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February 19, 2017

A short story about empathy and understanding…

(The story at the beginning of this is altered to protect people who might be offended by the actual topic…
I’m not this sensitive about golf, but I needed to make a point)

I am a golfer. I love the sport and play it as often as I am able (I’m even going on a 50 day golf odyssey to every state this year). But often (as I’m a big fan of basketball as well) I’m in the gym with guys who don’t play golf. Periodically, the conversation will turn to what is and isn’t a sport; and, almost invariably someone will go on a “golf isn’t a sport” rant. If the majority of the group feels that way, it can often turn into a full-on offensive against golf, golfers, and anyone who might defend the game as a sport.

This (didn’t really, see note above) happened to me the other day and I came away with a perspective I feel might be important to share. When talking to a “golfing” friend later in the day I pointed out that probably, at this stage in my life, dealing with people constantly attacking “golf” was the closest I would ever come to feeling racism or bigotry (I’m a tall while male… I have literally every advantage our society offers). I noted how tough it can be to be surrounded by people who disrespect and even hate “golf.” Especially because they felt so emboldened by their majority standing that they were perfectly comfortable saying these things right to my face, without any regard for my feelings.

I did acknowledge that, while there is a clear majority of “non-golfers” around me I still had the ability to leave the situation and easily escape my tormentors, but still, it did offer me a hint of what it might be like. It was right about here in the conversation that I realized how broad a spectrum “empathy” can really have. In some ways, I certainly was more able to empathize with people who have been oppressed (based on race, gender, or whatever). However, if you think about it there is a big difference between the understanding you get from a car full of people driving by and yelling “cracker” and having almost every single person around you saying it. There is even another level when you consider that a person can get in their car and drive as far as they want… and still be looked on as that “cracker.”


(note: this image ^^^ links to a great article on empathy and dealing with it in interpersonal situations… it’s valuable all by itself)

What I believe is that getting to that point mentally, imagining that hopelessness or at least futility… that is where real empathy begins. I think it is very easy to be called a name, or have some core tenant of your beliefs attacked and think you “get it.” You don’t. And, while you may get closer to a functional (and, dare I say, useful) understanding if you take the full mental journey, you still won’t know the true experience (just as I never will).

However, maybe you don’t have to. When you take the step from “they called me a name and that sucks, so I get racism” or “all those guys were so much bigger than me, so I get what it’s like to be a woman and constantly feel like prey” to “what must be like to never be able to escape this… to have no safe harbor, have my only real options be to deal with it or hide… I just can’t imagine” you are probably getting as close as you can get (and as close as you need to be to know you don’t want anyone to experience that… ever). When it stops being a co-opted phrase to describe your personal discomfort (i.e. about you), and becomes a heartfelt caring for someone else (i.e. about someone else)… you’re probably where you need to be. You are feeling actual empathy… and probably personal growth as well.

April 26, 2010

Mea Culpa?

Filed under: Observations — Tags: , , , , — sbj @ 5:09 pm

Friday night, at the local watering hole, I found myself in a conversation with three women of varying feminist proclivities, regarding the role of a historically anglo-patriarchal society in shaping todays culture and equality environment (come on, it’s the same stuff you talk about when you get a drink after work on a Friday night, admit it! ;) ).

Part of the discussion involved white men admitting that they had been “jerks” for several hundred years. There was general disagreement, in fact bewilderment might be the better word, on the part of some of the women in the conversation as to why “we” couldn’t just say “yeah, that happened, it sucked, now lets move on.” My response was along the lines of this:

Because (white) men are scared (not individually, but as a group). If we admit we oppressed women (or blacks, or native americans, or anyone else for that matter) we are on the hook for it. We are responsible, and that doesn’t work for two reasons. 1) it puts at risk our position at the top of the “food chain,” our entire society is set up to favor white men, if we have to make up for centuries of favoritism (longer, in the case of women) in the form of reparations, that is going to change. 2) even if (as was suggested by my drinking companions) the women (or other groups) were willing to say “bygones, thanks for owning your mistake,” no one wants a tarnished history. Everyone wants to be the good guy in the story… tough shoes to fill with 400 years (or more, depending on which group you are focused upon) of oppression on our back.

Well, little did I know that we were in such good company. For, also on Friday, no less August a source than the New York Times ran an oped about the slave trade, culpability, and reparations. The article is here: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/04/23/opinion/23gates.html?scp=1&sq=slavery%20blame&st=cse

I didn’t see the actual article (until today), however while reading the Times on my way to work (on the bus, don’t worry, I don’t read and drive!), I stumbled across three letters to the editor about it (here: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/04/26/opinion/l26slavery.html). The article, and all of the letters are written by respected college professors and none are the type of whiny drivel you might find in some letters to the editor section, they are all well worth the read.

Clearly, reparations are still an issue, and, I believe, a big part of the reason that those who might be otherwise inclined to give a communal “my bad” are keeping their heads buried. No one wants to be punished for something they didn’t do, and it is fairly safe to say (except for a couple of yahoo’s here and there) that the folks that would have to admit to wrong doing today, are not guilty of the wrong doing in question (don’t get me started about any wrong doing that is takig place today… this piece is long enough already).

Over the course of my life the demographic breakdown of my friends clearly indicates that I am neither bigoted nor sexist. In this very blog I have championed equal rights in both popular and … lets say… less popular ways. Clearly (at least I like to think) I am not the bad guy here.

However… while I did not commit the crimes, that does not mean I am not enjoying the fruits of that unsavory labor. I am a healthy, tall, white male… as far as “advantages”, it doesn’t get much better than that.

Using only the history of this particular parcel of land (the United States) dating back to early colonial times, “I” have been a respected, participating, and in every measurable way a real part of society since day one (lets call that 1492), or, roughly 520 years.

Women got the right to vote (which should not be confused with full equality) in 1920 (or, roughly 90 years ago). *If* voting right translated to equal rights (they don’t) that would mean that men had a 430 year head start in shaping the country the way they wanted it. (Lest you think that the US is too back woods and behind the rest of the world, Finland was the first country to give full suffrage to women, in 1906).

Discrimination by race is only moderately better (15th amendment – 1870), or moderately worse (MLK was assissinated only 40 short years ago) than that of gender, depending on your perspective

Obviously, the dates on which groups received the vote do not equate to equal footing in creating our national culture. However, even if we (generously) grant those dates as being the watershed moments for those groups, That would mean that men of a race other than white have been involved for what would amount to 26% (the 4th quarter of a basketball game), and women (regardless of race) 17% (entering a metaphorical baseball game in the bottom of the eighth inning).

As talented as Mr. Jordan (Mr. Bird, or Wilt the Stilt) was, I don’t think he would make a very big impression on the game playing only the fourth quarter. Similarly, as talented as Mr. Ruth (or Mr Cobb, or A-Rod) was, playing less than the last two innings, the game would likely be decided well before his involvement. Clearly there is an advantage to the guys who play the whole game.

Perhaps this is what we need to recognize. Perhaps people like me need to stand up and rather than saying I’m sorry I caused the hardships your forefathers experienced (which I didn’t); we need to say, I recognize that I am enjoying benefits from a history that was greatly tilted in my favor (which I am), I feel compassion for your position (which I do), and where I can, I’m here to help.

Recently I said, to a very dear friend, “I’m not dealing in fault… it is a fleeting and temporary placebo for action and accountability.” I believe that applies here as much as it might anywhere else. I’m not sure about reparations. I don’t know that they are feasible/practical, nor do I know if I think they are that right course of action if they are. But I do know about action and accountability. I am perfectly capable of acknowledging my advantages, and taking whatever actions I can to level the playing field.

This feels like a good start…

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