Empathy

The latest news reports cite over 120 dead in Paris after tonight’s attack. Julia and her daughter leave for Paris a week from tomorrow. Naturally we’re all thinking twice about this trip; the reports over the next few days will tip things one way or another. Like most of the world, I read about the carnage and think “how could they?” Sure, I know there are strong grievances and cultural conflicts blah blah blah… But taking the news from tonight and the past few weeks as a whole, I think we could use a lot more empathy.

Empathy. The ability to put oneself in another’s shoes and really understand their experience.

How does one open fire on innocent civilians at a rock concert? What do you have to think of those “others” in order to gun them down like that? Or rather, what do you have to not feel? Put the shoe on the other foot – how do we hear about “civilian casualties” connected to a drone strike and not stop, horrified, in our tracks?

The University of Missouri has been in the news lately, as the hostile climate toward African Americans and other ethnic minorities has been hotly protested. Sure, I’ve heard the excuse “college students have said stupid things since the dawn of time,” but really, how do you excuse calling students – and professors – ni***rs? What this tells me is that the white students are believing their own myths about the Other, and not being open to experiencing them as actual people in all their complexity. Empathy is lacking.

Republican candidates are falling all over themselves to say something more outrageous than their competitors, scapegoating just about every group you can think of other than straight Christian white men. Sure, it gets them publicity, generates ratings for TV networks… but at what cost? As “leaders” of the party they’re teaching supporters to not empathize, to not think of the complexity of the Others’ situations, to not see them as fully human. This has got to stop.

Paris, Missouri, the GOP… Oh, and let’s not forget all of the police abuse that gave rise to Black Lives Matter.  Again, seeing your job as keeping Them in their place. They are to be contained, so that We can live comfortably.

I also reject the red herring of “but but but you can’t outlaw speech…. First Amendment!”  Right, calling for greater empathy does not mean silencing through force. But speech has consequences, as every child learns growing up. You can say idiotic and hurtful things, but don’t be shocked when you’re publicly shamed for it.

And we need to keep calling out this sort of hate speech whenever it arises. Nobody is disposable; innocents at a concert or at a wedding or at the beach are not targets. But after calling it out comes the much harder task of engaging with the despicable. Can I sit at a coffee shop and, rather than visibly reflect disgust at the conversation happening at the next table, invite them into a conversation, really try to empathize with their point of view as I hope they will empathize with mine?

And yeah, empathy and conversation has to flow both ways. “Let me tell you how your’e wrong” is rarely a productive opening move. “Really, so you think Black students at Stanford generally don’t deserve to be here? Tell me more…” is stomach-knotting but really has to be part of the conversation. I don’t have to agree with anything they’re saying but I have to listen – fully – if I’m going to have any hope of connecting. As Eckhart Tolle once said eloquently, there’s a profound difference between accepting a statement or act and condoning a statement or act. Acceptance means fully recognizing, listening, witnessing, and acknowledging. Acceptance is a vital and necessary first step for fully engaging with the situation.

I’m thinking about empathy, listening, and the like a lot nowadays, as I prepare to move back onto a university campus. In graduate school it was easy enough to focus on my own little world, and leave the undergraduates to their own devices. Not so this time around. While I’ll be focusing on intellectual and academic development, I can’t ignore the fact that these are twenty year olds on a campus where issues may run hot. And I’m well aware that as a white guy I will have easier access to conversations that would be hushed if my skin color were darker. I hope that I have the wisdom and courage to walk my talk if that chance arises.

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