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What is empathy anyway? And do we need it in an age of Trump?

NYT's Amanda Hess doesn't seem to have much use for it.
Empathy, after all, is not sympathy. Sympathy encourages a close affinity with other people: You feel their pain. Empathy suggests something more technical — a dispassionate approach to understanding the emotions of others. And these days, it often seems to mean understanding their pain just enough to get something out of it — to manipulate political, technological and consumerist outcomes in our own favor.
I don't know if I think empathy, properly understood, is "dispassionate" or necessarily as manipulative as Hess suggests it is. My own take is that empathy is an attempt to walk (in one's imagination, at least) a mile in the proverbial shoes of somebody whose life and experiences are unlike one's own. That requires not just to dispassionately understand another's emotions, but to attempt to understand what it feels like to be that other person — to take seriously their fears, their joys, etc. That requires some emotional spadework, and a bit of humility. And that, in turn, raises the possibility you'll be changed by the act of empathy.

Since the election, I've argued against liberals writing off Trump voters. Some of my friends have mocked that approach — they understand everything they need to know about Trump voters because they voted for Trump, and, well, screw them. No need to try and get in touch with a Trumpista's feelings. And I get that: One's intentions rarely matter as much as one's actions when you're on the receiving end of those actions. If you're a person of color who — reasonably — believes that Trump's policies are going to make your life more difficult, painful, and scary, then I don't entirely blame you for consigning Trump voters to the "racist" bin.

Intent isn't meaningless either. And if every single person reading this manages to always match their good intentions with good actions — and has never accidentally hurt somebody along the way to doing something meant well — well, you're a much better person, morally, than I am.

What's more: In examining intent — using, yes, empathy — perhaps we can find what we need to change actions.

Here's where the humility part comes in. Why am I — privileged white guy that I am — so sure that I'd never be the kind of person who votes for Trump? What makes me different from that person? The answers I see from my liberal friends: We're smarter. We're better. We're more moral.*

*(Maybe that's a stereotype, too. Maybe I need to be more empathetic to my liberal friends.)

That's too easy. That's self-congratulatory. If the answer to your moral question is "I'm awesome," stop and ask yourself the question again, because you almost certainly arrived at the wrong answer. Empathy, as Hess suggests, might be an act of self-understanding ... but at its best, that self-understanding shaped by empathy is something like: I'm not the center of the universe. I can make wrong decisions. I can make decisions that, in other context, I'd find abhorrent. Because these things are possible, I should lean toward treating people with respect even when I disagree vehemently with them, because who's to say what I might do were I in their shoes?

So you look at the Trump voter and ask: What motivated them? Are they, say, terrified of people of color or terrified of terrorism? The latter is more understandable, and it might even look like the former. That's where a lot of us will want to wash our hands and retreat to our circle of Facebook friends.

But: If it is the latter, then liberals can look at the issue, devise solutions, and see if those solutions appeal to that voter. That's not unreasonable. That's what our politics is for.

If it is the former, well, there are limits to empathy. We're not required to endlessly try to understand simple wrongness.

Here's the thing, though: I keep coming back to Martin Luther King Jr. in all of this. If racist people are racist people and never shall their minds be changed — if we should write them off entirely — then it's unlikely the United States ever advances beyond the dark ages of Jim Crow. The non-violent Civil Rights movement was, in large part, an appeal to the empathy of many whites who otherwise might've been on the fence, or worse, regarding the rights of black folks. Empathy is not something merely to give, but also to receive and to elicit in others, in creating a better world .

All of this suggests that empathy is merely a political tool, something used to make other people conform to our standards. As Hess also suggests: That's kind of icky. Empathy is good and useful because it involves humility, because it involves an attempt at true understanding, because it involves (at its foundation) kind intent.

At its root, empathy requires humans to recognize that other people are also humans — with the same complicated mix of motivations, emotions, and obstacles we experience in our own lives.

Those elements are good in and of themselves. If it also means we get a better president, awesome.


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