observations and opinion
There is a fine line between showing empathy and exploiting tragedy. Our politicians dance over it with increasing clumsiness.
We live in a less dignified age. Of that, there can be little doubt. Pass by a middle or high school in North America and you will witness something unimaginable twenty years before: people hugging. Not in grief or team joy or ardour, but as a way of saying hello. And goodbye. You could call it a public display of affection except, it’s not clear whether it’s always affectionate or simply, what one does.
To say this is less dignified seems perjorative. Perhaps there is a different kind of dignity in all this embracing. Dignified or not, it is certainly less restrained, less formal and less remote. One barrier that existed among westerners has fallen. Whether it implies the collapse of other barriers, or is simply a new kind of handshake, may depend on the circumstances. One thing for sure: people hug. And the hugging has moved from schoolyards to the adult sphere and, most starkly, to the public arena.
It is not entirely clear when elected officials transformed into emoters-in-chief, but they did. With that metamorphosis, politicians’ failure and success has increasingly been affected by their emotional thermometer. Do they “get it”? Do they feel it? Do they show it?
Those alive in January 1986 will remember the pulverizing shock of watching the Challenger space shuttle explode just after lift off. On board were professional astronauts and one amateur – a New Hampshire school teacher named Christa McAullife, whose parents stood on Flordia bleachers watching the sky as the shuttle rose and then, exploded. McAullife’s students were watching in assembly at school that day. Their faces were our faces: stunned horror.
That night, Americans and many others huddled in front of their TV sets to listen to President Reagan’s remarks on the tragedy. American Presidents have been addressing the citizenry since FDR’s fireside chats on radio, but those occasions have almost always been heavily laden with policy substance: the 1933 bank holiday, the 1944 D-Day invasion, the 1963 civil rights conflict, Jimmy Carter’s mis -labeled “malaise” speech – Presidents talk about national issues in order to inform the people and attract their support.
But President Reagan’s purpose that cold January night was not to inform, but to mourn. Sure, the reputation of the space program was severely and deservedly damaged, but Reagan’s memorable address didn’t focus on bucking up public support for NASA. He simply spoke to the national sense of shock and grief. He did so beautifully, thanks to his speechwriter Peggy Noonan and his own talents. And in that moment he transformed himself and his office, into Emoter-in-Chief.
His successors , in America and elsewhere, have fallen over themselves to do the same. This isn’t meant as criticism – there is value in knowing that the chief executive recognizes loss and registers public sentiment. Tony Blair made himself,and almost unmade the British monarchy, with his dewy-eyed evocations of “the People’s Princess” when Diana died in that August 1997 car crash. Bill Clinton was particularly effective in feeling your pain, memorably at the Oklahoma bombing site. Obama has moaned, wept and sung at the funerals following repeated gun massacres. It is all he can do, having been rendered powerless to fix it.
All this empathy isn’t just a nice thing to do – it has become a necessary function of office. That was demonstrated by George W. Bush, who met disaster, in the literal and figurative sense, that night he stood under spotlights on the last patch of dry ground in New Orleans, attempting to demonstrate humanity and competence in circumstances that were wildly beyond the skills of his communications personnel and FEMA. His reputation was one of the many things that drowned and were never found in Hurricane Katrina.
Canada has seen less need for all this empathy, fortunately, and so it did not develop as a finely-crafted feature of our political leadership. Not until recently, anyhow. After the October 2014 terror shooting at Ottawa, Canada’s political leaders stuttered. The Prime Minister, himself a virtual hostage barricaded during the Parliament corridor gun fight, looked and sounded afterwards like a man who had recently dodged death. Ashen, shaken and aching. Stephen Harper was a stony fellow, who repeatedly missed opportunities to demonstrate heart (his many detractors would say, because he lacked it). One thing Harper had was dignity or, at the very least, icy restraint.
Harper’s successor, on the other hand, has shown an almost bottomless capacity for “getting it”, feeling it, and showing it. Did your house burn down? Justin Trudeau is there. Do floodwaters threaten your basement? Justin is there. Do you belong to any minority group ever insulted or marginalized by Canadian society? Justin is there. And he is sorry, and he is ready to show you how sorry he is. Trudeau shows up for stuff and bathes in the glow of the glory and the grief. He is shameless, and I think he is shameless because he is sincere. He really does get it, so why be ashamed to show it?
The most recent example was the final Tragically Hip concert, where Justin Trudeau bought the t-shirt, watched the show and delivered one of his trademark, impassioned hugs to Canada’s dying bard, Gord Downie. One’s reaction to this is predictably hinged upon one’s political inclinations (many Liberals will love it, many Conservatives despise it and most New Democrats, envy it). Today, in the national afterglow of sadness and amazement at Downie’s perseverance in the face of impending death from brain cancer, Canadians for the most part understand Trudeau’s gesture – he was hugging Gord for all of us.
Trudeau is the scion of a political father whose tool kit did not include wild effusions of warm emotion. One recalls with fondness and amazement (in our touchy feely age) how when accosted by unhappy farmers who wanted his help, Pierre Trudeau shot back: “why should I sell your wheat?” During the October Crisis, when a journalist pointed at machine-gun toting soldiers and asked, “how far will you go?” Pierre gave his enduring answer: “just watch me.” No empathy from Pierre.
But Trudeau the Son is different. He feels it and he shows it. And he likely knows it is a necessary political skill. Another wealthy scion, Donald Trump, is less naturally gifted in the empathy department but has recently attempted to act the part, by arriving in Louisiana with a truckload of food and a $100,000 donation to a church in flooded parts of Baton Rouge. The effect doubtless will be to prop up Donald’s reputation among those who like him, while aggravating those who do not. Much the same as Justin’s concert appearance will do.
Compassion and the capacity to show it matters in politics today. Yet the question arises, where are the limits of this? There is a very fine, almost invisible, line between showing empathy and exploiting tragedy. Indeed, the line is so hard to find that it may be impossible to walk it – one may simply have no choice but to take advantage of a moment, by participating in it. If a politician retreats into dignified silence, he can readily be accused of lacking empathy. If a politician milks every moment to demonstrate connection, he can readily be accused of exploiting disaster.
My own inclination, born perhaps of my vintage, is to advise our politicians to step back a little. The citizenry is capable of feeling its own emotions – we do not need a translator or a mime, acting them out for us. The possibility of appearing calculating and self-serving is so high, in this age of cynicism, that even the most sincere emoter stands at risk of alienating people. There will be disasters and events which require explanation, which may compel a political leader to step forward and gather us together, but those will be diluted and lost in the noise if it happens constantly. There is a time to be Oprah, but there is also a time to be Churchill.
Even the most hardened among us must accept, that our political leaders will at times have to be tragically hip. Let’s hope they do it in moderation.