Empathy in Crisis: How to Move Forward After the Kavanaugh Hearings
The brutal process of confirming Judge Brett Kavanaugh has been one of the most divisive in recent U.S. history. There has been an alarming public display of dismissive reactions to the human experiences of trauma, particularly those of women.
Hateful things have been said by our elected officials — who are supposed to act as public stewards of our society. And, although the confirmation is now complete, raw emotions still run high. The New York Times columnist David Brooks aptly described the hearings as evidence of the “unvarnished tribalism of national life.”
Regardless of your stance on the last week, the fact remains that we are all hurting and at a loss to define how we move forward from here. As this negative spiral continues to feed on itself, is there a path back to care and compassion?
In his recent bestselling book, “21 Lessons for the 21st Century,” historian Yuval Noah Harari talks about the dangers when your head is disassociated from your body. Harari shares this warning as a cautionary tale for a society that spends too much time looking at social media and Facebook feeds rather than having direct, firsthand offline experiences. The Kavanaugh hearings had us all living this every day. Pundits, echo chambers, nasty tweets and hateful memes — all on display in their full digital media glory. And who is better for it?
When I think about how we can reconnect our head to our bodies, I begin with what is sorely missing: empathy.
Here are some immediate ideas to immediately begin the personal and political healing journey by bringing empathy more prominently into our lives — now. Perhaps we can begin to consciously close the great ‘tribal divide’ which is now playing out so hurtfully in our public arena… and our personal lives.
1. Spend time understanding what empathy is…and isn’t.
Empathy is not pity. It’s not even compassion. It is a deep understanding from an experiential place.
Consider what two very different ‘experts’ can teach us.
In this video, Sesame Street’s Murray gets an experiential lesson from actor Mark Ruffalo, who first explains that “empathy is when you understand and care about how someone else is feeling.” When Murray doesn’t fully get the description, Ruffalo goes into deeper storytelling until Murray is right there with him in experiencing the emotion. They end the segment with shared delight and a deeper connection with each other from a connected understanding of shared emotion, “I can understand exactly how you feel!”
Dr. Brene Brown, a social worker and researcher who specializes in vulnerability and overcoming shame clarifies the important distinction between empathy and sympathy. “Empathy fuels connection. Sympathy drives disconnection.” In Brown’s definition, found in this powerful animated video, there are four aspects of empathy: perspective taking, staying out of judgment, recognizing emotion in other people, and communicating that emotion.
Brown describes empathy as a vulnerable choice, where the listener must be open to feeling something deeply themselves in order to connect with others.
At its core, according to Brown, “empathy is feeling with people. Rarely does a response make something better. What makes something better is connection.”
2. Acknowledge that experiences are experienced through actual lived experience (and not what you “think” someone’s experience is or should have been)
Leading up to the vote, there was a lot of commentary around the credibility of Professor Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony. While there was polite acknowledgement of her trauma, the hired Prosecutor methodically interrogated Ford on her memory of facts, looking for inconsistencies and gaps. And while there was almost unanimous agreement that Ford’s testimony was credible, there was little emotion or empathy shown towards what was clearly a horrific and painful episode in her life.
And yet, there was plenty of impassioned outrage by the all-male Republican Senate Judiciary committee for how Kavanaugh was treated in the process. Emotion and empathy for the “disgrace” against Kavanaugh seemed in abundant supply. No doubt it was easier for established white men to empathize with the lived experience of an established white man.
Professor Bassey Ford’s personal experience was the one on display but thousands more have come forward with similar experiences. Those thousands have been hurt — some even have felt re-violated — and have had to find a way to heal themselves…often alone.
We won’t really advance our understanding of what those survivors have suffered — until we can move from “I am sorry for your experience” to “I feel what you feel.” That’s empathy.
Let’s hope we never have to again see such an epic discrepancy of life experience between those in power, and the lives who get affected by their policies and decisions.
Perhaps when we elect officials to power that more accurately reflect the diversity and depth of experiences of those they have been elected to serve that might be possible.
But political change is slow and hard. And our pain is acute and urgent.
3. Read books and watch plays or movies about people who have experienced something traumatic and talk about it.
In her classic To Kill A Mockingbird, Harper Lee emphasized the power and importance of empathy when the book’s protagonist, attorney Atticus Finch, tries to explain to his daughter Scout why he’s defending a seemingly undefendable man. “If you can learn a simple trick, Scout, you’ll get along a lot better with all kinds of folks. You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view, until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.”
Here is a list of other books — many geared to young adults, that deal with similarly challenging topics in an honest way.
Movies can be another way to access empathy for the experiences of others. To Kill a Mockingbird has a powerful film equivalent and The Accused, with Jody Foster, pulls us into one woman’s experience of gang rape in a way that exposes the challenges faced by women who seek justice by speaking out against their accusers. The Invisible War, the documentary of rape in the military, and The Hunting Ground, about rape on college campuses both do an excellent job of identifying the core elements of fear, anger and helplessness that victims of sexual assault experience.
Reading, watching, and discussing any of these can help us advance our understanding and deepen our empathy towards other’s lived experiences.
4. Play a video game. Seriously.
Researchers at Stanford’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab have been studying the Proteus Effect: how the experience of acting in a virtual body, known as an avatar, changes people’s behavior in both the virtual and real worlds.
Jeremy Bailenson, the director of the Stanford Lab, has found convincing evidence that what we experience in the virtual world affects how we feel in the physical world. According to Bailenson, “when someone wears an avatar that is taller than his actual self, he will act more confidently. People who see the effects of exercise on their bodies in the virtual world will exercise more in the real world.”
The reverse is also true. Studies show that walking around as a sexualized avatar (often the default option for women characters) negatively affected women’s perceptions of themselves — even after just a short time playing in these roles. Early research in this space has shown that in just 30 minutes of multiplayer play, women avatars experience some kind of sexual harassment. Indeed, longtime gamer Jenny Haniver started a website, Not in the Kitchen Anymore, to begin to document these experiences.
One short experience in immersive play — even through video games — can be a powerful place for anyone to experience just how pervasive and debilitating unwanted attention and harassment can be.
4. Offer VR training on sexual assault
Rather than the standard sexual assault training that comes from a PowerPoint presentation, companies like Vantage Point have begun to use virtual reality to place people directly into scenes that “illustrate the subtleties of harassment and discrimination in a visceral and interactive way.” Morgan Mercer, a two-time survivor of sexual assault, founded the company to “give others a new perspective” and rewrite the way that society talks about and responds to issues to gender discrimination and violence.
Others like BelongingVR are beginning to use immersive storytelling to give viewers “an experience of unconscious gender bias and micro-aggressions in the workplace through different gender points of view.”
What might it look like for anyone who makes decisions, renders opinions or delivers judgments on sexual assault to go through a simulated firsthand experience?
Those visceral experiences would surely create high impact memories that would catapult understanding and more appropriate responses to a whole new place.
These are a start, but much more is needed. VR, often referred to as the “empathy machine” because of its ability to simulate an immersive firsthand experience, has the potential to not only scale deeper understanding of other’s traumatic experiences, but can also serve as an onramp for real-life actions that would make our workplaces, communities and families more nurturing, welcoming and equal.
In every crisis there is a learning opportunity. This is a big one.
As hard as it may feel right now, we are not without options. Our future does not have to be an extension of our present. It can be better. Much better.
Pioneering educators Linda Ryden and Cheryl Cole Dodwell have shown in their breakthrough Peace of Mind curriculum that teaching Social Emotional Learning and conflict resolution at the earliest ages can set us on a path to deeper understanding and lifelong connection with others.
It’s not too late for us, adults. Let’s look beyond the hate, distrust and party lines, and instead lean into empathy and care for the human experience.
Our future may depend on it.
Special thanks to Denise Brosseau, Nancy Murphy, Adene Sacks and Bonnie Kay for their incredible support, editorial contribution and editing prowess.