The thing about empathy

All radical Islamic extremists (as opposed to every other member of the faith) share a worldview that is threatened by the progressive culture and lifestyle of the West. They pretty solidly hate us. But only some become terrorists.

The ones who do are the ones who have the enabling means to carry out an attack (of course). But almost always, they share something else in common:

They’re living in a culture of despair. They’re living in places where unemployment is high, morale is low, nothing’s getting better, and the officials in power don’t give a shit. So when they’re weighing the pros and cons of whether or not they want to attack us (and kill themselves in the process), the ones who decide to go for it are frequently the ones who also brim with angst about the sense of decline that surrounds them, feel like they have nothing to lose, and long for a sense of purpose to fill the vacuum.

When we as progressives bring up the ‘culture of despair’ part, are we exonerating terrorists? Are we saying that makes it okay? Sweeping their hatred under the rug? No way. What we’re saying is, eliminate the poverty, expand the local opportunity, and you eliminate the breeding ground for a whole lot of terrorists.

So why is it that when we’re talking about Trump’s election, 90 percent of the progressives I know refuse to even engage with the suggestion that the unraveling of white working class America had anything to do with the position we find ourselves in now? Why is it that almost every Democrat around me proudly refuses to develop any sort of deeper understanding of Trump voters beyond the idea that they’re a bunch of sexist, racist assholes? That’s it. That’s the only reason anyone voted for him. And to make any additional suggestion is to make excuses for them.

I was speaking with a woman over 40 who “just couldn’t understand” how Trump voters could be so full of hate for Hillary. This was a few months ago. And I sensed she was the category of liberal I just described.

So I—heavy-handedly—mentioned how we also had a political status quo that hadn’t served or paid attention to the decades-long decline of the working class, and a candidate who seemed to epitomize that.

“I think it has more to do with their refusal to vote for a woman. I think it has a lot more to do with that.”

When a conversation with a friend was going in a similar direction, I suggested she read a book about the rapid deterioration of the white middle class. “I’m so sick of people telling me to have empathy for the white male middle class American,” she said. “What about a book about what it’s like to be trans in America? Or a person of color?”

The question isn’t whether or not Trump voters need to develop empathy for minorities (they obviously do) or whether bigotry and xenophobia led many of them to the ballot box (it obviously did). The question is why we use these facts as a shield to protect ourselves from any additional information that poses the threat of making us care for them.

I think we’re scared that empathy is a risky gateway drug. As if by allowing ourselves to feel and care about any legitimate aspect of their pain, we run the risk of becoming more racist and intolerant, too.

Luckily for us, that’s not how empathy works. I promise. All we’re doing is neutralizing the breeding ground. Not only is it the strategically responsible thing to do—it’s our spiritual responsibility, as well. “Have empathy, but only for these people” isn’t really how God wanted the whole empathy thing to work.

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