If Liberals Want to Win, They Need to Empathize With Conservatives

It’s an oft-repeated adage: politics is just so polarized today. Left and Right have never been so far apart. Common ground is eroding, if not already completely obliterated.

While this is undoubtedly true in some respects, blithely blaming “the gap” between conservatives and liberals seems partially designed to absolve us of any responsibility to actually try to convince those with whom we disagree.

When we see a gap as unbridgeable, we allow ourselves to think we don’t even have to attempt to build the bridge.

The problem of knee-jerk animosity and pointed hopelessness toward “the Other” is something of which “both” sides are guilty. My fellow liberals may be shocked to know that even some of our conservative, “beyond redemption” counterparts have taken note.

Glenn Beck (I know; I know. Bear with me.) recently wrote an op-ed for The New York Times in which he lamented the lack of empathy in American political discourse.

In the piece, he wrote about trying to empathize with Black Lives Matter, not exactly a cause that would normally elicit Beck’s sympathies.

“In a recent speech to a group of conservatives, I made what I thought was a relatively uncontroversial point about the commonalities between Trump supporters and Black Lives Matter activists,” Beck wrote. “I thought this was a simple idea, but the criticism was immediate and sharp: How dare I try to understand the ‘other side’?”

I never thought I could even slightly agree with this guy…
I never thought I could even slightly agree with this guy…

While Beck’s piece isn’t flawless, the overall idea is worth considering. Our collective lack of empathy seems poised only to deepen American politics’ gridlock and dysfunction.

The problem Beck identifies carries particular salience for progressives: How can society move forward if we can’t change anyone’s mind? Do we simply try to hope that all of our opponents die? Do we try to silence our critics into submission while forcing through a progressive agenda?

How has that approach worked for us so far?

All too frequently, it seems that liberals are merely proving their lefty bona fides when engaging in disagreements. This inclination—while certainly easier than genuinely trying to convince the unconvinced, and much more immediately gratifying—is ultimately not just a waste of time, but actively counterproductive.

In psychology, there’s a concept called the “backfire effect.” Related to the psychological idea of confirmation bias, the idea holds essentially that “correcting” an unsubstantiated or false claim actually increases misconceptions among the group in question. In fact, there is evidence that some individuals hold their original opinion even more strongly than they did previous to being challenged.

In other words, putting someone in a defensive position may actually have the opposite of the desired effect, reinforcing the beliefs instead of expunging them.

Do any of these people look like they’re being convinced?
Do any of these people look like they’re being convinced?

Verbally eviscerating those with whom we disagree may feel like justice, but its profoundly unproductive.

Sometimes, critics of this perspective may argue, the most optimal outcome actually is to silence people. This is true. Some individuals—neo-Nazis, gay-bashers, white-supremacists, to name a few—have ideologies so deeply held and views so horribly offensive that the best society can hope for is to cow them into silence.

But should we really be treating our ignorant uncle or our tuned-out neighbor the same way we should treat a self-avowed neo-Nazi?

To be clear, I’m not advocating for people of color, LGBTQ, and other disadvantaged or oppressed to be silenced. This is not an argument telling victims and survivors of violence to “just calm down.”

No—this argument is for white, male, add-your-privilege-adjective-here liberals. For those from disadvantaged communities, reacting in anger is an understandable response. But for many of us more privileged liberals, these disagreements are more a matter of intellectual distaste than a threat to our wellbeing.

Unfortunately, our less privileged compatriots are often silenced or dismissed before they even speak. It is much harder for these individuals to act as emissaries to those complicit in obstructing justice.

Liberals from more privileged positions owe it to our silenced brothers and sisters to suck up our pride and actually productively engage with people we disagree with.

Calling someone a bigot on Facebook and pointing out what an absolute moron they are isn’t convincing anyone. And it’s probably actually strengthening the opinion you’re trying to vanquish.

What if compassion is the strongest tool at liberals’ disposal?
What if compassion is the strongest tool at liberals’ disposal?

Liberals in privileged positions need to try a new approach: compassionate disagreement.

This means that we must sometimes adjust our goal from proving that we’re smarter than those we disagree with to hoping that we can get those individuals to understand our point of view, even if only for a moment.

This means occasionally giving others the benefit of the doubt.

This means trying to understand that—more often than not—people are ignorant, not evil.

This means approaching disagreements as discussions, not as battles.

As frustrating as it is to temper our tempers, more privileged liberals owe it to the marginalized communities for which we claim to stand to swallow our pride.

Regardless of whether Donald Trump loses in November, the millions of people who support him are not going away. Trump’s rise was made possible by marginalizing, ignoring, and dismissing the (albeit often deeply offensive) views of his supporters.

Liberal ideals can appeal to a far wider spectrum of America than they do now. The American Left would be wise to look at developing a way of convincing the unconvinced, or Trump is far from the last—or greatest—threat we’ll face.

This essay originally appeared on Medium. You can follow Canton on Twitter @CantonWiner.

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