Friday, April 9, 2010

Empathy, Obama, and Connecting across Differences

“Empathy [is] the act of understanding and being sensitive to the feelings and experiences of others. … Empathy is essential for any president… To be authentically empathetic, however, presidents must consider how policies affect all Americans.” Gary Bauer, Obama and the Politics of Empathy

Understanding Bauer’s Experience
After reading Bauer’s article, I want to extend another invitation for dialogue across the divide. I was struck by the depth of alienation from the current administration and President I see in his article. I want an opportunity to understand and to reach mutual trust about our care for each other’s well being. Is his main concern, in essence, a plea to have all voices matter, including those with whom the President disagrees? What else is important to him?

Understanding, Care, and Agreement
Empathy calls on us to open our hearts and imagination to others’ humanity. It’s easy to understand and show care for those similar to us. The challenge of empathy is precisely in the face of differences. How can we show care for others needs even when we say “no” to what they want? How can we understand and remain open and respectful even when we believe others’ positions are potentially harmful? How can we appreciate others’ suffering when we believe it’s caused by their own actions or misunderstanding? It seems that both Conservatives and Liberals have failed to step out of being themselves and to enter and understand another perspective.

Beyond understanding, conveying empathy to others in the face of disagreement makes the challenge of connecting across differences even more intense. For example, short of agreement with Bauer’s policy prescriptions, is there any way that Obama could convey to Bauer and others that their voices matter, and could affect the decisions he makes?

Coming Back to Essential Human Needs
In a country saddled with persistent core disagreements about most fundamental policy issues, connecting across differences seems essential for our continued functioning as a nation. What can we then do as common citizens, public figures, or the President, to cultivate and convey empathy?

My own hope rests on my experience that even in the most intense disagreements we share core needs, values, qualities, and aspirations that inform our opposing views. Here are two examples.

Bauer says: “Conservatives can be just as empathetic. But they believe that, in most cases, it’s not government’s role to be the primary dispenser of empathy.” What I read in this statement is care for people’s well-being mixed with a deep respect for individual freedom of choice. Although I disagree with Bauer’s view, I have no difficulty relating to these values, because I share them.

Bauer also says: “our children and grandchildren … will be saddled with paying for today’s unprecedented borrowing.” I am touched by our shared desire for the coming generations to be cared about, even though my worry about the next generations comes up in different contexts, not this one.

Can We Work Together?
Shifting attention to what matters most to each party to a debate can bridge seemingly insurmountable gaps. I dream of town hall meetings facilitated by skilled people. I want all participants express the core of what matters to them, and to hear each other across the divide. This is not a pipedream. Skilled individuals are available. Models of productive citizen deliberation exist and have been successful at finding policies that diverse groups with opposing views can embrace (see the Tao of Democracy, especially chapters 12 and 13). What would it take for the people of the United States of America to transform their town hall meetings from battleground to an opportunity to shape a shared future?
by Miki Kashtan