To support people in being able to reach a true empathic openness, I have often in the past conducted role plays in which I assumed the role of a much maligned figure, often George W. Bush, and asked people to enter dialogue with me by offering me empathy and understanding. Independently of people’s success in the activity (spotty), entering these roles has transformed me, because I now have a felt sense of what it might be like to be someone so different from myself. I was most moved when I imagined being the former president just about the time of September 11, 2001. I felt the weight of the responsibility, of having to make a decision about how to respond to the situation. I felt how awful it was to be hated by half my country.
Another time I engaged in a similar role play in which I was a soldier returning from Iraq only to face the judgments of others. As this soldier I was able to feel the outrage, the experience of not being understood at all for my profound willingness to sacrifice everything in order to protect the way of life of this country that’s so dear to me. I was able to feel what it was like to be together with others, risking my life, knowing I would do anything to protect theirs.
I feel less separate as a result. My own positions and views have not changed. But I now have a complete appreciation of the shared humanity of people who are far away from me on the political spectrum. I know that we have different worldviews, and I can hold that knowledge without losing understanding for the other worldview, even when I am frightened by the consequences I associate with it. I know that the fear is mutual. Conservatives are just as worried about my views, and what would happen if everyone espoused them, as I am about theirs. Knowing this helps me increase my compassion and understanding.
Thursday night, on my TV show (posted on www.youtube.com/baynvc), I worked with the cast on a couple of “hot topics” of major differences. The first one was about the health care bill that just passed. I wish I had a true conservative in the studio. Instead, one member of the cast took on the role of a woman who thought of the bill as “Un-American” and undermining freedom. The other cast member took on the role of a Brit (which she is) who is strongly advocating for health care as a universal right. Together we worked on how to reach mutual understanding instead of arguing and trying to convince each other. Both were surprised, in the end, to recognize that they had shared values despite opposing views.
If Helen Smith, or anyone else who is Conservative and sees this post, is up for dialogue, I would be honored and touched. I mourn the fact that, as she says, I live in a bubble, with little that would bring me in contact with Conservatives. I mourn the fact that in order to teach empathy for Conservatives I must conjure up role plays instead of live dialogues. I hope she takes me up, because I want what I have learned about empathy to support healing the rift between the Right and the Left in this country. Yes, there are core differences as Jonathan Haidt points out in his careful research. Yes, it may be that Conservatives are more able to empathize with Liberals than the other way around. I still maintain that we can connect across our differences. We may not immediately find ways to come closer on specific issues, but we can see our shared humanity, appreciate the struggles we face in understanding each other, and emerge with more humility and goodwill.