Radical Empathy

In my first blog post, I spoke about empathy. This, for me, is not something that is separate from my political beliefs, or even just an inspiration for my political beliefs. Rather, I think radical empathy is a liberal position to take, and it is as essential to my understanding of the world as basic truths about inequality and the role that our biases play in our lives.

To me, someone who takes the same positions on issues as I do, but fails at empathy, is not a liberal so much as an ideologue of a different flavor. I believe what I do because I am empathetic, not because some eternal truth has been handed down to me and I must hold onto it regardless of its impact on real people. To that end, I also think politicians must be held to realistic standards. High standards, yes, but human ones.

All of this was spurred by a conversation I had this week, in which I was called an “Obama-apologist” because I do not subscribe to the notion that because his vision for America is more moderate than mine, Obama is a terrible leader.

I imagine I will talk a great deal in this blog about right-wing extremists who have lost touch with reality, but it is true that the left has these as well. They are not the Bernie-or-Bust people who, regardless of your personal opinion on Bernie or Hillary or our two-party system, could not be called extreme by any fair metric. The extremists are the people on the left who base their opinions on unsteady foundations, feeling justified for playing fast and loose with facts because it serves their overall purpose. Their political positions are King, the ends justify the means, and they selectively forget that those with whom they disagree are human.

Even so, I’ve been dwelling on this designation of ‘apologist’.

In the course of our disagreement, I was asked if I would be offended being called a Bernie-apologist, and it took me aback at first because I didn’t know what I would be apologizing for. This is not to say that Bernie is perfect, because he obviously isn’t. He can be single-minded on economic issues, tends to forget the necessity of being inclusive, can even be tone deaf at times. When Black Lives Matter interrupted him in Seattle, he did not immediately see the error of his ways. But, the thing that I do love about Bernie is that he listens, he learns from his mistakes, and he makes changes. Within weeks, he came out with a multi-level plan to address concerns in the black community contributing to a lack of equality. But, if I were a Bernie-apologist, I imagine I would be making excuses for his tone deafness, which I don’t think I’ve done. Instead, I accept that he is imperfect, and celebrate that he is willing to hear criticism and make changes accordingly.

So what does it mean to be an Obama-apologist?

I will happily condemn the bombing of civilians, the deportation of more undocumented immigrants than any president before him, the delayed support of marriage equality. I think there is room for critique on most issues, including healthcare, the environment, the economy, and the protests at Standing Rock. But, as is the case with everything, these issues do not exist in a vacuum.

Obama did not run the way that Bernie did. He did not promise to be a progressive, populist hero. He campaigned as a moderate Democrat whose main goal was to work across the aisle and facilitate a new era of political collaboration. This did not happen, as Republicans made it their goal to resist him at every turn, no matter what he as proposing. He came forward with a health plan that was heavily influenced by Republican ideas from the 80s that guaranteed a client base for insurance companies and it was called socialism. Was I disappointed that it seemed as if Obama had not even tried for a single-payer system? Of course. Does that mean that it wasn’t an improvement? No.

Something like 20 million people have health insurance who otherwise wouldn’t. Changes to rules on lifetime limits and pre-existing conditions have literally been life-saving for millions of people. Sure, premiums are high, but they were steadily rising in the decade leading up to implementation of the Affordable Care Act due to our mismanaged healthcare system. States that had higher premium hikes last year had more reasonable ones this year, indicating that some of the states with extreme price hikes did not adequately raise prices the year before. I read today that many people in California are paying lower premiums. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, for 2017, 72% of people can find plans on the Marketplace for $75 or less, and more than 80% will receive advance premium tax credits to assist with the cost of premiums.

Is it perfect? No. But by all reasonable accounts, it has been successful in what it aimed to do, and would have been much more so–and more cost-effective–if the Supreme Court had not allowed states to opt-out of Medicaid expansion. Yes, I wish we had a single payer system, but I’m also realistic enough to know that that never would have passed in Congress. For the people whose lives have been changed by the ACA, I would say that better is better.

(It is worth pointing out that as I write this, Wednesday evening, Republicans in Congress are taking the beginning steps to repeal with some distant promise of replacing with god-knows-what.)

So let’s detour for a second here.

I think it’s really easy to not-see the impacts of discrimination if you don’t directly experience it, and sometimes even if you do. Let me give an example.

A friend of mine suggested I start watching The Fall, a TV series that follows a serial killer (Jamie Dornan) and the Detective Inspector (Gillian Anderson) who is trying to solve the case. I’ve only seen the first episode so far, but there’s a moment in it that was so poignant that I was still thinking about it for several days after.

In this scene, or rather this series of scenes, Gillian Anderson’s character invites a man she does not know to come to her hotel room later that evening. She is unabashed and unselfconscious. She then returns to her hotel and eats dinner in the hotel’s restaurant alone. She is approached by a journalist who refuses to leave when asked, and she is unapologetic in calling him out and claiming her space.

This seems like a foolish observation, ‘claiming her space.’ But historically, public spaces are men’s spaces. This is why our mothers and grandmothers had to Take Back the Night and why catcalling still happens and is actually a significant issue. Men like to remind women, sometimes with words and sometimes with actions, that they are not safe, that these spaces are owned by men, that their position is precarious at all times. Defending one’s right to exist, unharassed, in a public space, is a political act.

I spoke with my friend about it the next day, and continued to think about it after. Because it is so rare as to be almost nonexistent for media to portray a woman who is so unapologetically present in the world. Let’s think about that for a second. I hadn’t noticed it until that moment, but for me to be surprised by it means that depictions in most popular media are of women who are apologetic of their presence in the world. Women, frequently, are sorry for their own existence–for taking up space in a world they are told, clearly, from a very young age, does not belong to them. To see a woman who is not sorry–who does not buy into this bullshit–is paradigm-shifting.

This is something that women can recognize in their daily lives even if they don’t have the words for it. Even if they don’t exactly know what about it is different until they see it.  And it’s something men can only understand in theory.

Similarly, I’ve been reading Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me (Spoiler: This is the book for Monday), and the experiences he describes, experiences that have been commonplace during his move through the world, communicate clearly that the road he walks is not my road,  that it’s one I can only understand in theory.

In this book, Coates is speaking to his son about what it means to be black in a white world, how your body is always in peril. He tells a story about taking his son to see a play in the Upper West Side and, as is the nature of five year olds, his son was pokey getting off the escalator. A white woman pushed his son, saying, “Come on!”

Coates writes, “Many things now happened at once. There was the reaction of any parents when a stranger lays a hand on the body of his or her child. And there was my own insecurity in my ability to protect your black body.” He confronts the woman, his words “hot with all of the moment and all of my history.” A white man steps in to defend the woman, which Coates sees as “his attempt to rescue the damsel from the beast.” After all, this man had not defended his son from being pushed. People in the crowd also began to speak up against Coates, the white man got closer and louder, and Coates pushes him away. “I could have you arrested!” the man tells him.

But here’s the moment, the piece of this experience that does not occur to those of us who do not have to walk through the world in this way. Because “I could have you arrested!” means something different for Coates than it does for me:

“I could have you arrested!” Which is to say, “I could take your body.”

“I could have you arrested,” he said. Which is to say, “One of your son’s earliest memories will be watching the men who sodomized Abner Louima and choked Anthony Baez cuff, club, tase, and break you.”

When I encounter the police, I fear fines, I fear them being mean to me because their position of power over me makes me feel out of control. When I read stories about women pulled over by police in more populated areas of the country, I fear for their safety from sexual assault. I don’t have a line of black bodies behind me, reminding me that my life is not valued by those my society has charged with protecting it.

We move through the world differently.

I try to remember that when I think about Obama’s presidency. I know that he did not grow up the way Coates did, and that growing up black in Hawaii is a world away from growing up black in Baltimore, but I also remember reading about Obama’s first recognition of himself as black in Dreams From My Father. As a young boy, he looked around his world and did not seem to fit. He felt othered and strange, and tried to find a place for himself. So regardless of the fact that his white family loved him unconditionally, that they taught him about black leaders, that they embraced his blackness, from an early age he understood the messages being sent out by the world he inhabited, and they were not kind.

Later, he was assaulted every step of his campaign with racist, hateful, dehumanizing attacks. They plagued his presidency. He was elected, both times, with a significant majority and yet his political capital seemed to be worth so much less.

Despite that, he conducted himself with all of the calm and grace and composure of his office. He remained a dedicated husband and father. He woke up each day ready and willing to work towards his vision of a more perfect union, which is all you can ask of a person. (Although there is a significant case to be made for his successes.) He had to be Jackie Robinson–had to hold himself to impossibly high standards while those around him held themselves to no standards of decorum.

He stood in front a nation only 50-some years past Jim Crow and said that if he’d had a son, he would have looked like Trayvon Martin while his political opponents screamed Stand-Your-Ground to a man who murdered an unarmed teenager. He kept us safe, he made us healthier, he stopped an economic free fall and moved us closer to prosperity, he moved the needle on climate change, he restored our international reputation, he ended torture, he spoke candidly about race and religious bigotry, and he tried to tackle both immigration reform and gun control.

And he continued to reach his hand across the aisle, despite how many times he was denied. He continued to try to understand other people’s worldviews with humility and with care, regardless of what they thought about him or how they treated him.

I think if you’ve never been apologetic for occupying space in your own world, if you’ve never contemplated the world and come to the conclusion that it does not have a place for you, it can be hard to understand that the road you walk is not the one that everyone else walks. In his farewell address, Obama quoted Atticus Finch from To Kill a Mockingbird in addressing the future of our nation: “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view, until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.” He called for empathy, from all members of this nation, to those who we might be least likely to choose, those we might think are least deserving. One might even call it radical.

Obama is not a perfect man, nor a perfect president, but there is nothing apologetic about my defense of him.


2 Comments Add yours

  1. Linda Phelps says:

    Amazing, direct and all encompassing explaining empathy. While I mourn Obama leaving, I hope the ongoing movement towards fairness and equality surges on. I truly believe with passionate people such as yourself can lead and sustain this movement.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Like you, my Obama defense is anything but apologetic. Great writing, Nicole, and based on serious thought. Well done.


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