Empathy: The Wrong Tool?

empathyEmpathy. Understanding. Bridging the gap. A lot of progressive conversation following the election has been around these topics, and how to have productive conversations with people who at best, determined that a candidate’s racism, sexism, and xenophobia were not sufficient grounds to vote otherwise (and at worst, co-signed them). I’ve made some overtures toward that goal myself, and have been following the dialogue around how and whether to do that. One way in which my opinion has clarified in the last few weeks:I don’t think winning hearts and minds is the only goal, and it shouldn’t necessarily be prioritized.

Psychological science suggests that changing someone’s mind will be more effective if you don’t approach from an attack angle. That’s why you see so many think pieces advising not to call people racists (or sexists, or whatever “ist” best represents their words and behavior). Those terms will typically make it that much harder for the person to listen to the content of your argument, because it will arouse their emotions and shut down cognitive processing.

So say the think pieces and social scientists. But why, rebutted other voices, should we not call the situation as we see it? Why should we normalize conversations that are racist (to continue with that example) in an attempt to change a racist person’s mind? What of the people who are observing, who see racist opinions treated with respect and as worthy of a serious conversation? Shouldn’t we be willing to use strong words to indicate when something is wrong and not acceptable in our social worlds?

[As I was writing this, The Atlantic published a piece by Vann R. Newkirk II that does a lovely job detailing the goals besides persuasion that we may have in political discussion. Please read it.]

[And in a further signal, as I was lamenting that someone beat me to the chase, Nir Eyal published this piece about multiple discovery theory about how certain ideas have their moment, and the benefits of multiple perspectives on them.]

I’ll be honest: I wasn’t thinking about conversations about the political environment that way. But now that it’s been pointed out, I can’t stop thinking of them that way. Many of the loudest voices in our political conversations are people whose views are well-entrenched. Changing their hearts and minds may not be possible; if it is, it’s a long, hard journey (during which they very well might be attempting the same process with you).

Meanwhile, there is a larger audience of people listening and watching who maybe haven’t yet decided how they feel. Perhaps they’re young and learning. Perhaps they’re only newly interested. Or perhaps they’re not interested, and their opinions are being formed less deliberately on the waves of ambient conversation.

Shouldn’t these people have the benefit of voices clearly speaking out against outmoded and harmful attitudes?

There’s also the fact that people will behave badly if they can get away with it. Responding to racism first with an attempt at empathy may look like acquiescence. That’s not the intent. But it begs the question of whether it’s better to lead with a rebuttal. Say, “I think that’s really wrong and I’m upset that you said it.” Be willing to walk away if the conversation continues along racist lines. It may make any subsequent conversation more tense, but you’ve sent the signal about the words you’re willing to tolerate.

A few years ago I was talking with a researcher and mentioned that we try to keep our users in health behavior change programs from getting angry. She said something along the lines of: But anger can be a signal that something has to change. In that spirit, we should be ok with having some angry conversations if our ultimate goal is changing things.

I’ll borrow Kirk’s conclusion for my own here: Civility is overrated.