America is Sick, and Empathy is the Cure
I think it’s safe to say the United States has never been more partisan or polarized. There is so much fuel being poured on the already towering fires of fear and pain raging on opposite sides of the social and political spectrum that it’s been nearly impossible to dampen them both long enough for people to gather around them and engage in compassionate, constructive conversation. Debates and entire campaigns have devolved into contests decided by which candidate’s reputation suffers the least damage at the hand of their opponents. Thanks in part to social media, rather than processes of evaluation for voters, political races have become marketing campaigns that see hopeful government officials packaged as products for mass consumption. By any means necessary, whoever gets the most people to buy their brand wins the ability to influence our nation’s DNA and change the course that it’s on to their will.
It seems to me that our democracy’s two-party system has taken the biggest hit; with Republicans synonymized with conservatism, Democrats equated with progressiveness, and free-thinking moderates on both sides expected (and pressured) to toe their party lines. Republicans want to protect the greatest country on Earth from being torn down by the foreign, the freeloading, and the unreasonably burdensome whom might otherwise strain its economy and threaten its security, while building on proven and traditional economic practices. Democrats want to realize a vision for America that validates it as a truly great country for people who happen not to be rich, white, straight, cisgender men, while expanding the nation’s founding principles to acknowledge modern day values.
With such noble causes summarizing each party’s mission it’s no wonder there’s no healthy dialogue anymore. Once that ‘R’ or ‘D’ flashes on the screen next to a person’s name most people’s minds go straight to “ally” or “enemy,” and by then they’ve already decided about that individual’s credibility and deservingness to be heard with an open mind.
When is that not the case, though? Is there any forum left where well-meaning people who strongly support one party are willing to listen—truly listen—to someone who sees things differently, and possibly change their views? I’ll be honest, until recently I wasn’t sure, and more pertinently I had almost convinced myself the slim odds weren’t worth the immense effort and emotional strain. I had become so deflated by the fear and hate that seemed to be taking over my country that I saw myself becoming discouraged, withdrawn and apathetic.
Many of my family members and their closest friends are stark conservatives who consistently vote Republican down the line without a second thought. In the past that hasn’t always been such a statement of character to moderates or voters more likely to lean Democrat. But with this perceived consolidation of definitions on the political stage—conservative equaling Republican equaling the Trump administration equaling proudly anti-humanitarian policies like the criminalization of immigrants, internment of children and comprehensive erasure of trans people—it became hard to separate a person I knew would be voting for a Trump supporter from someone who felt people like me didn’t deserve a place in the world.
And it’s not just me as a trans woman who wouldn’t be crazy for feeling that way. How many people whose race, citizenship status, sexual orientation, birth sex, gender identity or priorities differ from those of our current president’s has he or his administration stuck their neck out for? Those people aren’t political opponents of the Republican party—they’re refugees from their own government’s ideals, and in most cases they’re fighting for their right to exist. With that in mind it’s not hard to see why things have devolved so severely: shock, that a country often represented by a statue named after Liberty itself would appoint and continue to support leadership focused on rescinding just that. Shock, and survival instinct. When survival is a factor, enemies abound.
But regardless of the validity of anyone’s fear and opposition, when people start to unfairly and inaccurately roll up all those labels—conservative, Republican, far-righter, Trump supporter, racist, xenophobe, transphobe, etc.—into one and unilaterally apply them all to any person who may in truth be described by one or even fewer, they turn them into mortal enemies. How quickly then do we forget that the divide between people we place in such amalgamated categories of our ego’s fabrication and us isn’t in most cases one of humanity, just perspective. I observed this first hand the day I started writing this piece. I spent the afternoon with about a dozen and a half people from the one percent, about half of whom I’m confident will at least be voting primarily for Republican candidates in the midterms if not Trump himself for reelection in 2020. Beyond their political stance, these were family people; a mix of Christians, Catholics, and Jews; philanthropists, donors and businesspeople; volunteers and social workers; people I knew to have big hearts and show it in big ways.
For almost all of them, it was the first time they had seen me since I came out as transgender in May of this year. What an impact looking someone in the eye can have.
I can’t speak to how many from this group were previously transgender rights supporters or possibly even trans allies, but I can tell you now, you sexy things you (I’ve had some wine), that there are at least twenty wealthy white people who after today would draw the line for their support of the Republican party and Donald Trump at their pursuance of his desire to see trans people eliminated.
I know what you’re thinking. No, I didn’t politically school them. I didn’t motivational-speaker them into submission. I didn’t threaten, coerce or incentivize them. I seriously doubt any of those things would have even been possible with this group. We just talked about me, as a human being going through something significant, at their prompt. Most (but not all) of them had never known a trans person before, let alone had one relatively close to them in their lives. This is true for tons of people, by the way. They knew I had come out and was transitioning, but to be fair I was sort of aiming for that when I launched a website around it.
But now there I was in front of them, visually a completely different human, but someone they knew was at least based on a person they had been close to. They were interested, and why wouldn’t they be? I’m still objectively fascinated by the experience. So they asked questions and I happily answered. By the end of our time together I brought up our president’s leaked memo stating his desire to eradicate trans people by manipulating language and logic.
“What?? No way,” was the (paraphrased) response of outrage and disbelief I got. That was reliably followed by something along the lines of, “It’ll never happen.” But it wasn’t said the way you’re probably reading it. There was no skepticism. No dismissal. It was a protest. They were offended. They opposed the idea. “Nobody with a heart would ever let that bullshit happen,” one of them said albeit with several more expletives than I chose to repeat. It was beautiful to see, and I noticed that I was not only relieved, I was a bit surprised, too.
It was in that moment that I realized something big: my knowing that a person was likely to support Republican candidates had led me to unfairly judge them as lacking empathy. I had fallen victim to the same indoctrinating, polarizing effects of the system I was convinced I had been seeing clearly for the malfunctioning, destructive machine it had become. Based on their political affiliations and without having first discussed the topic with them in a compassionate, genuine, and mutually respectful way, I had allowed fear and emotion to corrupt my mental image of people I consider loved ones and group them in with monsters; representatives of “the other side;” ‘Profit-Over-People’ choosers; my enemy.
That’s something so many of us are guilty of doing to millions of Americans we’ve never met before who we assume oppose our every ideal based on a single association. We dehumanize them and in an instant cut the cord on even the possibility for compromise and mutual progress.
Yes, my family friends had been blissfully ignorant about this particular topic, but talking warmly with someone they knew and cared about for an hour seemed to very powerfully open their eyes to at least one very real and very threatening complication of their affiliation. It may have even affected that affiliation for the future. I had been cynical and unfairly judgmental, but sharing my experiences and concerns in a loving forum with people on “the other side” of this political battleground we’ve allowed our beloved democracy to devolve into recalibrated my perspective. It gave me back true objectivity and I dare say even a bit of optimism.
Because the frame of the conversation wasn’t combative or even truly political, in that moment everyone present saw life from each other’s shoes. I saw people who, yes, were conservative and Republican and maybe even Trump supporters. But I no longer unfairly saw advocates of anti-humanitarian policies. Because those aren’t all the same things.
I hope—and will allow myself the confidence of believing—that the next time they see or read about a radical conservative politician trying to justify erasing trans people from legal existence they won’t see a faceless sub-human they could never understand who places an unnecessary burden on society. I believe they’ll see me. And that proximity, that relatability, that empathy will matter.
But what about everyone else intentionally or collaterally in the crosshairs of political agenda? What about refugees scared for their lives fleeing the murderous regimes of their birth countries? What about children ripped from their mothers’ arms and locked away by government agents in sterile facilities run like prisons? What about minorities who face life-threatening discrimination in the workplace, in their neighborhoods, and by the police? Or people in poverty and victims of devastating misfortune who are repeatedly stepped on by a society that encourages the strong to use the weak and systemically delivers the most wealth and support to those who need it the least?
I wonder what would happen if, instead of being faceless, those groups were represented by a human being—a real loved one with an unfamiliar but relatable story—in the lives of people who presently support policies or candidates who threaten their safety or prosperity. What would happen if those groups had the opportunity I had: to sit down in a safe space and share in their humanity with others who maybe are just missing the connection needed to feel the pain rippling out from their words and actions? I don’t think my experience eliciting outrage from a house full of wealthy, white, cisgender conservatives over their own party’s proposal to strip trans people of their rights would be unique.
So let’s take a step back and widen our scope. If every conservative/Republican and progressive/Democrat envisioned that the political opponent on the other side of the table was a loved one, and that the goal of a given political conversation wasn’t to sell their party’s ideals, but simply to understand each other as people with no ulterior motives, how would that look? If we approached discussions, debates, and even campaigns from a human standpoint—from a place of compassion, curiosity and genuine interest in one another’s experiences and values, what would happen to us and to our country?
I’m just a flawed human being whose passions and emotions sometimes get the better of her, but my guess is we’d start to heal.