at the same decision as an old man, but at a different one, equally valuable, offering yet another slice. If Sotomayor fell flat, it was in her temporary lapse of empathy when one privileges one sex, one ethnicity, or one subjectivity over another. All of us have lapses. If we are to remain connected to one another, particularly in the consulting room, then we must allow lapses in the other, negotiate our way through, and keep with the work of relationship.

No comments: