The Need For Influencing People Through Empathy
What does the twenty eighth UK single (released in 1993) written by a new wave/synth pop band Depeche Mode have in common with my story ? Turns out, more than I thought.
Voting by the electoral college in USA today marked the culmination of the 2016 election season. The embattled conservative conscience has presumably found a voice. A conscience that was at war not only with itself but also with a liberal opposition. Echoes of such conflicts can be seen and heard around the world as different countries and identities (based on race, gender, socio-economic class or sexual orientation) search for anchors and a leader that can guide them towards a true north. This is the very essence of the human spirit-chaos followed by destruction of an old order followed by a new dawn.
Society is a complex living being that morphs, evolves and sometimes degnerates into an abyss called obscurity. I recently came upon an article in the Economist titled ‘Down in the valley, up on the ridge’ which was an excellent attempt to shed light on the Melungeons. So much so that a trip to Tennessee is on the cards very soon.
In that very spirit, I was moved by the struggle of the Sioux tribes in Dakota. Throughout my stay in North America, works such as David Roberts ‘ Once They Moved Like The Wind, Bruce Catton’s Civil War, Jon Krakauer’s Under The Banner Of Heaven, Alex Haley’s Roots have helped me understand native American, confederate, Mormon and African American society better. The Economist’s article on the Melungeons is a classic piece of journalism that has helped an overseas Indian living in St. Louis, Missouri unravel the complexity within American society today. All writings on an indigenous, forgotten people that illuminate the past in order to understand the present and predict the future are truly worth revisiting. They take the reader on a journey down a dark and less understood path.
Halfway across the globe, while Aleppo lies in ruins and Syrians have lost more than their homes, Germans fight for their nation against waves of helpless immigrants. Japan and Europe deal with consequences of an ageing population and an insular rigidity to stick to their roots.
Closer home, demonetization has divided India on political and ideological lines.
As pointed out by President Obama in his last press conference, all these stories tend to overshadow the genocide in South Sudan.
Each of these issues are very complex and have many dimensions. There are no short answers. One thing is certain though — there are connections between issues. For instance, the plight of the rust belt states as highlighted in JD Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy has a deep connection with unemployment and the hollowing out of the middle class in America.
The other common aspect is the absence of a bridge between subscribers of two opposing world views. Quite often, political gerrymandering ensures that such a bridge is never built. I call that bridge empathy.
Empathy is a short word as most profound concepts are. However, empathy is extremely difficult to practice. It requires a maniacal focus on understanding other people and working towards achieving their goals at the cost of delaying personal gratification. It also calls for giving without an expectation of reward or appreciation.
Quite often, asking people about their background, history and past struggles can illuminate underlying causes of their biases and consequently, where they are coming from.
Whether you are designing a software application for an end user, negotiating a contract or trying to form a cohesive policy acceptable to liberals and conservatives, the importance of appreciating the history of a view with the goals of truly understanding its present and influencing its future cannot be emphasized enough.
Empathy requires one opposing party to meet the other more than midway to reach a common ground. Question is: will you be the one taking the high road?
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