The Election Empathy Challenge: 2016 Edition (aka "Gee, maybe not everyone else is an idiot or villain after all.")
People who've followed my blog for a while know that one of pulpits I pound a lot is civility, understanding, and empathy. I am all for spirited public discourse. I believe a loud and crowded marketplace of ideas is the sign of a healthy republic.
My biggest fear about our country's future comes in what I see is a fundamental and growing inability to understand each other. Not agree with each other, necessarily, but simply understand our ideological foes without deciding they are just stupid or evil.
It worries me because in a country as big as this, with as many different voices and ideas, there has to be a way that we can make decisions. Historically, that has involved making some compromises.
In our day-to-day lives, I suspect most of us do this. We make compromises with our spouse or children, our co-workers, or reality in general. We realize life is a series of trade-offs. And live goes on.
But in politics we suddenly become all-or-nothing. We write ourselves into a melodrama that stars our side as the forces of light and truth, battling the forces of evil and destruction.
The problem with this is that it ruins the possibility of ever making any kind of compromise, of giving even mild concessions in order to achieve a shared goal.
I believe we can solve our problems. But I don't believe either side is uniquely able to see the problems and propose solutions with clarity. So, the ability to listen and understand the other side--really listen, not just preparing a rebuttal--is critical.
Beyond that, we have to live together 365 days a year. Election day comes once. Should we really allow our politics to be the defining moment in terms of our relationships, or the way we think about vast number of others? Simply as human beings, should we not be able to listen to each other and say, "I see your point," or "I understand how you feel," without launching into "But your side does it too...." or "Well, yes but Reagan/Clinton did it too...."
It might be comforting to hear the folks on Fox validate your bedrock beliefs about God, Family, and Country. It might be funny to hear Jon Stewart and Colbert and all the rest mock people you think deserve it.
Certainly, there is a thrill one gets when looking at one's foes and thinking that they are stupid, illiterate, backward, or just evil. But that thrill that comes is a tingle of self-righteousness, nothing more.
So, here's the Empathy Challenge: find someone you disagree with. Ask him or her to explain why your candidate scares them. Ask them the positive reasons they support their candidate. Listen with the intent to understand them, not to argue or rebut. Don't try to convert them. Just to understand. You don't have to agree. But you understand, and when you interact, you will not be objectifying that person. You'll be engaging with them--human to human.
You don't have to agree. But you could at least stop seeing your fellows as caricatures or cliches, or objects of scorn, unworthy of the same rights you grant yourself.
Try it. You might be surprised. Those Bernie supporters you mock might surprise you with a lack of entitlement. That person with the Trump sticker might not be a racist. And the person with the Hillary t-shirt might not be hoping for a corrupt oligarchy.
In America, we have the right to vote our conscience. I would suggest that this comes with a responsibility to try to understand the consciences of others.
If you are interested, I'd love to hear your experiences with this.
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