We need empathy. I don’t mean to say that we can’t empathize with anyone — it is easy to empathize with those we agree with. But I think we have forgotten how to empathize with those we disagree with. It is necessary that we show empathy to every single human being, not necessarily because they deserve it (they might, but that is a moral argument), but because it is necessary to come to a better understanding of the world.
A point that needs to be addressed for this discussion: There are two categories into which everything can be placed, the objective and the subjective. Exactly what the objective consists of is highly contested. I would argue that the only objective things in the universe are things that have a definite answer, like mathematics.
However, there are most certainly things that are not objective, or things that are subjective. This pertains to the obvious, such as human emotion, but also the not so obvious, such as our constitutional rights and morality. Every person has a different set of morals — that is the basis of all human conflict. Unless you believe in the existence of a higher power there can be no “objectively” correct morals — the better solution is that morals are all relative and the things we agree on are merely things we have chosen to believe and accept as a society.
Saying the universe is a mess of relativity and subjectivity is not an end to discussion as it is so often seen; it is precisely because everything is so subjective that we must have discussion. Subjective does not mean “not real,” rather everything that is subjective is real to the person experiencing it. The emotions and thoughts people feel are real to them. Here, I acknowledge my own subjective belief (and as one I think is almost universally agreed upon) that we should value life.
To say we’re all human — although factually true — is idiomatic, and most likely carries a connotative meaning that I do not mean to convey. It is surprisingly difficult to understand the true gravity of what such a common phrase means: None of us are any better than another, there are simply those who are confused and those who are less confused (although what confused means is truly a subjective paradox, but more on this later). Everyone is a little bit wrong, but the flip side to this is that everyone — and I mean everyone — is a little bit right.
One of the biggest blunders I see is the failure to understand that acknowledging others’ problems is not a diminishing of one’s own. The natural reaction against this is to maintain that some problems are more important than others, but that way of thinking exhibits the exact problem I am trying to address: Life is not about competing to see whose problems are worse, it’s about working together to build a better future for everyone. Just for example, contrary to popular belief, it is quite possible to care about the problems of both men and women in society simultaneously.
Overgeneralizing in these situations is not only harmful, but simply incorrect. There are obviously some people who have dealt with hellish conditions of living that should be privileged in life. It takes a lot of self-control and self-awareness to acknowledge that addressing others’ (very real) problems does not detract from one’s own. It is not a zero-sum game, and we can’t apply some archetypal lens to other people.
Having a discussion or debate isn’t about being on a side, it’s about trying to come to a better understanding of the infinite subjectivity that we have all been dropped into, and to emerge as a better member of society. I believe that people are fundamentally good — this doesn’t mean that people can’t do bad things, but that people want to believe that they’re doing the right thing. Even the most hateful deserve empathy because they are trying to do the right thing, and are at a basic level confused about what that is. Most importantly, if you had lived the exact same life as that person, you would believe the same things they do.
We can’t just dismiss people we disagree with — even if they are just simply wrong — as being evil, hateful or whatever other adjective you want to apply to them. What they feel is real to them, what they think is real to them, and the only way to move forward is to show them that they are mistaken. We cannot afford to think, “There’s no reasoning with them.” I do not believe that ever to be true, and it isn’t helpful. They can and will say the same about you. Precisely because it is so hard to empathize with people we disagree with and try to understand why they believe what they do, is the reason we have to try — for if we don’t, they won’t either.