In his first press conference as President-elect on November 7, Barack Obama talked about the dog he was going to get for his daughters Malia and Sasha. He mentioned that since Malia is allergic, the family is looking for a hypoallergenic breed. “There are a number of breeds that are hypoallergenic, but on the other hand our preference is to get a shelter dog, but obviously, a lot of the shelter dogs are mutts like me,” he said.
Obama referred to himself as a mutt because of his mixed racial heritage. But his remarks got me thinking about my own mixed cultural heritage. My father Julius was born in a small town in Eastern Poland called Drohiczyn. My mother, Rachel was also born in a small town, originally called Pruzana in Poland, now part of Belarus. They came to Cuba in the 1920's and 1930's respectively, where I was born and grew up until the whole family moved to Chicago in 1960. I thus combine the Eastern European Jewish background I inherited from my parents, with the Latin roots of my first fifteen years in Cuba, with my American heritage of the last several decades.
My background is not all that unusual for many immigrants to the US, but it is right up there in the mutt, multi-cultural category. My native tongue is Spanish, my parents native tongue was Yiddish, and since 1960 I have been immersed in English. I learned Yiddish as a child, both from hearing my parents speak it at home and in the secular, Jewish school I attended in Havana. I am fluent in Spanish, and speak it often with family, friends and colleagues, as well as with the large number of people living in the US for whom Spanish is their native tongue.
But, English is the language I speak best by far. From my third year of high school on, my education was totally in English. I use English almost exclusively in my work, except when I travel to Spanish speaking countries. While I give talks and presentations in Spanish during such travels, I am clearly much more fluent in English. I would be really hard pressed to write this blog in Spanish.
I am very happy with my multi-cultural heritage. While working at IBM I was very active in our diversity initiatives, and in particular, I was a founding member of our Hispanic Leadership Council. Among the proudest moments in my career is being named the 2001 Hispanic Engineer of the Year by HENAAC - an organization which actively promotes technical careers in the US Hispanic community and later being inducted into the HENAAC Hall of Fame in 2004.
Given my personal background, I have been particularly interested in the discussions currently raging around President’s Obama’s nomination of Sonia Sotomayor to the US Supreme Court. Two major issues have dominated the debate.
In his May 1 remarks about the upcoming Supreme Court nomination, President Obama said
“ . . . I will seek somebody with a sharp and independent mind and a record of excellence and integrity. I will seek someone who understands that justice isn't about some abstract legal theory or footnote in a case book. It is also about how our laws affect the daily realities of people's lives - whether they can make a living and care for their families; whether they feel safe in their homes and welcome in their own nation.”
“I view that quality of empathy, of understanding and identifying with people's hopes and struggles as an essential ingredient for arriving at just decisions and outcomes.”
The President’s use of the word empathy as an important quality in arriving at just legal decisions was attacked by many, who were essentially saying that feelings of empathy had no place in making sound and fair legal decisions.
“In reality, decisions are made by imperfect minds in ambiguous circumstances. It is incoherent to say that a judge should base an opinion on reason and not emotion because emotions are an inherent part of decision-making. Emotions are the processes we use to assign value to different possibilities. Emotions move us toward things and ideas that produce pleasure and away from things and ideas that produce pain.”
“People without emotions cannot make sensible decisions because they don’t know how much anything is worth. People without social emotions like empathy are not objective decision-makers. They are sociopaths who sometimes end up on death row.”
I could not agree more with David Brooks characterization of how people arrive at complex decisions, based on my own (also mutt-like) career experiences as a scientist and technologist, as well as a business executive and now part-time academic. Our emotions play a huge role, especially when reaching deep within ourselves to come up with the best possible answers to very tough issues.
Routine, everyday decisions can perhaps be handled in a semi-mechanical way, by applying past knowledge over and over almost without thinking. But when it comes to making decisions about complex problems we have not encountered before, we need all the parts of our brain to come into action. Whether consciously or not, we go over and over in our minds what the future implications of various approaches might be. In decisions involving people, as just about all are except in the most abstract of problems, the ability to evaluate what is in the best interests of individuals, organizations, communities and society as a whole is a critical part of arriving at the wisest possible decisions.
As President Obama said, “the quality of empathy [is] an essential ingredient for arriving at just decisions and outcomes,” not only in legal matters, I would add, but in matters concerting science, technology, business, government and just about all questions relating to humankind.
“. . . 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.”
What did she mean? Later in the Berkeley speech, Sotomayor answers the question.
“ . . . our experiences as women and people of color affect our decisions. The aspiration to impartiality is just that - it's an aspiration because it denies the fact that we are by our experiences making different choices than others.”
“. . . [I] believe that we should not be so myopic as to believe that others of different experiences or backgrounds are incapable of understanding the values and needs of people from a different group. Many are so capable . . . . nine white men on the Supreme Court in the past have done so on many occasions and on many issues including Brown.”
“However, to understand takes time and effort, something that not all people are willing to give. For others, their experiences limit their ability to understand the experiences of others. Other simply do not care. Hence, one must accept the proposition that a difference there will be by the presence of women and people of color on the bench. Personal experiences affect the facts that judges choose to see. My hope is that I will take the good from my experiences and extrapolate them further into areas with which I am unfamiliar. I simply do not know exactly what that difference will be in my judging. But I accept there will be some based on my gender and my Latina heritage.”
I totally agree with Judge Sotomayor that our personal experiences, as well as our heritage and genes affect what we do, how we think, our models of how the world works, and the decisions we make in our work and our daily lives. How could it be otherwise? We are the sum total of our parts, and those parts include our feelings, emotions and experiences as well as our DNA.
A major part of our training to become a physician, scientist, lawyer or some other professional is the discipline to ensure that our ideas and decisions are based on all the available information. Good professionals are really careful when justifying important decisions and conclusions, because not doing so can severely damage their credibility and reputation. In fact, we learn that we have to be particularly watchful when we strongly want something to be true. It is only true when we have fully justified it based on real world facts.
Towards the end of the “wise Latina woman” Berkeley speech, Sonia Sotomayor adds these wise words
“I am reminded each day that I render decisions that affect people concretely and that I owe them constant and complete vigilance in checking my assumptions, presumptions and perspectives and ensuring that to the extent that my limited abilities and capabilities permit me, that I reevaluate them and change as circumstances and cases before me requires. I can and do aspire to be greater than the sum total of my experiences but I accept my limitations. I willingly accept that we who judge must not deny the differences resulting from experience and heritage but attempt, as the Supreme Court suggests, continuously to judge when those opinions, sympathies and prejudices are appropriate.”
That is all we can ask - nothing more, nothing less - from any human being.