Let's Talk About Empathy
an article by Chris Fong Chew
Dear Asian Youth,
Something that was brought up again and again in the recent Democratic Convention was the word empathy. Something that our current president lacks. Something that our nation needs. The discussion about the word brought me back to 2016 in an interview with the then presidential candidate Bernie Sanders. In the interview with Barbara Walters, when asked what he would want to be known for in one word, Sanders responded with the word: compassion.
Bernie Sanders took the Democratic Party by surprise in 2016 when he led a grassroots campaign against an established Democratic politician, Hillary Clinton. While this arguably split the Democratic Party and led to Trump's win of the presidency, Bernie had shown what a growing number of people wanted: compassion, authenticity, and empathy.
The Politics of Empathy, as it's been called, are tricky waters to navigate, but it's something that has been lacking in our current government and a lot of its supporters. The modern-day Republican Party spearheaded by President Trump and several politicians that swear their unwavering loyalty to him thrive on divisive and dangerous rhetoric that seeks to make Americans fear each other.
In a time when many of us are coming to terms with the deeply-rooted racism in our society, empathy has also become a word that has been said time and time again. But what is empathy? And how can we use it to better ourselves and society?
Let's start by defining empathy. Colloquially, empathy is commonly analogized by the phrase “putting yourself in another person's shoes.” This phrase summarizes the idea of stepping in another person's shoes, by not only seeing a person's perspective, but imagining what it is like to be that person and to go through their experiences.
In a much longer definition, empathy is defined by the Merriam-Webster dictionary as “the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner.” In essence, empathy is the process of understanding a person’s experiences, being aware of their feelings based on those experiences and being sensitive to how those feelings and experiences affect their worldview.
Sympathy, another word which is often misinterpreted to be the same as empathy is defined by Merriam-Webster as “an affinity, association, or relationship between persons or things wherein whatever affects one similarly affects the other.” Sympathy is the ability to relate to an experience that is shared between two people. While this is important, sympathy relies on a collective experience that isn't always shared between two people; whereas empathy is developing an understanding of a person's experience even if you haven’t experienced the same event.
When we take a look at our country in recent months, certain events have revealed a great lack of empathy from the American people. While our country is reckoning with deep systemic racism that has seeped its way into every aspect of our society, a global pandemic, and a divisive leader who incites violence, a sense of empathy is needed now more than ever.
The COVID-19 pandemic has arguably been the greatest example of a lack of empathy in Americans. The pandemic brought our nation to its knees socially and economically, and the deep division within our nation was exposed in our disorderderly government response. While some governments shut down their states, others reopened, all while the federal government remained holistically inactive in creating a strong unified national response. This is where a lack of empathy and collective thinking was presented in our country. Government inaction left the protection of each other up to the people. Basic things such as wearing a mask, socially distancing, and going out for essential business were all disregarded. The politicization of masks in particular highlighted a lack of empathy within our society. Wearing a mask has proven to be effective in many countries, particularly in Asia, in limiting the spread of the virus over the past few months. However, we need the collective cooperation of everyone to not only protect ourselves, but also others.
When we see people flat out refusing to wear a mask, defying social distancing and safety regulations, and some states refusing to put mandates in place to require pandemic management, we see a huge lack of empathy from Americans and our leaders. Such a lack of empathy has led to the deaths of thousands of people over the past few months in the U.S.
The same lack of empathy can be seen in the rise of white supremacy and the emboldening of white supremacists with the election of President Trump. Since 2016, the number of domestic terrorism and hate crimes has hugely increased. From the Uniformed Crime Reporting Publications under the FBI, stats show a steady increase from 6,727 victims of hate crimes in 2014, to 7,173 in 2015; 7,615 in 2016; 8,828 in 2017; and 8,819 in 2018. About 60% of all hate crimes reported were perpetrated on a racial bias, with 15-20% of victims being targeted based on sexual-orientation or religion in their respective categories. Deepening racial tensions has been one of the main issues in recent months and a sense of empathy from white communities in particular has been demanded in deconstructing racism on all levels. However in doing this, we’ve also unveiled a major lack of empathy as movements such as the Black Lives Matter movement faced violence from police and counter-protests from white supremacist. Politicians, political commentators, news hosts, and many more were quick to denounce protestors as thugs and criminals, without even taking a look at the reasons behind the protest.
Sadly, we also see these same attitudes within different communities of color. While BIPOC communities share many collective experiences, we have not all been treated equally. Empathy is a key to bringing divided communities together since the collective experiences shared between the Asian community, the Black community, and the Hispanic community hugely differ from one another. While all our communities face different levels of racism and oppression, a sense of empathy is what is demanded in uniting together as BIPOC to face systemic racism and white supremacy. Yet we see a lot of anti-Black, anti-Asian, anti-Hispanic sentiments within each community. Our inability to reckon with our own personal traumas, and develop a sense of empathy for other communities has kept us divided and unable to collectively fight against the oppression we all face.
How do we develop a sense of empathy? How can we put ourselves in someone else's shoes? A New York Times article by Claire-Cain Miller dives into the subject starting with its root cause. Miller opens the article with the words, “More and more, we live in bubbles. Most of us are surrounded by people who look like us, vote like us, earn like us, spend money like us, have education like us and worship like us. The result is an empathy deficit, and it’s at the root of many of our biggest problems.” While we may pride ourselves in being a diverse country, we are still hugely divided among racial and socioeconomic lines. From redlining to ethnic enclaves, we have divided and separated ourselves to be with people who are similar to us. This is a natural human tendency to be drawn to what is familiar, and what we think is safe. But it's incredibly harmful in developing a sense of empathy.
Miller states, “...researchers have discovered that far from being an immutable trait, empathy can be developed. There are steps people can take to acknowledge their biases and to move beyond their own worldviews to try to understand those held by other people.” Empathy is something that can be developed and taught. Empathy is something we can learn, something we must learn.
Miller then continues on to give tips on how to develop a sense of empathy in our daily lives; some of which include:
Practicing Empathy: Talking to new people, reaching out to neighbors, coworkers, and people you don't know well is a good way to gain their perspectives on matters. This can also include getting involved in other communities, volunteering, or attending religious services at another place of worship.
Admitting Your Biases: By being honest with yourself, and checking your privilege, you’re addressing how your singular perspective and experiences aren’t the same as others, as well as acknowledging other people's perspectives and struggles.
Standing Up for People: Speaking up when you see something discriminatory or wrong. Amplifying the voices of others, and advocating for others without expectation of anything in return is a huge way to develop empathy.
Reading: Reading about the experience of other people, both fiction and non-fiction, allows for a better understanding of the human experience. Also, doing deeper research on other people's lives helps to develop a sense of empathy.
My personal journey to being more empathetic is something that has been and still is a struggle, yet incredibly fulfilling. While I still am learning and growing and doing my best to be more understanding and empathetic, I think listening and trying to understand others has been one of the biggest influences. Having parents who grew up working-class helped me to acknowledge my privileges that I had growing up. Having the opportunity to travel the world and live abroad, I was truly able to see how people live their lives in other countries. As a cisgender male, having friends that are female, LGBTQ+, and from all different ethnic backgrounds has helped me to understand different life experiences. Empathy is something that is grown from collectivism. Grown from an environment that is diverse in every aspect of life. Americans pride ourselves on our strong sense of individualism, and the ability to be oneself, yet this has gone to extremes in many cases. The fact that some people see empathy as a sign of weakness speaks volumes to the many issues that plague our nation today. But I don’t think that all is lost. In the words of Bernie Sanders, “We are one world and one people. And that belief leads me to the conclusion that we just cannot turn our back on human suffering.”
While empathy isn’t going to fix all our problems, it's the beginning of the search for a solution, the beginning of the push for change, for the better.
- Chris Fong Chew
Bernie Sanders. Facebook Watch, Bernie Sanders, 25 Jan. 2020, www.facebook.com/watch/?v=473144096694150.
Original Interview (Clip) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6AENKrNzTBI
Miller, Claire C. “How to Be More Empathetic.” The New York Times, The New York Times, www.nytimes.com/guides/year-of-living-better/how-to-be-more-empathetic.
UCR Federal Hate Crime Statistics and reports from the FBI: https://www.fbi.gov/services/cjis/ucr/publications
Cover Photo Source: Daniel Birch, uxdesign.cc