Did Empathy Fail Us?

From triumph to shame

“Since you were traveling, did you vote?” the taxi driver asked me on election night. I assured him that I voted early and that it was my first time voting, ever. We agreed that this election was like no other, that it has brought out the worst, and sometimes the best, in our country. He told me that he came to America from Pakistan just two years ago with his son, who now goes to school in D.C. We arrived at a red light and he took out his phone to show me a photo. He was smiling with his son in front of the White House gates.
He told me that when he first moved in, he was greeted with open arms from his neighbors, that wearing his turban in this country was a symbol of triumph, but with the recent rhetoric from this election, he said, “This turban sometimes feels like a target.” We both remained in an uncomfortable, unifying silence until the light turned green. “Are you still hopeful for the election?” I asked. “Very,” he said. “There are too many loving husbands and daughters and uncles and grandmothers. They will always win.”
Three o’clock in the morning soon approached and I wondered if he was also awake, staring at the same screen. I wondered if he still felt hopeful, if his chestnut turban felt more like a target, if he was angry, ashamed to be in this country, or scared for his son.
It’s been a month since the election and, still, every time a taxi passes by, I look through the windshield. I cannot stop thinking about that taxi driver – especially because his experience is so different from mine. What does it feel like to watch a candidate suggest that your turban should determine whether you can come to America? How does it feel to walk past neighbors who voted for that rhetoric or, in many cases, were able to overlook it?
I am tremendously privileged to wonder what that feels like.
I have never experienced discrimination or dealt with a slur thrown at me and while the journey that my ancestors took to flee the Holocaust, is a part of me, my story is much different and much easier. It would be ignorant to believe that this election will affect me the most. Actually, it will probably affect me the least, but ignoring this election contributes to the problem and continues to divide our nation.
We have a nation more polarized than ever, people asking their loved ones to “unfriend them” because they voted a certain way, an uproar of protests against a certain candidate and more, sometimes extreme and hurtful, displays of support for the another.

Students gathering at Will C Wood High School in Vacaville, CA.

Students gathering at Will C Wood High School in Vacaville, CA.


Here is the evidence: This is an account of some of the hurtful things Trump has actually said, by Politico. These are hate incidents that happened across the country just ten days after the election, by The Southern Poverty Law Center. 

How did we get here? How did we get to a place where we fundamentally do not understand each other and more alarmingly, where we do not want to understand each other?

Empathy is not easy, but it is necessary

Those around me know that empathy is my favorite word. I am fascinated by the process of understanding another person’s experience, but this election has turned what I thought I knew about empathy on its head — simply and overwhelmingly, because it feels like empathy didn’t work.

Personally, I cannot understand how a close friend of mine voted for a candidate who suggested that Muslims should be banned from entering the country. I do not agree with this statement because I know that diversity is strength and it is blatantly racist. I do not want to be racist and therefore my vote reflected that. The logic is linear. Since my friend voted differently, my immediate conclusion was that she must be racist.
Ultimately, half of America voted the same way she did, for a candidate that bragged about grabbing women without their consent, mocked people with disabilities, suggested that Mexicans are criminals, and painted the Black community as helpless and violent. The same linear logic would lead me to believe that half of America is racist and sexist – it’s the easiest conclusion, but it vastly undermines the problem and prevents me from doing something about it, simply because “I am not racist or sexist.”
Certainly, in some cases people voted specifically for those comments and against minority groups, and that is a real and appalling truth to face. Even more, some people voted because of deliberate misinformation or to protest the system in general. What is perhaps the most disturbing and difficult to rationalize are the people who were able to overlook the racism and sexism because of whatever situation they are facing. Bear with me. I am not suggesting sympathy. I am suggesting that there is a serious and widespread problem with what this election has prompted us to assume about our neighbors.
My first question to my friend was, “How could you vote for racism and sexism?!?!” That didn’t go very well. After a bit of reflection, I wondered what would happen if I asked, “What type of situation prompts you to vote this way, to overlook such offensive comments?” It feels wrong to ask this question. It feels offensive and disloyal to the taxi driver’s triumph, but when I approach this question from a perspective of empathy, I think I understand what went wrong.
I am too afraid to ask my friend why she voted the way she did because I only want empathize a certain way.
My favorite word didn’t fail in this election… I did, we all did. There is dissonance between the empathetic self I pride myself to be and my actual empathetic self that only goes one way. Making assumptions and linear conclusions would have been the easy way out because it excludes me from addressing the problem; but empathy is not easy, it forces me to understand what I don’t want to, and it drives meaningful change.
I imagine my friend meeting the taxi driver. I imagine him showing her that same photo. I imagine the same uncomfortable, unifying silence and I wonder if he will still be hopeful. Will she?

5 things to try for building empathy post-election

Engage with the Ashoka US Youth Council using the hashtag #AshokaYCouncil to share your stories of empathy after this election. Here are some simple ideas for what you can do to empathize with what is uncomfortable after this election:

  1. Spread love, where you don’t want to: It is easy to be kind to the people we already feel comfortable with. It is much more difficult to be kind to the people that we feel offend us or we disagree with. Start with a smile, give a compliment, or send a hand-written note explaining why you appreciate this person. You may be surprised; kindness can harness empathy with people you never thought you could understand.
  2. Challenge people outside your digital bubble: If you wanted to do something online, you could make an open call on Facebook, Twitter, or Snapchat and ask any Trump supporters to engage with you in a peaceful empathy building session for understanding. Ask questions, listen and build a space for empathy with someone different than you so that you lead by example and offer them a chance to return it to you. Please take a picture, or make it a Facebook Live video, tagging your efforts with Upworthy’s #UpYourEmpathy and #AshokaYCouncil so that we can join you and track the conversations.
  3. Ask! Offline, at your school or community, ask the questions that you don’t want to. Ask your friends and family members about the situations they are facing and why that prompted them to vote a certain way. Approach your conversations from a place of active listening without giving into threat perception or defensiveness. Push the boundaries of your ability to understand things out of your comfort zone. Remember, we all are battling something. While some battles may be more difficult than others, all battles are hard. You could make this an interactive assembly or townhall at your school, or family meeting with your siblings. Take a picture, or make it a Facebook Live video, tagging your efforts with Upworthy’s #UpYourEmpathy and #AshokaYCouncil so that we can join you and track the conversations.
  4. Look! Understand someone you disagree with without language. Invite both people from your network and those who may different views to a challenge for understanding one another on a human level. Participate in the following exercise: Stare into someone’s eyes that you disagree with for four minutes. It is a powerful nonverbal form of communication and is and proven to promote mutual understanding. Here is an example.
  5. Other ideas: Actions to take. Ways to help.  Watch this video from fellow #AshokaYCouncil member, Amit Dodani, as he shares his thoughts about moving forward. 

*Disclaimer: This post is by Daniella Cohen, and is not an official statement of Ashoka, Youth Venture Inc. or Upworthy. The views expressed by this article are mine, and are not representative of any organizations or partners.