The Political Climate and Cognitive Empathy

Recently, a few friends have asked me about my outlook on the political climate and my thoughts on how to approach people from the other other side of the political spectrum. To give you a quick background, I have friends whose beliefs vary politically like the shades of a sunset. I have friends who are Trump supportors, Clinton supportors, climate change deniers, pro choice advocates, and many more. Instead of telling you what my poltics are, I want to address the current political climate, the fallouts I’ve heard of, and how I’ve chosen to navigate through it all.

As I take a long look at our political climate, I can’t help but witness fear taking over. You might’ve also noticed the fear of a certain race, defunded government agencies, Russian interference, or removal of civil liberties. In my life, I’ve found that fear begets fear and it’s that same fear that is unraveling the fabric of our society. The news shows lashing out, hate crimes, and anger spewing across party lines and on the internet. Each side seems to have a justifiable righteous indignation. They have to be right. The other side (or sides) are destroying everything we hold dear. I also take a stand for things that I strongly believe in.

I know I have a confirmation bias. Everyone does. Subconciously, we tend to drift towards those who share our same beliefs and biases. Although it’s nice to be around people who understand you, this can lead to some negative outcomes. Confirmation bias can lead us astray from the truth because of logical fallacies such as argumentum ad populum, where we come to conclusions that we believe to be true based on knowing people who believe the same thing. Although I am in tech, I understand technologies role in enabling this behavior. Technology has given us the ability to connect with just about anybody in the world. Websites like Facebook and Reddit have given us online communities to share and agree with other people. What happens when we don’t like what someone posted online? We unfriend them. All of a sudden, we’ve narrowed our human experience to the lowest common denominator… our shared beliefs. I’ve been guilty of this many times in my past and as I’ve grown older, overriding this bad habit has been my primary objective.

When we think about empathy, we are often referring to affective empathy. When we try to understand or share the feelings of others, we are experiencing affective empathy. Cognitive empathy is something I’ve recently come across that explains the good habit I’m trying to cultivate in my life. Cognitive empathy is about understanding someone from their point of view. In essence, it is hearing someone regardless of disagreement. I know that this is one of the most difficult things to do in this day and age. We have our social networks to thank for that. Why bother hearing and understanding someone we disagree with when I could have hundreds or thousands of people who I do agree with? But as I’ve said before, confirmation bias could very well be our demise as a species. For example, I’ve heard of friends ending relationships over who the other voted for.

Cognitive empathy also takes a lot of work. It’s difficult. There are no guides for us to follow. But like all habits, it takes time and purposeful effort. Here are a few tips I’ve gleaned over the years:

  1. It all begins with self awareness. The more aware of your own self, the more you’ll be able to accept some difficult truths.
  2. Be honest with yourself, which includes tasks like questioning your own biases/assumptions and admitting your weaknesses/blind spots.
  3. One of the difficult truths you’ll have to accept is you don’t know everything. You’ll have to catalog what you know and what you don’t know.
  4. One of the things you don’t know is someone else’s perspective.
  5. Since you don’t know someone else’s perspective, you have to be willing to listen to them, even when you want to interrupt, correct, or dismiss them.
  6. Making a good faith effort towards this involves asking questions instead of offering solutions.
  7. Listen, listen, listen, listen… oh, right… Listen

In summary, humility may be the only way we can move forward as a society. I will continue to fight for what I believe in, but I will also fight to understand those who don’t agree with me instead of writing them off. Hopefully, they return the same favor.