Empathy will always be important for society and empathy is most difficult to give to the people we find hardest to understand. Lennie is a great example of a person who cannot find a place in society. He's not like other people and cannot adapt to the rules of his community. He just doesn't understand them. Yet, we are shown how to sympathize with Lennie in Steinbeck's book. We are shown that despite his handicap, Lennie has the same human impulses, weaknesses and joy that we all share. He is just as human as anyone else.
Just another idea to add to the already impressive range of views regarding Lennie's relevance to society today. I see Lennie in this novel acting as a more modern version of Dostoyevsky's The Idiot - a complete innocent, who is unable to understand the motives and actions of those around him. Lennie, because of his lack of intelligence, walks around the world like a child, assuming the best of people, being unaware of how they are trying to use him or what their motives are, and treats everything like a game. If you take this view, Lennie's innocence says more about the state of the corrupt and self-deceiving world in which the novel is set rather than his own disabilities. He can be said to act as a kind of mirror which reflects the diseased and depraved nature of this world back at its characters.
Lennie's preoccupation for certain objects - in his case, soft objects, reminds me very much of some of the characteristics of autism.
Some autistic children become fixated on a particular object, smell or sensation that when they are deprived of it, the seaparation anxiety actually causes them real and painful emotional trauma. examples would be comforters, hadkerchiefs, blankets, shawls etc.
Lennie's dependence on these (mice, puppies, dresses, rabbits) will even cause him to overrride his respect and affection for George, lie and risk punishment.
It makes one wonder what sort of help he would have received in today's society - for whatever particular spectrum of needs he had.
I would add that Lennie is also representative of the essence of the American Dream. As Americans, we often are caught between desires for the "Promised Land", ie, total autonomy in an environment that truly has the ability to sustain our mortal needs: shelter, food, "livin' of the fatta the lan'". Yet our capitalist impulses force many people into a life of vitual indentured servitude. Lennie and George's choices (as well as Curley's wife and Candy and others) are stymied by their limited ability to transcend their lack of education, and in Lennie's case, compromised intelligence.
As we descend into another recession, with millions involved in the subprime lending crisis, credit card debt, student loan debt, etc., how much more freedom does the average American have than Lennie?
Lennie is misunderstood and discriminated against because of his differences. This situation is applicable to almost every time period, including today. Lennie represents any person who is looked down upon for differences. The boss at the farm doesn't trust that Lennie can get his work done. Curley is antagonistic towards Lennie because he is intimidated by Lennie's size. George admits that, without him, Lennie would not be able to get any work. While this is an extreme example of discrimination, it still happens today. Skin color, gender, age, intelligence - it is human nature to judge someone based upon their outward characteristics. However, Steinbeck shows us the unfairness of taking that judgement to the heights of discrimination.
Lennie's unfortunate behavioral problems are also relevant today. Lennie wants so much to be surrounded by soft things that he gets himself in trouble. He has a desire that is not safe. Anyone who has been tempted by an inconvenient desire can relate to this. Unfortunately for Lennie, his limited intellect does not allow him to either rationalize his desire or react safely when trapped in a tough situation. But while many humans would be able to process the situation more effectively, we all can identify with the dangerous temptation.