A few days ago, a published an article arguing that Americans need to have more empathy for one another. I regret to say that did not age well. Granted, I was talking about COVID and things like attending funerals. My overall point was that we should try to interpret that actions of others through the window of their values, not our own. But when right-wing radicals are storming the capital building, it all sounds pretty naïve.
If I sit down with myself and ask what my biggest failings are as a writer and a thinker, the tendency to make false equivalences rates highly. As a moderate, I do tend to see both side of most issues. But that does not mean that all opinions are created equal, or that all perspectives have a basis in reality. No, some things are based in outright lies. And no amount of empathy can change that.
How Did this Happen?
The men and women who attempted to halt the certification of the electoral college vote did so because they believed in a conspiracy theory, promoted by the President of the United States, that the results of the 2020 election were fraudulent. This version of events has been soundly rejected by officials in every state and has failed every legal test, but none of that matters. We have reached a point in this country where distrust in the media, in politicians, and experts on every level is so high that many voters will not trust a single mainstream source. The only source they find reputable is President Trump himself. And, based on a leaked phone call with the Georgia Secretary of State, Trump believes he won. All evidence to the contrary, then, must be false.
I wish I could say that this uncompromising dependence on the declarations of Donald Trump was a fringe position. Unfortunately, three quarters of registered Republicans believe the election results are fraudulent. They may not agree with the storming of the capitol, but they agree with the underlying lie. A full one-third of Americans are living in an alternative reality where the only voice of truth is Donald Trump. How could we expect any other outcome?
The Limits of Empathy
A young woman lost her life yesterday when police officers shot her in the neck. She was in the process of committing an act of sedition – breaking into the United States Capital in an attempt to thwart the peaceful transfer of power. On one hand, this is what happens when you commit an act of domestic terrorism. But the man truly responsible for this – for stirring up the lies that manipulated her into this frenzy – will walk away from this unscathed. I suppose, though, that can be said for every terrorist. They have almost always been manipulated by a more powerful sociopath into doing his bidding. But at the end of the day, they are the ones committing the act. They are responsible. Is it even worth trying to empathize with them? My natural inclination is to do so. But it probably isn’t healthy. Or necessary.
A few days ago, I believed that attempting to see the world through the perspective of our political and social adversaries was a fruitful enterprise for Democracy. I was worried about the division in our country. I am still worried about that, to be honest. But empathy can only take us so far. Truth matters. Facts matter. We can have disagreements about how our rights ought to be exercised, the limits of law enforcement, and every social issue under the sun. We cannot have disagreements over facts and expect society to function. I am sad – devastated – that so many Americans believe a lie about the legitimacy of this election. This lie will continue to destabilize us throughout Biden’s presidency.
If we do not find a way to stop it, it is misinformation – not a lack of empathy – which will be the downfall of our country.