Our Empathy Divide

By Alex Proimos from Sydney, Australia – Flickr, CC BY 2.0, Wikimedia Commons

As some of us gaze around at the world, scarcely believing the divisions and violence that are now a part of our everyday lives, we can’t help but ask, “How on earth did we get here?” On one side, there’s Donald Trump, who stokes fear and violence with apparent glee, his devotees all too happy to ride his coattails and attack all who oppose them. On the other side is Hillary Clinton, whose primary failings are being female and being wedded to establishment and corporate interests. Her supporters believe in her in part, but as many support her because she is not Him, The Donald, who demands deification in capital letters.

More than a few Hillary supporters and people in between are asking, “How?” How did we come to the edge of the abyss, the fate of our republic hanging in the balance? How did we get to the place where white nationalist, openly racist and xenophobic people feel empowered and mainstream again? Surely these things are all relics of our hateful past, not our civilized present? If only.

My parents embody some of these views. They are conservative, racist, and have (weirdly) become hyper-religious over the years. I spent most of my life in the southern US (mostly Texas and Alabama), and I understand the mindset pretty well. While we like to separate people into “liberals” and “conservatives,” another way to view this is to see them as either “empathic” or “nonempathic.” Now, that is a generalization, and the fact is that most people fall on a spectrum somewhere in between. George Bush’s “compassionate conservatism” was meant, I think, to be a nod toward empathy while furthering conservative values. Most people believe in helping others, while at the same time exercising fiscal restraint. Many traditional Republicans tend to fall on that end of the spectrum, to varying degrees.

What has people so flummoxed now with the Trump ascendancy is that his obvious lies, flip-flops, lack of clear policy, and open nods to racism, violence, and general “Brown Shirt” behavior has excited, not turned off, a key part of the electorate. The alt right, or formerly fringe GOP, contains the most extreme nonempathic people. What does that mean? It means that they are not willing or capable of putting themselves in someone else’s shoes. They cannot see any perspective but their own. No matter how good they have it, the prospect of some “other” doing as well or better makes them feel insecure and slighted. Emotionally, they are victims, and they long for ascendancy. They long to win. The Donald promises them that they will win, but there has to be a loser. The Mexicans, Muslims, and African-Americans must be the sacrifice, trampled under white, Christian feet.

Empathic people are more likely to understand the gray areas of life. They are more likely to know that you can be brought low by no fault of your own. Chance can deal a harsh hand, and empathic people are more likely to help without judgment. Nonempathic people, on the other hand, are far more likely to view a person in need through the lens of judgment:  they must have done something to fuck up. Maybe God doesn’t love them. Maybe they’re alcoholics or drug users. Maybe they’re just lazy. Maybe they’re racially inclined to fail. These views enable the nonempathic person to walk away from a person in need with their ego intact, feeling justified in not lending a hand. The nonempathic person prefers black-and-white thinking. It’s easier.

When Trump followers beat up protesters, flip off the media, or worse, they feel justified because they are in the right, and the perspective of their opponents does not matter. This is also a narcissistic and borderline trait:  the only viewpoint that matters is mine. Socially, this dynamic presents itself in ongoing systemic racism:  the only people whose voices matter are white and Christian.

I wrote in “Guns and Empathy” that empathy is the only solution to gun violence. It is also the only solution to our divisions, to hatred, to racism (I have tried to reach my white brothers and sisters for years on that subject), and even to corporate and environmental exploitation around the globe. If we cannot connect, for even a moment, with another point of view, then we are doomed. If we cannot feel or imagine the suffering of others, the suffering of our environment, the pain caused by our systems, then history shall indeed repeat itself, and we shall fall into chaos and dissolution, led by the bloodthirsty cries of the nonempathic aggrieved, who believe that eliminating those who oppose them is the only cure for their ills.

It doesn’t have to be this way, and I believe that the empathic far outnumber those who have no empathy. But this is no time to stand idle and wait for others to come to our rescue:  we must rescue ourselves. There is no Messiah, no Martin Luther King, Jr, no Gandhi, who will rescue us all. We must take a stand, and it must be a compassionate one. It serves no one to adopt the tactics of the nonempathic horde. Compassion is essential to our survival, and we must be compassionate even toward those who would offer us none in return.

We must vote. We must behave in a civilized manner. We must teach our children to be empathic and compassionate. We must seek out and appoint people who embody these values. We must choose entertainment that uplifts rather than demeans. We must show playground bullies the door, and let them know that their behavior will not be tolerated.

It’s true that we are a nation divided. But the divide has nothing to do with politics and everything to do with empathy. Or the lack thereof.

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