Should we have empathy for bigots? Even Trump?
It’s easier said than done, but yes, we should have empathy for bigots, Trump included. We should reject racism, sexism, and homophobia everywhere it lurks. I’m certain these things are wrong and need to be confronted with all the resources we can muster. But I firmly believe that every human being deserves our empathy.
Practicing empathy is challenging for a multitude of reasons, but I want to focus on just two. First, it can be argued that empathy towards a racist can result in suffering for the victim. This argument is valid, and in some circumstances, can be deeply problematic. If a KKK member hurls a noxious racial epithet at an elderly black woman minding her own business on a park bench, it would be thoughtless of me to walk over to the woman and talk about how I feel a burning need to understand this racist pig. I get that.
But empathy does not require us to be unkind. In fact, as I’ve explained in earlier posts, I believe a tolerant and progressive society requires us to be empathetic and compassionate to those we don’t agree with, but also those we do. I have a moral obligation to understand and care for the woman on the park bench, just as I do the racist. I can be kind in the moment to her, but also resolutely understanding of him. Empathy is not a zero-sum game.
I can sense the pushback already. Privileged white guy tells old black lady she needs to empathize with the racist pig. I hear you loud and clear. And in response, I am going to take the easy way out and pass the buck … because I’m just the privileged white messenger. Take it from what others—definitely not privileged white guys—say: The Bible (Authorized King James Version) (Matthew 22:37-40, Leviticus 19:18, John 13:34, John 15:13, Mark 12:30-31, John 4:7-16, Romans 13:8), The Bhagavad Gita (10:20), Martin Luther King, Why We Can’t Wait, Mohandas K. Gandhi, Autobiography: The Story of My Experiments with Truth, Thich Nhat Hahn, Living Buddha, Living Christ. These texts make a much better argument than I ever could.
Second, there are those that argue that empathy is not “natural.” There are strong empirical arguments to be made that humans are hardwired to be selfish. I’m not going to wade into the scientific, anthropological, or even epistemological issues relating to this. I will say, however, that there is strong evidence on both sides of this debate. Whether unnatural or fighting against hardwired instincts, humans have been capable of enormous degrees of empathy throughout our history. At a minimum, we can think of empathy as aspirational, and take a pragmatic approach to it. It might be hard for a survivor of Nazi concentration camp to empathize with her persecutors, but perhaps the next generation can empathize with the children of those Nazi soldiers. Empathy cannot win out in every situation, but we should be morally obliged to try.
One last closing thought … and of course it’s about you-know-who. It always seems to come back to that guy no matter how hard we try to avoid him. It seems like Obama is the only one who can ignore him.
I have had many heated debates with my fellow liberals about whether Donald Trump and people who support him deserve our empathy. I have also argued that well-meaning people can morally support Trump despite the fact that I believe him to be a bigot who supports racist, not to mention outlandish, policies.
Unlike many of my friends, I strongly believe that people can in good conscience support President Trump. Tens of millions of reasonable people voted for him, and I know this will sound crazy to my liberal friends, but a person is not uninformed, racist, or morally bankrupt simply because he supports someone who is all three of these things. Think about that beloved elderly relative that makes you laugh. You know, the one who is always saying that the [fill in the blank] are destroying our country.
Yes, many Trump supporters embrace his racist and anti-immigrant views. But many others were simply given a binary choice and chose the candidate they believed was best, despite that candidate’s shortcomings. I enthusiastically supported Barack Obama even though he opposed same-sex marriage and supported the death penalty. I’m not equating Obama with Trump. All things are not morally equivalent. Obama was a thinker who studied facts and was willing to change his wrongheaded views. Trump is a racist reactionary whose views change only when the political winds do. But, liberals should be mindful of the fact that almost half of all voters supported Trump and his approval ratings have hovered near 40%.
Empathy requires us to think deeply about what drove almost half the country to vote for Trump and think deeply about how divided we are. I’m concerned with how willing some liberals are to write-off half the country. We need to embrace the idea that by empathizing with others, we develop our more meaningful understanding of ourselves.