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America’s alarming empathy gap

Strength isn’t a clenched fist. It’s an open hand offering mercy and grace to those who reach for support.

Simone Biles attending the artistic gymnastics women's all-around final on Thursday.LOIC VENANCE/AFP via Getty Images

Edmund Muskie may be the only person in American political history to lose his chance at the White House because of snow.

In 1972, the senator from Maine was favored to win the Democratic presidential nomination — until he fought against a smear campaign believed to have been orchestrated by Richard Nixon, the incumbent president. When the Manchester Union Leader, a conservative New Hampshire newspaper, published a scathing attack on Muskie’s wife, Jane, the candidate stood outside the paper’s office in a February storm and ripped into its publisher with such fury some thought Muskie was crying.

He wasn’t. Muskie’s face was moistened by melting snow, but the falsehood of a weepy presidential contender quickly took wing. His poll numbers slumped and never rebounded. Within weeks, his once-promising campaign was over. Reflecting on that day in New Hampshire, Muskie later said: “It changed people’s minds about me. They were looking for a strong, steady man, and here I was weak.”

Muskie died before Simone Biles was born. Yet they are linked by the insidious way that vulnerability is branded as weakness, a sin in a nation with an alarming deficit of empathy.


Edmund Muskie in Manchester. N.H., on Feb. 26, 1972.

When Biles, the greatest gymnast in Olympic history, withdrew from several competitions at the Tokyo Olympics to “focus” on her mental health, public reaction ranged from sympathy and support to derision and, of course, racism. That a young Black woman would place her well-being above all else seemed an affront to many who view athletes as show ponies whose sole purpose is entertaining an adoring crowd.

To cheer Biles’s mastery of the vault or a gravity-defying floor routine but refuse to recognize the fragility of the person behind it diminishes not only her humanity but our own.


On “The Sopranos,” HBO’s much-revered drama, Tony Soprano, a mob boss battling depression and panic attacks, lamented what he perceived as a lost era of stoicism. “Nowadays, everybody’s got to go to shrinks and counselors and go on ‘Sally Jessy Raphael’ and talk about their problems,” he grouses to his psychiatrist. “Whatever happened to Gary Cooper, the strong, silent type? That was an American. He wasn’t in touch with his feelings; he just did what he had to do.”

Tony’s primitive view of the human condition permeates this country. From childhood, we’re conditioned to walk off pain or suck up heartache. Some have compared Biles unfavorably to Kerri Strug, the 1996 Olympian who completed her vault on a broken ankle and sealed the gold medal win for the US women’s gymnastics team. Strug’s actions have long been hailed as an exemplar of American perseverance and grit. Rarely mentioned is how Strug was pressured by her coach, Bela Károlyi, to make a vault she didn’t want to make. After Biles withdrew from some Olympic competitions, Strug tweeted her support.

Strength belongs to those willing to express their fears and emotions, not those who deride someone’s pain — which is also what happened after a bipartisan House select committee hearing to investigate the deadly Capitol insurrection. In sworn testimony, Sergeant Aquilino Gonell and Officer Harry Dunn of the Capitol Police and officers Michael Fanone and Daniel Hodges of the DC Metropolitan Police told in shattering detail what they witnessed and endured on Jan. 6. Their recollections left some legislators in tears.


In the cesspool of right-wing media, its human bullhorns mocked the officers who spoke of their lingering physical and psychological injuries, including Dunn, who is Black and had racial epithets hurled at him during the attempted coup. Their testimony was ridiculed as a “performance.” Apparently “blue lives” don’t matter when those threatening them are white supremacists.

Of course, this lack of empathy didn’t start with Trump, who saw anything less than blunt cruelty as weakness. It’s a foulness in the American character that was emboldened and has only deepened in the months since 81 million voters kicked Trump out of the White House.

Nearly 50 years ago, Muskie defended his wife, denounced dirty tricks politics, and was excoriated for it. When Muskie died in 1996, former Senator George McGovern, who won the Democratic nomination in 1972 but lost the election to Nixon, said that the “crying” incident was “an indication of [Muskie’s] humanity and his essential decency.”

As we continue to struggle through a pandemic exacerbated as much by a dearth of empathy as a lack of common sense, this nation could use more humanity and decency. Strength isn’t a clenched fist closed to the pain of others. It’s an open hand offering mercy and grace to those brave enough to reach for help.

Renée Graham is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at renee.graham@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @reneeygraham.