Empathy for the hysterics
As I mentioned in a previous post, though we may want it to be - I believe empathy is not a magic bullet. It doesn't miraculously make us stop fearing or hating or resenting each other. It's a process, and in order for it to look like much more than listening, it has to be paired with things like love and compassion and action.
This morning, I read yet another call to empathy from a political expert. Attorney and Harvard Law professor Lawrence Lessig, who ran for president last year, published "Rules for a constitutional crisis" on Medium early this morning. He starts with personal history, explaining some of the impetus for his decision to become a lawyer, and goes on to argue for Congress's vital role in addressing the "constitutional crisis" the country now faces under Trump. It's really worth a read. But near the end, something confused me:
Because if America is to avoid slipping into civil war, the people we need to keep in focus are the people who elected Donald Trump. I get that the easy way to think and talk about those Americans is to call them racists, or sexists or idiots. No doubt there are some who are those (as there are some on the other side who are each of those things too). But it is neither true nor helpful to simplify this story into good versus evil. The citizens who elected Trump are not evil. And if America is going to survive this crisis, we need to convince them first that their President should not be President. We need to show them that their own values are consistent with ours, in this respect at least.
That won’t happen with hysterics. It won’t happen with violence. It won’t happen by behaving just as badly as Donald Trump is behaving. It will only happen if the opposition is, and seems, better than Trump. That is, if it inspires in all Americans—and especially a large swath of the supporters of Trump—a recognition of the ideals that we all know we are to embrace: the Constitution, the rule of law, and government officials who know their place within that system.
I'm not the only commenter who has asked, "What hysterics? What violence? Someone is 'behaving just as badly as Donald Trump?' Where!?" Though I actually agree with most of what Lessig says here, this kind of call for empathy reads to me more like a rebuke. It reads like it's asking "the opposition" to practice empathy instead of calling for resistance, because the latter may be seen as "hysteria." In my opinion, it creates a false equivalence that doesn't seem helpful to anyone on either side (especially since there's been little to no violence, it's unclear who other than Trump - except maybe his core team - can be described to be behaving like Trump, and "hysterics" is an extremely loaded - and therefore not super useful - word).
I also think there's an important difference between empathizing with someone and pandering to them. Am I saying that I believe the citizens who elected Trump are indeed evil? No! I'm simply saying that while empathy for them is important in understanding how we got here, I don't believe that should trump (....) being honest about what's happening, and how dire it might be. I also don't believe, after many conversations with Trump voters, that liberals and/or Democratic congresspeople redirecting their energy from "hysterically" sounding the alarm to being more universally "inspiring" is going to change many minds. At least not right now. When people have been conditioned to see those who disagree as an enemy - and when this is the kind of spin those trying to win them over have to contend with - I'm not sure any change in tone is going to make a big difference. We know people tend to just get more entrenched in their own beliefs the more we try to convince them they're wrong, anyway (though presenting good reasoning and facts can sometimes be persuasive).
What's that saying about "drastic times and drastic measures?" Is it ever legitimate to get a little "hysterical?"