Words do not matter to the Right.
They don't care about the meaning of a word. They are only interested in its uses.
And those uses are tied up in their politics and like their politics are aggressive and manipulative and aimed at one end, power.
To the extent that conservatives understand the words they use, they understand them as sounds that express their feelings. They know they've found the right word if it sounds like how they feel at the moment they say it. As far as they're concerned, there's no difference between lightning and lightning bug if both can be made to sound like, Oh my God the black guy in the White House wants to put a Spanish chick on the Supreme Court!
Their favorite words are words that can said with a sneer, but they enjoy words that bark, growl, whine, wheedle, and spit with rage too.
Empathy is a perfect word for them because it can be said with an implied flounce and limpness of wrist.
Empathy is a wussy word. Just listen to it.
Which is why it's being used against Sonia Sotomayor, in particular, and Barack Obama's criteria for nominating federal judges in general.
Empathy sounds like weakness, emotionalism, and an effeminate and hysterical over-concern for other people's feelings, not a good quality when the other people whose feelings are being taken into account are criminals. Empathy sounds like the fear of making the hard choices in case you hurt someone's feelings.
Empathy sounds like...liberalism.
Which is why it doesn't matter that George Herbert Walker Bush applied the word to Clarence Thomas when he nominated him to the Supreme Court.
Of course, to conservatives, it's no endorsement that the word was used by that wimp George Herbert Walker Bush. But even if it had been used by George W. Bush about Sam Alito it wouldn't matter to them, because to them it's not the same word.
"Different when we say it, isn't it?"
We can't trip them up on their own words, even when they use words that contradict each other as if they mean the same thing, even when they use words that they affect to despise when liberals use them.
Because the words have no meaning, only sounds and uses. For them, words are defined by their sounds and uses.
Trying to throw their own words back in their face only allows them to make the same sounds all over again or use different words that they give those old sounds.
This is connected with their idea of morality---their feeling about morality. Moral behavior is what they do. Immoral behavior is what anybody who gets in their way does. The correct use of a word is their use of it at the moment, however they're using it, no matter how they've used it in the past.
We can't argue with their choice of words. We're better off competing with it with our own sounds.
And by the way, the sound of a word is part of its meaning. Using a word as if it only has the meaning the dictionary gives it is using only a piece of the word. Actually, it's often as big a mistake as using the wrong word. Often, it is the wrong word.
The sound of a word and the sounds of the words around it help convey its meaning.
We're not going to convince anyone that empathy is a good quality in a judge, unless we can make empathy sound like a good quality.
I have to admit, I don't think we can do that.
I'm no fan of the word empathy.
Goes back to grade school.
I learned what it meant in conjunction with learning what apathy meant, and I learned both through comparisons with the word sympathy.
This was probably in fifth or sixth grade. I already knew what sympathy meant and that it was a good trait to have. A virtue even. But the effect of that was that instead of learning what apathy and empathy meant by learning what they were, I learned what they meant by learning what they weren't---they weren't sympathy.
I doubt Sister Mary Anthony, who taught us grammar and usage, intended it, but I saw the three words on a continuum, starting with apathy and proceeding to empathy. But not progressing towards empathy. There was sympathy, which was a good thing, it meant you cared about what other people felt, and on the one side of it was apathy, which meant that you didn't care, and on the other side was empathy, which meant---well, which I took to mean, you cared too much.
Sympathy was a virtue. Apathy wasn't a vice as much as it was a failure to practice the virtue. Empathy was an indulgence. And indulgences are hard to distinguish from vices.
In short, empathy is not a quality I want in Supreme Court justice. Frankly, I think John Roberts is entirely too empathetic---to rich and powerful white guys. Empathy is as empathy is directed, and that's what conservatives intend when they use empathy as a sneer word. It doesn't matter what the dictionary says it means and that that meaning makes it a good quality. It sounds like liberal who will let terrorists out of Gitmo and buy them houses in your neighborhood.
The more effective way to fight this is to use our own words, words that sound like what they mean, and which have the virtue of actually describing Sonia Sotomayor. Tough, smart, hard-working, disciplined, concerned, compassionate, fair.
There's no point in trying to save her from the word empathetic by trying to make people understand that it doesn't mean what it sounds like it means. And at any rate, she's not empathetic.
At least, I wonder if her former boss, Manhattan's longtime District Attorney Robert M. Morganthau, would describe her as empathetic. He might just paraphrase himself on the question of her liberalism: "I am sure that none of the defendants in her cases thought of her as a 'liberal.'" They probably wouldn't have called her very empathetic either.
Dahlia Lithwick boils down the argument about "empathy" (her quotation marks, too) to this: Conservatives want to make the case that Sotomayor feels too much, and that's code for too ethnic and too female and it gets them into a demographic battle they can't win. Lithwick concludes:
The angry screeching from the right that Judge Sotomayor is too emotional to fairly apply the law is already starting to sound, well, hysterical. And the fun is only just beginning.
Screeching. Hysterical. I like the sound of those words, and they have the virtue of actually applying to the Right.