Opinion Columns & Blogs

Davis Merritt: Empathy means getting out of our own way

There was less than meets the eye in Barack Obama’s heartfelt monologue on Friday, and that’s a good thing.

The president was walking the edge of a very deep chasm when he began talking about the emotionally fraught aftermath of the trial of George Zimmerman for shooting Trayvon Martin. He easily could have said too much about the not-guilty verdict, but he didn’t. He could have endorsed the demonstrations planned for the weekend, or lectured the country about race relations, or announced some initiative with the unattainable goal of erasing the worst effects of 200 years of American history; but he did none of those things.

Instead, he explained in an intensely personal context why most African-Americans view the trial’s outcome as the continuation of injustice in American life. He did not ask the rest of us to agree with or condone the reaction, just to understand it in a more empathetic way.

Empathy exists only when one is willing to suspend, if only temporarily, one’s most deeply held convictions and biases and see through someone else’s eyes – so it is in short supply in America today.

That is likely as least part of the reason why he discouraged the idea of a “national conversation,” particularly one centered in our wounded political system. Such efforts, as he noted, “end up being stilted and politicized, and folks are locked into the positions they already have.”

He could have said with equal accuracy, though of course he didn’t, that such a conversation cannot be effectively carried on by existing news media.

For proof of that, simply review what went on in cable TV, radio and the Web, beginning two minutes after Obama walked away from the podium: rivers of “spokespeople” from “both sides,” being dogmatic and angry and talking over one another, with the media hosts acting more like provocateurs than moderators for a simple reason – they and their bosses see their job today not to moderate but to agitate.

Just as shouting in the streets and scrawled placards aren’t discussion, contrived, polarized forums are not deliberation.

The threshold question for our country has now become not how we solve our many problems but how we even get to a starting place to talk usefully about them.

Most people know either firsthand or have heard someone they know report that their holiday family gatherings can no longer be a place to discuss public issues because it is so disruptive. We all know friends with whom political talk is now impossible. We all know media outlets and Internet sources we can go to for pure reinforcement of our biases and ammunition against “the other side.” We have all felt the frustration of our “facts” and someone else’s “facts” being wholly contradictory, short-circuiting any possibility of useful discussion.

Anyone more than 40 years old knows that this has not been the milieu of American public life forever. Yes, there has always been disagreement on certain points, but most of them did not stand in the way of the nation addressing its largest problems.

Perhaps, as Obama said, our children are better than we are at approaching some of our problems. But if we cannot get out of our own way, how can we teach or encourage them to do so?