Having graduated from college just four months ago and possessing the idealism and energetic desire to help make the world better that often accompanies that stage of life, yet also being confronted with all the terrible things that happened in the news this summer, I’ve been thinking a lot about what is needed to improve our world. I’ve come to realize how essential empathy is too that. The good in our world often comes from people empathizing with others, and much of the bad in our world comes from people failing to do so. Too often people get to positions of power by climbing over others, meaning they care only about themselves and their success. Once they are in power, these people tend to continue not to care about those less fortunate than themselves. People in power have a tendency to ignore or refuse to believe or care about the needs of others in positions of less power. These tendencies confound and perpetuate the stratification of society. However, when people in power do empathize with people in positions of less power, whether because they came from a similar position or simply care about and listen to the experiences of others, they can help create change.
I was talking to a good friend yesterday who I’ve known since childhood and the topic of feminism came up. She said that she doesn’t feel very strongly about feminism because she hasn’t experienced much in the way of sexism. Both of us are white women, from fairly wealthy upbringings, heterosexual, and able bodied. I responded to her comment by saying that while I have not experienced much sexism either, I know that many women who have fewer privileges than myself do experience a lot of hardship because of their gender and that’s why I care so much about feminism. After hearing my response, my friend said that I was a much better person than herself. While I don’t agree with her on that, I do think that her statement about feminism was a narrow and self-centered view. I don’t blame her for it, but I also think such a seemingly harmless way of thinking actually hints at a much larger problem in our society and a mindset that is far more common than it should be and can be very damaging, particularly when held by people in positions of power. It shows a lack of consideration of the needs and conditions of others, particularly those who experience more oppression and marginalization in society. It is important that we seek to listen to and learn from people whose experiences are different from our own.
During my senior year in college, with the uprising of students of color at schools across the country, I heard many people in response to the students of color say things like, “they’re being too sensitive.” Of course the people usually saying these things were privileged white people. My response to them was “How can you say that when you don’t experience what they experience? You can’t truly understand what it’s like to be a student of color, so it’s not your place to discredit what students of color are saying they experience.” It’s about empathizing, not ignoring or criticizing what others say, but listening and caring about their experiences, and then trying to help.
While I’ve read many stories this summer that threaten my hopeful attitude, I have also heard many stories that strengthen my belief that empathy is key in solving the major problems in our society. One of my favorites was an episode of the NPR podcast Invisibilia “Flip the Script”which tells stories that show that the most effective way to confront hostility is not with a return of hostility, but instead with compassion and kindness.
It seems so simple- consider others, listen to others, care about others, do what you can to help others- yet it can be a radical and powerful act.