As the national atmosphere became increasingly divisive during the presidential election, some begged the question: Where is the empathy for others? The theory was that our ever-expanding national divide was due to a failure among voters to relate to each other not as ethical rivals, “deplorables” or the “crooked elite,” but as partners in the civic process.
It was difficult enough for progressives to walk in the shoes of Trump voters - who managed to pull the lever for their man despite his many bigoted statements - during the campaign. But what happens now, when we must deal with a president whose administration flouts constitutional protections and pushes policies such as the Muslim travel ban that hurt real people? How do we ask people being disenfranchised to empathize with the very people whose votes empowered their disenfranchisement? What is the function of empathy - a cherished Jewish trait (“You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt” (Exodus 23:9)- in an age when resistance may be a more appropriate action?
The Forward asked some of the country’s leading empathy experts to try to answer those vexing questions.
Gail Golden, MBA, P.hD. (psychologist and business consultant)
“Can empathy be used as a resistance tool? Yes, it is a powerful one. It can confront the tribalism that is tearing America apart. We can use our empathy to expand our tribe beyond those who look like us, think like us, pray like us, to include all Americans and indeed all people. We can use our empathy to support and maintain our generosity. We can use it to defend each other against vulgarity and bullying. The America of ‘Give me your tired, your poor’ has not died, but it does need resuscitation. Using our empathy to hear each other’s voices and respond with kindness is today’s challenge.”
“Empathy is the art of stepping into the shoes of another person and seeing the world from their perspective, and using this understanding to guide your actions.[Trump] wouldn’t have such success unless he was preaching to a culture that, at least to some extent, exhibited a similar empathy deficit to his own. For all its historic openness to immigration, American society exhibits a lack of empathy to particular cultural, religious and national groupings. What this means is that a progressive politics requires more than just opposing Trump as an individual. It also requires the deeper, harder work of building empathetic understanding in society. How to do this? It’s tough, but the most effective way, I believe, is to teach empathy skills in schools. The world’s most effective program, called Roots Of Empathy, began in Canada and has now had over 750,000 children go through it, including in elementary schools in the United States. It reveals how empathy skills can be taught, just like riding a bike or driving a car. It might be too late for President Trump to join the program, but millions of American children should be given this important opportunity. It’s vital at this moment in history, when we are seeing a revival of far-right extremism that mirrors the politics of 1930s Europe.”
Kelsey Crowe and Emily McDowell (co-authors of “There Is No Good Card For This: What To Say And Do When Life Is Scary, Awful, And Unfair To People You Love)
“People who are ‘other’ in America are facing a kind of stigma that then can lead to bigotry and hate crimes and discriminatory legislation. The way to break through that stigma is through storytelling - telling individual stories about how individual lives are impacted by this. That works. To the extent that we can support as a society the sharing of stories of people we know who are affected by this. There’s evidence for the effective of direct storytelling: it worked during Prop 8 canvassing, when people were disproportionately more likely to change their minds about same-sex marriage when face-to-face with an actual LGBTQ person telling his or her story. We’ve all been afflicted by certain kinds of suffering. This crosses all political affiliations, races, ethnicities. Storytelling enables empathy by allowing you to connect to [others people’s] suffering through your own. There’s a shared humanity that may be expanded to relate more directly to larger issues and experiences. Of course, it also comes down to the willingness to have those conversations and to start opening oneself up.”
Lana Adler is the Forward opinion fellow. Follow her on Twitter, @Lana_Macondo