Liberals Can’t Help It: Biological Link Predisposes Them to Have Empathy and Compassion by Thomas Martin Sobottke

Seek Social Justice


Speak out on behalf of the voiceless, and for the rights of all who are vulnerable.”

-What King Lemuel of Massa was so wisely taught by his mother. — Proverbs 31:8

First it was George Lakoff, writing in The Political Mind: A Cognitive Scientists Guide to Your Brain and It’s Politics, (New York: Penguin Books, 2009) that cognitive science shows us that experiences that activate our prefrontal cortex of our brains and certain neural pathways lead us to rely most on a parental model of a more nurturing parent who is more compassionate and shows empathy for others. This may be one source of the Liberal Bleedin’ Heart. In my case I seemed to always be an oversensitive wuss since I was but a child, but with a good kind heart behind my wussiness.

Now it is scientists John R. Hibbing, Kevin B. Smith, and John R. Alford writing in Predisposed: Liberals, Conservatives, and the Biology of Political Differences (New York: Routledge Group, 2014). They posit after reviewing wide ranging studies on the brain as Lakoff does, but also going more deeply into genetic predispositions, that if present in us puts us on a path toward liberalism or conservatism.

The converse is that conservatives have genetic predispositions biologically to being more likely to respond to authority and tradition, a strict parent model as Lakoff notes, where retributive justice is more highly prized. Hibbing, Smith and Alford point out sagely that wariness of strangers, neural radar for example warning us of distant peoples or those who try and come among us who are dangerous is more present in conservatives. A society that works best on merit and strict control of our behavior and taking on more responsibility is the conservative set of predispositions.

So they can’t help it either. Conservatives lack sufficient empathy and compassion for the most vulnerable in society—the poor. So politically they view them as lazy, indolent, and undeserving due to their connections biologically and their neural pathways activated by experiences that lead them to Lakoff’s strict authoritarian parent model, and genetics and chemicals within certain genes that push those people to see those who are poor as lacking sufficient merit in a merit based society and one that demands responsibility for their condition that the poor do not step up and accept.

Hibbing, Smith and Alford emphasize that liberals and conservatives are largely locked into their specific political viewpoint so it is very difficult to move them off their conservative or liberal predispositions. This writer admits he found the latter book on the biology and genetic sources of political differences of the liberal left and the conservative right hard going. But he got the message.

So next time Ted Cruz or Paul Ryan in a bit of Ayn Randian rhetoric seems, and in truth and objective reality, are oblivious to the poor, the sick, the weak, the oppressed and those locked away in our prisons they are simply acting as biology and some chemical within their genetic codes at birth predispose them to.

It makes it easier to accept them, that is conservatives, as they are and not try to change them too much. The authors of these works and other similar books providing scientific evidence for why we are more liberal or conservative are not exactly sure how we all are going to get along. Sigh.

There is one hopeful and expansive way to look at these differences in the uses of our brain’s prefrontal cortex and neural pathways, along with biology pure and simple, is that a society needs both liberals and conservatives to function at all—to survive and thrive.

We have to have people who make us more responsible and put up the slowdown signs when those who want to help the helpless or embrace say Iran about now simply go too far. Too much change too fast might be dangerous. At other times it is necessary to push change and social justice very hard, so you conservatives should expect liberals to push hard for even more than just “Change you can believe In.”

Nevertheless, there is something to be said for tradition and punishing those who are truly evil and locking them away from us and doing things that have over a long time become traditions for good reason. Ask Tevya in Fiddler on the Roof.

Conservatives, while God is often full of wrath and out to smote those who well, you know need smoting, and just can’t wait to bring the hellfire and heat up that brimstone to hit the sinner and the slackers among us shows us a completely different side in the New Testament and the teachings of the Radical leftist Rabbi Jesus of Nazareth.

For Jesus it is all about helping “the least of these” as in Matthew 25: 31-46. Reaching out and feeling the suffering of the poor, sick, the most vulnerable among us and those oppressed in so many ways, and actually giving meaningful love, and aid to them all is equated with doing good things for Christ himself, God’s son and one of three aspects of God. This God created all that is and (are you listening Stephen Hawking) all there is not —an all powerful and all-knowing entity that is simply the great “I AM.”

NOT doing these things that seem so liberal, almost socialistic in origin are actually tied to failure quite disturbingly direct: deciding whether or not God’s grace and mercy and our ultimate salvation and eternal life happens for us or not. Check out Matthew 25:31-46 again most carefully. No distinction is made between conservatives or liberals when it comes to helping the hungry, the thirsty, the sick, the poor, the imprisoned and more. It is simply what God expects of each and every one of us regardless of biological predisposition. This is a very hard teaching for every human being I think; Liberals included.

Liberals are needed alright. And we are righteous to do our thing in the world. As Jesus the Christ, following his suffering on the Roman Cross, death and resurrection to life said just as he was ready to ascend into heaven with the Father enjoined—commanded and not merely suggested, that all humankind “love one another.” Jesus even went so far as to command us to “love your enemies.”

Doing justice as was done for Lazarus, the poor man laying out in front of a Wall Street corporate headquarters, or perhaps one of the Koch Brothers homes, or even Mitt Romney’s slick new palace in La Jolla, California is something we liberals highly prize and in our excessive empathy and compassion for others respond to.

Does that make us better than conservatives? Let’s just hope and pray none of us on the liberal end of things gets so full of ourselves to even entertain such a thought. God loves absolutely all of his or is it her creation? Anyway, that’s you too conservatives. So listen up.

Next time you see some bleedin’ heart liberal trying to do what is right, just, and good for all; something that asks for truth rather than falsehood, generosity and compassion and true empathy for others, don’t come down on us so hard for doing so.

We just can’t help it. Though we are sinners in God’s eyes and we fall short of deserving a shred of God’s love and grace to us we make that effort to follow Christ’s lead as disciples more strongly than others might. Or perhaps we do it in the name of Yahweh from a Synagogue, or with Allah in a Mosque, or in a Hindu or Buddhist Temple or right out there among the stars and the land seeking some connection to the Creator Spirit.

Next time we see you conservatives making sure those distant nations we liberals trust too much are about to come down on us and you get our defenses up, or we are changing things too rapidly or diverting from long held truths and traditions that must remain we ought to embrace you in love and compassion just as we do “the least of these.” For sometimes, but not always, you’ll be right and we need to listen. Yes, listen.

No, not sure how science can bring conservatives and liberals together but God’s love can certainly do it. Let’s all pray that God will permit all of us regardless of politics to “see the right as God gives us to see the right.” I’ve always had a special place in my heart for the prose of Abraham Lincoln as in his Second Inaugural Address. It does have a bit of the King James Bible cadence to it that gives the statement almost a scriptural truth and authority we all need.

So we liberals and bleedin’ hearts hear the words and advice of the mother of King Lemuel in Proverbs 31:8. We read and hear: “Speak out on behalf of the voiceless, and for the rights of all who are vulnerable.” And so we do with all our hearts and souls.

Dr. Thomas Martin Sobottke
For Struggles for Justice

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