Empathy in Politics

A Political Essay by Kevin I. Makice
December 1, 1998

The Adaption/Innovation Theory, suggested by Michael Kirton, attempts to explain the way that one prefers to approach solving problems. Kirton suggests that there is a wide spectrum for this creative style that can be best defined by its extremes. At one end of the spectrum are the Adaptors -- people who prefer making improvements to existing procedures. At the other end are the Innovators -- those who prefer to do things differently.
This theory is based on two decades of research.
A friend of mine has another theory about people. Everyone can be divided into two classifications: Movers and Non-Movers. Movers watch what others are doing and accommodate any changes that are necessary to avoid catastrophe. Non-Movers are hell-bent on their own agenda, even at the risk of causing pain. When Movers meet Non-Movers, there is synergy and things keep flowing. When two like people come together, everything either stops or collides.
This theory is based on years of shopping in malls.
From deep inside Washington, D.C. comes this insight ... one is either a Democrat or a Republican. A liberal or a conservative, if you prefer. A corollary of the "If You're Not With Us, You're Agin' Us" methodology, this theory is the accepted politics of the day. Two parties stake their claim to one of two opposing sides for each major issue and lock horns in Congress. Progress, one way or the other, is determined less and less by impassioned debate on the floor and more by the partisan breakdown after Election Day.
This theory is based on generations of political status quo.
These observations each describe a way of identifying people through classification, a vital part of our cognitive process. We create frames of reference that can be easily comprehended. It is the same mental process that allows us to distinguish male from female, fat from thin, black from white.
When used in concert, these unique sets can paint a clearer picture of our relationships with other people. When segregated, a set can quickly become prejudice. All Women don't break down and cry. Men can be sensitive. Black youth aren't inherently dangerous. Born-again Christians can be tolerant of other beliefs.
For the most part, our society looks at those assumptions and admits that they are incomplete. Yet, without much resistance, we propagate the notion that tax-and-spend liberals and neo-nazi conservatives are universal constants. Liberals aren't all anti-business. Not all conservatives attack civil rights. But in the political realm, we accept these isolated cognitive sets as fact.
This isn't a problem affecting only politics. For decades, we have sought to find a single education strategy to apply in all schools. Each time, we meet mixed success. Some students thrive where others drown. Likewise, therapists now offer many different approaches in helping a client, a departure from traditional, button-down Freudian analysis.
One such departure is Relational Theory, a therapeutic movement spearheaded by Dr. Judith Jordan and Wellesley's Stone Center. In attempting to better understand women, Jordan and her colleagues found themselves applying a largely white, male, middle-class, well-educated heterosexual methodology to people who fall outside those restrictive sets. After a trip back to the drawing board, a new approach was conceived that immediately validated the client and worked through development issues from that unique perspective. Empathy, rather than sympathy, becomes the key tool for developing understanding.
A relational approach to politics is a alien concept, for it requires an authentic attempt at understanding an opposing viewpoint. It mandates an open mind capable of tearing down traditional walls in order to build consensus. With so many faulty political "rules" in our heads, relational politics is a difficult undertaking. The first step must always be a validation of people whose opinions run counter to your own beliefs.
Borrowing from Mary Tibma and the Junior League of Boston -- an organization of women committed to strengthening the community through effective action and leadership -- the Third Party established these goals:
  • to provide a "safe" environment that allows each participant to feel secure in expressing his or her opinions;
  • to expose readers to experiences and perspectives outside their norm;
  • to move party members toward political risk-taking through feedback and encouragement.
Above all, good politics in the modern age does not dismiss foreign opinion. The motivations behind that opinion are composed of many cognitive sets as justified as our own. Validating that opposing perspective helps find the common sets that may be masked by traditional bias and party catch phrases. Some people may be Movers. Some may be Innovators. Some may be Liberal. To the relational politician, what people are isn't as important as why they are.
There is more to be gained through connection than assumption.

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