Politics and empathy: learning to see one another
Yes, but he wouldn’t have had access to a gun in the first place if it wasn’t for the conservative right’s weapons fetish, my fellow bar-side conversationalist remarked. I grimaced. We had wandered into a conversation about white supremacy in America, and I had just asked whether he could think of any recent acts of ideologically-fueled violence attributable to the left. What I had in mind was the Republican congressional baseball team shooting. The point I was driving at was that the uncompromising logic of extremism reduces all questions to power, and ultimately physical violence. As our collective social shouting match continues to escalate, progressing toward incrementally more radical beliefs and behaviors, there is disturbing potential for greater violence in our civic and political life. We desperately need to learn to see one another again if we’re going to break the cycle.
In another brilliant piece by Joan C Williams she affirms the “Better Deal’s” emphasis on connecting with the economic anxieties of Americans by expanding access to jobs. It’s “a step in the right direction,” she notes. Where she begins her argument, however, is with gun rights and abortion. Both issues resonate deeply, at the level of personal identity, with urban progressives and rural conservatives. The net result of 30+ years of cultural warfare, she observes, has been a massive sorting of populations into coastal cities and blue bubbles. The result of this stratification has been Republican control over an outsized proportion of legislatures, counties, and governorships. Gun rights are more secure now than they’ve been in decades, while Roe v. Wade could very well be overturned. In waging its own side of the culture war the left has not only managed to alienate large swaths of the American working class — which should be a bedrock of support — but placed its own cherished policies on social issues at risk. In combat somebody loses, and recently this has been Democrats.
Here’s my encouragement to fellow coastal people, urbanites, and blue-bubble dwellers: Let’s change the game. When we begin with Your core beliefs are not valid. You are racist, a bigot, and a sexist. You’re too ignorant to know what’s good for you — why can’t you just be a good girl and vote your class interest? We eliminate all room for compromise. Worse, combative rhetoric, while often containing grains of truth, can become self-fulfilling, leading to a confused young millennial saying Fuck it, I might as well just be what she says I am. It’s clear I don’t share anything with this person.
But we do share so much. Keeping empathy in our heart allows us to genuinely “see” the other. When we do this we recognize our common core need to have our identity validated. We become capable of approaching wedge social issues with a measure of gentleness and restraint. More importantly, to Joan C William’s point, we become capable of moving the conversation beyond the ideological markers that define our tribe. We can begin to speak to one another about jobs and physical well being, for example, in ways that are much less loaded.
Sometimes power is the only answer. There are forces at work in the world we create together that can only be subdued by a prison cell or gun barrel. But when we start with combativeness and bombastic rhetoric we begin as jailers and mercenaries. We create conflict. A great American president, Teddy Roosevelt, once said Speak softly but carry a big stick. This seems like a fair way to bring progressives who are convinced that we are in the middle of political “Holy War” into the empathy conversation. Speak softly first. Even better, listen. And yes, when loving intention in your heart has led you to the earnest conclusion that now, for this cause or in this place, the only correct course is to compete, to win, and to subdue, then do that. Our democracy was built to accommodate this, but it will not withstand the manic institutional onslaught of today indefinitely.
In empathizing we learn to see one another again, and in learning to see one another again we become capable of finding a better path forward.