By LEIGH SLOAN
There is a common refrain on the left that is based on the idea of empathy.
Some on the right like to poke fun at leftists by calling them “bleeding hearts” or “snowflakes.” But there is something about empathy that makes us human. Empathy is one of the great appeals of the messaging from the left. Most people want to think of themselves as loving, compassionate, and full of empathy.
Homelessness is a key issue where this dynamic plays out. You see the man on the street and your heart goes out to him. You feel better about yourself if you give him some cash you have on hand, whether or not such an act would really lead to a great outcome for that individual.
Research has shown that empathy is good in reasonable doses, but unbridled human empathy causes us to lose our grip on rational thought.
In one study, people were presented fictional stories with real faces attached. The most empathetic members of the study group placed themselves in their shoes and, consequently, were willing to do almost anything within their power to alleviate the pain of the person with which they identified.
Participants were moved so much by the story that they voted to move the fictionally unwell patient up in line to get medical treatment, regardless of others who may have been even more needy or deserving and waiting in line for that same treatment. The study also showed that those who showed high empathy were also more likely to hurt others if it meant helping the one for whom they felt empathy.
TV shows play to our sense of empathy as we watch the stories of unknown performers getting catapulted into stardom. We care enthusiastically for their success because we’ve invested ten minutes watching their story. When we put ourselves in the place of others, that emotion can get us to do amazing and seemingly selfless things, whether rational or not.
Identity politics plays upon our thirst for empathy. If we can identify a people group: a minority, misunderstood, or underprivileged group as deserving of empathy, we can get people bend over backwards to do whatever we suggest that they do for that people group. This can be used for good purposes like charity fundraising, but it can also be used to manipulate people into a mindset of toxic tribalism— elevating one particular people group at the expense of all others.
The homeless are an example of one people group that often get lumped together. But in reality, people experiencing homeless are not one single monolith of people with one single story. Each homeless person has a story— a reason for being without a home. In fact, a person can identify as homeless one day and not the next day. Some are peaceful, some are violent. Some are healthy— others have mental illness or participate in substance abuse.
Playing identity politics may be effective at winning elections, but it’s lousy for actually solving complex problems. Identity politics trigger our baser emotion of empathy, which makes us feel good about what we’re doing, but little more. If we’re not careful, it can enable and perpetuate the same problem we are trying to solve.
Instead of merely ramping up our empathy with identity politics, we need to shift our mindsets to compassion. If empathy is a magnifying glass, compassion sees with a wide angle lens. A compassionate stance sees the need of different individuals, but is also able to hold those needs in tension with the needs of others. A compassionate person can look at a person experiencing pain and feel for them, but also remain cognizant of the problems that might have caused that pain. A compassionate person is able to discern whether an individual needs a hand up or some tough love.
When we look through an “empathy-only” lens, we tend to want to solve an immediate felt need without addressing the underlying issues. A true solution-oriented person will not be satisfied with mere empathy. They will only be satisfied when true progress is made toward enduring solutions—solutions that work not only for one people group, but for all the people in the community.
If you live in east Anchorage and want a strong voice of reason who will see our city’s issues from a lens of thoughtful compassion, join me in voting for Stephanie Taylor for Assembly District 5! A quote from Stephanie’s website says this, “By responding with both compassion and accountability, we can reduce crime and homelessness.” Stephanie Taylor is not just talk— she is the real change we so desperately need for our city.
Leigh Sloan is campaign director for Stephanie Taylor for Assembly, District 5.