Do liberals really care about empathy more than conservatives?

That’s a powerful and dangerous thing about survey-based social science. It can offer evidence that, yes, the associative thinking Americans use to understand their peers’ values and priorities does have some basis in reality. But it can also reify stereotypes about how people see the world, attaching hard numbers to highly interpretive, charged concepts.

“Tolerance” is a great example: 88 percent of “consistently liberal” respondents rated it as an important thing to teach kids, with 22 percent rating it among their top three values. Among “consistent conservatives,” only 41 percent placed significance on teaching tolerance, with barely anyone including that in their list of most important lessons. But it seems unlikely that most conservatives are encouraging their kids to commit hate crimes and refuse to be in the same classroom as kids who are different from them. Perhaps those respondents interpret “tolerance” as a buzzword used by some left-leaning organizations to advocate positions like support for affirmative action, or maybe exclusion of prayer in public schools. This interpretation may or may not have fidelity to what “tolerance” actually means, but that’s the whole point: The words people use as shorthand for “values” actually represent complex constellations of cultural and political thought. At least in part, this survey reinforces stereotypes about liberals and conservatives because it relies on concepts that have been continuously appropriated and transformed for ideological purposes.