COMMENTARY: “Opinion is really the lowest form of human knowledge; it requires no accountability, no understanding. The highest form of knowledge, according to George Eliot, is empathy, for it requires us to suspend our egos and live in another’s world. It requires profound, purpose‐larger‐than‐the‐self kind of understanding.” — Bill Bullard
The comment by Bullard, a former high school dean in San Francisco, is spot-on.
In this angry presidential election year, when politicians and others, most notably Donald Trump, are playing up our anger to further divide us for their own gain, two politicians have, in recent days, chosen instead to express empathy. They are Republican Paul Ryan, the speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, and President Barack Obama, a Democrat.
On Wednesday, Ryan owned up to past inflammatory and divisive rhetoric and said he was wrong:
“There was a time when I would talk about a difference between ‘makers’ and ‘takers’ in our country, referring to people who accepted government benefits. But as I spent more time listening, and really learning the root causes of poverty, I realized I was wrong. ‘Takers’ wasn’t how to refer to a single mom stuck in a poverty trap, just trying to take care of her family. Most people don’t want to be dependent. And to label a whole group of Americans that way was wrong. I shouldn’t castigate a large group of Americans to make a point.
“So I stopped thinking about it that way — and talking about it that way. But I didn’t come out and say all this to be politically correct. I was just wrong.”
A day earlier, Obama said something similar about his own rhetoric:
“I suspect that all of us can recall some intemperate words that we regret. Certainly I can. And while some may be more to blame than others for the current climate, all of us are responsible for reversing it. For it is a cycle that is not an accurate reflection of America, and it has to stop. And I say that not because it’s a matter of political correctness. It’s about the way that corrosive behavior can undermine our democracy, and our society, and even our economy.”
Obama didn’t give us a specific example of words he regrets, but perhaps he was referring to the time during the White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner in 2011 that he mocked Trump mercilessly. The New York Times recently portrayed Trump’s presidential hopes as an attempt to earn respect sparked at least in part by Obama mocking him.
Obama correctly said we’ve all contributed to the divisiveness that has crippled our political system. That includes the media. It includes me.
It has to stop.
Instead of mocking, jabbing, name-calling and hating each other, we all need to put down our weapons — be they social media posts or fists and guns — and listen.
Empathy is the highest form of knowledge.
As I wrote earlier this week, America’s efforts to raise people out of poverty have stalled. Police are disproportionately shooting people of color. We shouldn’t marginalize people who protest police killings, even if they sometimes resort to violence, by dismissing them as “thugs” and “gangsters.”
And, as I also wrote in that column, the middle class is shrinking as people lose wealth. Death rates are rising at an alarming rate for middle-class, white Americans. Even if people occupy a wildlife refuge with guns, we shouldn’t marginalize them by dismissing them as “terrorists.”
So many Americans from across the political spectrum are hurting. Some are desperate. They’re trying to tell the rest of us that they need help.
Instead of name-calling and dismissing them, we need to listen.
We need to empathize.
In spite of their past transgressions — and, like the rest of us, they’re both guilty — our president and speaker of the House have taken positive steps in recent days. While some other political leaders continue to encourage us to divide and fight, I want to urge everyone to instead follow the lead of Ryan and Obama.
And I want to encourage Obama and Ryan to back up their words with action.
Some are already working to build understanding and empathy. In Doña Ana County, for example, Peace Lutheran Church and the Islamic Center of Las Cruces held a well-attended forum on Tuesday to create dialogue.
Let’s move in that direction. Let’s work to empathize with and understand each other.