Benjamin Avansino: Employing empathy in politics
May 9, 2017
I cannot say I know of a time when our country was in perfect unity or when the political differences between loved ones were as simple as a minor quibble during dinner, but I have heard many voices, amplified by microphones or strengthened by the reverberating echoes of a passionate audience, call this country divided.
Despite having felt the power of many marching feet and having witnessed the symbolism of raised fists and protest signs, I do not believe this country is divided. In my short time volunteering for the League of Women Voters, I have found that our country wants most to be heard and understood.
It was not long ago that I joined the League of Women Voters of Western Nevada County. A political science major at Sierra College, I enthusiastically found — and find — myself drawn to the mission of the League: to provide this community with nonpartisan information about policy, government, and participation in democracy. Ultimately, we hope to bring people together, and though I feel emboldened by our actions thus far, the air in this country is thickening with hostility from every passing moment—there is more work to do.
Armed with the "shock and awe" of punch lines from the evening's political punditry, concerned citizens pass one another — ready to respond to the slightest provocation — as they carefully tip-toe atop eggshells. A man recently told me he is unwilling to be more than brief and superficial to his siblings for fear of triggering a heated exchange. I have witnessed a student be removed from a classroom because she could not control her venomous outbursts — ironically, her politically inspired message was left unheard and misunderstood. And we all are becoming accustomed to the carnage of harsh rhetoric, like piercing daggers, intended only to damage opposition.
Despite having felt the power of many marching feet and having witnessed the symbolism of raised fists and protest signs, I do not believe this country is divided.
What I feel is happening in this country goes beyond the talking heads on television bidding us to pick a side or the ringing voices of radio cementing the line of intolerance drawn in the sand decades past. Tantalized by the promise of progress, we have clung to the security of familiar frustrations and the tranquility of a partisan echo chamber. To hear the sentiments of like-minded people is to feel heard and understood — to feel safe. Yet, as the door to outside perspectives slams shut, cut off is the possibility of tolerance.
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This does not mean we must agree in all facets but that we must agree to sit at the table together, to learn from one another, to experience the humanity in those we choose to misunderstand. Empathy, I believe, is a forgotten American value, and coupled with the absence of empathy, the reach and potency of partisanship impedes the possibilities of progress. Partisanship oversimplifies the innately complex in the name of tribe and not necessarily in the name of truth.
Essential to democracy is the presentation of information by impartial sources and nonpartisan groups. Regardless of the political party in power, organizations, like the League of Women Voters of Western Nevada County, work to open citizens to a greater understanding of policy, government, and — most importantly — neighbor. The League exists to present opposition to the trend that this world can be understood simply, to add gray scale to the black and white lens through which we habitually observe — to bring people together.
The League of Women Voters of Western Nevada County is ready and able to organize and moderate professional town hall forums, diverse candidate debates, and offer informative presentations regarding elections and policy.
But despite the hard work of the League — and many other organizations — employing empathy is a choice only an individual can make. More information about the League of Women Voters of Western Nevada County can be found at http://www.lwvwnc.org.
Benjamin Avansino lives in Nevada City.