The lost art of empathy

J. Peder Zane Author, Design in Nature
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Nothing symbolizes the nastiness of American politics better than the constant calls for civility.

Every time some loudmouth goes off the rails — Rush Limbaugh insults a law student, Bill Maher describes Sarah Palin in terms we can’t reproduce here — heads shake and fingers wag amidst the strident demands for decency.

But notice that those calls come from one corner at a time: liberals only get their knickers twisted when conservatives cross the line; mega dittos in reverse for conservatives. The pleas for civility are really just a cudgel one side uses to smack the other. It is opportunism posing as high-mindedness.

No one sees the speck in their own eye because, well, they don’t see it. Combatants on each side of the partisan divide view their opponents in extremely ungenerous terms — as mean, selfish, radical communists/fascists. And it all seems fine. After all, one person’s insult is another person’s truth; one person’s harsh words are another person’s telling it like it is.

The calls for civility are doomed so long as, in our heart of hearts, we don’t feel particularly civil toward one another. And, we don’t. That’s why we have handed large chunks of the public discourse to cable TV blowhards and editorial page gas bags who express the vox populi through ad hominem attacks.

Make no mistake, they are prospering because they speak for us — OK, not you and me, but everybody else. They dominate our discourse because we let them. We, in turn, sound more and more like them.

The calls for civility may be better than nothing, but they set an awfully low bar. Civility is the bare minimum. It’s how we act towards those we don’t respect, the slight restraint we exercise when what we really want to do is punch someone in the nose.

If we want to move our politics and culture in a positive direction, we should stop calling for civility and start practicing the lost art of empathy.

We should try to see things through the other person’s eyes, try to understand how they think and feel and why their view of the world makes sense to them. Instead of telling others what we think, empathy empowers us to ask where they’re coming from.

Practicing empathy does not mean that we will adopt their point of view. In fact, it may lead us to disagree with them even more strongly, especially if the other person is a virulent racist or a suicide bomber bent on targeting civilians. But, even in such extreme cases, empathy enables us to recognize their humanity. Just like us, a mixture of experience and education, desire and need, has led them to adopt views that make sense for them (even if we conclude that those views are dead wrong or even immoral).

Despite the white-hot rhetoric spouted so easily these days, few Americans are extremists. They are fellow human beings doing the best they can to find meaning in a hurly burly world.

Empathy fosters humility and respect by reminding us that our view is only one way of looking at things in a world with few absolute truths.

Empathy is particularly useful in political debates because it helps us find common ground — to see a little bit of ourselves in our opponents. Today’s hot-button issues are controversial precisely because there are appealing arguments on each side. Although we tend to paint such questions as black and white — you’re on one side or the other, for or against — they pulse with the tension of competing values. To cite three examples:

  • Our views on taxes hinge on the balance we strike between private property and one’s duties to the state.
  • Our views on the criminal justice system hinge on the balance between security and liberty.
  • Our views on abortion hinge on the balance between protecting life and self-determination.

We all strike a balance that works for us in the same way: by embracing views that reflect our view of the world and that will, we believe, advance our self-interest, which is a complex mix of economic, social, intellectual and psychological factors.

The art of empathy helps us focus on this common struggle, spurring us to treat one another with decency and respect. It also increases our chance of changing minds — knowing what’s important to your opponent is the most powerful tool in any negotiation.

This is not an easy skill. Truth be told, I struggle with it every day. But that hard work seems preferable to surrendering to our toxic politics, which are preventing us from confronting the immense challenges we all face together.

J. Peder Zane teaches Journalism and Mass Communication at St. Augustine’s College. He is the author, with Adrian Bejan, of “Design in Nature: How the Constructal Law Governs Evolution in Biology, Physics, Technology, and Social Organization.”