Controversy about Black Lives Matter flags flying at Montpelier and Burlington high schools underscores how even a virtue as fundamental as empathy has run aground on the reef of political dissension in this season of discontent.
Who would say that empathy is not a good thing — the ability to see things from another point of view, to put yourself in another’s shoes, to listen and understand? That’s what the Black Lives Matter movement is about. It’s an effort to call attention to the unique perils and challenges faced by African-Americans, highlighted by the ongoing toll of police shootings, discrimination and violence evident in Ferguson, Baltimore and all across the land.
And yet, there is resistance to empathy of this sort, as if widening our understand and exercising compassion toward someone else would somehow diminish ourselves.
Indeed, the whole Black Lives Matter mantra became the target of humor by one African-American comedian, who repeated the words to himself — “black lives matter” — and then observed, “That’s a pretty low bar.”
Meanwhile, students in Florida and elsewhere are also crying out for empathy. We are being slaughtered by people with guns, they are saying. Please understand — please have empathy — and act to curb gun violence.
Their pleas have been dismissed by gunrights activists as a partisan ploy.
Thus, in response to demands for empathy, we get a grudging retort: What about me? What about my problems, my needs? And that’s how people dig in, form warring camps, refuse to see the other side or to give.
Liberals say we need to show compassion to black communities suffering from police violence, and toward immigrants who are looking to improve their lives. Conservatives point to the grievances and needs of nativeborn Americans or workers left behind by economic change.
Liberals say easy access to guns is feeding an ongoing bloodbath that is unique in the world. Conservatives defend their right to own firearms for hunting, target shooting, protection, or just because it is their right.
One way to look at this impasse is to recognize that each side needs to exercise empathy toward the other. Let’s consider the needs of the white working class — not their biases, but their actual needs, their wages, their opportunities, their right to organize and be heard. That would include hearing the pleas of those for whom possession of firearms is bred in the bone and important.
In return, empathy should not be the sole province of liberals. It’s a matter of respect. All it requires is the willingness and the strength of spirit to look beyond oneself or one’s group.
Rep. Kiah Morris of Bennington last week lamented the dismissive, disrespectful comments of some of her colleagues during a discussion of the Black Lives Matter movement. She noted that those who want to “cling to the notion of color blindness” are in effect refusing “to see that a person’s experience can be vastly different from another.” Morris, who is African-American, said she was stunned by House members who view the Black Lives Matter movement as more divisive than the actual racism it is intended to combat.
It does not hurt someone to look at things from the viewpoint of another. It is neither liberal nor conservative to embrace the dignity of others whose lived experience may be different from one’s own and who may have something to teach us about a side of the human experience we are unfamiliar with.
Everyone, liberal and conservative, deserves to be treated with dignity and respect. The values underpinning our democratic system affirm the worth of every individual and point to a question larger than “What about me?” They ask “How are you?” and “What about us?”
As we widen the circle of our community so it includes a wider and wider range of human experience, we strengthen the community, drawing in the infinite variety of humanity in all its glory. That black lives matter is evident in the rich tapestry of American history and culture, where black lives form some of the most vivid and enduring strands of all.