What Is Political Empathy?

Nick Shereikis
July 25, 2021

So often, we believe that emotional reactions prevent productive conversation. And there’s good reason for that — it’s no secret that our instinctual, fight or flight responses to events and information often cause uncomfortable and unfortunate social situations. I’m sure you yourself can remember at least one moment, recently or from longer ago, where you reacted irrationally to bad news or unexpected behavior.

But I’d like to gently push back on the notion that all civil discourse requires logical, rational displacement from passion. I don’t believe that’s realistic, nor healthy — political issues, in particular, are emotional issues, and they affect us each differently given our unique life experiences. If we decide that we must pretend we’re not invested in these issues to have civil discourse, we’ll never engage with one another.

When we talk about ‘political empathy,’ this is what we’re talking about. It’s an understanding that productive civic engagement doesn’t necessarily mean approaching difficult situations with neutrality, it means approaching them with compassion, recognizing that everything is broader and more consequential than words exchanged between two individuals.

“I think we should talk…about our empathy deficit,” President Barack Obama told Northwestern University graduates in a 2006 commencement address, “The ability to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes; to see the world through those who are different from us."

It’s a difficult concept. I won’t pretend it’s not. It requires a little bit of philosophical stoicism; that is, it forces you to interrogate your own predispositions and conceptions to discern what’s productive and what isn’t. It requires some emotional strategizing that isn’t always natural, but ultimately can be your guide to creating real and meaningful change in your life and community. When you take ‘winning’ off the table, when you focus more on your relationships than proving your counterpart wrong, magical things start to happen.

Of course, employing political empathy does not mean compromising your beliefs or values. It just means having a better conversation, driven by compassion rather than anger or fear — you are under no obligation to acquiesce to arguments or talking points you believe untrue, but you are under an obligation to read your opponent or partner charitably. Or, alternately, you can contextualize this strategy within our legal framework: treat everyone as innocent until proven guilty, beyond reasonable doubt.

If we buy into this concept of political empathy, arguments can bring us closer together, instead of driving us apart. We can change how we engage with one another, giving debate practically productive, even transformational meaning.

“As you go on in life, cultivating this quality of empathy will become harder, not easier,” President Obama told graduates. “There’s no community service requirement in the real world; no one forcing you to care. You’ll be free to live in neighborhoods with people who are exactly like yourself, and send your kids to the same schools, and narrow your concerns to what’s going on in your own little circle.”

It’s easy to shut people out. It’s easy to create echo chambers, self-satisfying bubbles of ideological agreement. But it’s our responsibility as both American and global citizens to do more. We need to put empathy first, and begin to reimagine our world as a place where we can all live safely and comfortably.

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