An Empathy Lab

Over the weekend our friends Gary Harrington and Rosemary Fei stayed with us while they organized her mother’s burial. Afterward, our grandson (and their great nephew) came over to visit. Together, they showed me a way to teach about empathy in ways that will get incorporated into the instructor’s guide for From Conflict Resolution to Peacebuilding.

Gary’s Video

We had already talked about empathy in the context of the looming impeachment crisis because it is a hard for liberals like ourselves to understand why people support President Trump’s actions and find little or nothing wrong with his behavior in the phone call with Ukrainian President Zelensky. I’d also noted in passing at some other point in the conversation that grandson-greatnephew Kiril had been discussing empathy in his third grade class.

Somehow, when Kiril and his parents stopped by our house later that afternoon, I remembered Welcome, a short video Gary had made in 2009. Gary is an active member of the Comanche tribe who practices Native American law when he is making films.

Long before Trump and his wall, Gary had made Welcome to reflect how Native Americans might have responded to the arrival of the Pilgrims if they had views on immigration that had a lot in common with White prejudices in 2009 (or today). So, he hired a few White actors (plus an infant) to play the role of Pilgrims rowing ashore in San Francisco (where they live) and gathered some of his Native American friends to play the role of concerned citizens commenting on their arrival. Of course, they uttered many of the tropes that were common in anti-immigrant debates at the time and one still hears today.

What’s key here is that our grandson got the point. He did miss some of the subtle points, like the Pilgrim (in full regalia) using a leaf blower outside one Native American’s expensive suburban home. Still, he got the point. Your understanding of a situation changes and gets more nuanced when you can see the other person’s point of view.

And the Impeachment Inquiry

I had actually had an exercise in empathy myself a few days earlier when I watched  Adam Schiff and Devin Nunes make their opening statements before the House Intelligence Committee before Acting Director of National Intelligence, Joseph Maguire testified before the House Intelligence Committee. As a good liberal, I agreed with just about everything Schiff said.

As a good liberal, I also expected to disagree with everything Nunes said.

So, I remembered the key things I’d included in my textbook about empathy in the minute or so before  Nunes started speaking. I asked myself how a smart guy like Nunes could believe some of ghd (what seemed to me) stupid things he was about to say. In other words, I tried to put myself in his shoes.

I didn’t agree with him any more than I did before he began his opening remarks. I did, however, begin to see the kinds of arguments we will have to make if we want to convince his supporters that President Trump has violated the law and/or his oath of office. None of my empathy preparation made his ideas any more appealing. However, they did point me toward some ways I could have a productive discussion if, perchance, I could end up sitting down with him.

If, on the other hand, you like the President, you would benefit from trying to do the same with Congressman Schiff’s remarks.

Teaching Empathy

Therein lies the importance of empathy whether you get at it through a satirical movie like Gary’s or a real life example like those two congressional remarks. You can’t hope to find a mutually satisfactory solution to a problem unless you can put yourself in the intellectual and emotional “shoes” of the people you disagree. When I see why you think the way you do in your own terms, it becomes easier to reframe an issue and begin identifying solutions we would both be happy with.

You may not be able to get there even if everyone puts on his or her empathy hats. But without doing so, it is easy to fall into the trap of stereotyping and demonizing the people we disagree with that leads to the gotcha and polarized politics we see all around us today.

Even if you can’t find that clichéd win-win outcome, empathy lets you disagree with demonizing the other side, polarizing the division, and making a bad situation even worse.

Put simply, empathy makes it harder to engage in the “naming, blaming, and shaming” that so characterizes American politics today. From “my” side as well as “theirs.”

It’s no panacea, but it can set us off in a more hopeful direction.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Alliance for Peacebuilding or its members. 

Also published on Medium.