Opinions, Column

American Politics Need Empathy

I never considered myself a political person. But recently, I realized that I was wrong. 

I believe there have been a series of radical moments in my life that led me to this realization.

As a freshman in high school, I read about and witnessed the separation and deportation of families at the United States-Mexico border. For the first time, I became acutely aware of the complete control that the government has over our lives. 

As a junior in high school, I wrote about former President Donald Trump’s first impeachment. People my age often ignored or neglected politics because they didn’t understand most of the terminology, but many still felt connected to political issues in subliminal ways. I realized that most of our education systems are not equally preparing students with the tools to correctly interpret one of the most important facets of our lives. 

As a freshman in college, I teared up while watching President Joe Biden’s inauguration in front of the Capitol, with the weight of a pandemic weighing down on our nation. I reckoned with the immense pressure and fear I had harbored for my friends, my family, and myself during the pandemic that made my innocence disintegrate. 

Part of the reason I refused to consider myself political is that I did not want to choose sides. I believed in fairness and being a good person. Politics was so far removed from my own belief of what a “good person” should look like that I did not identify with anyone from either the political left or right. I had the privilege to witness the way politics affected peoples’ lives while I didn’t have to worry about it. 

It took years to have the honesty and the outlook to realize that I cared about politics on a very personal level. 

When other people said they weren’t political, my first thought was: why? I was angry. “What do you mean you’re not political? Do you not see that the government could take away my rights at any moment?” But that thinking is selfish. And I carried a sense of shame because I could not extend my empathy to people I did not know. I could have done better.

Empathy builds a more humane and just society. And there are many people in America who have never been forced to practice empathy, thus impacting our entire nation. 

When people tell me that they support Trump I now immediately feel pity because I make assumptions about them: The person is a white and uneducated upper middle class person. I now understand that no person is inherently bad, but rather this person has never had to practice extending his or her empathy to others. 

Extending the benefit of the doubt to those I disagree with can help explain behavior, but it does not excuse it. As I watched the Black Lives Matter movement unfold over the summer, I realized being an effective advocate is more important than personal satisfaction, and sometimes they conflict with each other. It is more important to educate and clarify positions in politics than to feel the satisfaction of calling someone “racist.” The moment that labels are involved, all respect and hope for a constructive conversation are lost. It’s important to see people who commit racist actions not just as racists. 

But, this also comes with certain conditions. There is a time and a place to have conversations, and there is a time and a place to expose the truth. While I switched between Fox News and Boston 25 News following the moments after the announcement of Derek Chauvin’s trial, the contrast between the way each media outlet portrayed Chauvin and George Floyd was stark. 

What I say matters, by virtue of me being white. But it’s also what I don’t say that matters. To call a white man who shot and killed 17 people any other name than “terrorist” would be an injustice. To look at people who raided the Capitol on January 6 and say they are “true Americans” is an injustice. And to not make these classifications obvious to people who refuse to see that is also an injustice. 

Featured Graphic by Meegan Minahan/ Heights Editor

May 28, 2021