How do you teach it? You can’t. You can only model it.
It’s easiest to feel empathy with the clown. First off, we know he’s there to entertain us. His cigarettes fall out of the pack, he tries to pick them up and his hat falls off. He makes to fetch his hat and steps on his broom, which whacks him. No moral judgments to be made: the clown is our frustration, purified.
Not so easy to find connection with the ranting demagogue. Yet I feel the need is profound to burrow within both him and his worshippers. Here, understanding is not approval, nor is empathy the same as sympathy. The ART OF WAR emphasizes the need for “empathy” with the enemy as a needed element to defeat him: what does he truly want, what are the weaknesses he knows, what’s it like to be inside his head?
It’s possible to be too empathetic. In high school I went through agonies before calling a girl for a date, and I don’t think it was for fear of rejection: I’ve certainly had bad reviews and hundreds of rejections of my plays and novels, but I still keep on with my mother’s blind faith in my intrinsic worth. It was mainly because I dreaded pulling the girl off the toilet or of forcing her to come up with a polite excuse to say no. That did no one any good.
But I find myself increasingly reluctant to enter into discussions on political issues because—increasingly—I find myself differing with progressive friends not on values but on tactics. Specifically, empathy with the other side.
What does that mean? Certainly it doesn’t mean compromise: the matador doesn’t compromise with the bull. But he has to understand the bull, not to ascribe motives like He doesn’t like Latinos. If the main motive of the anti-abortion movement is To control women, why does a recent survey show 43% of women are anti-abortion? Perhaps because they’ve been brainwashed by the patriarchy, but how likely is changing any minds by asserting they’ve been brainwashed? The issues on curriculum and book censorship elicit the most outlandish actions of school boards and state legislatures, but I see little empathy expressed from progressives to the deep concerns of parents trying to cope with raising their kids in a culture that’s changing with every tweet. Instead, we expend vast energies castigating the ignorant knuckle-draggers.
The gay rights movement perhaps began with Stonewall, but it would have gone nowhere (IMHO) until the AIDS epidemic forced an enormous coming-out that connected the issue with people that people knew—friends and relatives. We’re tribal creatures, all, and abstract arguments about human rights, denigration of opponents’ intelligence, crowds screaming in the streets, or accusations of guilt don’t go very far in actually changing minds. Not, at least, without the human connection—the story of the Philadelphia mom working fulltime to support her three kids, putting a pot on the dining table to catch the sewage dripping from the pipes upstairs. There’s a billion of those stories, and they need to get told and told and told.