[COMMENTARY] America Needs Empathy—Not Divisiveness– In Its Politics
Empathy is the ability to put oneself in another person’s shoes and to let that person know of your genuine understanding of their plight.
As a clinical psychologist, I know that empathy is the quality that is at the core of a successful relationship. With empathy, each person feels heard, understood, and valued. Without it, misunderstandings and anger between people just seem to linger and fester.
Empathy needs to play a powerful role in our politics as well.
America is so divided now that we have lost our willingness to understand, communicate with, and compromise with those who have opposing political views. Empathy for one another has been squelched. The result is that the vast majority of Americans do not think about the views or plights of others. Many of us exist in echo chambers where the same narrow narrative is played over and over again. We do not think outside ourselves. We do not consider the ideas, beliefs, and feelings of others. We have become abrasive, antagonistic, and entrenched in our own belief system. Instead of stemming the tide of division, our lack of empathy serves to exacerbate our differences and to undermine any desire for change.
But here is the truth: Empathy is what is needed to bind us together in our democratic society. No matter our political views, people just want to feel heard, understood, and valued. No one wants to be ignored. No one wants to be dismissed. Empathy leads to an appreciation of others. And appreciation can morph into greater levels of acceptance.
Empathy helps people feel positive and optimistic about the future. Empathy helps people feel motivated and energized to take care of themselves. Empathy helps people feel interested in aiding others. And empathy helps people feel a collective sense of cohesiveness and unity.
Empathy is the glue that holds our society together. And it can be taught. Political leaders, clergy, teachers, CEOs, parents, police officers, and others must be role models of empathy for us and for our children.
Teaching empathy at home, in schools, and in the workplace must be a priority. Empathy is a skill that can be fostered and nurtured. It can become the defining template for each of us in our daily lives going forward.
There are six skills to learn in empathy: (1) active listening, (2) emotional literacy, (3) perspective taking, (4) moral imagination, (5) practicing kindness, and (6) collaboration.
Our president and other political leaders take an oath to serve and protect the people. Aside from specific policy decisions, we long for our leaders to have, and to show empathy. This is especially true at times of crisis (our pandemic) and when our country is in turmoil due to divisiveness. Empathy is the answer to our existential challenges. Our leaders must have it. It cannot be absent or faked.
The media has a responsibility in advancing the public’s well-being as well. Right-wing media outlets—like Fox News, Newsmax, and OAN—promote false and divisive narratives on a regular basis. Facebook is a social media platform that allows hateful and even violent rhetoric to exist. MSNBC and CNN promote liberal agendas on some of their shows. In my opinion, none of these media entities promote empathy. In fact, they do everything in their power to undermine healthy and unity-promoting understanding. It is time for that to change.
Let us value the positive and effective role that empathy can play in our America. Empathy is the key to solving crises, repairing misunderstood relationships, and reuniting factions of society.
Empathy will not increase polarization if it is done correctly. Understanding people with opposite views are far different from gravitating to people with similar views. Only the former is true empathy.
Empathy is what binds us together. It can be the crucial element now as we grapple with our national divisiveness and entrenchment.
Let us talk the language of empathy rather than the pejoratives of hostility. We have the power to make it happen.
About the author:
Alan D. Blotcky, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist in private practice in Birmingham, Alabama. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.