Skip Navigation

The Case for Empathy

The last thing America needs right now is more Americans having less compassion and empathy toward one another.

November 28, 2016
Donald Trump was elected President of the United States despite publicly mocking a person with a disability and never apologizing for it. His voters didn’t hold it against him. We were reminded last week that Jeff Sessions, the Alabama Republican rumored to be the next U.S. attorney general, once publicly denigrated the crying son of a witness before the Senate Judiciary Committee and never apologized for it. His confirmation to the Trump cabinet seems assured. A Muslim woman poignantly explained earlier this month why she voted for Trump even though she opposes virtually all of his policies, including “his plan to ‘ban” Muslims.” No one batted an eyelash. 
This lack of empathy is not unique to America or to American politics. But it’s particularly potent this election year. There surely are many different reasons for this. When people are angry, or frightened, or frustrated, they lash out at those they blame for their woes. And Trump and company did a masterful job during the campaign of playing to that anger, fear, and frustration by telling voters whom to blame; immigrants, police protesters, and all the usual other suspects, for example. Indeed, one of the pillars of the white supremacist movement now corroding political power in America is the denigration, the dehumanization really, of those who look or pray or think differently.
An attorney general who opposes civil rights unless they benefit white people. An education secretary who is an avowed opponent of public education. An Interior chief who is against the environment and an environmental chief who refuses to believe the science behind climate change. A million words already have been written about why so many Americans turned away from one another and toward Trump even though he so obviously intends to govern against their interests. And I am sure tens of millions more will be written about how and why so many Americans turned on so many others this campaign season. 
But I was struck this past week by two perspectives. The first was an interview at Mother Jones with Jonathan Kozol, the writer and activist, who offered an interesting reason for the nation’s evident turn away from compassion. Asked if he thinks “that the declines in the amount of time students spend learning social studies, humanities, and civic education” has “contributed to the deep divides” in the nation, he responded:
I’ve been worried about this for many years. The loss of social studies eclipses our memory of historical atrocities; it eclipses our memory of the damage done to social orders by extreme racists and xenophobes. 
The humanities at their best, especially fiction and poetry, refine the souls of human beings. They open our hearts to compassion, give a profound sense of human vulnerability, and open our hearts to identifying with those who suffer most. The virtual decapitation of humanities and social studies in our public schools over the past 15 years has, I think, helped to narrow our sense of civic decency, collective responsibility, and moral generosity. I don’t think the decline of social studies and humanities explains the election, but these two factors heightened the distrust between the races and the classes in this country.
When I read this passage I thought immediately of Sandra Day O’Connor, the former Supreme Court justice, a doyenne of old-school Republican civility who has devoted so much of her time and energy since leaving the bench to the need for more civic education. This year her website iCivics came out with an election “game” designed to help children better understand (and get more excited about) the nature of the system of American government (with an emphasis, naturally, on the need for an independent judiciary which, under the Trump administration, will be more vital than ever).
But the game, and alas much of O’Connor’s other recent efforts, are in the end a whitewashing of what’s really been at stake this election year and in the struggle for political power more generally over the past few decades. Pretending there is no vast gulf between what we teach our children about American politics and history and the truth about American politics and history helps no one in the end but those who traffic in fear and division. O’Connor should be speaking loudly and often about this gulf. She should be calling out those who endanger judicial independence. But I suspect she will not.
I also was struck by an op-ed piece published in The New York Times over weekend written by R. Derek Black titled “Why I left White Nationalism.” In it, Black recounts his conversion from a young white man who agreed with the principles upon which Trump operates to one who sees the danger in those principles. The turn came when he began to empathize with those whose views differed from his own, with those who had been harmed by white supremacy before and surely will be so harmed by it again. Black wrote:    
Much has been made of the incoherence of Mr. Trump’s proposals, but what really matters is who does — and doesn’t — need to fear them. None of the ideas that Mr. Trump has put forward would endanger me, and I once enthusiastically advocated for most of what he says. No proposal to put more cops in black neighborhoods to stop and frisk residents would cause me to be harassed. A ban on Muslim immigration doesn’t implicate all people who look like me in terrorism. Overturning Roe v. Wade will not force me to make a dangerous choice about my health, nor will a man who personifies sexual assault without penalty make me any less safe.
All of which means that among the many open questions heading into the Trump era in Washington is whether and to what extent authoritarian political pressure will be brought to bear now on colleges and universities to hew to this administration’s ideology and how successfully, or not, those institutions will fight for academic freedom. Another question is whether the nation’s public schools — those that can survive the next four years, anyway — are going to be subject to the same anti-science, anti-intellectual policies that have infected state school systems in Texas and other jurisdictions. 
The concerns Kozol and Black raise, in other words, are likely to get worse, not better, with Trump in the White House and Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education. They are likely to get worse with Jeff Sessions at the Justice Department and an avowed white supremacist as a senior advisor in the White House. That’s a shame. The last thing America needs right now is more Americans having less compassion and empathy toward one another. 
The views expressed are the author’s own and not necessarily those of the Brennan Center for Justice.
(Photo: Flickr)