Political empathy

Political empathy

Demonizing your political opponents doesn’t change anyone’s mind, but empathy can.

Doug Muder
illustration of two opposing figures

© Richard Downs/theispot.com

© Richard Downs/theispot.com


In the summer of 2009 both my parents were in decline, so I spent much more time in my hometown than I had in many years. One Saturday afternoon I stole an hour to relax in my favorite local coffee shop, a converted bank across the street from the town square where Lincoln and Douglas had debated in 1858. Some kind of commotion was happening over there, but I ignored it.

Then I spotted Jeff, my best friend from grade school. He was grabbing a coffee to take with him to the event. “What was going on?” I wondered. And then our conversation became unexpectedly difficult. It was a rally for the brand new tea party, he told me, knowing I would disapprove. I did not comment, and we parted clumsily, without the usual promises to get together when we had more time. I finished my latte while staring at the bank’s high ceiling, imagining all the things I could have said and feeling happy with none of them.

Jeff and I never did agree on politics, all the way back to that Wednesday morning in second grade when I gloated over Lyndon Johnson’s landslide victory. (He paid me back when Nixon squeaked past Humphrey four years later.) But somehow none of that stopped us from playing basketball together or building snow forts or riding our bikes across the bridge (without our parents’ permission) to buy fireworks in Missouri. Even now, it doesn’t stop us from having dinner together when I find myself back in town.

But it does stop us from talking about national issues or any topics that might lead us to national issues. We just don’t know how.

Given time—which we are unlikely to have, because my parents have now died and my trips back home are shorter and less frequent—we might figure it out. Many politically opposed friends do. But every time two friends find a way to communicate respectfully about their political differences, it is their own accomplishment, an undoing of the habits of conflict taught by the national voices each of them listens to and admires.

What changes someone’s mind?

Many things about American politics are broken, but the problem that invades our closest relationships is our lack of a well-stocked toolbox for political dialogue. In its place we have an overabundance of rhetoric designed by combatants around a metaphor of war, well constructed to strike blows, score points, and leave our enemies fuming. We have become good at demonizing each other, misrepresenting each other’s ideas, and spinning facts to our own advantage. Sometimes we spin them so well that we fool ourselves, and end up living in a fantasy world. Every evening on television (and whenever you like on the Internet) you can be trained in the latest rhetoric, the better to stoke the outrage of your allies and humiliate your opponents.

If that’s what you want to do.

All over the country, though, there are people like me and Jeff who would rather not: colleagues at the office, cousins who see each other at holiday dinners, college buddies who reconnect through social media. Not wanting to paint or be painted in demonic colors, we learn to tread cautiously lest we stray onto one of those ice-covered hillsides that slope downward towards bitter conflict.

Democracy shouldn’t be like this. Those moments when long-parted paths merge and old friends compare their experiences—those should be our society’s most productive conversations, the moments when we map the elephant we have each been blindly examining.

Lately I have begun to fantasize about a different kind of discourse. What if, rather than learning to demonize people who hold different views, we learned how to picture them positively and empathize with them, even if we continued to believe they were wrong? If you think of politics as war this may sound like unilateral disarmament. But I wonder: How many people do the current tactics actually persuade anyway? When ordinary folks have been angered or humiliated, do they change their minds? Or do they go back to their partisan mentors to learn the counterarguments they should have used?

My own views don’t change much month to month, but they have evolved considerably over the decades. I grew up in the white working class, surrounded by people much like myself. My parents and their Lutheran church taught me the virtues of justice and compassion, but I also absorbed the assumptions of the unjust society around me. I didn’t hate people less fortunate than myself or revel in my superiority. But I saw others through the blurry lens of traditional stereotypes, which told me that the problems of women, blacks, gays, and other dissatisfied groups resulted from a combination of their own shortcomings and the immutable laws of nature.

I came to reject those views not because I lost arguments, but because I gained experience and grew in empathy. I remember, for example, the exact moment when I became committed to marriage equality. My wife and I went out to dinner with a close friend and a lesbian couple we didn’t know as well. Same-sex marriage was not even a proposal yet in that state, so it didn’t come up in our conversation. But the two women were so obviously good for each other—and their relationship so similar to ours—that I was never again able to believe they were doing something fundamentally different than we were.

I doubt I’d have changed any of my former views if everyone I met agreed with me, or if society had consented to stay the same until I was ready to move. But I didn’t change because someone beat down my defenses. The world was already changing without me, and somebody made a space for me to get on board.

Privileged distress

Hoping to promote that kind of space-making, last year I coined the term privileged distress on my political blog, The Weekly Sift. Privileged distress is a particularly annoying phenomenon that is apt to make justice advocates come out with all guns blazing: privileged people who claim they’re persecuted. From the outside, that claim is so outrageous that it can seem dishonest or even calculating. I wanted to present it in a way that might evoke a more compassionate response.

Privileged distress can happen like this: As society progresses towards justice, favored groups start losing some of their privileges. They still have unfair advantages over the rest of society, but those advantages begin to shrink.

If you belong to one of those groups but never noticed your unfair advantages, all you see is that you’re worse off. Society used to fit you like a glove, but no longer does. So you feel persecuted, even though you’re still privileged by any objective measure.

Once I identified the pattern I saw it everywhere: Christians imagine a “War on Christmas” because they can’t dominate the public square any more. When tax rates went up (after falling for a generation) rich people felt “punished.” Male employers believe they are losing “religious liberty” if they can’t deny contraception coverage to their female employees. In a 2011 study, whites saw anti-white bias as more prevalent than anti-black bias, and more recently, many saw George Zimmerman as the “real victim” in the fatal shooting of Trayvon Martin. A writer in the Wall Street Journalrecently characterized the campaign against sexual assault in the military as “a war on men” that “shows signs of becoming an effort to criminalize male sexuality.”

Christians, rich people, employers, whites, and men who commit sexual assault are so unfairly oppressed these days.

Given the recent momentum in gay rights, it’s not surprising that privileged distress is showing up in straights who feel their “right” to mistreat homosexuals slipping away: repealing “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was cast as an attack on the freedom of military chaplains (who apparently had never before needed to respect people they believed to be sinners). The Religious Liberty Amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act would protect straight soldiers’ rights to harass gay soldiers. The Supreme Court’s decision striking down the Defense of Marriage Act, according to former Senator Jim DeMint, “is denying dignity to the millions of Americans who, for moral or religious reasons, believe that gay marriage is wrong.”

Those positions can be so infuriating that it is tempting to unleash all the fire of demonization and humiliation in response. And maybe the partisans who invent such ideas deserve that treatment. But your Uncle Dave who repeats their rhetoric while he carves Thanksgiving turkey probably doesn’t. Those ideas appealed to him because they match his lived experience: suddenly the world has stopped echoing his favorite stereotypes and accommodating his habitual prejudices. Subjectively, that feels like persecution, particularly to someone who has never experienced real persecution.

What if, rather than denying the reality of Uncle Dave’s distress and skewering him with arguments learned from your own partisans, you sympathize but suggest considerations of scale? How do the sufferings of the people he identifies with balance against what victims suffered under previous arrangements? That fundamentalist baker who now has to put two grooms on the top of a wedding cake—his discomfort is genuine, but how does it compare with the experience of a committed gay couple forever denied the dignity of marriage?

Maybe, if the stars align just right, such a conversation could be a learning experience.

If honest expressions of discomfort are met with blasts of anger—when those experiencing privileged distress are denounced as bigots, haters, and oppressors—they can learn something else: that compassion is a one-way street and no one cares when they’re hurting; that “justice” issues are really us-against-them issues; and that the only people who will stand up for them are the Rush Limbaughs and the Jim DeMints.

When I was coining “privileged distress,” I knew it needed a poster child, a paradigmatic example that captured both the genuine distress of the experience and the cluelessness at its root. I settled on George Parker, the perfect 1950s TV father from the 1998 movie Pleasantville.

As the Ozzie-and-Harriet world of Pleasantville becomes infected with 1990s notions of wholeness and equality, George is one of the last people to catch on. The new realities don’t really hit him until (in a scene you can watch on YouTube) he comes home from work and pronounces the magic words, “Honey, I’m home.” Every other evening those words have conjured up a smiling wife, happy children, and dinner. But now the house is empty and silent but for a storm raging outside. Confused, he repeats the invocation, as if he must have said it wrong. He wanders through the house in bewilderment, looking for notes on tables or meals waiting in pots, then goes out into the rain and plaintively questions this strangely malfunctioning universe: “Where’s my dinner?”

What makes George a perfect example of privileged distress is that there is no malice in him. He never demanded a privileged position or forced the other characters into subservience. He just took the role society offered him and didn’t think too much about it. Even now, he doesn’t consciously want anybody to be unhappy on his account. He just wants dinner. Removed from its social context, there’s nothing wrong with wanting dinner. Who doesn’t want dinner? But it’s a question of scale. Weighed against his wife’s yearning to find authentic satisfaction in her life, George’s desire for dinner is a pretty small thing.

Maybe he could learn to see that. He was a good person by the old standards. Maybe he could learn to be a good person in this new world, too. It would be hard. He’d have to give up some privileges and examine his habits for implicit assumptions of superiority. He’d have to learn to see the world through the eyes of others rather than just assume that they will fill the roles he’s grown accustomed to. Early on, he would probably make a lot of mistakes and his former inferiors would correct him. It would be embarrassing.

Or he could decide that the old ways were right and these new ways are wrong. He could band together with other husbands and fathers to try and force their families back into the old patterns. What he once did in ignorance, he could now do in anger and self-righteousness.

If only someone could sit down with him, appreciate the discomfort of lacking dinner, and patiently explain all this. Expecting his wife to help him through his transition is too much. She has her own adjustments to make and years of damage to repair. But what if some formerly clueless Pleasantville father could play that role?

The point of privileged distress was not to have yet another label we could pin onto our opponents. Instead, I intended it to raise a challenge for people like me: What role can I play for the George Parkers in my life, who see their unacknowledged privileges slipping away? Can I provide that patient, persistent voice that sympathizes with their discomfort, but holds it in scale? Can I be the one who saves a seat on the train headed for the just society?

And what about those strangers who plague me with their hostile blog comments, or the friends-of-friends who write annoying Facebook posts? Can I squelch my urge to demonize them, and picture them instead as reformable George Parkers?

I offer privileged distress not as a Swiss Army knife to handle every situation, but as a sample of the kinds of tools a new political toolbox might hold, in hopes of inspiring other toolmakers. Rather than prefabricated reasons to dismiss and vilify those we would like to change, we might enter the room with prefabricated reasons to empathize and understand. Mastering those tools might give us confidence to start and sustain the kinds of dialogue that change people rather than just defeat them.

If I had more tools and more confidence in them, maybe Jeff and I could just talk freely and see what came up. “Why the tea party?” I might ask, hoping (rather than dreading) that the conversation might go somewhere that surprised me.