On the morning following the 2016 presidential election I had all sorts of different emotions coursing through me. The electoral result was so shocking that I honestly did not know what to think or how to feel. As I often do, when I cannot quite sort out exactly how I am feeling, I sat down and started to write. The following is what I wrote on that day now fourteen months ago…
I cannot know what the disappointment feels like for the woman who wanted nothing more than to be able to wake up her daughter this morning, turn on the television, point to Hillary and say, “You know what, in this country you can be anything you want, including president.”
I cannot know what the heartbreak must feel like for 99-year old Minerva Turpin who was first in line to vote yesterday morning at Tim Kaine’s precinct. I cannot even begin to imagine what it must feel like for her – a woman who was born before her gender was even afforded the right to vote – to have waited for so many decades to have a chance at last to vote for a woman for president, only to wake up this morning and find out that in her lifetime she would be unlikely to a see a woman sworn-in.
I cannot know the disillusionment minorities of this country must feel today knowing that a man who played to the very worst, and paranoid of our fears – who sowed seeds of division and stoked the fires of difference between races – has been elected their president. I cannot know what the shift of the Earth under their feet must have felt like.
I cannot know the sense of anger every woman who has ever been paid less for doing the same work as her male coworker must have felt this morning when they awoke and found the ceiling was still above their heads; that they would go through the next four years without a true advocate of their cause in the White House.
I cannot know the hurt that every woman who has ever been objectified, insulted, assaulted, or raped must feel knowing that a man who has bragged about such behavior in the past is now their president-elect and is somehow supposed to represent their values to the world.
I cannot know the hopelessness that an immigrant mother of an American child must feel today when she woke up to find out that the person who won, did so in part because he promised to deport her during the campaign. I have no idea how she can even find the strength to look her child in the eyes without breaking down in tears.
I cannot know the fury that any mother of a child with a disability must feel today. Knowing that the man elected to be our next president once publicly mocked a disabled reporter for all the world to see and did not have the decency to acknowledge what he had done was wrong, nor the humility to apologize.
I cannot know the fear that any gay couple must feel today knowing that the next person who will work out of the Oval Office does not share their values but will be able to impact their lives in ways both big and small; there is a very real possibility that the progress for their rights gained over the past eight years could be reversed in short order.
I cannot know the anxiety my own mother must feel knowing that our next president has promised to repeal and take away the very health insurance that saved her life. I cannot imagine the panic she must feel when the thought of no longer being able to afford the medications she must now take everyday to stay alive crosses her mind.
It truly tears at every fiber of my being knowing that I can empathize with every person I just mentioned, but cannot truly know what today feels like for any of them. I cannot feel the disappointment, heartbreak, disillusionment, anger, hurt, hopelessness, fury, fear, anxiety, or sadness they must feel today because by nothing other than fate was I born a white heterosexual man in America. I do not know. I cannot know. I will never know.
…Without the ability to actually experience what any of those people must have felt at the time, I was left with nothing more than empathy – that most human and essential of emotions that allows us to put ourselves in the shoes of another, relate and humble our presumptions. Empathy, more than any other emotion, including love, is what makes us human. It allows us to emotionally connect with people we may not share much in common with in a way that says, I may not be able to experience what you have, but I assuredly care about your struggle and will be here for you nonetheless.
Yet it is that exact emotion – empathy – that I fear our public servants suffer a deficit of today. It is apparent not just in the coarse rhetoric of their debates, but also in the callous votes they cast. A certain ignorant indifference seems to have infected our political discourse that I fear, if left unaddressed, endangers the essential trust between the governing class and the governed.
When I wrote that, “by nothing other than fate was I born a white heterosexual male in America”, I understood that such a fate had endowed me with certain privileges in America that advantaged me and disadvantaged others. I understood that however unfair it might have been, that I had won the one lotto that truly, unfortunately still matters in America.
I understood that by the tone of my skin I would never be stereotyped as violent, or lazy, or uncivilized, or the countless other inaccurate negative stereotypes that minorities are unfairly labeled with that American culture has perpetuated throughout our history, that still persist and permeate through society today. I understood that I would probably never be shot dead for simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time or pulled over because my skin was too dark nor would I live with a cloud of suspicion perpetually over my head.
I understood that simply by having a penis I would never be denied employment or paid less for the work I did nor marginalized as inferior to another sex. I understood that I would be harassed less often, rarely objectified, and that if I were assaulted that I would never have my claims doubted or dismissed because I was a man living in a man’s world. I understood that my body was my own and that there would never be a debate driven by the opposite sex as to what I chose to do with it.
I understood that by being heterosexual I would never be dismissed as morally corrupt or perpetually damned without fair assessment as to the merits of such labels. I understood that my ability to choose a partner, to fall in love, to marry, and to be a father would never be dependent upon the whims of politicians. I understood that I would never be made fun of simply for being born the way I was.
When I sat down and wrote those words the day after the election, the last and most important thing that I understood, was that I had a responsibility to never take advantage of the privilege I had been given, but instead a responsibility to use that privilege – of being a white heterosexual man in America – to help lift up those who had been marginalized in a society that advantaged me, and disadvantaged them, on account of nothing other than fate. I understood that I had the responsibility to help tear down the power structure upon which I stood at the top of simply by the chance of my birth in order to help create a more level playing field for future generations.
I understood all of this because I had empathy – I had put myself in someone else’s shoes and chose to look at the world through their eyes. In doing so I realized that we have a responsibility to do everything possible to ensure that future generations are born into a fairer, more just America. An America where the twist of fate to who and where we are born has less of an impact on the outcome of our lives than what we choose to do during the course of them.
So how do we get there?
Empathy, of course.
Empathy is what we need from our leaders more than ever to combat the polarization paralyzing our politics today. For empathy is the only way in which our stewards of public good will ever truly understand and connect with the citizens who elected them and the struggles they face. In empathy our leaders can find the foundation needed to build bridges of understanding upon which to meet and solve issues instead of residing behind the walls of ignorance they currently do.
A pure and virtuous sense of empathy is required for our public servants to craft legislation that benefits all Americans and not just the well-connected few. We need our representatives to understand that they represent all of us – the rich and poor, the gay and straight and transgendered, the white and black and brown, the insured and not insured, the employed and unemployed, able bodied and disabled, the urban and the rural, the old and young, the religious and non-religious – and that we all fall behind when they refuse to see the world through each other’s eyes, compromise, and continue to just talk past each other instead of to one another.
I fear that having been so blessed in their own lives, many of our public servants have forgotten how fickle the difference of being advantaged and disadvantaged in America really is and how stark the divide is between the two. May I remind them that none of us get to choose to who or what circumstances we are born. Whether we are born into wealth or abject poverty is nothing more than chance. Whether we are born a member of the majority or the minority is only a twist of fate in the grand scheme of humanity. We do not get to choose, we are simply given life – beyond that is determined by the world into which we are born, the choices we make, and the opportunities the world presents us with.
It is within the vast array of circumstances that people in America can find themselves that I propose the following questions to our leaders:
If, you had adopted a child and somehow a mistake was made along way and it was found out that they were actually brought into the country illegally, would – when that child grew up – you not want to ensure their ability to stay here with you and the only friends and family they ever knew, in the only country they ever called home?
If, one day your own child came to you and told you that they were gay or transgendered, would you not want the only consideration as to their Constitutionally protected rights to be if they were an American or not?
If, every time you fell ill, you had to draw out of a hat that determined whether you had insurance or not, would you not support universal health care that ensures no one is left with the choice between being cared for or going into debt simply because they got sick?
If, after you cast a vote on taxes, you were forced to enter a drawing that reassigned you to a different level of income, would you not vote for a tax code that does not bias the wealthy at the expense of the poor, that does not give the most to who need it least and the least to who need it most?
If, when considering a bill concerning voting rights, you were forced to trade places with someone who might be disenfranchised on account of your vote, would you ever vote for a bill that could potentially disenfranchise you?
Lastly, if every twenty-five years you rotated races and sexes, would you ever pass a law that advantaged some races or one sex over another?
I would assume, given the pervasive self-interest evident among our public servants today, that the answer to each of these questions asked would be the most egalitarian of choices. With that being said, I ask that our leaders ask of themselves one and only one question before each vote they cast:
If I were born today, unable to choose where or to whom I would be born, would this bill create a fairer, more just and kind world for me to be born into?
We cannot choose the world into which we are born, but we can choose to ensure that future generations are born into a better one than we were. That is not just our greatest opportunity, but also our greatest responsibility – and it requires nothing else than for us to embrace and acknowledge that most human of emotions, empathy.