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Too much empathy?


A mannequin of Donald Trump with the head ripped off. Collective screams of "F*** Donald Trump" on the quad at 1 a.m. The "crying party" on the third floor of the Sanford building during the watch party. People running down the hall in my room in despair. Rumors that people were drinking their denial of the election results away.

These were the very real scenes and the very real emotions that I will remember from this election night, the first major time that politics has disappointed me. In 2004, my 6-year-old self reasoned that George W. Bush was president before, which meant that he deserved to be president again, and I supported both Obama's election and re-election in 2008 and 2012.

That night, I was convinced that the outcome was certainly going to catalyze some sort of revolution. Millennials are known as the generation with low political participation, the generation that would rather volunteer than vote, the generation where voter turnout is lower than any other demographic. Maybe Trump’s victory was the final straw. I hoped that this election would motivate people to go into politics because people like Trump were elected and not in spite of it. (I quickly sensed my reasoning was off.)

Now, a week later, many people are still healing from this election. In a column last week, Julian Keeley argued that “In many ways, all sides need to show greater empathy” and that “greater proximity will allow people to become more familiar with others and with their fears, frustrations and insecurities.”

But at what point is being empathetic, too empathetic?

Keeley’s point is true—if anything, the major lesson to learn from our dysfunctional political culture is that listening and compassion is important. But empathy has its problems as well. Paul Bloom, psychologist and Yale professor, argues in an Atlantic video that empathy blinds one to the long term consequences of his or her actions. People in emotionally abusive relationships often stay together precisely because of empathy for their abuser. Many activist movements have succeeded because a group of people stood up for what they believed was right, which at times meant showing less empathy towards their opponents. Is trying to empathize with a President-elect who has been described as “racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic, and xenophobic,” going too far? Is it possible to empathize with someone whom many people think has no empathy?

Keep in mind that the data backs up the belief that America is becoming less proximate and more segregated. Charles Murray, in "Coming Apart," argues that in the past 60 years (namely, after JFK's assassination), America has become more and more segregated, not only socioeconomically, but culturally as well. (To avoid potential racial issues, Murray only analyzes whites.) As someone who did not grow up white or male, as the child of immigrants, as someone who has never gone to a private school before Duke, I didn't think that I had a particularly elitist upbringing. Privileged, yes, but not actively contributing to the demographic separation in America. Apparently I did. As proof, he includes a quiz in the book that includes the following questions: "Have you ever lived for at least a year in an American neighborhood in which the majority of your fifty nearest neighbors probably did not have college degrees?", "Have you ever lived for at least a year in an American community under 50,000 population that is not part of a metropolitan area and is not where you went to college?", "Have you ever walked on a factory floor?", and "Who is Jimmie Johnson?"

If you answered “No, no, no and I don’t know” like I did, then there is a large population that we’ve become alienated from. (Jimmie Johnson is apparently a Nascar driver.) How can listening to them and trying to understand their situation be a bad thing? At the same time, would you ever want to empathize with them to the extent that you would vote in a way that directly harms you?

The problem is not one of who is right, but rather where different people draw this line of empathy. Is listening to and trying to understand a Trump supporter (or even Trump himself) a sign of weakness, or a sign of strength? Is voting for the common good when it hurts you individually a sign of showing too much empathy? Does voting for your own self-interest make you not empathetic enough? (Keep in mind that those of us who voted for either Trump or Clinton were likely voting in our own self-interest.)

Duke professor Michael Munger, in a talk a few weeks before the election, pointed out that the mudslinging in the 1800 U.S. election was just as controversial and turbulent, if not more so, than it was last week. According to an editorial from the Baltimore Sun, an anti-Jeffersonian newspaper claimed that "Murder, robbery, rape, adultery, and incest will all be openly taught and practiced, the air will be rent with the cries of the distressed, the soil will be soaked with blood, and the nation black with crimes."

No one has emotional attachment to an election that occurred 216 years ago, and it’s easy to see that everything ended up fine. Given enough time, whether it be weeks, months or years, the same could happen here.

Amy Fan is a Trinity freshman. Her column, "fangirling," runs on alternate Tuesdays.

Amy Fan | fangirling

Amy Fan is a Trinity senior. Her column, "fangirling," runs on alternate Thursdays.


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