The Politics of Empathy

The world is shrinking every day. Information travels at the speed of thought, we can share ideas, funny pictures, recipes or new music easier than ever and the walls between cultures that were once impenetrable have now become translucent. We are supposed to be closer to one another than at any other time in human history. Nothing happens in a vacuum anymore, and our choices affect our neighbors: local and global.

However it is considerably more difficult to reach out and understand other folks in a world where most of our public lives are performative rather than an honest reflection of how we think and feel. It has become more difficult to understand ourselves, let alone other people. In a time where you can curate your friends’ list and limit your interactions to people who think like you, worship like you, vote like you, and enjoy the same music, it raises the question…Are we actually embracing diversity, or just redefining a different status quo?

It seems in this second decade of the 21st century the usual social divides are deepening, and either side of every issue is becoming more and more entrenched. Things that were once a simple contest of ideas have become high stakes battles between good and evil and anyone who disagrees with you is not just evil but bone stupid as well.

Here’s the problem. We’re on the same team. Liberals and conservatives, the religious and the non-believers, we’re all trying to leave our world better than we found it and keep our loved ones safe. That’s the actual goal. To be peaceful and prosperous in a world that looks better than it did at the time of our arrival. Beating the other guy or proving them wrong is not the summit of our achievement; in fact we have much bigger problems to solve.

Consider this: Around half the world’s people live on under $2 a day, one billion live on less than $1. There’s a billion people with absolutely no access to clean water, and 2.5 billion who don’t have access to sanitation. There are 1 billion people who live in real hunger every day, and 1/4 of all the people who die on Earth this year will die of AIDS, TB, Malaria or infections related to dirty water. Four out of every five of them will be kids under five…But please, let’s fight about the national anthem.

Over the course of this decade, and especially in this back half the public discourse has been circling the drain. There is a strong desire for even the slightest hint of class or elegance in our interactions, and we’re almost always disappointed. You can’t check social media without scrolling past a fight, you can’t channel surf past talk radio without mud being slung, and you can hardly watch the news without being bombarded by hot takes every half hour.

Before you mistake my observations for softheartedness, I’ll remind you that I believe we are at a crisis point in history. Not just in the United States but around the world. There is a fight to be had and it has to be engaged with full vigor and courage. That being said, our fight is missing one of our most basic principles. It’s a common enough concept, reflected in the Golden Rule and in children’s stories…but do we actually value empathy as a society? Is it something we understand and strive for, or is it just another bumper sticker phrase we pay lip service to?

At some point you have to recognize that the person across from you is also human. At some point you have to recognize that the issue you want to win on has real human lives hanging in the balance, and the stakes are much higher than a shouting match. President Clinton put it best at the DNC in 2012 when he said “nobody's right all the time, and a broken clock is right twice a day”. We have to remember that and approach each other with a little humility and kindness and understanding. Obviously we can never give ground to violent or prejudiced extremists, but we can at least approached the changing world like it’s more than just an argument where you either “own” your opponents or “troll” your enemies. All this tells anyone is that you’re not only not invested in the issue, but you’re not invested in the people that issue affects.

The sort of engagement I’m talking about doesn’t happen automatically. It takes people like you and I being courageous and stepping out of our comfort zones in order to reach other people who don’t always agree with us. Every disagreement is not a fight. Every argument is not a war. It’s okay to remain engaged and friendly with folks who are different than you, because our common humanity is what binds us together. It has to be. We can’t spend what little time we have bickering. We have to see each other. Don’t just get out there and try to score points with your buddies, listen to each other, and that empathy can open doors we’ve never had access to.



Willis Gordon

Willis Gordon is a musician, stand up comedian, actor, author, essayist, activist, and veteran of the War on Terror. Gordon is committed to quality entertainment and the improvement of our communities through art, action, and inclusion. He organized the “Rock the Block” voter registration concert in 2016, and continues to register voters and fight for civil rights across Stark County. He is the author of The Long Road Home and The Empty Boulevards. His live album, Willis Gordon: Live! is available anywhere you stream music. He wrote the monthly column "The Road Forward: Practical Discussions on Seeking a Better World" for Unlikely Stories Mark V.


Edited for Unlikely by Jonathan Penton, Editor-in-Chief
Last revised on Tuesday, September 4, 2018 - 09:47