Friday, May 28, 2010

Empathy for Conservatives

My friend Susan sent me a link to Tikkun Daily at the beginning of last month (April), knowing that I might be interested in the interview with Starhawk about permaculture. Link I was, of course, but I was also taken with several of the other articles being put out at that time, particularly one called 'Empathy from Left Field — A Response to Helen Smith' by Miki Kashtan, which was originally posted in Miki's blog, The Fearless Heart. In turn, Miki's post is a response to a post by Helen Smith called 'How Should Conservatives Deal with the Left’s Disrespect and Lack of Empathy?'.

Miki Kashtan begins by saying "I love a good challenge" and admits that she knows many liberals who do seem to lack empathy for conservatives. Unfortunately, I think that this applies to radicals as well. I think that having empathy for conservatives is a really radical thing to do.

She goes on to point out that " much of the Left media, conservatives are regularly referred to as stupid (at best), backward, uncaring, or unevolved." We stereotype conservatives, make jokes at their expense, and dismiss them as human beings, and then complain about how *they* treat others.

None of this is to dismiss the harm that the institutions that conservatives support do nor is this to say that I believe in 'compassionate conservativism' or any of the other euphemisms often employed to justify oppressive behavior. But we also need to remember that conservatives, even reactionary right-wing conservatives, are human beings, often hurting others because they themselves have been hurt. Loving them, caring about them, and trying to understand them, is important, even while we oppose the damage they often do.

All this being said, the Helen Smith article that Miki Kashtan refers to seems to me to be mostly about branding liberals as insensitive, if not worse. She compares liberals with psychopaths several times in the article, although carefully saying that although liberals are like psychopaths, she doesn't actually think they are psychopaths. But she goes on to use the 'mistreatment' of conservatives by liberals as a justification for "...making sure consequences are dealt out to those liberals who lie and treat conservatives with disrespect." Several conservative sites (two examples) have reprinted it with a prologue that begins "Helen Smith makes some generally reasonable points below but fails to see that hate is what motivates the Left -- so their behaviour is entirely to be explained by that. They hate people who find anything worthwhile in the status quo -- and you don't expect respect or empathy from haters."

Helen Smith cites Jonathan Haidt's article on AlterNet, particularly focusing on where he finds that conservatives have an easier time putting "themselves in the shoes of liberals", than vice versa. That's a sad statement if it's true. The lines I quote about people on the Left being motivated by 'hate' makes me wonder about it, however. But the Haidt article is worth reading on its own because it is so thought-provoking. I may write a post devoted to it at some point.

Miki Kashtan has since written two more articles on working toward dialogue and respect between liberals and conservatives. I admire her persistence. Certainly I believe that listening to each other and trying to understand each other are, indeed, part of social change. And this, of course, means having empathy for conservatives.

Quote of the Day: "Empathy calls on us to open our hearts and imagination to others’ humanity. It’s easy to understand and show care for those similar to us. The challenge of empathy is precisely in the face of differences. How can we show care for others needs even when we say 'no' to what they want? How can we understand and remain open and respectful even when we believe others’ positions are potentially harmful?" - Miki Kashtan


Jerry said...

It seems to me that when the labels "liberal" and "conservative" are applied so generally, the likelihood of respect between people who lean one way or the other on various issues is slim.

When looking at myself, for example, I think that both terms fit me in various ways but I AM neither. I suppose if one tallied my stance on all issues I might well tend toward the "liberal" label but I still think that labeling thusly deters us from real and voluntary social change.


MoonRaven said...

I agree that labels often get in the way of us really appreciating each other--but my point is that even people who label themselves conservatives (or whatever) are worth trying to understand and worthy of compassion and respect.

Cheers to you.