Do we need empathy in politics: the power of motivation

More than any time in recent decades, it seems like we are now experiencing the point where empathy and logic are needed most in politics and not only in the US considering the newly elected president.

The issues of refugees, gay marriage, immigrants, and the poor are only getting intense from both ends. This past week so many were affected by the tips of Trump’s well-fed hand which later probably was used to hold his Champaign glass to celebrate his great achievement on signing executive order on halting nationals from 7 countries, in which Muslim consists the majority, from entering US territory. Some say evil, some say idiot, others say “the greatest man ever elected who legally opened my closet doors to the true ‘merica!” Are we angry because he has no heart or because he’s being unreasonable? He says “America first.” It means he will see things from the American’s perspective. Then why are so many Americans still angry? According to the news pieces and his personal twitter account, I believe Trump’s America represents something different and exclusive from other Americans’ America. His perspective didn’t seem to go as deeper as diversity and equality. Perhaps he is not capable to interpret others’ lives through his life experience. Perhaps he disagrees with the first amendment. While I’m watching his footprints, I started thinking about morality and the desirable leader figure. To be moral, one has to know what’s right or wrong to simply put. To know what’s right or wrong one must acquire education and experience. Then without proper absorption of the education and experience, one does not have any idea what they are doing. So yes the leader doesn’t have to be a warm-hearted person but morality should be the one of the prime qualities of the desirable leader. Then what does empathy have to do with politics?

Barack Obama, in his farewell speech on 10th January 2017, quoted Atticus Finch from the book To Kill a Mocking Bird to address the importance of empathy in our diverse world. “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view. Until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.” Today, we have a powerful tool to practise justice: reason. But reason also develops as it’s discovered. Why should freedom be the basic rights for humans? It wasn’t first decided to be written on constitution based on math calculation. It’s discovered and developed. The motivation to discover and develop a good policy, I believe, is driven by empathy. For me, empathy is the application of the extent of one’s cognition where understanding was acquired by experience, thought, and senses in human and non-human interactions, in an effort to view situations from the first person’s perspective. Empathy is the way to discover what others’ are experiencing in the same settings.

We tend to get surprised when someone didn’t know that we thought was too obvious not to know.
“What? You mean you never knew it? What? Your family doesn’t do that? What? You mean you didn’t know women have period every month? What? Some women don’t have period every month?” The term common sense is not the equivalent for default setting. I would assume everyone who works in their field has extensive knowledge in it. In my perfect little world no policy is made based on the racial difference. But I would call it more of an expectation than the standard in real world.

I grew up in a family where no one really said “go to your room and study.” As I meet people and interact with them, I learned that it was rather common for Korean parents to say it on daily basis. If I hadn’t met another person whose parents always said it, it’s possible I would’ve ended up thinking my family was the default family version and assume all my friends had all day to play with me. But I learned that my family was no where closer to the default in terms of the particular education method. In the same sense, if I had a friendful childhood and loved hanging out in groups of friends, I probably wouldn’t be able to understand what it’s like to feel not belonging anywhere. But we learn. Through complicated algorithms, we are capable to apply one lesson to another. Empathy is powerful and it can go far without much direct inputs once proper directions are provided.

For me, sentimental appeals are not the kind of empathy we need in politics nor the way to understand empathy. We don’t stand for refugees’ rights because we feel bad about their situation. We base our reasons on the fact that we are human and we know every human deserves decency in life. That’s why we stand.

Empathy is not necessarily what makes good policies. Yet, it’s what determines the motivation for making good policies which should cover more than one party’s point of view. Morality in the same sense, casts a direction for the quality of people’s lives but through good policies. Morality is not necessarily about what’s right and wrong as they heavily depend on contexts, nor being conservative or progressive. Instead, as philosopher David Hume defines, it’s about having been trained in the art of decency through emotions. Yes we need more empathy and morality in world.


Photograph: Mike Wilson

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An anthropology novice with passion for small things. A development worker in a world of imponderabilia.

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