Empathy is key – not endorsement

via Bridge Builders

I recently watched this 10 min TED talk by Dylan Marron and it really stuck with me.

One of the things Dylan says that resonated deeply with me was this (which I also GIF’d up for your viewing pleasure):

“Sometimes, the most subversive thing you could do was to actually speak with the people you disagreed with, and not simply at them.”

One of the reasons that really compelled me to create Bridge Builders was that I felt there were two major components that were commonly missing when it came to opposing viewpoints a sense of empathy for other human beings, and the ability to carry on a conversation with someone you may vehemently disagree with. When our beliefs distill into strong emotions, of which may end up carrying us away, it’s often much too easy to allow for the emotions to wash over us and deny us of critical thinking.

What seems to be happening most often online and even in meatspace are shouting matches, and unfortunately not reasonable discourse. Discourse and critical thinking tends to require us to hold the potential of more than one perspective at the same time, which reminds me of this quote:

The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.

– F. Scott Fitzgerald

I don’t believe this just to be the test of intelligence, but a sense of discipline that one can practice to control, and to hold the reins of our lizard brain emotions for at least a few seconds because there is a deeper belief that as human beings, we all have more in common than what we believe divides us.

Dylan Marron speaks further about the role of empathy (emphasis mine):

And empathy, it turns out, is a key ingredient in getting these conversations off the ground, but it can feel very vulnerable to be empathizing with someone you profoundly disagree with. So I established a helpful mantra for myself. Empathy is not endorsement. Empathizing with someone you profoundly disagree with does not suddenly compromise your own deeply held beliefs and endorse theirs. Empathizing with someone who, for example, believes that being gay is a sin doesn’t mean that I’m suddenly going to drop everything, pack my bags and grab my one-way ticket to hell, right? It just means that I’m acknowledging the humanity of someone who was raised to think very differently from me.

I also want to be super clear about something. This is not a prescription for activism. I understand that some people don’t feel safe talking to their detractors and others feel so marginalized that they justifiably don’t feel that they have any empathy to give. I totally get that. This is just what I feel well-suited to do.

My objective for gathering well-intentioned folks together to practice and learn in Bridge Builders is to generate a sense of discipline that comes from a core essence of empathy, and the belief that one can affect change. We all have to learn to incorporate multiple viewpoints and perspectives to truly champion diversity; and I believe many of us have a lot more capacity to do good than to shy away from the work that needs to be done to help support a culture of representation and inclusion.

To go deeper into the root of where empathy lies is a concept in psychology called the Theory of Mind. As a human being surrounded by other humans, the commonly adopted worldview is that other people have their own desires, objectives, domain of knowledge, experiences, etc. This is such a fundamental assumption about the world that in reality, it’s sometimes easy to forget that we have the ability, of which we sometimes just don’t exercise enough, to imagine the richness and depth of what another person’s narrative and history has been to lead them to come to certain conclusions about the world.

I believe there is no simpler way to avoid hard thinking about what or whom you don’t know but by demonizing or dehumanizing groups. It’s much harder to give someone the benefit of the doubt or some emotional buffer when you may feel what they are doing or saying is harmful.

But we must remember, what is the point of being antagonistic toward someone which may result in further polarization of perspective? It’s self-serving to our own emotions, but not what is required for positive change. It seems plain to me that in this day and age of echo chambers and little understanding of what are facts vs opinions, actions and statements that veer too far toward the extreme tend not to be ones that have been too critically examined. And if I am not the one to make the necessary and explicit statement to re-examine such a perspective, I do the world a disservice by not speaking up against it. So here we exist, to say what needs to be said, because not enough people are doing so.