How to Have a Conversation: Empathy

            I’m upset about a lot of things in our current state of affairs. And it’s easy to feel justified for having the feelings I do. I have the Bible to back me up in my support of the most vulnerable in our society and an education that allows me to read critically, research, and synthesize information. It’s easy to enjoy my place on the moral high ground. I tell myself that I am justified in my anger because I know the truth and I am on the side of justice, love, and saving the environment.

            But then I catch myself realizing that those very thoughts that I’m having are probably pretty similar to people on the right with whom I disagree. The same people who I feel justified to criticize for what I see as hateful and misguided beliefs likely think the same about me. I have a lot of characteristics that separate me from Americans on the right. I’m a college professor. I was raised in an upper-middle class family. As much as I want to see myself as an enlightened liberal on the moral high ground, I also need to acknowledge that the people I disagree with also see themselves on the moral high ground.

            I recently read Arlie Hochschild’s Strangers in Their Own Land. Hochschild is a Berkeley sociologist who wanted to understand the political divide in America. She had a good understanding of the left, but didn’t know much about the right. Over five years, she made regular trips to Louisiana where she spent time with self-identified conservatives. One of her goals was to “scale the empathy wall” and understand the experiences and deep story of those on the right. Hochschild spent a lot of time listening and developed real friendships with research participants. Although she still disagreed with many of her participants’ views, she understood why they held them and was willing to admit that had she been in the same circumstances, she might have come to the same conclusions. Hochschild concludes the book with brief letters from the right to the left and from the left to the right. Both letters share the similarity that those on the right and left often feel that they are strangers in their own land.

            I moved to Alabama not to long ago and have ample opportunities to train my empathy and listening muscles. I’m still learning. I want to preach and argue when someone says something that I fundamentally think is wrong, but I’m practicing slowing down and listening and trying to understand why someone holds the view they do before I speak. I can never have a real conversation when I’m up on my progressive moral mountain. Jesus tells us to love our enemies and in faith I’m trying to talk less and listen and empathize more.