Using Empathy to Overcome Political Divides, and Why We Can’t Just Shut Down

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Regardless of where you fall on the political spectrum, I think we can all agree that the cultural climate around politics has become absolutely torturous in this country. I have felt rage, helplessness, and hopelessness on a near-daily basis for the last four years. It’s triggering to be flooded with a nonstop torrent of news, commentary, and opinions on Facebook from “friends” I haven’t spoken to in 20 years. Lately, I’ve been taking breaks from the news and social media to retain whatever shred of sanity and reason I have left. It’s tempting to just check out from the whole mess of politics. And as a privileged white woman, I could do just that and probably not experience negative effects in my day-to-day life, regardless of the decisions made by our current and future elected officials. But that’s not what I want for my country. I want to live in a country where we care about other people, and sitting back and doing nothing right now won’t help make things better.

Human beings are social creatures, and a sense of collective identity and unity has been key to our survival. There’s a reason we want to feel like we belong. Early humans figured out pretty quickly that they could get a lot farther by working as a team. Social cohesion and unity allowed humans to work for the common good, improving survival and quality of life for everyone. The reason shame remains such a powerful emotion is because being shunned by the larger group used to be a life-or-death scenario. Being rejected from your community to make it on your own amounted to almost certain death. Our brains are still wired for social acceptance, even in a society as advanced as ours.

Thinking back to our pre-historic origins helps me make sense of what is happening right now, and why this political chasm in our society feels so awful. We want that sense of unity with other humans. We need it. And though the consequences of social division aren’t as immediate as they were thousands of years ago, we absolutely still need to work together in this society if we want to move forward. Right now it feels like our country is being smothered by a gigantic boulder, and rather than using our collective force to pick a direction and roll it off us, we are pulling our ropes in so many different directions that the damn thing might just explode from within.

I’m not going to get into specific political issues or start an argument about why the people who fall on the other side are wrong. There are a lot of heated emotions around these topics, and for very good reason; we are absolutely at a crossroads right now. There is no shortage of content on the Internet about the reasons why. (Just make sure you’re getting those reasons from reputable news sources.)

The stakes are high right now—no denying it. But I’m increasingly terrified at the way people are treating each other. How quickly we are writing people off, turning our backs on each other. There’s a coldness that wasn’t there before. And I will admit I’ve been part of it. I’ve found myself thinking, “Wow, I am for sure done with THAT person!” after learning about their views (usually on social media). But how will we EVER move forward with that kind of thinking? 

As hard as it is to turn down the volume on the anger I feel, anger has never made me feel better. I have never done anything productive in my life from a place of anger. Only love can move us forward, and loving each other begins with empathy. Here are some ways to find empathy for others who have different political views.

  1. Think about the feelings that might be motivating their opinions. Why do you think they might hold that view? Are they scared for their family’s future? What core beliefs about the world did they absorb during their formative years? Did something happen in their past that has deeply affected them? In my experience, many people are motivated by fear. The scarcity mindset is a powerful force. It tells us that there is only so much opportunity in the world, and if someone else gets something good, there is less for us. You can disagree with their views and still have empathy for why they feel that way.
  2. Consider where they might be getting their information. Social media makes it very difficult to discern fact from fiction. And older folks who didn’t grow up with the Internet are especially prone to persuasion from questionable sources that appear legitimate. Twenty years ago, we all got our information from a handful of the same major news sources. It’s a challenge for anyone to figure out what to believe right now, especially when we spend all day consuming highly persuasive and emotionally-charged content and commentary. Life is hard, and it’s understandable that some people might be looking for someone or something to blame.
  3. Ask yourself if you have ever talked to this person about their views in an actual face-to-face conversation. Again, social media distorts reality and strips away the complexities that make us human. If you were having a conversation with this person, do you think they would use those exact words and tone? Do you think there might be opportunities to understand each other that you don’t get during the back-and-forth of a blunt force Facebook comment battle? Do you think if you saw this person moving through life each day, encountering many of the same struggles and worries and joys that you experience, you might not be so quick to dismiss them entirely?

None of this will completely bridge the political divides in our country, but I do think it helps to bring us a little closer to each other. A little closer to restoring our faith in the power of shared humanity. The election might not go your way in November, and that will be upsetting. But if we continue to degrade and dehumanize each other, the collective loss will be so much larger. 

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