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Rex Murphy (Deborah Baic)
Rex Murphy (Deborah Baic)

Rex Murphy

There is no 'we' in identity politics Add to ...

Michaëlle Jean knows the meaning of empathy. Barack Obama does not.

Real empathy is the ability to project into the experience or feelings of those unlike ourselves. If you know how someone else feels because they are people of your own set or kind, that knowledge is not empathetic - it's simple identification.

Ms. Jean was a spectacle of empathy in action this week. Her roots are in Haiti, which we will agree is not the Canadian Arctic, and her career, broadcasting (though it may overlap in some minds), is not seal-hunting. But she has an imagination, and a willingness to inform that imagination with experience. Hence, she was in Rankin Inlet at a feast and joining in robustly. Everyone has seen the picture of the seal's-heart canapé. She made a leap from her experience to that of a far different culture.

When Mr. Obama speaks of empathy, he uses it as a glide word into another, that of identity. His choice for the U.S. Supreme Court, Sonia Sotomayor, is hailed for her "Latino" background. She will be the first Latina Supreme Court judge. It's seen as outreach to the growing Hispanic vote - like attracting like.

The Governor-General, on the other hand, is not an Inuk. She is one of the "newest" set of Canadians, as the Inuit are one of the "oldest." She is at the apex of our social system - they, alas, are not. Their traditions are not her traditions. Yet, her full-handed participation in the Rankin Inlet feast, her sturdy defence of the lifestyle and tradition she saw there - was a spark across an immense gulf. It wasn't "them" and "her." It was an aspiration toward "we." Empathy in deed.

Ms. Sotomayor is a nominee, on the other hand, because identity politics - like to like, even in "postracial" America - is still a prevailing dynamic. He who spoke so emphatically of "empathy" as a distinguishing characteristic contradicted himself when he nominated a "group representative." Ms. Sotomayor needs no empathy to place herself in the shoes of Latinos.

And it is Ms. Sotomayor's "identity" in this sense that both she and the President regard as critical. Ms. Sotomayor has made it abundantly clear that she regards her Latino roots (and gender) as determinants of her way of seeing things. "Whether born from experience or inherent physiological or cultural differences ... our gender and national origins may and will make a difference in our judging." The key, startling word there is "inherent." She's claiming (among other characteristics) that an "inherent physiological" difference "may and will" shape her view. Claiming that judgment or reasoning is even partly conditioned by inherent physiological elements of one's ethnicity is very odd.

It is very close to, if not the same as, saying that there is innate, in her ethnicity, qualities that make her a better judge. Which she seems to claim. For in the same lecture from which I'm quoting, she concludes "... I would hope that a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experiences would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn't lived that life."

We're all bounded, in this view, by the innate, inherent physiological or cultural properties, and gender, of our given identity. Her identity, to use the word often brought to these discussions, "privileges" her view of things. I'm not sure this is an advance on the thinking - race determines ability - that half a century of civil-rights struggle set out to defeat and exorcise.

There is, in Ms. Sotomayor's formulation, only a very thin possibility of an "imaginative leap," empathy in other words, into the experiences of others truly different from her. And in so far as physiological differences are at play - they can't change - there is no way at all to make that leap. Identity politics is a closed circuit. It shuts the door to other experiences, even denying the possibility of transcending them. It is the very contradiction of empathetic power.

The scene in the Canadian North this week is a wonderful counter to this line of increasingly bounded and bristling politics. Openness, the willingness to encounter new, different experiences, the sense that there is deep commonality at the core of all our beings - these sentiments seem to spring out of Michaëlle Jean's easy communication with and celebration of an "other" culture.

Diversity, in the American case, seems to be turning on itself. Every group is an island of difference and there are no bridges. Unless you are of the group, you cannot "understand" it. And it has led, at least in Ms. Sotomayor's words, to a curious world where ethnic and gender characteristics are posited as the determinative basis of "superior" views, of people contained within their identities.

This is a very short and rigid view of human character. And I was very pleased to see a rebuttal in action this week under the wide, long lights of the Canadian Arctic.

Rex Murphy is a commentator with The National and host of CBC Radio's Cross-Country Checkup.

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