In today’s political climate, there is a lot of noise within which everything seems to exist except empathy. If you turn on CNN or MSNBC, liberal news anchors attempt to discredit their conservative peers by assuming what their intentions must be in holding certain policy positions. When you turn on Fox News, Tucker Carlson does the same in reverse. It becomes difficult who to believe. One side would have you believe that the other comprises solely of straight white men who want to oppress the rest of society. The other would have you believe that a majority of our population is yearning for Communism. All the while, it seems – in reality – that neither is even remotely true. Who should you believe?
I found myself caring more about empathy in recent years because my Achilles Heel is that I wear my heart on my sleeve. I wanted to be better about the way I reacted to all things – positive or negative – taking my immediate emotional reaction to the side and thinking about it more objectively. This was particularly true in workplace interactions where I wanted to improve in my ability to negotiate with co-workers and prospects.
As part of that ongoing effort, I began to work with a leadership coach. I explained to her that I wanted to improve in this area. She gave me a very simple piece of advice:
“People do not try to suck on purpose.”
To be totally clear, I am not of the mindset that people suck, nor do I think that people are always wrong when they frustrate me or make me upset. Rather, the mentality is that when it appears that someone is acting in a frustrating manner, that more often than not, they are not doing so purposefully. Or, to dig deeper, that there are circumstances unbeknownst to me surrounding the way they behave, which would otherwise make me more sympathetic to their behavior if only I had the fuller context.
Here is a real-world example. When I was younger, I considered myself to be what would be considered politically progressive. Anchoring me to that mindset was the fact that my older brother is gay, and that gay rights were at the epicenter of political discussions in the moment. I was not a very political person otherwise, and because I felt that social issues dominated all other issues (e.g., economy, healthcare, gun control, etc.), I felt righteous in my determination that anyone who disagreed with me must be a bigot. Never mind that my gay older brother was himself politically conservative – in my mind, he was wrong for siding with the enemy.
At that time, I worked in a company with a lot of Mormons. They were overall very friendly people, but some of them posted things on Facebook that made me upset. They were videos of people in churches talking about how homosexuality was a sin. In my mind, I found their viewpoints so hypocritical, especially in that they were picking and choosing certain things from the Bible to uphold while ignoring others. Even fundamental science as we know and understand it today is rejected in the Bible, so why were people so fixated on the homosexuality piece?
Here is what I mean about empathy, and it has little to do with the person I was back then. The person I was back then would write those people off as homophobic bigots. In fact, that is probably what I did at the time, even if I never told it to those people directly. But empathy is about putting yourself in someone else’s shoes. If I were beat over the head with the same message for my entire life (like my co-workers), how am I to know that I would have the capacity to be better than the next person at taking new information and putting it into action? To be clear, I am not condoning the viewpoint itself. I obviously still disagree with the message those people were sending. The question is whether to determine that they are hateful or if they are ignorant. Those are two very different things.
Here is another example. Personally, I am pro-choice. I always have been and that will probably never change. Generally what I have found is that people who disagree with me do so either for religious reasons, or just because conceptually they have some sort of icky feeling about terminating a prospective human life as it is forming. But what I hear my fellow pro-choice advocates saying in these arguments is that their dissidents just hate or disrespect women. While it is probable that many pro-life advocates do, in fact, overlook the rights of women in forming their opinion, I view these ideas as mutually exclusive. In other words, while I disagree with the pro-life stance, I accept the possibility that someone might be disagreeing with me for wholly legitimate reasons, recognizing and being empathetic to the disproportionate burden this places on women vis-à-vis men.
Let’s go back to my leadership coach. She talked about how people do not try to suck on purpose. What this really means is that people do not wake up every day trying to be bad. I believe that. I find it unrealistic to accept that most people are not trying their best, whatever that best might look like. For some, it appears more obvious than it does to others. People who are perpetually late, for example, have trouble being organized. What if you learned that that individual has attention-deficit disorder? Someone cuts you off on your way to work. What if you learned that they were on the way to the hospital? I once got a speeding ticket as a teenager because I was late for work leaving the gravesite of a friend who had passed away. I tearfully explained the situation to the officer. “Well, your day just got worse,” he told me. He was not empathetic. When I told that story to the judge, she waived the speeding ticket. She was more empathetic. But perhaps, looking back on it, I am being unfair to the officer. I don’t know what he had been going through that day.
Part of cognitive-behavioral therapy is looking at specific situations and outlining what possibilities exist beyond the possibility that you have accepted in your brain. When your co-worker is late in handing you something you asked for, you immediately think to yourself, “They do not value my time, clearly, and so they probably do not respect me.” That is the immediate, emotional reaction. Acting upon that emotional reaction would be a huge mistake, because it assumes what is going on without stopping, reflecting on alternative possibilities, and asking questions.
An alternative possibility might be the exact opposite: your co-worker respects your hard work and effort so much that they put too much time into the project making sure they got it done perfectly, hoping it would help you out as much as possible. Or, maybe you did a poor job of communicating to your co-worker the magnitude of the project in the first place and they simply did not understand its importance. Another possibility is that all projects have been late by this individual because they are going through something at home, or because they are poorly organized and need professional development help. The only answer that is generally clear at the outset is that you do not know the answer, you just have assumptions.
This is true today for nearly every part of our national dialogue. When there is a so-called crisis at the southern border, liberals tell conservatives they are hateful racists. Conservatives tell liberals that they are advocating for anarchy and open borders. In both cases, an assumption is made about what someone is really trying to say, and both times, it is generally untrue.
Here is a more nuanced approach. Perhaps, after all, both sides want a lot of the same things, if they would cut out the generalizations about one another and establish some common language. Perhaps they both agree that people should be treated humanely. After all, even prisoners who have committed serious crimes in the United States are entitled to some basic privileges and are not made to feel like animals. Perhaps they both agree that there should be some protocol about immigrating to the United States. Most likely, they agree that there needs to be a fair system in place so that all Americans are treated equally and fairly under the law. Getting these basic concepts across might prevent our dialogue from on one side comparing present conditions to Nazi concentration camps (which is utterly and ridiculously offensive to this Jewish writer), and on the other side insisting that we need to pour billions of dollars into a literal wall.
My interest in empathy spiked when I started feeling more than ever a few years ago that empathy was being lost for me in conversations about everyday things. I recall my dismay at an article that more or less celebrated the death of a white man who had traveled to North Korea who had been punished – according to the author – for flaunting his “white male privilege.” To me, it felt entirely inappropriate to celebrate the death of anyone, regardless of whether or not their actions were reckless. However, because the article was written by a black woman, I was deemed to be a racist. An alternative possibility did not exist in the mind of my accuser that perhaps I simply disagreed with the author and that it had nothing to do with her skin color.
Later on, a high school friend told me I was suffering from something called “white male fragility syndrome” because I had been criticizing two congresswomen of color. Never mind that this same individual criticized conservative thinkers like Ben Shapiro and Bret Stephens in some of his rebukes to me. It never crossed my mind to call him an anti-Semite simply because the two men he had happened to criticize were Jewish. The alternative (and more realistic) scenario is that my friend is politically progressive and disagrees with conservative thinkers. I wish he would have extended me the same benefit of the doubt when regarding the sample size of the individuals in my critiques, but in the interest of being empathetic, let’s just say that while I find his opinions infuriatingly simplistic, they are at least well-intended. He has adopted a worldview that hinges on identity politics, one where what you look like says everything about what you are allowed to feel and think about the world, and where what you do means very little. To me, this is the opposite of what Martin Luther King, Jr. used to preach. Ironically, if he were alive today, I think he would call my friend the racist – not me. But regardless of what MLK Jr. would say, my explanation for my friend’s behavior has more to do with his indoctrination of what I believe is this particularly problematic worldview, and nothing to do with him waking up every single day figuring out how he can piss me off.
Because I have taken this attitude with others, I have found myself able to have reasonable dialogue with many people that I know. Over the last couple of years, I have fostered conversations with people on the far left and far right of the political spectrum. As someone who is politically centered, I am often frustrated by friends on both sides of the coin – as they are with me. I do not profess to be perfect, and sometimes I wish I might have handled things better. But I have had a plethora of friends reach out to me from out of the blue to tell me one of two things. Some of them thank me for being a voice for things unsaid and speaking my own truth, regardless of whether or not it is popular. Others thank me for providing the only space in their social media sphere where reasonable, intelligent dialogue can occur between people of varying belief systems.
That being said, what the surge of identity politics has brought with it is an inherent lack of empathy. Personally, I am pro-Israel. However, if I tell someone they are ill-equipped to have an opinion on Israel because I am Jewish and they are not, all I am really saying when you peel the onion is that they lack empathy. It is no different when you tell someone, “Well, you only feel that way because you are wealthy,” or “you only feel that way because you are white,” or “you only feel that way because you are a man.” What is truly being said is that your inability to have the shared lived experience means you lack empathy for their situation. It is always a ridiculous statement, because all women, men, white people, black people, gay people, straight people and so on do not have uniform opinions on the complexities of life. Telling someone they lack empathy is the easy way out from having an intelligent conversation and dismisses someone else’s agency to educate themselves to form a reasonable opinion. This is the case when my friend dismisses me for my alleged white male fragility syndrome for criticizing two congresswomen – he lacks the cognitive ability to see a difference between misogyny and my repeated disdain for the rhetoric of far-left politicians at large, male or female.
One of the things that often comes up with others in these conversations is the entire concept of cancel culture. Nowhere is the lack of empathy in our society today more prevalent than it is with cancel culture. This is the idea of “canceling” people and their careers for past transgressions. I wrote a blog recently about the death of Kobe Bryant and a couple of overzealous reporters who were all too eager to remind people of the rape allegation against him mere minutes after his unexpected death was reported. I find the behavior abhorrent because it seeks out the literal worst thing the person did, points it out as a matter-of-fact, implying that the death of the individual is not so bad after all. How crass have we become that we celebrate when people die – as many did in the aftermath of John McCain’s death – or must tarnish their name immediately?
Cancel culture creates an impression that the canceler has lived a perfect life. At least one would think so based on the way that mistakes are singled out – oftentimes from decades ago – and weaponized against an individual to destroy their career. If I were a celebrity, I have no doubt that there are many things from my past that would get me canceled. Like any other human being, I have made mistakes. I have said dumb and inappropriate things, like when I attended an all-boys high school and wanted to fit in with my friends. But I am proud of the growth and strides I have made in my life and the person who I am today. I am always trying to be better and I have always tried my best. And like I said before, that is true for almost everyone, no matter what stupid mistakes they make along the way. In most cases, people sincerely apologize for the mistakes of their past. But this is no matter for the cancel people. Everything must be stripped away as penance. If we treated the cancel people the same way they treat their victims, there would be no cancel people left to cancel others. The most ridiculous of it all is most recently when Ellen Degeneres shook hands and hung out with George Bush and when Vince Vaughn shook Donald Trump’s hand at football games. Merely for fraternizing with policy-makers with whom people had disagreements, both of them were shunned with immediate backlash.
How then can we be more empathetic? It is a lot easier said than done.
First and foremost, untie your reaction, your assumption, your emotion, and so on, from how you are going to respond. In fact, you might need to untie the individual from your response if you have a specific history with that individual. My friend, for example, who likes to devolve into calling me names instead of reasoning with the facts. It would be all too easy to call that out, but it’s not the right response.
Ask yourself what are the alternatives that can be true, and what is the likelihood of each alternative? Most importantly, ask questions and seek to understand. There is an instinct when we are upset about something to tell the other person why they are wrong. Asking questions helps you to uncover what someone is really saying. It might confirm your original hypothesis, but you might be surprised and uncover new information that makes the conversation much easier to have.
2020 is going to be a very tense year. I have seen too many of my friends completely write off the people who disagree with them. Remember, no one is trying to suck on purpose. No one wakes up every day with a picture of you on their wall thinking about how they are going to mess up your day. Biologically, human beings are doing whatever they can to protect themselves and to do the best they can. There are unique circumstances behind the way each and every one of us think. Try to remember that next time you want to punch someone in the face.