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The Empathy Dilemma

How to move from discord to understanding.

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Coming to understanding takes time and empathy…

I get it. White males appear to have ruined most things in this great nation of ours. They greedily hold on to positions of power in local and national government, they manipulate financial systems to exclude the participation of minorities, and they blithely exist in a society that inherently supports them, but they are shocked when things don’t work out for them. It is conveniently easy to blame them as a group for current racial divides, get mad at them for social struggles and simply dismiss them from the solution. A carte blanche write off of a substantial portion of the US population as part of the problem.

I also know that there are whole groups of people that believe, with valid reasons, the system in which they live is so stacked against them, that they have no choice but to overthrow the current regime. “Revolutionary change means the seizure of all that is held by the 1 percent, and the transference of these holdings into the hands of the remaining 99 percent. If the 1 percent are simply replaced by another 1 percent, revolutionary change has not taken place.” (George L. Jackson, Blood in My Eye (1971) p. 9).

How do you get these people with opposing views to talk and work with the people that they believe are the problem? More often than not, people simply will not engage in a discussion with those who do not share their ideology. They choose to remain within their comfort zone and not breach the divide. Obviously, I think that is not the right tact…

Change without resonance in the mind of both the party pushing the change and the party receiving the change, will only result in more discord and disharmony. In understanding how people change their mind, we are starting to realize that true change is incremental. Mainly because the knowledge a person receives as they learn foundational lessons during childhood — these leave residue, they leaves preconceived notions that resist modification. Why? Because the person who’s viewpoint is attacked from the outside will believe that their views are being exposed as “wrong” but this doesn’t jive with people and opinions they see on an everyday basis. Think of it like this: If I live in a culture that believes stones hold mystical powers and someone outside the community says they don’t (think of the plot of Smallfoot!), everyone around me thinks that stones have powers. If I don’t — I’m in the out group and not will the group. James Clear notes, “We don’t always believe things because they are correct. Sometimes we believe things because they make us look good to the people we care about.

This flows well into the central point of the research by Kristin Laurin of the University of British Columbia, people will rationalize their opinions to simply make it easier to go about their day in an orderly fashion (see the BBC Future article here). If you are living in a world where your view doesn’t represent reality, it is hard to operate in a cohesive fashion (i.e., if you believe police are violent but expect them to support your general welfare). This means that the goal of radical change should not be the quick transition of one reality to another, but the slow modification of one reality for another. Michelle Obama noted this well in Becoming— “It was possible, I knew, to live on two planes at once — to have one’s feet planted in reality but pointed in the direction of progress.”

This relationship building process was refreshed in my mind when I read about an effort that matched newly released inmates with individuals with rooms to spare — a program called Impact Justice. “We started this thinking we were building a housing project,” says Impact Justice president Alex Busansky. “What we ended up building was a relationship program.” And a relationship building program is exactly what we need to help heal some of the racial divides that threaten to pull us apart. Reasons to be Cheerful founder, David Bryne did a whole series called “We are not Divided?” whereby he challenged the idea that we are becoming more segregated each day. One of the main points was that by understanding how someone got somewhere, you can begin to change how you thought about that situation — your life existence changing because to continue to think about a subject in a certain way was now antithetical to how you operated on a day to day basis

I’ll admit, this is not an easy solution or even a fun proposed solution. Spending time and energy talking to people that disagree with us can be vexing and frustrating — especially if we need to be empathic while doing so. However, in order to build a trusting relationship that moves ideas and opinions, we must get there — because if people don’t feel safe (i.e., if they are afraid they are going to be replaced), they won’t share any meaningful thoughts — only giving reinforced arguments meant to comfort themselves. In order to help create these conversations and communication, there are 3 conditions, which together, are necessary to form a safe environment where the person feels comfortable enough to speak openly without the fear of judgement.

– Acceptance — even though the other person’s views may be different to ours, it is essential that we respect and accept them. We should be understanding of the other’s experiences, regardless of our own.

– Genuineness — it is important that your body language matches what you say in order to show the speaker that what you say is genuine.

– Empathy — try to really understand and hear what the other person is saying. Imagine yourself in their position in order to truly feel what they are feeling.

I think Emmanuel Acho summarized it best, in referring to racial unrest regarding Black Lives Matter, in a recent podcast interview with Dax Shepard… “…the problem is there is a communication barrier. Black people are saying something and white people aren’t understanding it and white people are saying something and black people aren’t understanding it.” His point was in the Black Lives Matter vs Blue Lives Matter debate, the communication base language is broken. There are cries of systemic racism, oppression on one side and a failure to understand what those even mean on the other — like a code programmer explaining how to repair a website’s code to someone who hasn’t even opened a computer before. It takes getting people together to solve this. As they said in that same interview — Proximity breeds care and distance breeds fear. It takes you being willing to speak with someone you don’t normally see or interact with.

Proximity breeds care and distance breeds fear.

Emmanuel Acho

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