The Autism That Plagues Political Discourse


By J.J. Goldberg

Published September 22, 2011, issue of September 30, 2011.
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Every year, it seems, the approach of the solemn Season of Repentance finds us more sorrowful, and yet, oddly, less and less repentant. It’s sort of like a jobless recovery, but without the recovery.

I’m not talking about our inability to repent as fully as we should. That’s nothing new. It’s always been hard to gaze inward, recognize one’s failings and own up to them. That’s why so many religions make a ritual of it. We’re forced to go through the motions of confession and repentance periodically in the hope that by repetition, something will occasionally break through our defenses: Forgive me, father, for I have sinned. Ashamnu, bagadnu.

No, I’m talking about the growing popularity of the angry, wounded counter-claim — the trendy mindset that insists any suggestion of wrongdoing or error on my part is a malicious trick. Any request that I reexamine my actions and consider changing course is nothing but an attack on my honor. And not just any attack: a deliberate, malevolent attack, reflecting your unalterable hatred of me.

The perception of hatred is the key to understanding the breakdown of repentance. If I believe your questioning of my behavior is motivated by hatred, then there’s really no point in my considering your criticism. Even if there’s some validity to your claim — indeed, even if following your advice might make my own life better — I’m going to dismiss it because I don’t want to encourage you. If I give you an opening, you’ll keep on coming at me with more and more of these attacks, since it’s not really my behavior that’s driving you, but your hatred of me. I’ll simply let you know what I think of you and your criticisms, and leave it at that.

But the problem doesn’t stop with me. My diagnosis of my situation puts you in a bind. The odds are that you’re complaining because my behavior is hurting you somehow, and you want me to understand what you’re going through. You might hope that I’ll weigh the benefit I get from my actions against the harm they do to you, and ask myself whether it’s necessary or fair.

Unfortunately, understanding your point of view is the last thing on my mind, since I have already decided I understand your point of view all too well. You’re just attacking me because you hate me. What’s to understand?

At some point, you might well conclude that you’re having no luck altering my behavior because I’m motivated by — what else? — hatred of you. The truth is that you weren’t even on my screen when I started doing whatever I’m doing. I had my own reasons. But you see it through the prism of your unhappy experience, and my refusal to discuss it with you, so what else are you to think?

Does it sound like I’m describing the Middle East conflict? Of course it does. But I could just as easily be talking about the state of public discourse among Israelis themselves, or the current American political mood, or Congress. Watch Fox News for a few days and hear what conservatives are saying about liberals and their goals for America. Read Media Matters or some of the columnists in the New York Times and see what liberals are saying about conservatives. Here’s what you’ll learn: Liberals aren’t looking for ways to improve the lives of the have-nots — they’re trying to destroy America’s moral core and turn us into a Russian gulag or a giant bathhouse. Conservatives aren’t seeking to restore virtue in our national character — they’re trying to keep us hungry and stupid and turn us into Iran. That’s all we need to know: Liberals are depraved and conservatives are stupid.

In psychological terms, what we’re experiencing is a mass crisis of empathy. That’s the capacity to recognize and identify with the feelings of another person. It’s a basic building block of the human mind, one of the things that make us human, and a core component of all social interaction. Without empathy, you can’t have human society. People who lack that capacity are said to suffer from autism. Something in their makeup makes them tragically unable to bond with the community and society around them.

Our condition is a little bit different. We’re able connect and empathize. We just don’t feel like it. We turn it off when the empathizing gets too uncomfortable, which is more and more frequently these days. One minute we’re conducting complicated negotiations with clients and loved ones, reading their faces and vocal timbre for signs of their moods and needs. The next minute we’re cheering for Rick Perry’s record-setting number of executions and hooting derisively at the idea of spending tax money to save someone’s life. We’re able to go from the sublime to the savage in the twinkling of an eye.

What causes this crisis of empathy? Maybe it’s all the technology we’ve created to surround ourselves. A century ago, we didn’t have to understand more than the few hundred people we met in our daily lives. Now we have pixilated screens that expose us to the lives and emotions of millions of people every day. Maybe our minds aren’t big enough to handle all that, and so some sort of antibody kicks in and starts rejecting certain humans. Maybe we’re experiencing some sort of human version of that mysterious beehive collapse disorder.

Whatever it is, it’s going to cast a dark shadow over the Jewish holy days in the coming weeks. We’ll be standing in synagogue, beating our breasts and reciting the ancient chants: Ashamnu, bagadnu — we have sinned, betrayed, robbed, slandered; for all this, we humbly ask forgiveness, O God. But we won’t really mean it. Sinned, betrayed, robbed — us? Who wrote that prayer, Mel Gibson?

No, what we’ll really be thinking is how great it is that we’re standing there and humbly beating our breasts. Nobody does humble like we do. When it comes to humility, we’re number one.

Contact J.J. Goldberg at

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