Suppose you have a ne’er-do-well cousin.  A long-term alcoholic and drug addict, he’s been arrested about thirty times – though never convicted of a felony.  One day he comes to your door, and tells you a largely accurate history of his troubled life, from childhood to the present.  He admits that many of his troubles are his own fault, and accepts responsibility for them.

Then, he hits you up for money – as he’s done many times before.

How do you react?  If you’re like most people, you’ll feel a blend of frustration, impatience, and pity.  Sure, he came from a broken home.  Sure, he’s had bad luck.  But if these were his only problems, he’d wouldn’t need your help.  And you’ve helped him so many times already.  Looking at your cousin fills you with sadness, but the thought of bailing him out for the umpteenth time fills you with disgust.

Trapped between your conflicting negative emotions, you hesitate long enough for a nosy neighbor to wander over and ask, “What wrong?”  Before you can stop him, your cousin repeats his story.  The nosy neighbor’s face turns red with anger – at you.  He reads you the riot act.  “How can you be so lacking in empathy?!” he asks.  “You were born on third base, yet you fault your cousin for failing to hit a home run!  You sicken me.”

Should you help your cousin?  Reasonable people are likely to disagree.  But whatever you’d decide, your nosy neighbor is plainly and completely out of line.  Yes, there are some plausible reasons to say yes to your cousin.  But there are also plenty of plausible reasons to say no!

It’s tempting to ask your neighbor to show some empathy for your awkward position.  But what’s awful about Mr. Nosy is that he fails to show you something more basic: tolerance.  Instead of preaching at you, your neighbor should admit that there are decent arguments on both sides, and butt out.

At the individual level, I doubt many people will dispute my perspective.  Why bring it up?  Because in his recent piece on poverty, Nicholas Kristof perfectly plays the part of society‘s nosy neighbor.  After acknowledging the connection between poverty and bad choices, Kristof lashes out at people who oppose a renewed war on poverty for their lack of empathy:

Too often wealthy people born on third base blithely criticize the poor for failing to hit home runs. The advantaged sometimes perceive empathy as a sign of muddle-headed weakness, rather than as a marker of civilization.


This crisis in working-class America doesn’t get the attention it deserves, perhaps because most of us in the chattering class aren’t a part of it.

There are steps that could help, including a higher minimum wage, early childhood programs, and a focus on education as an escalator to opportunity. But the essential starting point is empathy.

If you had a ne’er-do-well cousin, I’m almost sure Kristof would be a tolerant man.  He’d acknowledge the moral complexity of the situation.  He’d admit that you might be right to refuse your cousin.  Whatever you decided, he’d keep his opinion to himself unless you explicitly requested his counsel.  My question: Why can’t he be equally tolerant of people who say that “the crisis in working-class America” is not their fault and not their problem?