Empathy and Respect

In the wake of the inauguration of President Trump, I have found myself reflecting in the state of political discourse and engagement in the US, and perhaps by extrapolation, through out the world.  That reflection has lead me to a singular conclusion: we are failing.

Let me be clear.  I’m not on the bandwagon of “America is a failing nation, just look at our exporting of jobs/ increase of social ills/ widening income gap between the super rich and the middle class,” etc. No, I think we are failing in that we seem to have lost our ability to engage civilly around ideas, contradictory positions and mutual values.

Civil engagement, to me, has always meant that the issue was forefront, that the outcomes of action or the consequences of inaction were central to the discussion.  Civil engagement meant that the personal characteristics of the individual putting forth an idea were set aside so that the merits of the ideas could be discussed and debated.  In our day, this seems more of will o’the wisp of whimsy than a standard to be pursued and protected.

The latest political cycle here in the US certainly sems to show just how far we are from this goal, and I’m not talking about the sound bites from the major candidates in their various races.  No, I am referring to the way that we, the people, are using social media, particularly facebook, to belittle, demonize and dehumanize any and all who hold opinions contrary to our own.  Further, it is becoming increasingly clear that this behavior is not limited to a single party or special interest group.  This behavior seems to be much more wide spread, and name calling and vitriol seem to have become acceptable replacements for civil dialogue.

Please don’t misunderstand.  I am well aware that mud slinging has always shown up in politics for as long as people have run for office.  However, it seems in recent years that it has been elevated to the primary tool of politics rather than an unfortunate aspect of politics, utilized only when one has reached a point when an impasse has been reached.

There was a time, and not so long ago, when mutual values drove politial action.  From our founding fathers attempting to wrangle a clear defining line between the role of government and the role of the individual to our modern era where energy and tax policy drove heated discussions of economics, the issues seemed to remain centered around the good of the people of the country.  And while spin doctors and community organizers might be interested in defining them in the narrowest of terms, cooler heads in times past encouraged us to think of our larger identities, not as members of political parties, but as participants in a process of governing. And, at least in my eyes, it is impossible to see clearly on an issue if the only thing we hear are words that reinforce our own biases and self-serving conclusions.

After listening to the President’s speech, I pulled up a TED talk where the speaker encouraged the audience to consider empathy and respect when engaging in political discussion.  I, for one, intend to take this advice to heart and model it, as best I can, in any engagement I find myself in.  

I plan particularly to model this when talking with my children about politics and the political process. I see that as my primary job as a family man and a man of style and substance. Empathy and respect may be the most critical tools in getting to sound fiscal, environmental and international policy and legislation.  And they are certainly vital in crafting strong and long lasting relationships.  And if I can help my family learn this lesson, perhaps we can begin to reverse the direction of political discourse away from failure and toward cooperation.

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