#SWNext #JusticeOrElse #Empathy
As we celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Million Man March, many are asking the question, “How do you protest?” It’s a call to wake up and remain aware of the challenges facing our nation and our world. It is a call to resist the distraction and sensationalism, to look deeper and discern the hidden/disguised motives and the core truths. It is a call to see the beauty in all people. It is a call to realize that you can disagree, but the goal is to find common ground.
How do I protest? I educate. Not just teach, but I work to uncover what’s hidden. I train scholars to evaluate holistically resisting the easy answer, knowing that powerful interests and institutional processes are not always incentivized to share the direct truth. My contribution to this anniversary is an emphasis on the spirit of this anniversary. People from many different walks sharing the goal of Justice. And, controversially, I say let’s not leave anyone out–even Whites…even White Nationalists.
Changes 20 Years in the Making
It used to be easy. The label of racist, sexist, or homophobic was a silencer on the weapon of the tongue. When a person stated views that were out of the politically correct spectrum, they paid a price professionally and publicly. This is a relatively recent development though. Look at the history. Open debate and defiance of polite language with the height of Black civil rights, Malcolm X’s speeches, and 1963 refusal of Democratic Governor of Alabama, George Wallace, barring students from entry to the University of Alabama. Until the end of candid rhetoric maybe near 1988 when Jimmy “the greek” Snyder uttered the comments that got him fired from CBS.
Many have suggested that the real problem, White Supremacy–that overt hatred for any non-white people–was institutionalized and invisible. White supremacy was lumped into the institutional mix with discrimination, prejudice, and inequality. Our policies, beginning with the civil rights act of 1964, set a precedent for addressing the institutional barriers to minorities. By 1988, the United States was addressing the individual white supremacist with censorship. But, silencing a sentiment has only resulted in the search for a new voice.
It has long been the recruitment tactic of white supremacist groups to focus on fears spawned by whatever “other” was present in a certain region. On the frontier west, the other was the Native American. In the cities, the other was the Blacks. In the southern-western border, the other was the Mexicans. But, something happened on a Tuesday night in November 2008, the worst fear came into the homes of many who had previously been silenced. It was no longer just a generalized fear of the other. It was removal of an iconic White institution handed to a non-white. The fear moved from being offensive (in both ways) to being defensive, even despairing. Recruitment was no longer to mobilize. It was to defend against the further collapse of the Real America. Fear of the other became fear for the loss of a (White) way of life.
Empathy & Choice Architecture
The co-opting of fear changes the White Supremacist into the White Nationalist. The White Nationalist is not an institutionally-supported purveyor of hatred toward another race or creed. The white nationalist is a genuinely concerned individual who desires the best for his children and his people. Even if you are shouting for rights against the establishment, you are now the only one shouting. The rhetorical technique of the white nationalist is to claim victimization. And guess what, empathy demands that we listen.
This could be one reason for the inadequacy of our categorizations these days. The simple determination of whether a person is racist, sexist, or homophobic was never adequate as a basis for tolerance and appreciation of diversity. But, it worked in an institutional context to describe policies that systematically discriminated against specific groups based on some ethnocentric ideal.
As the unit of analysis moves to the level of the individual, categorizations will not be useful. Each individual is unique, and comes with a unique set of concerns. Having children or not, levels of education, life goals, family connectedness, and a host of other characteristics form the profile of each person. Their choice architecture is built from this individualized profile, in the context of their immediate and social environment, impacted by the interactive effects that form their perception of self and the reality in which they live.
The good news is that we can mathematically map this complexity in operational research. Those may be two words that you are not comfortable applying to social science issues or social activism, but math and research are critical to interventions that promote dignity and worth of each person. It is more evident now that labeling the oppressor and demonizing the group runs counter to progress. What we have missed is that the need has shifted from the institutional level to individual level in the co-opting of fear.
The Empathy Standard
Let us first begin with a clear understanding of empathy. Empathy is defined as at ability to feel as the other feels. It is often distinguish from sympathy, which is to feel for a person. Empathy is more holistically to be distinguished from prejudices. Prejudices are characteristic means of self-protection or self-defense. More holistically, empathy is the ability to see the choices of the other as reasonable. This definition allows social workers to work with clients whose behaviors have proven reprehensible, while valuing the dignity and worth of each person. Even more importantly, this definition of empathy enables social workers to track the mechanism employed in the choice behavior. Once the mechanism is understood, the decision points can be disrupted with new information, intervention, influence, or insight. The disruption offers an expanded choice set, and may result in new behaviors.
Without empathy-inspired dialogue on a topic, prejudices turn to anger and an insistence on being heard. Without empathy expect violence, disrespect, and self-promotion over others as less-than. Empathy, like justice, works for everyone.
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