There are several qualities that define our humanity. Today I want to talk about two of them: our capacity for conscious empathy and our ability to consciously redirect our emotional impulses. You have a choice of whether and how you will use these.
Empathy is the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another (Merriam-Webster's Dictionary).
Empathy is what allows us to be anything but narcissistic; it is the quality that allows us to relate to other people, to have feelings for them, to understand them in an experiential/emotional sense, and not just as an intellectual study. Without the capacity for empathy, we could not see one another as human, with common feelings, thoughts, and experiences.
One aspect of empathy involves imagining that another person in your situation would have a similar experience as you. If you are cold, it's natural to imagine that other people in the same circumstances would also feel cold; if you are thirsty, it's easy to project your own thirst onto other people.
We also tend to imagine that other people would make similar decisions as ourselves: when people were asked to wear a sandwich board, those who agreed to do so overestimated the number of other people who would also agree to wear it, while those who did not agree to do so overestimated the number of people who also would not agree to it.
So our empathy is not always very accurate, and can reflect a kind of solipsistic fantasy, but that's just the start of getting to know each other. Without that start, it's likely that we wouldn't go on to have deeper empathy, and we wouldn't care at all what others were experiencing.
This is what happens to us when we think of people with different political views.
In this study, Ed O'Brien & Phoebe C. Ellsworth of the University of Michigan showed that when we believe that people have opposing political views to our own, this projection, this initial impulse toward empathy, is thwarted.
Of course, as is nearly always the case in such studies, their formulation of the different views is skewed with left-wing stereotypes. The choices were: "Left wing, pro-gay rights Democrat," or "Right wing, anti-gay rights Republican." But let's assume that the same phenomenon would hold for "Pro-individual liberty, pro-free market Classical-Liberal," or "Anti-individual liberty, anti-free market Progressive-Liberal."
Isn't this your experience? Think about it: Isn't your first impulse when you think that somebody holds opposing political views to kind of disconnect at this fundamental level? I don't mean that you stay there but if you compare your initial feelings when you think that somebody shares your political views with your initial feelings when you think that they oppose your political views, can't you feel a difference?
There is more going on with this than simply thinking that somebody is different. The liberal/progressive agenda and the founding principles of America are fundamentally opposed – polar opposites in many ways. So anybody with an investment in either of these visions will see its antithesis, on an initial, emotional, visceral level, in much the same way that a member of one warring tribe would see a member of his or her opponent. These reactions and impulses run deep within human nature.
But now it's time for the rest of the story: We are not slaves to our impulses.
Our initial reactions represent thousands upon thousands of years of human experience dealing with people different from ourselves. Throughout most of human history, dealing with people who are different has meant either killing them or being killed by them – or worse.
We have other choices now, thanks largely to the development of free trade and of Western Civilization.
As I wrote in Government Power Undermines Empathy:
Free exchange is the form of social interaction that most encourages human empathy. When you want something, and somebody else has that something that you want, you have several choices: You can steal it; you can beg them to give it to you; you can ask to borrow it; or you can exchange with them for something that has an equal or greater value to them.
Begging, borrowing, or stealing all put you in a position which naturally diminishes your empathy. The other person becomes "the thing that possesses something I want." If I use force to steal, or appeal to the generosity of another to lend or give me what I want, it puts both of us in an adversarial position toward one another, or at the very least into a sort of dominant/submissive relationship.
The free trade of capitalism, on the other hand, encourages empathy. If I trade with somebody, we are equals. We have to consider each other's interests, likes, desires, and dislikes, in order to make a good trade.
Free trade encourages very different people to seek to find common ground, to understand different ways of living so that we can understand what one another want and effectively sell things to each other.
But to override our impulses requires us to stop and think, to reconsider our initial, more primitive impulses and to make a different decision.
We have the ability to consciously override our emotions and our impulses by reappraising them. When was the last time you felt like hitting someone but didn't? When was the last time you felt like yelling or screaming at someone but decided not to?
We do this kind of thing all the time, or at least civilized people do. One of the qualities that we see in criminals is that they do not use this quality very well. They tend to follow and to not control their impulses (Travis Hirschi, "Self Control and Crime," in Baumeister and Vohs, Handbook of Self-Regulation), and to see their violent actions in the passive voice: "The knife went in," as opposed to the active voice, "I stabbed him" (Theodore Dalrymple, Life at the Bottom).
Think of a time when you overrode an impulse. How did you stop yourself?
You took a breath. You did as Thomas Jefferson suggested: "When angry, count to ten; when very angry, count to one hundred." You used your conscious capacity to override your feelings and impulses, took a mental step back and decided what would be the best thing to do.
This is what allows us to make a different decision, to learn and grow and develop as human beings. This capacity for conscious reappraisal is what frees us from blind obedience to our feelings and impulses.
It is also what allows us to choose to have empathy even when our initial reaction would prevent empathy. This is what the Golden Rule is all about: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.
It does no good to disconnect your empathy from those who hold different views. Sure, there are the thugs and the power-hungry narcissists with whom you will never have a useful discussion, and there is a fight that we must win to re-establish our founding principles. But most people are not thugs and power-hungry narcissists.
Most of the people with whom we interact day to day are basically good people. If they hold opposing views, it is likely that they don't understand – or you don't understand – something about those views. There is a lot that can be learned when you treat others with respect and dignity, and when you take the time to understand their point of view.
When was the last time you were influenced by somebody with whom you felt no empathy? I would venture to say, never. You can choose to seek to have empathy with people even when you disagree with them, even when your impulses attempt to thwart this most benevolent of human qualities.
You don't have to accept their views in some post-modern, "there is no right answer" kind of intellectual mush. But you can be curious and interested in where they are coming from – you'd be surprised just how many liberals are liberals because they think that it means individual liberty and how many conservatives are conservatives because they think that it means conserving our founding principles.
When you choose to have empathy toward others, even when you disagree with them, not only will you benefit personally in terms of your sense of self-mastery and positive emotions, but you will be more effective in your capacity to teach and persuade them, as well. That's the practical benefit of choosing the Golden Rule.