Lessons in empathy

I have two assignments for you tonight:

1. Take an hour or so out of your weekend to watch this video. You may think you know all you need to know about race relations, but unless you’ve seen this video … you don’t. This is well worth the time you’ll invest in it.

2. Read this entry on my friend Sara’s blog. Her young son was diagnosed with autism a while back. This is the clearest explanation I’ve ever heard for what it’s like to live with this disorder.


6 thoughts on “Lessons in empathy”

  1. I’ve seen Jane Elliott’s program in action. Awhile back, Cleveland’s ABC affiliate aired a local program which she ran.

    I don’t know what the class started out as, but as shown on this show, it ended up being a lesson in making white people hate themselves. I have news for her: you don’t teach people to love by telling them (falsely) that ALL the 1500s – 1900s white people who came to America were convicts or (to paraphrase, somewhat) the dregs of Europe. Spreading the historical falsehoods of the modern-day anti-American liberal somewhat diminishes her credibility for me. You learn to care about people different from you when you value them equally to yourself (love your neighbor as you love yourself — isn’t that what Jesus said?).

    I’d be the last to argue that the white history in America is marvelous or perfect, but I can only affect my immediate environment. The past is out of my control. She doesn’t take that into account either, unless she’s softened significantly over the past 10 years.

  2. Have you seen Jane Elliott’s program in action, or have you watched a TV special about her program? I ask because the video to which I linked above shows a training session with adults that includes a segment in which — unbeknownst to half the participants — she adopts the persona of a combative, remarkably narrow-minded bigot, adjusting her words to fit the group she is targeting, and adopting the sort of faulty reasoning that underpins most racist attitudes. (Once she’s made her point, of course, she tips her hand and leads a fascinating discussion about how the exercise affected the participants.) A person who wished to discredit her program could easily isolate that portion of the exercise to make her look hateful and irrational.

    You use the phrase “anti-American liberal.” I don’t normally entertain political discussions on my site, but that phrase has always bothered me, because it raises a lot of questions that I simply can’t answer. Up to this point, the only people I’ve heard using the phrase “anti-American liberal” were TV commentators, so this is the first opportunity I’ve had to ask my questions, and I just can’t pass it up. I trust you won’t mind indulging me:

    1. What, exactly, do you mean when you use this phrase?
    2. Do you believe there are pro-American liberals?
    3. If so, how would you distinguish between the two? Do you use some sort of political litmus test, or is there another method?
    4 Where did you come up with this term? Did you make it up yourself, or is it a GOP talking point you’ve picked up from conservative commentators?
    5. When you used this term, were you aware that you were talking to a liberal, or that there was at least a possibility you might be talking to a liberal?
    6. Knowing that I am liberal, would you consider me anti-American? Why or why not?
    7. Are you aware that “anti-American” is an inflammatory term used by some individuals to demonize those who disagree with them?
    8. Would you consider using inflammatory political speech an example of loving your neighbor as you love yourself?
    9. Can you name a modern-day anti-American liberal and supply evidence to prove that the individual in question is truly anti-American?

    I wonder about this every time I hear the phrase. It’s always struck me as a vitriolic but generally meaningless talking point whose only real purpose is to provide a ratings spike for TV commentators and boost traffic for conservative bloggers by appealing to emotion rather than reason … but again, I’ve never had a chance to ask the people who use it what they meant. If you can provide some clarity and demonstrate the accuracy and value of the phrase, I might be able to see its merit.

  3. Emily:

    All good questions.

    First, about Jane Elliott. What Channel 5/WEWS did was essentially broadcast the class. And as the discussion continued, once the initial stuff was over, I kept hearing, oh, the whites who came to this country were mostly convicts or ignorant peasants and similar negative comments. It gripes me, I guess, because some of my family have been here since the 1590s and from what we’ve able to determine, they may have been farmers or sheepherders in Wales and England, but they weren’t the scum that this discussion would lead you to believe they were. These attitudes and ideas were at no time refuted by Ms. Elliott. And it’s too bad — the basic concept of these classes is a good one. The average white person has no idea what it feels like to have people hate you, be afraid of you or ignore you on the basis of what you look like.

    Now: “anti-American liberal”.

    My usage of the term in this case was a rejection of the ideas I mentioned above and their corollaries and the people who use them. Let me state up front that while I do not agree with many ideas promulgated by people who are politically liberal, I don’t see all liberals as bogies or villains. I don’t hate anyone — that’s hard for me sometimes, since Jesus especially said I was supposed to love my enemies. But that kind of love isn’t some squishy emotion, it’s seeing people the way He does, instead of through the filters I acquired by dint of the way I grew up. It’s putting aside Janet and putting on Jesus. And to be honest, I don’t always find it easy. It’s just what I am to do — and I need His help for it.

    What *I* specifically mean by “anti-American liberal” might better be expressed as “revisionist liberal historian” — maybe. It’s an entire school of thought that sees anything American (and especially American white — and especially American white male) as the ultimate evil. It’s the viewpoint that says that the whites who came to this country were all dregs. That turns anyone who is or was regarded as a hero inside out to find their flaws (never mind that heroism may be the action of a moment). That (as that one professor said, post-911) sees the victims who died in the World Trade Center as deserving their fate because they were part of the American system. That is the mindset I had in mind.

    I’m sorry it was perceived as an inflammatory point of view. I guess it is, in some ways. The viewpoint I mean it to express does bother me a lot. I have two nephews in the military and one of them is either in Iraq or about to go there. When I hear (which I have, in the local ‘alternative’ paper) that people who would adopt the ‘AAL’ label with pride applaud the deaths of our troops, it’s hard not to be angry.

    Anyway, I hope this expresses my viewpoint. I don’t think I completely answered all your questions, but I’m out of time for now and I won’t have Internet access for the rest of the weekend.

    Please forgive me if it seemed as though I was making this personal to you. That was NOT my intent and I’m sorry if that’s how it came across.


  4. Thanks for providing an intelligent explanation.

    I can certainly understand why you would be offended by the comments in your local alternative paper. Alt weeklies generally pride themselves on being as outrageous as possible, so they hire columnists who are basically the left-wing equivalents of Anne Coulter and Sean Hannity: Extremists who say the most offensive things they can think of to get attention, without regard to the relative logic, reason, accuracy, value, or potential consequences of their words.

    The trouble with the term “anti-American” is that it has been co-opted by talking heads who apply it indiscriminately to anyone who opposes their point of view, rather than reserving it for the small but disturbing handful of anarchists and terrorists out there who truly want to destroy this country. It’s a loaded term that frequently has the (hopefully unintended) consequence of pre-empting intelligent debate and replacing it with stupid partisan name-calling. The commentators I’ve heard using the term remind me of nothing so much as the sophomore who called our principal a “faggot” the other day because she was mad that he’d suspended her friend for fighting.

  5. One last comment and I’ll let this go. I hope you understand that I’m not knee-jerking here.

    I find myself wishing I could find another name for my political beliefs when I hear the hatefulness passed off by people who call themselves conservative these days. Especially the commentators. They don’t speak for me and never have.



  6. I think a lot of people on both sides of the aisle have a distorted view of what the terms “liberal” and “conservative” mean. If I remember right, it was my poli sci professor in college who explained that political views exist along a continuum, with fascism at one end and — I think I’m remembering this right — communism or something at the other. In theory (and this is me talking here, not my professor), the two ends of the spectrum are diametrically opposed to each other, but in practice, extremism is not sustainable without a lot of reinforcement from the military, so any form of extremist thought quickly devolves into authoritarianism, effectively making it indistinguishable from any other form of extremist thought, however different the underlying philosophies might be.

    Meanwhile, on that same continuum, “liberal” is basically just a step or so to the left of dead center, and “conservative” is basically just a step or so to the right of dead center. The two ideologies are not polar opposites, as the talking heads would have you believe.

    Most voters are truly liberal or conservative — basically just moderates who lean a little bit one way or the other on various issues — which is why centrist candidates tend to win elections. Extremes make most people uncomfortable.

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