Friday, March 7, 2014

Overcoming the empathy deficit

A theme emerges when you pay attention. Can you spot it?

President Obama on "expanding our moral immagination:"

Bernice Johnson Reagon on coalition politics:
We’ve pretty much come to the end of a time when you can have a space that is “yours only”—just for the people you want to be there...To a large extent it’s because we have just finished with that kind of isolating. There is no hiding place. There is nowhere you can go and only be with people who are like you. It’s over. Give it up...

It must become necessary for all of us to feel that this is our world. And that we are here to stay and that anything that is here is ours to take and to use in our image. And watch that “ours’ make it as big as you can...The “our” must include everybody you have to include in order for you to survive. You must be sure you understand that you ain’t gonna be able to have an “our” that don’t include Bernice Johnson Reagon, cause I don’t plan to go nowhere! That’s why we have to have coalitions. Cause I ain’t gonna let you live unless you let me live. Now there’s danger in that, but there’s also the possibility that we can both live—if you can stand it.
David Simon on the death of normal:
America will soon belong to the men and women — white and black and Latino and Asian, Christian and Jew and Muslim and atheist, gay and straight — who can walk into a room and accept with real comfort the sensation that they are in a world of certain difference, that there are no real majorities, only pluralities and coalitions. The America in which it was otherwise is dying, thank god, and those who relied on entitlement and division to command power will either be obliged to accept the changes, or retreat to the gated communities from which they wish to wax nostalgic and brood on political irrelevance...

We are all the other now, in some sense. Special interests? That term has no more meaning in the New America. We are all — all of us, every last American, even the whitest of white guys — special interests. And now, normal isn’t white or straight or Christian. There is no normal. That word, too, means less with every moment. And those who continue to argue for such retrograde notions as a political reality will become less germane and more ridiculous with every passing year.
This is the reality that is creating such a backlash from the white male patriarchy. The world as we've known it is evolving and, as Simon goes on to say, "change is a motherfucker when you run from it."

So the question becomes: how do we as a society prepare ourselves for that kind of change? I am struck in all this by some of the writing Jim Stuart has been doing on integral development theory. In the past, I've studied things like Kohlberg's stages of moral development and Bennett's work on a developmental model of intercultural sensitivity. While each of these models has its own unique focus, a common theme is that development and growth requires increasing levels of empathy. In order to face the changes in our individual lives, in our country, and around the globe, that is the challenge that awaits us.

Its clear to me that years ago President Obama came to the same conclusion.
“Unity is the great need of the hour.” That’s what Dr. King said. It is the great need of this hour as well, not because it sounds pleasant, not because it makes us feel good, but because it's the only way we can overcome the essential deficit that exits in this country.

I’m not talking about the budget deficit. I’m not talking about the trade deficit. I'm talking about the moral deficit in this country. I’m talking about an empathy deficit, the inability to recognize ourselves in one another, to understand that we are our brother’s keeper and our sister’s keeper, that in the words of Dr. King, “We are all tied together in a single garment of destiny.”
If you'd like more, the folks at the Center for Building a Culture of Empathy have put together a video that is almost 2 hours long of all the times Barack Obama has talked about the need to nurture empathy.

Over the years I've learned a lot from watching President Obama. Most of the time learning involves being challenged - and understanding what it means to "expand my moral imagination" (iow, developing empathy) is one of those times. To do so requires a confidence in our own sense of self that allows us to be curious about the "other." Expanding our moral imagination also means letting go of the confines of our own understanding of the world and being open to something that is currently beyond our imagination. Here's how Nezua talked about that. is not like a series of books in a course on …anything. It fluctuates. We fluctuate. We are not a being, but a becoming, as Friedrich once said. And sometimes ideas are hammered out and we draw lines and walls and are told we fall on one side or the other and so do our thoughts and so does all that follows from them…and so it goes. We buy into these illusory borders, too...

I am far more comfortable navigating the in-between than I am in any Place. I like no thing as much as the coming and going from one to another. It is on the purpling beaches of dusk and the roseing gauze of dawn that my true eye shines lidless and I see so much more than in broad daylight. In the falling away of my tired husk I remember my shape can only be held temporarily. And to cling too tightly to it is to rot.

Being sure is but the borderwall we place around a heart to ward off the skinstripping wind of the next living moment.
We are currently facing that "skinstripping wind of the next living moment" as described by President Obama, Bernice Johnson Reagon and David Simon above. The intransigence of surety is what will prevent us from developing the empathy that is required in this moment. Expanding our moral imagination is what will allow our true eye to shine.


  1. The "intransigence of surety" is a good way of describing what we are facing. And its greatest danger is that it is so alluring. Any good flim-flam man can sell the average person a narrative that says, "support me and you won't have to change." That is why they keep getting elected.

    The leader who can actually sell people on the security of change is rare. We shouldn't expect them to be the only ones who can save us from the flim-flammers. We have to learn to do it ourselves.

  2. There is no such thing as security of change. I think you mean selling people on the idea of growing up.



How the Radical Right's Embrace of the Great Replacement Theory Is Tied to Overturning Roe v. Wade

There is a lot of important news coming at us pretty fast these days. But David Roberts nailed it ! It is so wild to me that they're h...