Is empathy the antidote to bullying?

Is empathy the antidote to bullying?

As former Utah Republican Senator, Bob Bennett, lay dying at George Washington University Hospital in his battle with pancreatic cancer and then partial paralysis from a stroke, he called his wife Joyce and son Jim over to his bed to express his last wish.

Quietly and with a slight slur in his voice he said, “Are there any Muslims in the hospital? I’d love to go up to every single one of them to thank them for being in this country, and apologize to them on behalf of the Republican Party for Donald Trump.”

Earlier when he was in better health, as he moved through an airport traveling home from Washington, D. C. to Utah for Christmas, Bennett walked up to a woman wearing a hijab telling her he was glad she was in the United States, and apologized on behalf of the Republican Party, especially for Trump’s call to temporarily ban all Muslims from traveling to this country.  

Possibly for Bennett, his connection with members of minoritized and often vilified religious groups stemmed from his own Mormon background. For Bennett to slip on the shoes of Muslim Americans may have been a fairly close fit since his faith too has come under constant attack since its founder, Joseph Smith, introduced Mormonism and the Latter Day Saints Movement in the early 19th century C.E. During the Republican presidential primaries in 2012, for example, members of his own Party referred to Mitt Romney’s Mormonism as “a cult,” a belief inspired by the Devil, and something un-Christian.

Bob Bennett made visible the noble and all-to-rarely expressed notion of deep and profound empathy. In the truest sense, “empathy” has been defined as the symbolic ability to step into another person’s shoes and stroll down the streets of another’s neighborhood without actually traveling. Though Bennett walked in comparable shoes down his own neighborhood streets, his courageous actions were no less laudable and certainly no less empathetic. He related to and connected with the feelings and experiences of Muslim Americans across his own parallel feelings and experiences.

But what about for people who claim never to have experienced incidents of marginalization, of feelings of being, looking, or thinking differently from others in certain contexts in their lives? Would they find the empathy hill steeper and more difficult to climb?  

As we understand in psychology, unless there is some kind of developmental delay, infants demonstrate the rudimentary beginnings of empathy whenever they recognize that another is upset and they show signs of being upset themselves. Very early in their lives, infants develop the capacity to crawl in the diapers of others even though their own diapers don’t need changing.

Though I recognize empathy as a human condition, I also understand that through the process of socialization, others often teach us to inhibit our empathetic natures with messages like “Don’t cry,” “You’re too sensitive,” “Mind your own business,” “It’s not your concern.” We learn the stereotypes of the individuals and groups our society has “minoritized” and “othered.” We learn who to scapegoat for the problems within our neighborhoods, states, nations, world.

Through it all, that precious life-affirming flame of empathy can wither and flicker. For some, it dies entirely. And as the blaze recedes, the bullies, the demagogues, the tyrants take over filling the void where our humanness once prevailed. And then we have lost something very precious, but I believe something that is not irretrievable, not irrevocable.

As an educator, I present material in all my classes from multiple perspectives and multiple identities.

For example, in October, I ask students to research Native American Indian viewpoints of Christopher Columbus and Columbus Day and compare and contrast these with what they learned during their elementary and high school years; to travel through the month of December in the shoes of a non-Christian who does not celebrate Christmas and does not view Jesus as the anointed son of God; to write in a journal the feelings, emotions, and thoughts when simply imagining walking through the campus and home to family while holding hands and displaying mild forms of public affection with someone of the same sex; imagining themselves as a trans* person having to use the bathroom of the sex assigned to them at birth; walking down the main street of town as a fully-grown 4’6” adult or as someone with a consuming burn scar across the face and scalp; and being approached by police officers as a 16th-year-old unarmed African American male who is simply hanging out with friends.  

I have learned many lessons in my studies of genocides on the macro level and bullying on the micro level perpetrated throughout the ages. Strong leaders whip up sentiments by employing dehumanizing stereotypes and scapegoating entire groups, while other people or entire nations turn away, often refusing to intervene. Everyone, not only the direct perpetrators of oppression, plays a vital role in the atrocities.

Empathy, however, has always been an antidote to the poison of prejudice, discrimination, stereotyping, and scapegoating, and to bullies and demagogues who take power and control. Empathy is the life force of our humanness, and Bob Bennett, for one, led his life by example.

May Bob rest in peace as we resurrect the empathy in us all.

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