Empathy as Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s secret weapon

September 23, 2020. Kaddish was said today in the grand hall the U.S. Justice Department, the first time such words to be heard in the history of that building. Over the next few days, we will hear a great deal about the life and achievements of this incredible woman who came to be known as Notorious RBG.

I am grieving the loss of this powerful, unstoppable, fearless woman of principles and good will, especially in these times, when so many of the people governing this country have no core, no shame, few principles, and even outright bad intentions. But what strikes me the most about Ruth Bader Ginsburg was her capacity for empathy.

When she was denied a job at prestigious law firms in New York on account of her gender, religion, and family pedigree she had a reason to be angry. When she was paid a much lower salary than men in equivalent positions, she had a good reason to be angry. And maybe she was, privately, for a bit. But it was empathy, not anger, that fueled her professional reaction.

I can easily image her looking at the men who denied her an equal status not as enemies but as the products of their upbringing and the prevailing societal norms. They simply had it all wrong in their heads. They did not understand the wrongness of their thinking. Ruth was therefore going to repair this defect by explaining with precision and logic the right way of thinking, and by changing the institutional norms that would guide them forward. And to a large extent she succeeded.

I write about it because these days empathy seems to be in short supply in our society. It is true in all walks of life, including even the sustainability community. But people who vehemently oppose more housing density in their communities may just be afraid of the unknown, and will change their attitudes when regulations force them to live with more density and human diversity. People who engage in competitive consumption may just be gullible to the advertisers’ promises and will change their lifestyles when price signals or pandemics force them to scale down.

Anger is of course necessary to mobilize social movements. But in order to succeed with institutional changes we also need empathy.