Empathy for white nationalists?

Opinion: Columns

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Tom Holmes

On the day after the mass killings in El Paso and Dayton, I heard experts on the radio discussing the usual explanations regarding why such things happen — guns, mental illness, racism, hate, etc.

One comment, however, which I had never heard before was made by a psychologist who said, "The loss of white privilege can feel like oppression. It's not, of course, but it can feel that way."

I'd never before heard anyone try to approach a white nationalist mass killer with something resembling empathy. "But," we reply, "white nationalists don't deserve empathy. They are the ones who should go back to where they came from — hell!"

I understand that sentiment, but the question we need to ask is: Does that language build walls between ourselves and those "others" who think differently than we do or bridges that unite us across the polarized cultural chasm?

James Hoggan, in I'm Right and You're an Idiot, writes, "Resentment is like a drug. It feels good to go home and say, 'Those assholes! Those jerks! … I'm right, they're wrong. Self-righteousness becomes a fuel that can justify damn near anything."

A "culture of contempt," argues Arthur Brooks in Love Your Enemies, is a big, if not the biggest problem in this country, and he defines contempt as "anger mixed with disgust."

"Nobody," observed David Brooks in The Second Mountain, "becomes more reasonable when they are blamed and attacked."

We in this area are good at building bridges between different ethnic, racial and religious groups, but I sometimes think we build psychological/spiritual walls between ourselves and those who think, value and see the world differently than we do.

We put signs on our lawn which proclaim that hate has no place here. We have no problem with an Asian, gay or Muslim moving in next door, but a white supremacist or even a Trump voter?

Miroslav Volf, a Croation, published Exclusion and Embrace a year after the bloody war in his native Bosnia ended. In it he concluded, "In all wars, whether large or small, whether carried out on battlefields, city streets, living rooms, or faculty lounges, we come across the same basic exclusionary polarity: us against them."

Abraham Lincoln gave his Second Inaugural Address just a month before the bloody Civil War in this country ended in which he said, "With malice toward none, with charity toward all."

"Lincoln could have used this moment," wrote David Brooks, "as a chance for great chest-thumping: We prevailed in a righteous cause. We fought for good; you fought for evil. We were right; you were wrong."

Instead, Brooks argued, Lincoln's love of the union was stronger than his love for his own side.

The book written by the other Brooks — Arthur — after making the case that America is stuck in a culture of contempt, declared, "I want something more radical and subversive than civility and tolerance — love," and he defined love as "willing the good of the other."

In other words, love not in the shape of a heart but in the form of a cross, to use a Christian symbol.

Volf admitted that talk of self-giving love as a response to violence and polarization might sound like naïve foolishness to modern people used to addressing problems with reason and social science.

But after watching the ethnic cleansing that happened in his beloved homeland, he came to the following conclusion: "I argue that reconciliation with the other will succeed only if the self … is ready to receive [embrace] the other and undertake a re-adjustment of its identity in light of the other's alterity."

"But, but," we argue, "that's exactly what white supremacists are refusing to do. They are refusing to adjust their identity to the other's alterity."

So do we fight fire with fire?

"To explicitly and consciously choose a stance of respect, or better yet empathy and compassion — and to do so without expectation of reciprocity — is exceedingly hard," Hoggan acknowledged, then added, "but letting go of the 'foe stance' can break a stalemate."

He used Martin Luther King Jr. as a model of refusing "to allow his stance to be a reflection of the behavior of others. He did not give others the right or the power to determine his attitude."

Mike Keating used the word respect instead of love when he talked about the way he treated the "bad guys" he arrested as a Forest Park police officer, and not every bad guy was thereby transformed into a good guy, but he started the bridge-building project from his side of the divide.

Empathy for white nationalists? If love seems too unscientific or too religious, can you picture reconciliation in a marriage or a nation or in any relationship involving different world views without it? 

Jonathan Haidt in The Righteous Mind said research reveals that folks to the right of center on the political spectrum tend to focus more on the values of loyalty, authority and sanctity than do those on the left. That's why, for example, conservatives make a big deal about wearing an American flag lapel pin or kneeling during the national anthem and why liberals just can't understand why they do.

And, conversely, conservatives could not for the life of them understand why some liberals resisted showing patriotism after 9/11 by not wearing a flag pin.

But love is not about changing others to think like you do. It's precisely about respecting those who don't. 

Maybe our first move, if we want to build cultural bridges, is to get out of our liberal lifestyle enclave in which 85% of us voted for a very flawed candidate in the last presidential election, drive to a small town south of I-80 and listen, really listen without needing to win an argument, to where those folks are coming from.

That's a long way from trying to somehow empathize with white nationalists, but the bridge-building project has to start somewhere.

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Reader Comments

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Comment Policy

Gregg Kuenster from River Forest  

Posted: September 6th, 2019 5:03 PM

All River Forest employees are white. The Board does not want to talk about the lack of minorities. My Great grandfather went hunting with Indians in Iowa and Wisconsin. They mostly died from scarlet fever.

Joan Soldwisch  

Posted: September 6th, 2019 2:23 PM

Perhaps mine is a 50s attitude, but I don't want to know if my neighbor's a White Nationalist, any more than what church he attends. I definitely don't want to see him marching with a TIKI torch and chanting racist slogans. At some point if we conversed at all and his views were made evident, It's unlikely we would be even casual acquaintances exchanging anything more than a brief 'Hello.' It's hard enough knowing a family member voted for DJT, but I made it clear I won't talk politics. In my heart of hearts? I hope DJT will be out of office. Soon. I've never voted along party lines, instead choosing the candidate who best represents my views. Oh, one other thing. That flag pin attributed to Conservatives in the article? My husband always wore one. A WW II vet, it stemmed from patriotism, not conservative views, which he may or may not have held. Bottom line, I don't believe White Nationalists don't represent the majority of Americans. Maybe that's why they're angry - they are in the minority.

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