News & Politics

Empathy for the Devil

We Americans should stop trying not to argue and instead try to argue well.

Photo Credit: Rawpixel.com / Shutterstock

The first two weeks of Trump’s presidency have proven to be everything liberal Americans have feared, and more. In addition to the heartrending scenes of deportation and detention at airports around the country last weekend, a revelation emerged from a Virginia courtroom Friday that more than 100,000 visas have been revoked as a result of Trump’s notorious executive order. And the Migration Policy Institute reports that a leaked draft of a possible executive order on public benefits for cash, nutrition and health is set to have devastating effects on legal immigrants who rely on those vital services.

As the daughter of immigrants, my response to the travel ban and the heartening protests against it is strong, emotionally charged and personal. Like many of us, I’ve been taking to social media to air my views.

I posted this on Facebook:

“Bravissimo to the folks who are leveraging their citizenship privilege and white privilege to stand up against the immigration ban. But we have to get our facts straight about the history of immigration in America.

"America as a 'Melting Pot' welcoming all immigrants with open arms, where the 'American Dream' is equally accessible to all, is a myth. It's a myth that erases the colonization and genocide of Indigenous Americans, the forced migration and enslavement of African Americans, and bans against non-white immigrants that have happened before.

"Think of the Chinese Exclusion Act. Think of Japanese-American Internment. Think of the Jewish refugees we turned away during the Holocaust. Think of California's Proposition 187. Think of what Muslim Americans were subjected to after 9/11. Think of the inhumane way the ICE treats undocumented immigrants even in our so-called sanctuary cities.

"We don't need myths to unite us.

"The truth we have to reckon with is that America is a settler nation that has only truly welcomed white immigrants from European countries. Let's recognize that truth so that we can move on and make it not true anymore.”

Then, after the Trump administration’s warmongering against Iran and explicit talk of war with China, I posted this:

“War with China, any kind of war, whether trade war, skirmishes in the South China Sea, or more, means unequivocally that Chinese Americans (and anybody else who looks remotely Chinese or has a Chinese-sounding last name) will be vilified, harassed, discriminated against, attacked, and killed.

"A cursory look at our history in America shows this to be true. The phrase 'a Chinaman's chance' wasn't coined for nothing. Our history is riddled with mass murders, anti-Chinese riots, lynchings, and hate crimes.

"Our only hope, as ever, is in intersectional allyship.”

Sure enough, hate crimes against Asian Americans are surging, from the 60-year-old Chinese grandfather who was shot and killed in Virginia while playing Pokemon Go, to the Korean grandmother who was beaten in Los Angeles by a woman shouting “White power!” 

While it has certainly been cathartic to publicly air my views, I’m also aware that I’m essentially preaching to the choir in my “liberal bubble.” Ever since the election, we’ve been hearing calls for unity, empathy and healing. From Van Jones to President Obama, there’s been a lot of talk about the need for empathy on all sides and about how to get out of our bubbles, whether liberal or conservative. And now, after the first two weeks of Trump’s presidency, as we find ourselves staring into an honest to goodness existential abyss, the need to collectively grab the wheel and steer our country away from disaster is urgent.

From our respective bubbles, it’s all too easy for us to demonize each other, dismissing opportunities to see and capitalize on the ways in which our views may even align. Righteous anger is legitimate, galvanizing and healthy, but how does anger square with empathy? Can we have empathy for people on the “other side” while still honoring our own emotions? Can we have empathy for the devil?

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about these questions, especially since the Writers Resist Dear Sugar Radio broadcast where I helped give advice to a listener about how to have empathy and move on after the election.

Empathy-based radical practice has a long tradition in social justice activism from Gandhi to Martin Luther King, Jr., but as in those two examples, it has been embedded in religious and spiritual philosophies. As America is, at least for now, a secular society, is it possible to build a movement that has the empathy without the religion? In other words, can we come up with an organizational practice for the strategic application of empathy in a broad-based secular movement?

Like many of us, the place where I have occasion to practice empathy most often is in my marriage. If my husband and I have a disagreement, I don’t have to sublimate my anger in order to listen to his point of view. For me to listen to him with empathy, I have to stand firm in my own position and express myself honestly, too. And part of the bargain is that he has to do the same thing. By staying clear and firm in the validity of my own experience, I can see how my husband’s experience is distinct from mine, and from there, I can imagine how things might look and feel from where he stands. Rather than creating an impasse or stalemate, this process tends to actually build intimacy and respect.

The goal of a good marriage isn’t never to argue. So maybe, just like in a marriage, we Americans should stop trying not to argue and instead try to argue well. That means fighting hard, but fighting fair. That means expressing ourselves honestly and then actively listening to the other person. Active listening is listening not with the goal of crafting a response or rebuttal, but listening with the simple goal of understanding where the other person is coming from.

Of course, that’s not going to be possible 100 percent of the time. While arguing is healthy in a good marriage, arguing and even relationship therapy are contraindicated in abusive relationships because they can enable further abuse. The same can be said for any kind of abusive or oppressive situation. So how can we tell what kind of situation is safe and healthy to engage in and what kind of situation is dangerous and unproductive? How can we maintain our own position while understanding someone else’s even if we are radically opposed? In other words, how does radical empathy work on a functional level?

What I propose is a two-step plan for radical empathy where step one is self empathy and step two is strategic empathy. What if self empathy means having empathy for ourselves, so that step one is to honor our own emotions even in the face of defensiveness, blame-shifting, minimization and gaslighting? Techniques like gaslighting, blame-shifting and minimizing create distance between our sense of self and our experience of reality. That’s where empathy for the self comes in. When our sense of self is splintered by techniques designed to fracture us into a double positionality, even to the extent of manipulating us into identifying with abusers or oppressors, self empathy enables us to resist that pressure and empathize with the parts of ourselves that have been othered, whether by shame or alienation, or some other mode of manipulation. Self empathy prevents us from inadvertently colluding with oppressive narratives and internalizing their discourses. If we work from that basis, we can use self empathy as a tool for discerning what is and isn’t productive to engage with, which in turn creates space for the possibility of step two, strategic empathy.

Strategic empathy is an idea that stems from the anthropological principle of cultural relativism. Not to be confused with moral relativism, cultural relativism is a tool for understanding the internal logic of different thought and belief systems even if they seem irrational to the researcher. The goal is then to develop culturally appropriate forms of intervention. If we adapt this approach to our current situation, we can use strategic empathy to help us maintain our own points of view while understanding the context and reasoning of someone else’s even if we don’t agree with them, even if we’re angry at them, and even if we can’t find it within ourselves to love them. From there, we have a starting point for finding the kinds of arguments and interventions that might actually get through to the people we’re talking to.

When we’re interacting with someone who’s on the other side of the empathy wall, if we have no basis for understanding one another, it doesn’t matter how many times we say something or how loudly we say it. They won’t be able to hear us. Maybe this two-step radical empathy plan can at least get us to a point of having actual conversations (with those who are willing and capable) rather than debates and shouting matches.

We can see an example of how culturally appropriate interventions work in the research on political persuasion by Matt Feinberg, an assistant professor at the University of Toronto, who along with Stanford University sociologist Robb Willer, has studied how liberals and conservatives can convert people from the other side. As Olga Khazan reports in The Atlantic, the main obstacle is that people tend to present arguments that appeal only to the ethical code of their own side. However, through the use of “moral reframing” to more effectively craft convincing arguments based on frameworks that are culturally appropriate, Feinberg and Willer have shown that it’s possible for liberals and conservatives to change each other’s minds.

“We tend to view our moral values as universal,” says Feinberg. “Yet, in order to use moral reframing you need to recognize that the other side has different values, know what those values are, understand them well enough to be able to understand the moral perspective of the other side, and be willing to use those values as part of a political argument.” “To do so,” continues Khazan, “would take an abundance of empathy, and that’s in short supply all around these days.”

It’s certainly the case that many people, especially those on the far left, feel that the time for empathy is over. Ta-Nehisi Coates writes, for example, about how empathy is a privilege. Well, maybe it is and maybe now is the time to cash in on that privilege, not just to recognize it, but to leverage it.

Racism has become a word that makes people recoil and get defensive and say, “No, no, no, not me! How dare you!” But let’s take it out of the personal context and look at it as a neutral systemic phenomenon. In critical race theory, the definition of racism is prejudice + power. What this means is that anyone can be prejudiced, but racism as a system only works if it has systemic power backing it up. And our country has that in spades. Similarly, sexism is prejudice + power. This means that women can be prejudiced against men (and other women), but without the whole setup backing them up, their prejudice is not technically sexism.

Racism and sexism are part of our cultural matrix along with classism, ableism, homophobia, transphobia, and other forms of discrimination. We’re all in the matrix together. So those who can see the matrix would really benefit from working toward liberating those who can’t see it yet. This idea forms the basis of intersectional social activism.

But even before we get into it with the Trump supporters, let’s face the fact that we have plenty of divisions on our own side of the street. Everyone is triggered and everyone is defensive. So how do we get out of that state of stasis? How do we get someone to see something they don’t want to see? Is it impossible? I don’t think so, because don’t most of us manage it with our kids and partners on a regular basis?

We know from child psychology that the development of empathy hinges on intimate and healing experiences of recognition. We grow empathy in children by mirroring to them that we understand and share their pain. Without empathy, we go into fight or flight states of hyper vigilance or are overwhelmed by feelings of hopelessness. Empathy depends on being accurately understood, but it doesn’t depend on agreement. That’s the key. We can have empathy for someone while still disagreeing with them. And once someone feels heard, they’re in a much better position to hear us back. One of the best ways I’ve found to get my kids to understand a position that’s opposed to their own is to tell them a story that helps them identify with a different point of view.

Now, most social justice activists would say that these aren’t children we’re dealing with and marginalized folks have already been called upon to do way too much heavy lifting in terms of empathy and emotional labor. And that’s absolutely true.

But at the same time, people need imaginative bridges so that they can identify with positionalities and experiences that are outside of their own. Radical empathy is strategically beneficial because it allows us, without compromising ourselves, to meet people where they are and give them a place to go. If someone is painted into a corner, they’re not going to come out. The absence of an active praxis in empathy results too often in mutual gaslighting because it’s human nature to get defensive, double down, dismiss, and lash out when we feel threatened.

It’s important to note that we must be mindful of how much capital we’ve got in our relative empathy accounts. People with more privilege should have more empathy to spend. If I’m in a position where I’m not immediately threatened and I have privilege relative to the person I’m trying to talk to, then maybe I’m in a better position to take the first step in listening. And if I’m in a position where I’m not immediately threatened and I have privilege relative to someone who is being threatened, it’s my responsibility as an ally to step up and intervene.

Empathy hinges on emotional labor. To have empathy, we have to be able to practice active listening, be reflexive, self-critical, and be able to act on constructive criticism. In our culture, women are more readily expected to practice these skills and are socialized to do more emotional labor, which is why intersectional feminism is at the forefront of social justice allyship.

Men, on the other hand, aren’t asked in our culture to do much emotional labor by anyone except, in some cases, their domestic partners. This makes me think that family and relationship counseling might be an effective model for understanding how to create a two-step plan for radical empathy that’s intersectional. Because family counseling hinges on empathy as its basic tenet while acknowledging the differences of power that may exist between partners, the goal is for both partners to be acknowledged, mirrored, and heard.

In my own marriage, for example, there are some stark inequities of power. I’m a woman and I’m a person of color. My husband is a man and he’s white. Our marriage, especially now, would be in big trouble if we didn’t explicitly acknowledge those power differences and reconfirm based on our respective levels of privilege what boundaries are appropriate for us and what roles we expect of each other when situations of discrimination or bigotry arise. We’ve had some pretty unsettling but ultimately intimacy building conversations in the past months as the election has brought external politics crashing through our door. Just because we treat each other as equals in our own home doesn’t mean we are treated as equals outside of it. Now more than ever before, what the second-wave feminists said is true. The personal is political, and it’s often painful to acknowledge that truth.

But empathy has to begin from a basis of truth. To begin the process of healing, we have to first reckon with the truth. Reckoning means naming and acknowledging the inherited inequities of power that we live with and acknowledging the internalization of those inequities. We have a complicated truth in our country. We have an intersectional truth.

It’s true that we have racism and that creates certain experiences. It’s true that we have sexism and that creates different experiences. It’s true that we have economic inequalities that have created a struggling working class, some (though certainly not all) of whom are white and they are affected by yet another set of truths. The same goes for ableism, homophobia, transphobia, and on and on, in layer upon layer of truth.

We must be capable as a country of listening to the multiple truths of our intersectional society without privileging or compromising any of them. Maybe radical empathy will help us get there. Maybe then we won’t need to have empathy for the devil because we will see that the devil doesn’t exist.

An earlier version of this piece was published in Cultural Weekly.

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