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On Elections and Empathy

After a volatile and rancorous six weeks or so of campaigning (both by the candidates themselves and by their devoted and faithful supporters), it’s election day here in Alberta. There has been seemingly endless mud-slinging and accusations and labelling and self-serving platitudes. The UCP has mostly tried to frame this election as an overdue corrective for a staggering economy. The NDP has mostly tried to cast it as a referendum on progressive social policies. A friend commented this morning that this election might simply reveal what’s more sacred to us, sex or money. Probably not far from the truth. At any rate, I did my duty on the way to work this morning. I sighed, and I voted.

Readers of this blog will know that I am no champion of partisan politics. I have voted across the political spectrum over my twenty-five years or so of voting, both provincially and federally. I try to stay informed, to weigh priorities, to vote for the local candidate that I think will do the most good (or the least harm). But my expectations are usually fairly low. My allegiance is to another king and a different kingdom (as I’ve written about before) and I am regularly puzzled by Christians who seem to think that politics is the primary way in which this kingdom comes.

I am also increasingly troubled by the nature of our political discourse. We are losing, it seems to me, anything like a conception that we share a common life with our fellow citizens. The realm of politics is becoming inherently adversarial. For me, this was illustrated by a relatively innocuous meme that I saw earlier in this interminable election cycle. It said something to the effect of, “Millennials, you now outnumber the boomers. Get out there and vote.” In other words, “You can defeat all of those ignorant, regressive old people with your vote. Get out there and win!” There are interesting assumptions at work here. There is no notion that millennials might share a common life with their elders or that they might have overlapping interests or that—gasp!—they might occasionally have something to learn from them. No, they are simply competitors, full stop. These kinds of assumptions abound on both sides of an increasingly polarized political sphere.

I find this trend deeply problematic. People who vote and think differently than me are no longer fellow citizens who have different views and who might calibrate priorities differently, they are very bad, very stupid people. They are enemies of all that is good and decent in the world. They are ____phobes and _____ists. They exist to be defeated by right-thinking people like me. Perhaps someday they will come to see the light like I do, but until then, they must be defanged, contained, mocked, and belittled. This is the state of our political discourse these days.

I think that whatever else might be said about the above, at the very least it represents a failure of empathy, of the ability to try to see something from a perspective beyond your own. Over the weekend, I listened to an episode from NPR’s Invisibilia called “The End of Empathy.” It’s not about politics, per se, but it does paint a picture of our cultural moment that extends into the political sphere and well beyond. It contrasted the approaches of two reporters, both women, one middle-aged, one younger, who were given the task of telling the story of a recovering “incel” (about the most odious category of young men that you might imagine these days). The middle-aged reporter was more inclined to try to humanize the young man, to try to understand what could produce such a view of women and the world, and to even consider the possibility of a something like a redemption narrative in the way his story was unfolding. The younger reporter was not. The young man simply represented a category of humanity that was beyond the pale. His sins were too many and too great. There was no way back for him and it would be immoral to make it seem like there was.

It seemed to me, as I listened to the story, that this is a theme that reproduces itself across our public discourse, including the political sphere. We are losing the ability to see actual human beings behind the views they hold. Someone who thinks differently than us about sex or money or pipelines or education or healthcare isn’t someone to have a conversation with, they are disgusting sinners who have all but forfeited their humanity. Someone who has a different coloured sign on their front lawn is not a neighbour but an incomprehensible enemy. And so, we get what we get every election cycle: an ideological slugfest with results that swing wildly back and forth, dictated by whoever has enough people that feel like they’ve been on the wrong end of the score for the past four years.

My kids are not old enough to vote provincially this time around, but they will be by the time the federal election rolls around in fall. I don’t want them to internalize this vision of politics that we are modeling for them. I don’t want them to see a ballot in the election box as their weapon against the very bad, very stupid people. I want them to be willing to sit down with people who think differently than them and do the hard word of trying to understand them and what might motivate their priorities. I want them to see fellow citizens instead of ideological enemies to conquer. I want them learn how to live with difference responsibly, with both conviction and empathy.

I want the same for myself. And I want it for you, too, dear reader. If you have made it this far, and if you happen to live in Alberta and are voting today, and if you happen to be inclined toward weaponizing your social media feed later today either in exultant glee or righteous indignation, perhaps consider a different approach. Maybe have a conversation with someone you disagree with instead. Or ask, “I wonder why they might calibrate their priorities differently than I do?” Or consider a slightly more charitable interpretation than, “They’re an idiot.” We really have to do better, I think, if we are ever to do this “pluralism” thing well. Today is as good a day as any to give “better” a try.


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16 Comments Post a comment
  1. Gil #

    It seems like the idea that democracy is “good” is in decline among younger demographics, as well. On the one hand, this kind of cynicism is probably produced by observing dysfunctional, ineffectual politics. Here I have some sympathy. On the other hand, there is the loss of empathy you describe here (and is starkly portrayed in the podcast). There is the growing sense that not everyone should have a vote because some people are “very bad and very stupid.” It’s not clear to me that democracy can function without some basic level of empathy (other people’s voices matter) and self-awareness (we are all prone to “bad and stupid” so it’s best to distribute political power).

    April 16, 2019
    • It’s not clear to me either. It’s a sobering trend that you point to—empathy and self-awareness seem, regrettably, in short supply.

      April 17, 2019
  2. mike #

    -Please look at the bigger picture, it really isn’t about Politics and Political Correctness or Civility-

    It’s far too late for “Sensitivity Training” IMO. A media-induced Paradigm shift has already taken place so there’s no chance of returning back to civility now. Democracy AND Capitalism will inevitably give way to overt Socialism. What troubles me most is that Christianity is now under overt attack and I can foresee a time soon coming when it will not be acceptable (or safe) to confess one’s allegiance to Christ and His teachings here in America, while Islam,Hinduism and Buddhism will remain acceptable. I think I stand on firm ground here when I say that what we are witnessing Worldwide is clearly outlined in scripture…things are not going to ease-up and get better,on the contrary, Society is going to deteriorate to a much greater degree as the unseen forces of “Principalities and Powers in heavenly places” increasingly manipulate this world/culture knowing that the end of this Age is upon us. …..Maranatha 🙂

    April 17, 2019
    • This post is not a plea for “sensitivity training” or “political correctness.” Far from it. It is, in my view, an application of the ethic of Christ (“look at the log in your own eye before presuming to dislodge the speck in your neighbour’s…” “do unto others as you would have done unto you,” etc) to the realm of political discourse.

      I don’t have much to offer with respect to your historical/eschatological analysis. You may be right. Or not. There are certainly parts of the world where Christianity is under overt attack and people are losing their actual lives. In comparison, our situation seems relatively minor, although I don’t discount the very real effects that secularism is having in our culture. I am suspicious of the argument that sees our time and place as uniquely bad and that the end of the age is therefore upon us if only because that is a very well-trodden historical path. We don’t learn very much or very well, it seems to me, from the dead-ends of our ancestors.

      At any rate, Christianity was birthed and has flourished in difficult cultural conditions across time and space. Christ has promised to never leave or forsake his church and I take him at his word.

      April 17, 2019
  3. mike #

    The application/acceptance of the ethic of Christ into the arena of Politics/Political discourse was first attempted,not by Jesus Christ, but by Constantine the Great, then Hitler and more recently by Russian President Vladimir Putin. It was done as a political maneuver and doesn’t really work work out well for christians in the end.

    As far as your “end of the world being upon us ” rebuttal, your right 🙂

    Warning,rabbit hole ahead: It’s interesting that the First Century Believers WERE TAUGHT and convinced that Christ’s return was imminent in their lifetime, so much so that they sold their homes and possessions in anticipation of His soon arrival.

    April 17, 2019
    • Applying the ethic of Christ to our discourse doesn’t work out well for Christians? Well, I suppose it didn’t work out very well for Christ either.

      (Although I certainly can’t agree that people like Constantine, Hitler, and Putin were or are doing anything remotely Christian…)

      April 17, 2019
      • mike #

        ……ouch 🙂

        April 19, 2019
  4. Paul Johnston #

    Prayer and worship. The former, a daily discipline, the latter at least twice a week. Until the right vertical relationship with God is our intention, no “empathetic” horizontal relationship with our neighbours is possible.

    April 17, 2019
    • As always, it mystifies me that you seem to consider these mutually exclusive options.

      April 18, 2019
  5. Paul Johnston #

    As for eschatology, I am certain Jesus requested we life our lives as if the end was always immanent. When it might happen has always been irrelevant to Christian ethics. Allowing the Holy Spirit to inform your choices, as if the end times were/are always at hand, is the right understanding.

    Thinking this wildly counter intuitive reality is possible as a matter of human reason or human compassion is precisely why we have the political discourse we have. The political discourse mankind has always had.

    April 17, 2019
  6. Paul Johnston #

    Haha, that makes two of us mystified. 🙂 I am talking about priority and interdependence, not mutual exclusivity. Always have been (however poorly). Always will.

    Without prior prayer, worship and reflection all praxis fails. Your focus on empathy, for example, leads me to believe your prayer and worship life are insufficient with regard to this post….hard words to hear, I know, but consider the possibility that it might be so and that in love, a brother may feel obliged to point that fact out to you….

    Faith, my brother. Faith in all things. Faith that can only be learned at the foot of the cross, in silent adoration. Faith that can only be communicated and received through the disciplines of daily prayer. Faith that will break your heart as you kneel before reception of the Holy Eucharist. Faith that only the Lord God can give to those who are in constant communion with Him.

    Empathy is only human. Only as sufficient and as deficient as a broken human nature can be. It is no cure. Apart from faith, it only leads to a mutually agreed upon and acceptable death, an appeal to our a false sense of nobility, a false sense of compassion, a refusal to recognize how our pride and self centeredness play out in the word we call, “empathy”…”I too share in your misery, I too know your pain, let us commiserate together…We are dying, let us die together”…

    Faith is God given, it transcends human empathy. Faith is reason tested by suffering, informed by personal sacrifice. mediated through relationship. Faith is the reflection of the depth of your marriage vow, with God. Faith shared with others, is love. Love, only fully understood by those who have faith, is God’s will, applied.

    Only supernatural love, mediated by faith, can offer life. Death, is the final outcome of all human politics, apart from faith. No amount of human empathy will ever change that fact.

    April 18, 2019
    • Empathy is “only human?” How do you know? How do you know it’s not part of a faithful and robust discipleship (note: “part,” not “all”)? How do you know it is not one expression flowing out of encounters of prayer and worship? Is not empathy implicit in Jesus’ command to do unto others as you would have done to you?

      April 18, 2019
      • Paul Johnston #

        Empathy, apart from faith, is “only human”. I think I make that clear in the response. You are free to isolate an individual sentence, devoid of context, anyway you choose. You could also consider that, I like you, or anyone else for that matter, sometimes write and speak imperfectly.

        Prayer and worship, with an open heart and mind, devoid of agenda, will never lead to political recourse based on faithless understandings of empathy. It is not of the Spirit. I share what I know. Pray and test my Spirit. Speak back to me as one confident that the Lord has spoken to them. Until such time it is more than likely we will continue to, “talk past” one another.

        My identity is in Christ. It is only through Christ that I can know who I am, love who I am, and love my neighbour as myself. Faith alone, through prayer and worship, expressed in a community of saints, is the answer. Human empathy apart from this faith is too weakly rooted, nested in self interest and practically useless when real sufferings come.

        April 18, 2019
      • I’m not isolating a single sentence, devoid of context. Your central problem with the post, as I understand it, is that empathy without faith is useless or worse. I think the questions I ask are perfectly reasonable given the substance of your critique.

        April 18, 2019
  7. Paul Johnston #

    Offer faith, Ryan, On this day of all days, offer faith.

    All human intention, devoid of faith, leads to death. If your empathy is not nested in God it is nested in your own wisdom. This is Satan’s play. The Garden encounter when he tells Adam and Eve to trust in their own wisdom, their own understandings.

    Apart from God, the devil is us,

    April 19, 2019
  8. Paul Johnston #

    “Do unto others” is a command to love. It is a real consequence of discipleship. It transcends empathy. It is not dependant on my understanding of the other. One could say, in fact that the real test of reciprocity (the better understanding of the command) is when there is no empathy at all….”love of enemy”…

    These commands are a consequence of my faith in God, not my understanding, or lack thereof, with regard to my neighbour.

    Empathy, “cherry picks” love….”even the gentiles do this”…

    “know by the fruit”….we have spent several decades now, since I was a boy in the 60’s, heightening our sense of shared humanity and familial connection to one another, apart from faith. It began as “Humanism”, the new religion, and one of it’s seminal precepts is this, “empathy” that you speak of. It has only taken a few generations for human practices of what constitutes empathy, to devolve into tribalism. Now, with Orwellian accuracy, we have further devolved the original humanistic idea to mean, “some people are more equal than others”. Empathy, apart from God has come to mean, if I can see myself in your circumstances then I will validate you. If I do not, then I condemn you. This plea for empathy then, as I read your post is a plea for “doubling down” on the very principle that got us into this mess in the first place.

    Is the church in ascension? No it is not. Europe will soon be lost. Africa is a war zone and here in north america we have moved so far from Gospel living, fewer and fewer even know the way back. FAITH is lacking. A commitment to God’s love is lacking.

    “Enlightenment” leading to an abandonment of God, is darkness….

    And as for the likes of me and you, we better come to terms with the concepts of, “fear of God” and “sins against the Spirit cannot be forgiven”. We who dare to write about God, better be sure God has called us to do so and that what we write is by His command, not our desire.

    April 19, 2019

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