Why Empathy Is a Political Strength

You can only outsmart your opponents if you can get inside their heads.

One of the words that came up often during the Democratic Convention was empathy. Even when it wasn’t spoken about directly, it was implied in almost every presentation. It all started with this from Michelle Obama.

Empathy: that’s something I’ve been thinking a lot about lately. The ability to walk in someone else’s shoes; the recognition that someone else’s experience has value, too…And like so many of you, Barack and I have tried our best to instill in our girls a strong moral foundation to carry forward the values that our parents and grandparents poured into us. But right now, kids in this country are seeing what happens when we stop requiring empathy of one another. They’re looking around wondering if we’ve been lying to them this whole time about who we are and what we truly value.

Dictionaries tell us that the opposite of empathy is indifference or apathy, but that stems from self-centeredness and results in disrespect, arrogance, and even hatred. In other words, for four years we’ve been living with a president who exhibits the opposite of empathy. It’s been exhausting, which is why hearing from people like Joe Biden and Kamala Harris felt like finally getting a long, cool drink of water after an interminable sojourn in the desert.

There are those who think that empathy has no place in politics and suggest that its inclusion is like bringing a knife to a gun fight, as the saying goes. That is probably rooted in the fact that empathy is assumed to be a feminine quality that is all squishy and sweet in a world where winning through domination is the only goal.

This is where some of the ancient Asian teachings are instructive. The great Chinese military strategist Sun Tzu once said this (emphasis mine):

If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.

Similarly, the Aikido Way requires four things.

1. We must maintain our own balance while taking theirs.
2. We must react fearlessly.
3. We must enter into the very center of the conflict.
4. We must understand our opponent’s intentions in order to achieve resolution.

In other words, domination isn’t the only power tool. You can also outsmart your opponents—but that requires empathy, or the ability to get inside their head. So, one part of empathy elicits compassion for those who are suffering. But it is also a valuable tool to employ in conflict.

Back in 2008, on Martin Luther King Day, Barack Obama gave a speech at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta. His words were incredibly prescient and tapped into the fact that empathy also unleashes the power of unity.

“Unity is the great need of the hour.” That’s what Dr. King said. It is the great need of this hour as well, not because it sounds pleasant, not because it makes us feel good, but because it’s the only way we can overcome the essential deficit that exists in this country.

I’m not talking about the budget deficit. I’m not talking about the trade deficit. I’m talking about the moral deficit in this country. I’m talking about an empathy deficit, the inability to recognize ourselves in one another, to understand that we are our brother’s keeper and our sister’s keeper, that in the words of Dr. King, “We are all tied together in a single garment of destiny.”…

Brothers and sisters, we cannot walk alone. In the struggle for justice and for equality, we cannot walk alone.

Here is how Kamala Harris addressed the same theme on Wednesday night.

Joe and I believe that we can build that Beloved Community, one that is strong and decent, just and kind. One in which we all can see ourselves…

Make no mistake, the road ahead will not be not easy. We will stumble. We may fall short. But I pledge to you that we will act boldly and deal with our challenges honestly. We will speak truths. And we will act with the same faith in you that we ask you to place in us.

We believe that our country—all of us, will stand together for a better future…A country where we may not agree on every detail, but we are united by the fundamental belief that every human being is of infinite worth, deserving of compassion, dignity and respect. A country where we look out for one another, where we rise and fall as one, where we face our challenges, and celebrate our triumphs—together…

It’s not about Joe or me.

It’s about you.

It’s about us.

Many Democrats weren’t ready to hear the message from Obama on the importance of empathy twelve years ago. But perhaps after four years of Donald Trump, we’re finally ready to address that empathy deficit and tap into the power of unity. If so, come on up for the rising.

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Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly. Follow her on Twitter @Smartypants60.