Most people would agree that empathy is a good thing — the ability to see things from another point of view, to put yourself in another’s shoes, to listen and understand. But in this season of discontent, even empathy has become a question of controversy.
Students in Montpelier, Burlington and elsewhere have raised the Black Lives Matter flag as a way of declaring the importance of understanding the unique perils and challenges faced by African-Americans. Yet this gesture has provoked resistance, as if exercising compassion toward someone else diminishes oneself.
Meanwhile, students in Florida and elsewhere are crying out for empathy. We're being slaughtered by people with guns, they plead. Please understand — please have empathy — and act to curb gun violence.
But their message is dismissed by gun lovers as a partisan ploy.
In response to demands for empathy, we get grudging replies: What about me, my problems, my needs? And so the whole idea of empathy breaks down along frustrating partisan lines.
Liberals say we need to show compassion to black communities suffering from police violence and toward immigrants looking to improve their lives. Conservatives point to the grievances and needs of native-born Americans or workers left behind.
Liberals say that easy access to guns is feeding an ongoing bloodbath unique in the world. Conservatives defend their right to own guns for hunting, target shooting, protection.
So of course we must consider the needs of the white working class — not their biases, but their actual needs, their wages, their opportunities, their right to organize and be heard. And we must listen to gun owners and respect the hunting culture and acknowledge the appeal of firearms for millions of people.
Likewise, we must really hear a member of the Vermont House who is African-American when she admits that she was appalled by the dismissive, disrespectful comments of some fellow legislators toward the Black Lives Matter movement.
Because empathy should not be the sole province of any one group. It’s a matter of respect. What it requires is the strength of spirit to look beyond oneself or one’s own group, to actually listen.
It’s a matter of simple morality, which is neither liberal nor conservative - and which points to questions larger than “What about me?”
It asks, “How are you?” and “What about us?”