FeatureLiberal Democracy in Question

Peddling Acquiescence as Unity

Exploring the complexity of empathic communication in the face of Trump

In the aftermath of the election, the New York Times published a series of questions designed to help bridge the chasm between Clinton and Trump supporters. “How Could You? 19 Questions to Ask Loved Ones Who Voted the Other Way” was written as a guide for familial interactions over the holidays — a means of instilling empathy into fraught family dinners. The questions seemed curated to obliquely elucidate matters surrounding identity politics (Are you uncomfortable about any aspect of how America is changing? Do you think I’m sexist or racist?) as well as attempt to create common ground upon freshly scorched terrain (Is there anything you are hopeful about in a Trump presidency?).

Alongside the article’s publication, the Times’s political podcast The Run Up announced a three-episode series called “Dialogues” in which pairs of family and friends — one Trump voter and one Clinton voter per episode — would pose these questions to one another. Perhaps not unsurprisingly the dialogues, resting on necessarily inorganic talking points, sometimes felt stilted. Often the divide between political Left versus Right seemed too sturdily constructed to permit much ideological interweaving.

Over the course of the three episodes the idea that these questions could serve as a self-contained-take-home pamphlet for engaging in empathic communication unraveled. In the second episode the Times introduced Michael Barbaro, host of the podcast, as a sort of mediator who prompted the participants to engage with one another’s perspectives during moments when they seemed likely to brush past one another. In the third episode Barbaro is absent, but we learn the 20-minute dialogue has been edited from over two hours of tense phone conversation. By the end of the series, the work of empathy is drawn as hard and long and messy, a commitment that extends beyond merely sitting across from one another and hearing one another out.

And yet the rhetoric of hearing each other out, of bursting one’s bubble and overcoming the insularity of our communities, both online and actual, has become ubiquitous over these past few months. No doubt it is valuable to have a national dialogue centered on empathy. Empathy affirms humanity and critical discourse should emerge in moments when empathy itself disappears from national policy-making and governance. It should distress us if we sense that we have no ability to comprehend the voting decisions made by people whose lives we view as dissimilar from our own.  But we should also carry with us the understanding that the work of empathy is tough – it isn’t a balm to be smeared over our collective national wound.  And feeling concern over the sense that all the empathy is being sucked from this country-sized room should not feel at odds with the other most profound, fully justifiable response to the political events that have taken place over these last several tedious months — anger.

This is where a significant portion of the American electorate finds itself at present: a landscape awash with concern for those whose existence now faces an acute, visible threat, as well as anger toward the needless destruction of ideals of communal welfare sacrificed for the sake of what Maggie Nelson in The Art of Cruelty refers to as “the right not to help one another, [which displaces] all other forms of freedom, even those of the most transformative and profound variety.” It seems understandable that the experience of this concern and anger should calibrate us to the present moment, should bring our current societal context into conversation with our values and sense of humanity and, in the seemingly inevitable event that a profound discrepancy emerges, encourage action.

As Trump’s incendiary campaign talking points manifest as the disenfranchisement of minority populations, many progressives are involved in a burgeoning grassroots movement. This movement, though broad in its aims and still finding its political footing, represents an increased public awareness of the vigilance that will be required to prevent institutionalized rollbacks of civil liberties. It has also facilitated the emergence of a national dialogue concerning what we, as Americans, owe one another. And yet the criticism leveled against those speaking and acting out of empathy and anger against an agenda built upon disenfranchisement attributes to them a childish sense of individualism. Each act of resistance is met inevitably with cries against the “special snowflakes,” a new term for cartoon liberals too snobbish to concede a loss. The language is problematic not only because of the obvious discrepancy between solipsism and call for collective political action but because it levels belief in the sanctity of each individual against society as a whole. Language that seeks to bully by denying the fact that our world is built as a network of distinct, unique selves is language that diminishes subjectivity and creates the foundation of a platform built on objectification. It is a language that belongs to fascism.

We should be concerned by simplistic descriptions of national quick-fix solutions. We should be concerned by attempts to limit the expansive, dynamic rhetoric that has emerged from this election through arguments made that we should cede our individual voices, simply extend a hand across the aisle, and trust that our divisiveness will be healed by he-who-has-been-most-divisive. This is acquiescence peddled as unity, and it actively looks away from the fact that there is work to be done, and that we haven’t figured out what exactly that work is and how to achieve it.

To bring it back to the New York Times: the mini-series that aired on The Run Up was interesting in that it began as a good-faith effort to create empathic dialogue that quickly discovered the difficulty of its endeavor and sought to adjust its approach. It was perhaps never the case that anyone argued that one’s political beliefs could be altered significantly by being asked 19 questions by someone with whom they disagreed. Still, those 19 questions aimed to create a space for conversation where previously there had been none. And that space went through a mini-transformation throughout the course of “Dialogues,” in which its rules and dimensions shifted as its producers attempted to bring the format of the project closer to its aim.

If you read comments on any online forum, it soon becomes clear that we haven’t decided what our empathy should look like, how we should talk about it, or to whom we should extend it. Dialogue abounds weighing empathy against accountability, both within various progressive demographics, and between progressive and conservative voters. And though it can be a cyclical, infinite-seeming headache to try to engage in this sort of dialogue, I’m grateful for its openness, which serves as the foundation for new ideas and explorative methods of engaging in the world. The online conversations surrounding resistance are progressively leading us into a better understanding of effective discourse. They have allowed us to move collectively from the Safety Pin, a symbol of passivity that unconvincingly purported not to be about nothing, to the Women’s March on Washington.

In lieu of foresight into what the next four years will bring, it seems imperative that we maintain ownership of our own discourses; that we continue to create and engage in spaces that allow us to discover, as communities, the language to describe what is happening to us. We are witnessing the explosive unearthing of forcibly suppressed narratives and histories into mainstream politics. Where we go from here is not clear, and we should resist any ideology that purports that the way forward will be simple.

Also for you:

Laura Hooberman

  • Amanda Arena-Miller

    You are such an amazing writer. I could not agree more that this is a time when we need to express empathy for our fellow human beings. We should always strive to protect civil liberties and social welfare. The alternative is a selfishness that prevents one from seeing the beauty of the progress of all people.

  • Scott

    I happen to believe empathy can actually be a more useful tool for changing hearts and minds than anger. Listening to the perspective of another is not “acquiescence,” it’s a necessity for real communication and the democratic process. Americans are decreasingly incapable of doing this when contentious issues are involved. When the other side is not willing to do so, responding in a similarly hostile manner just perpetuates the problem at the heart of a troubled democracy.

Previous post

Tyrant, Demagogue, or Fascist

Next post

The False Premises of Alt-Right Ideology