On Empathy and Elections

My daughter, who is 11, sent me a text message the other day. It emphatically asked if I was voting for Bernie. As it was the day of the Republican primary, I explained the process. We then exchanged some hashtags and funny Bernie memes, and I assumed that was that.

But her political discussions haven’t disappeared, much to my surprise. Yesterday she sent me this thing she made:

 Courtesy of my 11-year-old. I didn't quite understand the significance of the train.

Courtesy of my 11-year-old. I didn't quite understand the significance of the train.

 

 

I like that she’s taking an interest in politics (and racism and feminism), but I’m aware of the nature of her political beliefs: mostly unsubstantiated, largely based on popular opinion. She’s a few presidential elections away from even being able to cast a vote in any candidate’s favor.

 

I kind of remember politics in my youth. I remember being very opinionated about presidential elections I couldn’t be a part of. I remember, too, a government class or something where we were lined up according to our political leanings and I was the one at the end—the most liberal in my mostly religious, very Republican class. But politics wasn’t something I openly talked about in social circles or with family, so learning about the process came from school, but the actual climate is something I clumsily sort of picked up along the way.

I didn’t vote for a long time after I was legally able. Part of the reason was anxiety—I didn’t know how to, and it seemed daunting. Part of the reason was an understanding that I couldn’t make a difference. My beliefs and politics have always seemed different from most people I knew, and definitely outside the norm of my “red” state. (Although, in honesty, I also lived in a “blue state” for 5 years of my adulthood, so that last part is pretty much a cop out.)

 

I mostly stay out of political conversations, particularly online. I don’t often feel informed enough to withstand a debate, I hate confrontation, and I feel very passionate about my beliefs and opinions, so I know myself well enough to know politics is just not something I can effectively argue.

I see that many of the people I know share similar beliefs, so I wonder at my ability to reach anyone with anything I might say. I don’t see anyone with the kind of problematic issues that the media shows me—the blatant racism, the violence, etc. When I’ve heard anyone I know talk about their beliefs when they don’t agree with mine, I’ve realized that they are operating under different assumptions than the opposing side might think. This is not to detract from the actual issues out there: obviously there is a significant number of people who are doing/believing the very shitty things we think they are.

I want to talk about empathy and elections. I want to explain that if we took the time to understand where the other side is coming from, we might be better able to educate each other and ultimately make a difference. And I believe that. But there is also so much at play. There are systemic issues, and a broken system, and long-standing problems like racism and colonialism. There are overarching issues of oppression, inequality, and deception. And the thing is, a lot of Americans don’t understand this. The important conversations that are at work online and in person are not making their way to major media outlets. We can discuss the reasons behind that all day, but the fact of the matter is they aren’t going to be discussed in any depth on major media any time soon.

So what does this all mean? I honestly don’t know. One the one hand, I don’t believe anything I say or share online is going to make much of a difference. On the other hand, I see how misguided/misinformed/apathetic so many people are, and I feel compelled to say something.

And then there’s another factor, one that I fundamentally believe in, but one that I don’t see changing anywhere in the near future. That factor has to do with the individual.

So many of the conversations about politics and the state of the nation and the problems we’re facing do a lot of finger pointing. Very few groups, parties, or individuals talk about their own complicity in any of the most pressing matters. This is a trend I’ve seen all over the place outside of politics. When a mass shooting happens, for instance, the nation is in an uproar (for a minute, anyway). Guns are the problem, or mental health, or terrorism, or whatever the loudest voices say is to blame. Do we ever stop and assess ourselves, the way the culture in its entirety might contribute to ongoing violence? We don’t, because it’s much easier to shift the blame elsewhere. It’s much easier to vilify circumstances beyond our control. And I understand this, I really do. The world is a scary place, and the only things we know for certain are ourselves, the things we do or do not do, the beliefs we have or disagree with, the ways that we don’t feel we contribute to something horrendous. 

 

The politicizing my daughter does isn’t really all that different from how many people gather their own politics. We are often swayed by the ambiance of popular opinion, especially if we spend time online or watching the news, and especially if we are mostly disinterested or bewildered to begin with. We can urge people to vote all we want, but if there isn’t anything substantial behind the vote, what are we asking of people? We’ve bought into the two party system for a long, long time, and the major issues that cause people to side with one party over another are deeply rooted and grounded in fundamentals that cannot be changed with pleas or statistics or progressive news articles. 

My radical proposal is that we focus on ourselves. That’s it. I think we should do more work of looking at ourselves and how we operate in the world. I realize that many people are already doing this, but I still think it’s worth saying. What would happen if everyone quit pointing fingers and examined themselves with humility and curiosity? What might come of a movement of individuals who openly acknowledge their faults and pledge to better themselves and do whatever they could to make a positive difference in the world? What if we acted with empathy instead of reacted with anger and dismissal? I would venture to guess that we might start seeing the world differently. We might find ourselves looking for information that could inform our important decisions, rather than be swayed by giant abstractions and shiny promises. We might start to consider how every political decision we make has larger implications on more people than just ourselves.

There’s something very wrong when a culture becomes so polarized and the two sides are arguing for vastly different ways of looking at the world. People are angry. People are fed up. The anger is catching, and the anger starts to look different when put into a political context. I ask myself, what am I doing to contribute to this anger? The answer I find is that I’m asking the wrong question. I should be looking at what I’m not doing.

I still don’t believe my speaking up will make much of a difference, at least not right now. But I have two children. I have one vote. I have a compulsion to push for kindness and empathy. There are a lot of things that I can do, and educating myself, encouraging my children to think for themselves and learn for themselves, and promoting what I love are just a few of the things that I am able to do right now.

The world—and the United States—seem scary right now, but in reality, issues we’ve largely ignored for a long, long time are simply coming to light. The things we’re frightened of aren’t new. Racism is not new. Anger is not new. Inequality is not new. What is new is the way we’re talking about it. There is a lot of potential to make an impact right now, and I suggest we look at how we can do that—and I suggest we start with ourselves.