Posts tagged ‘Empathy’

Considering Cancel Culture

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It used to be a term reserved for struggling sitcoms. Now, it’s something that happens to businesspeople, politicians, stars, and journalists.

Cancellation.

Recently, a variety of voices have expressed concern over what has become known as the “cancel culture” that seems to be running roughshod over our society. “Cancellation” refers to an attempt by one group to destroy and discredit some person or some other group with whom they disagree.

In a letter published in Harper’s Magazine, a group of progressive luminaries expressed their concern that:

The free exchange of information and ideas, the lifeblood of a liberal society, is daily becoming more constricted. While we have come to expect this on the radical right, censoriousness is also spreading more widely in our culture: an intolerance of opposing views, a vogue for public shaming and ostracism, and the tendency to dissolve complex policy issues in a blinding moral certainty. We uphold the value of robust and even caustic counter-speech from all quarters. But it is now all too common to hear calls for swift and severe retribution in response to perceived transgressions of speech and thought. 

It turns out that this letter caused such a stir that some signatories asked for their names to be removed. Why? Because some others who read the letter wanted to destroy and discredit those who signed it. They wanted to cancel those who expressed concern over cancel culture.

Just days after the above letter was published in Harper’s Magazine, an opinion columnist for The New York Times, Beri Weiss, published a scathing public resignation letter, also decrying the pernicious “cancel culture” she perceived to be prevalent and personally directed toward her within the halls of America’s paper of record:

My own forays into Wrongthink have made me the subject of constant bullying by colleagues who disagree with my views. They have called me a Nazi and a racist; I have learned to brush off comments about how I’m “writing about the Jews again.” Several colleagues perceived to be friendly with me were badgered by coworkers. My work and my character are openly demeaned on company-wide Slack channels where masthead editors regularly weigh in. There, some coworkers insist I need to be rooted out if this company is to be a truly “inclusive” one, while others post ax emojis next to my name. Still other New York Times employees publicly smear me as a liar and a bigot on Twitter with no fear that harassing me will be met with appropriate action. They never are. 

It is critical to understand that “cancel culture” is not the coin of just one particular political party, culture, or time period. Humans have been cruel to each other and tried to destroy each other when they have disagreed with each other for a very long time. The question is: what do we do about it?

In one sense, we must begin with ourselves. We cannot stop the unscrupulous from being cruel, but we can be measured in how we respond to the unscrupulous. Here are some responses to cancellation to consider:

  • Love. Responding to those who hate you with love is not only biblically orthodox, it’s generally wise. Responding kindly instead of in kind to those who want to destroy your reputation or livelihood will almost certainly throw your enemies off because it is not the response they want or expect. Speaking well of your enemies disarms them and garners the goodwill of others toward you.
  • Humility. If others are angry with you for something you have said or believe, it is worth it to ask: Do they have a point? This question does not assume that the person who is upset with you is completely correct, nor does it imply that they are handling their disagreement with you well. It simply means that they could be right on something even if they are wrong on many things. And if they are right at all, you want to learn from them. As strange as it sounds, those who hate you can also be those who teach you. Whether you’re willing to learn is up to you.
  • Truth. Responding with love and humility does not mean you forsake what you believe to be the truth. Love and humility do not equal appeasement. Even if the person who is trying to “cancel” you refuses to listen to you, others will. Don’t be afraid to make your case.
  • Gentleness. Sometimes, people become offended not so much by what someone has to say, but by how they say it. Don’t argue a point with the deleterious intent of triggering or offending someone else. Instead, argue a point in the hope of coming to a consensus with someone else. A little bit of gentleness in how you argue can prevent a lot of cancellation when you argue.
  • Empathy. As easy as it is to become defensive and upset when someone angrily disagrees with you, it can be just as easy to become cold and calculating when you disagree with someone else. You secretly wish them ill rather than well. You dream of humiliating them in a debate. When they fall prey to calamity, you feel a spark of schadenfreude. Resist these urges. Listen to and learn from those with whom you vehemently disagree. If you want others to give you a hearing, you need to give them a hearing. Cancellation is no better from you than it is for you.

With all this being said, we must admit that certain people and philosophies do hold views that are deplorable and unacceptable. But more often than not, destroying people’s lives does not lead to the destruction of their views. Their views, when confronted in anger and vitriol, often wind up being merely hardened. So, instead of trying to cancel those with whom we disagree, we could try something else: we could try persuading them. And we could remember: debating ideas does not mean demeaning people.

People are more than their positions.

July 20, 2020 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

A Week of Tragedy: Baton Rouge, Saint Paul, and Dallas

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This has been a terribly tragic week.  Today, three cities are in mourning:  Baton Rouge, Saint Paul, and now, overnight, Dallas.

In Baton Rouge, 37-year-old Alton Sterling was shot to death while being pinned to the ground by law enforcement officials.  In Saint Paul, Philando Castile was shot and killed by an officer after being pulled over for a broken taillight.  In both of these cases, there are questions over whether or not police officers used excessive force.  Then, last night in Dallas, when protesters gathered to decry what happened in Baton Rouge and Saint Paul, five officers were shot and killed, with an additional seven officers shot and wounded, by a sniper who was enraged by the shootings in Baton Rouge and Saint Paul.  It is the largest single loss of first responder lives since September 11, 2001.

As events continue to unfold, here are some things to keep in mind.

Grieve with those who grieve.

To all of the families who have lost loved ones this week in these tragedies, we should offer our condolences.  We should hold them up in prayer.  Losing loved ones are occasions for tears.  Empathy should be the hallmark of every Christian because it so closely reflects the incarnation.  In Christ, God came into our pain.  He experienced our pain.  He walked through our pain.  This is why the preacher of Hebrews can say that, in Christ, “we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize” (Hebrews 4:15).  For us to withhold empathy denies us the opportunity to show the world who we are by our love.  “Mourn with those who mourn” (Romans 12:15).

Receive Christ’s peace.

When a week spirals into tragedy like this one has, we can be tempted to respond either with fear or with anger, or with both.  I’ll have more on these responses Monday on my blog.  For right now, suffice it to say that these responses are not helpful.  When the world is troubling, rather than responding with fear and anger, it is better to receive the peace that only Christ can give.

The night before Jesus goes to His death on a cross, He knows His disciples will respond both with anger (cf. John 18:10) and with fear (cf. John 18:15-18, 25-26).  But Jesus wants His disciples to receive His peace.  So He says to them, “Peace I leave with you; My peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid” (John 14:27).  God’s peace is stronger than human tragedy.

Trust that tragedy does not have the last word.

It was Dr. Martin Luther King, echoing the words of the nineteenth century abolitionist Theodore Parker, who said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”  How a moral arc can bend toward things like justice and righteousness and goodness can be tough to see after a week like this.  Yet, what is good has not been lost.

Jesus tells the story of a widow who comes to a judge, begging him to grant her justice against someone who has wronged her.  The judge, who apparently is not at all concerned with justice, continually diminishes and dismisses her concerns until he finally decides to grant her what she wants, simply because she won’t leave him alone.  This widow’s quest for what is good overcomes this judge’s careless embrace of what is wrong.  Jesus concludes His story by pointing to God: “Will not God bring about justice for His chosen ones, who cry out to Him day and night? Will He keep putting them off? I tell you, He will see that they get justice, and quickly” (Luke 18:7-8).

Jesus promises that in a world where plenty is wrong, God is a just judge who will eventually make things right.  God will not put us off in our tears, in our hurt, and in our devastation.  And although God’s conception of a justice that comes “quickly” may not fit our conception of a justice that comes “quickly,” we can rest assured that God’s final defeat of all that is wrong will have its say on the Last Day.  Not only that, God’s defeat of all that is wrong has already had its say in Christ, who triumphed over sin and death by the cross (cf. Colossians 2:15).  In a week that has been full of tragedy, this is something in which we can take deep comfort and by which we can hold out great hope.

Terrible tragedy will not have the final say.  Jesus will.

July 8, 2016 at 10:07 am 3 comments

Why Brian Williams Is Just Like You (And Vice Versa)

Brian WilliamsSix months. That’s how long NBC has suspended Brian Williams, the anchor and managing editor of NBC Nightly News, in response to inaccurate statements he made about riding in a Chinook helicopter that was hit by an RPG while reporting from Iraq in 2003.[1]

Before I proceed any farther with this story, a bit of disclosure: I like Brian Williams. I have been watching Brian, and before him Tom Brokaw, on NBC Nightly News for years. I suspect I’m not the only one.

But this blog is not so much about the misdeeds and subsequent suspension of Brian Williams as it is about the public response to the misdeeds and subsequent suspension of Brian Williams. Two primary responses to this debacle seem to have emerged.

The first is that of antipathy. On Twitter, whole hashtags are devoted to ripping Williams for his sloppy retelling of his time in Iraq. The crush of critics reveling in what can only be described as a psychotic schadenfreude is unnerving to newsmen such as Bill O’Reilly, who told Jimmy Kimmel: “Anybody who is enjoying the destruction of this man — you got to look at yourself. And there’s a lot of people who seem to be real happy his career is going down the drain. That disturbs me.”[2] I couldn’t agree more. The prophet Obadiah warns, “You should not look down on your brother in the day of his misfortune, nor rejoice over…people… in the day of their destruction, nor boast so much in the day of their trouble” (Obadiah 12). But this is exactly what some people are doing. They are filled with gleeful antipathy.

But this isn’t the only response to this sordid affair. There’s another, much more supportive response to the embattled reporter – that of sympathy. Some folks have rallied to Williams’ side, especially on the Facebook page for Nightly News. Again and again, supporters have commented, “Bring back Brian Williams!!!!!!” (Sometimes, their messages have included even more exclamation points). These people are willing to overlook Williams’ faux pas and offer their unreserved, untempered support. They feel bad for the news anchor and believe his actions should get a pass.

Honestly, I am not comfortable with either of these responses. The antipathy of some smacks of an arrogant judgmentalism while the sympathy of others seems to be little more than a sappy sentimentalism. As Christians, I believe the best thing we can offer Brian Williams – and others caught in similar transgressions – is our empathy.

Though the word “empathy” was coined only at the beginning of the twentieth century, it is an important and helpful term to describe the similarities between others and ourselves. When we understand how much we share in common with others, it helps us help others. This is part of what the preacher of Hebrews says constitutes the very heart of Jesus’ ministry: “We do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are – yet He did not sin” (Hebrews 4:15). Jesus, through His incarnation, empathizes with us. He puts Himself in our place and knows exactly how we feel. He then helps us accordingly.

So what does it mean to empathize with Brian Williams? It means we need to admit that we, like he, are prone to yarn spinning. It means we need to be willing to say, to borrow a mantra from the Charlie Hebdo tragedy, “Je suis Brian Williams.” Those who are highly antipathetic toward Brian Williams seem to have forgotten this. From their perch of righteous indignation, they throw stones, ignoring that their perch sits in a glass house. The apostle Paul’s words are especially apropos here: “You, therefore, have no excuse, you who pass judgment on someone else, for at whatever point you judge the other, you are condemning yourself, because you who pass judgment do the same things” (Romans 2:1).

But true empathy goes farther than just identifying with another person. True empathy leads to helping that person. How can we help Brian Williams? In the same way Jesus helps us. He calls us to repentance. This is where folks highly sympathetic to Brian Williams go wrong. In their zeal to support the anchor, they have minimized and rationalized his sin.

I find it hopeful that in a statement released by Steve Burke, CEO and President of NBC Universal, Mr. Burke indicated that Brian “shared his deep remorse with me and he is committed to winning back everyone’s trust.”[3] Remorse can be well and good, but not unless it is what Paul calls “Godly sorrow [that] brings repentance” (2 Corinthians 7:10). My prayer is that Brian Williams’ remorse is a Godly remorse.

Do you know what the best part of repentance for Brian Williams will be? At this point, Brian has no guarantee that his suspension will not ultimately become his termination. NBC has refused to guarantee his position. But even if NBC says, “You’re fired,” in repentance, Jesus says, “You’re forgiven.” And that’s better than any anchor chair. And that’s a promise good not only for a national news anchor, but for low-profile, everyday sinners like you and me.

_____________________________

[1] Roger Yu and Melanie Eversley, “NBC: Brian Williams suspended for six months,” USA Today (2.11.2015).

[2]Bill O’Reilly says Brian Williams ‘made a mistake,’ not sure he will keep job,” Fox News (2.10.2015).

[3] Erik Wemple, “How can NBC News’s Brian Williams ‘win back everyone’s trust’ from the beach?Washington Post (2.10.2015).

February 16, 2015 at 5:15 am 1 comment

On Michael Brown and Darren Wilson

Credit: Reuters

Credit: Reuters

They are the protests that just won’t stop. The cries of activists in Ferguson, Missouri are loud and only seem to be getting louder. One cry in particular caught my attention. MSNBC’s Chris Hayes was reporting from Ferguson when protestors began to throw rocks at him. Some of them yelled, “Tell the true story!” But one man shouted what I think is perhaps the most profound insight into this whole, sordid affair I have heard to date. “This isn’t about Mike Brown no more,” he said. “It’s a civil rights movement. It’s about all people.”

I agree with the protestor. Though they are often conflated, what’s happening in Ferguson today can and should be distinguished from what happened in Ferguson on August 9. This is not about Michael Brown anymore. This is about – be they real or perceived – civil rights grievances.

On the one hand, this is not all bad. This tragedy has ignited some important national conversations. On the other hand, in these conversations, we have taken the very real pain of two very real families – the Brown family and the family of the officer who shot him, the Wilson family – and turned it into an expedient talking point for rallies, protests, and cable news brawls. But their pain deserves more than our marginal mentions. We need to do more. We need to go deeper. We need to take some time to empathize with these families.

Empathy is when you take the human experience and personalize it. In other words, you use what you know from the human experience in general to try to understand one human’s experience in particular. What has happened in this case is the exact opposite. We have taken the personal experiences of two families and de-personalized them, hoisting their pain on our petard.

Michael Brown and Darren Wilson have become emblems. Michael Brown has become an emblem of racial tensions that have plagued Ferguson for decades. Darren Wilson has become an emblem of mistreated law enforcement officials. But these men are much more than impersonal emblems. Michael Brown was a son with college aspirations. Darren Wilson is a man with a family at home.

In an effort at empathy, I’ve been pondering what questions these families must be asking themselves as they watch all this unfold. I’ve been thinking about the questions I would be asking if was in their situation.

As I’ve been thinking about Michael Brown’s parents, I’ve wondered if they’ve asked themselves:

  • Did Officer Wilson really have to use deadly force to subdue our son? He has lots of ways to subdue suspects.
  • It was broad daylight! How in the world did the officer not know our son was not pointing a weapon at him?
  • Did Officer Wilson overreact because he was scared of a black man?
  • What is a jury going to say about all this? Is justice going to be served?

As I’ve been thinking about Officer Wilson and his family, I’ve wondered if they’ve asked themselves:

  • Why can’t people understand how difficult it is to make snap decisions as a police officer?
  • Why do people always assume officers have the worst of intentions?
  • Don’t the protestors realize that their threats scare our whole family?
  • What is a jury going to say about all this? Is justice going to be served?

Of course, I don’t know for sure what questions they’re asking. And I would never claim to understand how these families are feeling. But empathy is not about claiming to know how somebody feels. It’s about caring how somebody feels. And we should care about and for these families.

To this end, I would ask you to pray for these families – both of these families – and for peace to be restored in Ferguson. Try to empathize with them – their pain, their fear, their confusion – and then pray that God would give them strength, comfort, and hope during this difficult time. Remember, these families are more than causes, they’re people. We cannot forget that.

Allow me to add one final note. Just because I seek to uphold the value of empathizing with the Brown and Wilson families doesn’t mean I don’t believe larger discussions around race are unimportant. But I pray we don’t have these conversations like it’s 1963. I pray we’ve grown since then. I pray our discussions are more civil, our thinking is more compassionate, and our hearts are more, well, empathetic toward those who have different experiences and perspectives. But for now, my prayers are with the Brown and Wilson families. I hope yours are too.

August 21, 2014 at 3:21 pm 1 comment


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