Empowering civic activism toward a culture of peace.

Do You Have Empathy… for Conservatives?

The below was re-posted from AlterNet.

A lot of us left-of-center types like to think we have more empathy for other people’s pain than those hardhearted conservatives. But do we have any empathy for the pain conservatives are in? If you’re inclined to write a scathing comment just about that, please check out this post and maybe even go to Helen Smith’s article and check out the scathing comments about liberals being made there by many conservatives. Breathe deeply, do your yoga exercises, and spare a thought for whether the scathing comment in itself is not something you might have in common with your worst enemies. Maybe we’re all acting out of our pain and need a little empathy. Miki Kashtan, who wrote this post on Tikkun Daily, leads workshops and intensive retreats in Nonviolent Communication. — Dave Belden

I love a good challenge, and Helen Smith’s recent article immediately called my attention. As someone who’s dedicating my life, in part, to increasing empathy all around in the culture, I found some of her comments painful, because they matched my own experience with liberals.

The Missing Empathy for the Right
In the social circles in which I find myself, and in much of the Left media, conservatives are regularly referred to as stupid (at best), backward, uncaring, or unevolved. At every opportunity I have, especially in my workshops, I invite people to look at what might be the underlying values behind conservative positions, to imagine how a decent fellow human could arrive at such opposing views. I wish I could contradict Helen Smith, but my experience only confirms what she says.

I see a complete dearth of genuine, open-hearted empathy towards conservatives. I regularly hear jokes at the expense of conservatives in my workshops, and I cringe. I am not conservative myself. Far from it! I find most liberals to be more conservative than me. I cringe because if I were a conservative, I would not experience Nonviolent Communication communities hospitable. I worked for several years with volunteers who are part of the campaign to create a department of peace in the US. They have not been able to cross the Democrat-Republican divide. As I see it, the obstacle was not the Republicans, but rather the challenge these activists had in being able to hear their opponents, listen with respect and care, imagine their values and deeper longings and aspirations, and be open to be affected by what they hear. What is dialogue, after all, if we are expecting others to change their views, positions, or strategies, without a comparable willingness on our part to be affected and changed by what we hear?

To support people in being able to reach a true empathic openness, I have often in the past conducted role plays in which I assumed the role of a much maligned figure, often George W. Bush, and asked people to enter dialogue with me by offering me empathy and understanding. Independently of people’s success in the activity (spotty), entering these roles has transformed me, because I now have a felt sense of what it might be like to be someone so different from myself. I was most moved when I imagined being the former president just about the time of September 11, 2001. I felt the weight of the responsibility, of having to make a decision about how to respond to the situation. I felt how awful it was to be hated by half my country.

Another time I engaged in a similar role play in which I was a soldier returning from Iraq only to face the judgments of others. As this soldier I was able to feel the outrage, the experience of not being understood at all for my profound willingness to sacrifice everything in order to protect the way of life of this country that’s so dear to me. I was able to feel what it was like to be together with others, risking my life, knowing I would do anything to protect theirs.

I feel less separate as a result. My own positions and views have not changed. But I now have a complete appreciation of the shared humanity of people who are far away from me on the political spectrum. I know that we have different worldviews, and I can hold that knowledge without losing understanding for the other worldview, even when I am frightened by the consequences I associate with it. I know that the fear is mutual. Conservatives are just as worried about my views, and what would happen if everyone espoused them, as I am about theirs. Knowing this helps me increase my compassion and understanding.

Opening Dialogue
Thursday night, on my TV show (posted on, I worked with the cast on a couple of “hot topics” of major differences. The first one was about the health care bill that just passed. I wish I had a true conservative in the studio. Instead, one member of the cast took on the role of a woman who thought of the bill as “Un-American” and undermining freedom. The other cast member took on the role of a Brit (which she is) who is strongly advocating for health care as a universal right. Together we worked on how to reach mutual understanding instead of arguing and trying to convince each other. Both were surprised, in the end, to recognize that they had shared values despite opposing views.

If Helen Smith, or anyone else who is Conservative and sees this post, is up for dialogue, I would be honored and touched. I mourn the fact that, as she says, I live in a bubble, with little that would bring me in contact with Conservatives. I mourn the fact that in order to teach empathy for Conservatives I must conjure up role plays instead of live dialogues. I hope she takes me up, because I want what I have learned about empathy to support healing the rift between the Right and the Left in this country. Yes, there are core differences as Haidt points out in his careful research. Yes, it may be that Conservatives are more able to empathize with Liberals than the other way around. I still maintain that we can connect across our differences. We may not immediately find ways to come closer on specific issues, but we can see our shared humanity, appreciate the struggles we face in understanding each other, and emerge with more humility and goodwill.

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Comment by Wendy Greene on April 6, 2010 at 12:20pm
I re-posted this because I think its such an important issue and because I have great respect for and appreciation of Miki. It was painful for me to read her post and even MORE painful to read Helen Smith's article and the subsequent comments. I'm clear we cannot deal with the absence of something (in this case, empathy) by perpetuating its absence. I'm also clear that in Dr. Smith's article (and subsequent comments), one could simply swap the labels "conservative" and "liberal" and post under the authorship of a noted liberal "extremist" and you'd have an equally "valid" article.

Labels. Ugh. I miss the nuance of life. I miss the moderates.

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