Where did all the empathy go?

 

 

By Mel Mann     

The last decade has been an era of ever increasing political correctness and empathy.  Buildings get torn down because they do not have elevators giving handicapped access to high floors.  Schools now must provide restrooms for a variety of gender and sexual identifications.  Passengers can bring their miniature horse on an airline because it provides them with comfort.  Yet, in “politics”, the namesake for the term there is no political correctness and this may be the biggest threat to our democracy.

Our contemporary interpretation for Political Correctness is really more about empathy.  When we identify that someone is different, we empathize with their challenge and try to provide an accommodation.  People in wheelchairs get ramps into buildings.  People with mobility issues get a power scooter at the grocery store entrance.  People with learning disabilities get access to specialized education and testing.  These are all cases where we show tolerance and give accommodation to someone who is different. Yet, when someone displays a different political view they are pilloried as opposed to tolerated and empathized with.

Yes, I know that ideas and beliefs are not the same as handicaps or gender identification.  But they both required that the majority show tolerance for the differences of a minority and this is in part driven by empathy.

Having empathy for someone else’s political views does not mean you have to agree with the behavior, beliefs or emotions of that person. It simply means you must be willing to suspend your own judgment long enough to be able to see the world from their perspective.

Consider gun control as an example.  With the rise of violent crime and school shootings 9 out of 10 Americans surveyed believe we need to do something.  An advocate for more gun control believes that getting guns off the street will reduce the associated violence.  A Second Amendment supporter would argue that we already have plenty of gun laws that are simply not being enforced well enough.  Looking at their values and aspirations, they both have the same goal of feeling safe when they go to a public place or gathering.   Having some empathy for the other person and their views makes it much more likely you can find an agreeable path forward.

Ultimately, the real conversation these two people should have is about how to keep gun out of the hands of bad actors without impinging significantly only our freedoms. Oh, and by the way…an assault rifle is not necessary for deer hunting.

A recent poll published in USA Today showed that while 9 in 10 Fox News viewers support President Trump, only 1 in 10 NPR listeners support him.  Clearly America is a divided country. The poll went on to ask potential voters: “If your candidate for President were to lose, how confident would you be that the 2020 presidential election had been conducted in a ‘fair-and-square’ way?” 60% of the respondents said they would question the legitimacy of the 2020 election if their candidate didn’t win.  That means we are living in an era when most of us can’t imagine a majority of voters not credibly thinking and voting the same way as we individually align. 

There is a lot of talk about other countries meddling in our elections as a “threat to our democracy.” The real threat appears to be much closer to home.  I believe we are facing a crisis of empathy.  Think about what happened at the conclusion of the 2016 Presidential Election.  Thousands of voters whose candidate did not win, turned out for weeks of protests with the theme “not my President.”  I have been voting since 1976 when Jimmy Carter beat Gerald Ford and this is a new phenomenon to me.  For democracy to be effective and stable, the results have to be accepted even if your candidate did not when.  No election is ever going to have 100% turnout and a 100% vote for a single candidate except in a totalitarian regime.

Many years ago in a high school civics class I was taught that since elections are seldom won by an overwhelming majority, that both side still need to meet to form a national agenda.  Without this negotiation there is only divisiveness and finger-pointing. 

Speaking of high school civics, it seems only fair to share this next observation.  I was taught that the name of our country is “The United States of America”, indicating that we are a collection of states that each have a potentially unique regional identity.  In this spirit, all the power the Federal Government has is based on power given or ceded to it by the states.  For this reason the Electoral College is a compromise that ensures all the states are represented in the federal election process.  Without the Electoral College a Presidential candidate need only win the popular vote in a few states situated on both coasts to the potential frustration of a majority of the rest of the country and those remaining states.  I share this because there are individuals in Congress who don’t understand this basic lesson and propose abolishing the Electoral College.  Were that to actually happen, the 10-12 states with the largest populations and biggest cities would dominate national politics at the expense of the rest of the country. It is a shame that an elected official does not understand this basic concept. Clearly, without the Electoral College the country would be more divided rather than less.

The advantage to being able to emphasize is that you have to potential to actually move the needle.  Without empathy there is only opposition and conflict.  When opposing parties meet at the table they are limited to the “I’m right and you’re wrong” narrative.  With a little empathy, those same factions can negotiate something that concedes a little for each and wins a little for each.  The needle moved…

If you listen to the media, the 2020 presidential election will be the most important election of our era.  It would be easy to say that this notion was drummed up by pundits to promote their livelihood.  But if it is true, why then are more folks not tuning in to the Democratic debates? Why are 2 in 3 Americans not able to engage politically? Why is voter turnout just at 55 percent in presidential elections?  Is it because people don’t care? More likely, people care, but they are busy.  Our day-to-day lives have plenty to keep track of and lots of resulting anxiety.  Modern politics is stressful to watch and potentially very upsetting.  Given a choice, most of us would rather watch an episode of “The Big Bang Theory” we have already seen half a dozen times.

I referee youth soccer in my spare time.  When a match occasionally goes sideways I generally conclude things with both coaches a little upset; but I tried to be fair to both teams.  I don’t know how to fix it, but the notion of politicians seeking only an absolute outcome has divided the country.  We would clearly be better off if at the end of a negotiation everyone felt a little upset because they only got part of what they wanted.

We are clearly facing a critical juncture for our democracy with the impending 2020 election.  While I have one candidate I “prefer” over another, who wins is not the most critical aspect of the impending election.  For our democracy to survive, we must believe that the process was fair and respect the outcome regardless of who wins.

This means that we must find a way to show empathy and tolerance for those political views that don’t specifically align with our own. Additionally, we need to elect representatives who can empathize with their counterparts from the other side of the aisle.

There are historians who give credit to either Hamilton or Jefferson for the phrase “grand experiment” when referring to our democracy.  Regardless of who actually said it, or if it was ever actually said; our democracy is at risk if we cannot find a way to tolerate and emphasize with those whose opinions do not align with our own.

Mel Mann currently works as a software developer as well as dappling in playing the blue grass banjo.


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