On empathy as a magic bullet

There's been a lot of talk about empathy since the election. I have been thinking kind of obsessively about empathy for years, so it was natural for me to go there, but I was a little surprised to see some of the people and organizations that touted it as a way to cope with the election of Donald Trump and connect with family members and friends who voted for him.

I struggled with all of the competing messages. Who exactly deserves whose empathy? Are we all supposed to have it for one another? Or only some of "us" for some of "them?" Is everyone even working with the same definition of empathy? 

Over the weekend, several people sent me this smart piece by Amanda Hess in the New York Times: Is 'Empathy' Really What the Nation Needs? She makes some really great points about who these directions for empathizing are coming from, and what interest they might have in people following their advice. Mark Zuckerberg, for example, has been a big proponent of empathy in the wake of the presidential election, and he wants us to practice it on Facebook, naturally. He also made these comments after many people questioned the role Facebook may have played in spreading conspiracy theories and fake news during the campaign. So yes, maybe we should be skeptical about calls for empathy.

Then there is Paul Bloom, psychology professor and author of the forthcoming book Against Empathy, who warns that trying to feel others' pain in political and policy contexts actually distorts our reasoning and often ends up doing more harm than good. Yikes. 

But what about at the personal level? In addition to the clarion call for empathy from various writers and technology executives, I've seen a lot of concern among friends, particularly on social media, that we have all failed at the important task of empathizing with other people as individuals. After  the election, many were shocked to find out that their grandmother or cousin voted for Trump out of a sense of frustration, despair, or in some cases racism, that hadn't been apparent before. I know I personally looked at a couple of family members and friends and thought, Really? You? So in an effort to understand, I too looked to empathy. 

But I have my own qualms with this approach, different from the concerns of writers like Hess and Bloom. My frustration comes from the fact that empathy is being discussed like a simple solution, a cure-all for bringing people together, a switch that can be flipped, when in fact, in practice, it seems to require a great deal of patience and trust-building. Anyone who's ever had an argument with a stranger on social media has probably experienced this. When you don't understand a person's intentions (trolling? lacking context? just a mean person?) or anything at all about their life or history, it's hard to connect on anything more than a superficial level. And at that level, do we really think we can put ourselves in the other person's shoes? And even if we can, how likely is it that they will trust that we can, or that our intentions are good?

I don't have the answers! I'm continually researching this. And I'm going through trial and error in my own life. I still don't think it can hurt to empathize with others, even if it's ultimately just an exercise for yourself. (Not that you should use other people to learn about yourself, but that if your attempt at empathy doesn't seem well-received, you might learn something about the way you empathize, and your own intentions.) I also lean toward the belief that empathy is a vital part of long-term relationships with partners, family members and friends. But I do think it's important that we ask these questions when something as complex and nebulous as empathy starts to seem like a buzzword, or a magical solution to political and policy issues.

As always, I would love to hear what others think of this!