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The Argument for Compassion

A plea for sympathy in political discussion.

The political season is coming close to the climax.

The second presidential debate just closed. The GOP is calling for the party to stand united, but disillusioned Republican leaders and voters are beginning to fracture from Trump. Clinton supporters are pushing in earnest to cement the lead. In between these two goliaths, independent voters scrap to push Johnson and Stein forward in a Hail Mary attempt and block both major candidates from 270 electoral votes.

It seems like everyone has a reason to be angry or scared. There are about a thousand ways you could fill in this sentence for Americans:

“Because I’m [insert skin color or religious belief or lifestyle choice], I don’t like [insert candidate] because if they become president they’ll pass [insert law or policy] which scares me because that will [insert how it impacts my personal freedom or safety].”

Look at your Facebook newsfeed. Scroll through Twitter. I’m not describing anything you haven’t already seen.

But this is not an article about politics. Not exactly.

Two Different Worlds

This past week at work, I worked with nearly a thousand students – about two hundred in Lewiston, New York and eight hundred in Los Angeles, California (five plane rides in five days - Emergen-C was my friend). I went from a rural, middle-class, predominately Caucasian town in the northeast to one of the nation’s largest cities, in one the city’s largest school districts where the students are predominately Hispanic.

Main street in Lewiston, New York.

Skyline in Los Angeles, California.

The school buildings look nothing alike. However, both schools are full of the same thing – teenagers with hopes, dreams, and a shared dislike of common core math. They are full of people.

But here is the reality. When I look at the students in Lewiston and Los Angeles, when I look at their cities, their restaurants, their cultures, their schools, their parents, their roads, their advertising, their public spaces, the size of their cities – they are growing up in different worlds. The reason different worldviews exist is not because our perception is different. It’s because, frankly, ‘the world’ is very different for a teenager in east LA than it is for a teen in western New York state.

When discussing politics with other Americans, I fear it is easy to forget each other’s humanity. It's easy to forget we grow up in different worlds. It is easy to forget that who we are is more than the sum of our stance on taxation, abortion, immigration, religious freedom, and education.

Think of all the ways you could fill in this sentence:

“I can’t believe [insert person’s name] thinks that [insert political stance], that makes no sense considering [insert statistic]. They probably only believe that because [insert reason why they stand to gain personally on the issue / insert another underlying belief that person holds].

The default in American political discourse is to attack the person who holds a belief opposite of you. The person across the pew, across the aisle, across the office, across the classroom. It’s about discrediting them to further solidify your own belief. While there is certainly a healthy form of arguing that is part of any debate, what is happening is closer to ad hominem attacks and schoolyard bullying.

It’s difficult for us to see where the other side is coming from in their beliefs. It doesn’t fit our worldviews.

But this is not an article about politics. It’s not about policy, the debates, or the disposition of the candidates. This is about retaining our humanity through the election cycle.

Compassion, not Empathy

I want to be clear that I am not arguing for empathy. Empathy implies shared emotions. It implies being able to resonate with someone else’s feelings. It implies not only understanding where someone is coming from, but a deeper connection from having walked a similar path emotionally.

I think empathy, in its purest form, is incredibly difficult to attain – it should not be the gold standard, for I think it is simply too high of a goal for our nation. It’s too much of a paradigm shift. It’s too much to expect each voter to empathize with every single disparate fringe political belief, to understand each nuanced worldview, when we’ve experienced the majority of our life through only one worldview – our own.

Compassion, however, is attainable.

Compassion is simply recognizing that the person in front of you is still human. They are still human even though they disagree with you. They are still human even though they are taking a stance that seems immoral or unethical to you. They are still human even if they are ignorant. They are still human even if they don’t vote.

I do believe voting is a civic duty, and it is the responsibility of voters to individually educate themselves. However, I do not believe the merit of a man or woman is measured solely by their political stances.

You can acknowledge a person’s voice matters without condoning their belief. You can achieve mutual respect without supporting their position. You can be someone’s friend, and talk about these things, without being 100% aligned.

America is a not a true melting pot. It’s a mosaic – a beautiful vista of distinct and scattered communities, experiences, and individuals. Empathy is hard to obtain. I will always be a white, male, American raised in the south. I’ll never be an immigrant in this country. I’ll never have darker skin. I’ll never have a childhood in a big city. And I’ll never be able to truly, effectively empathize over these specific points with other people.

But imagine what our conversations would look like if we could have compassion enough to say, “I don’t understand how you got to that point. It’s different than my own. Can you help me understand?”

Let us not look to our nominees for examples of how to handle the discussion of beliefs and convictions. Let us instead look to compassion so that our beliefs, however strong, do not tear down relationships with friends, family, coworkers, loved ones – and that we do not use them as weapons against our enemies, political opposites, or even strangers.

Here is the question I pose to you: tomorrow, as you go to start your week, as conversations of politics arise, how can you extend compassion to other people? How can you give grace to others even if you don’t understand their views?

I’m not saying it’s easy. I’m not saying I’m good at it. But I’m saying, in a political cycle centered around fear and distrust, that it’s more than worth trying.

Matthew 5:9 Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.

Ephesians 4:32  Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.

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