Oh my, I certainly was right when I yesterday expressed the thought that Richard Armitage’s message on cyberbullying would be about empathy. And he had a nice selfie to go with that message as well. 🙂
I enjoyed reading this message and the intent I felt behind it – be good to one another and think before you write. I can totally subscribe to that! He says at the end: “Never underestimate your words. Use them carefully and for the better; if, like me, it’s the kind of society you believe in.” I think that is what I will take away from this message most of all.
As for empathy – I am big on empathy myself! Maybe too much so, which is why I was a relatively popular boss when I was one but not always an efficient one, as I found it difficult to be ‘hard’ on others. I was reminded of that the other day when my husband and I had lunch at this little neighbourhood restaurant where we always make small talk with the boss-lady there. She was telling us how she was competing for a ‘good restaurant’ prize and we commented on how we liked coming there because we felt the staff are so extremely friendly. She said she had to fire one staff member not so long ago who had a borderline disorder. When the boss took the staff member aside and talked to her about some customer friendliness issue, the lady flipped in a ‘borderline’ way and said she was leaving that instant. The boss had told her she couldn’t do that, as she needed to lock up, but the staff lady left anyway. “I had to fire her for that” the boss said and I found myself thinking that I couldn’t have done that. I would have cut this lady some slack because of her borderline situation. That could possibly mean the quality of my restaurant would be a little less high, but I would take that chance. I totally understood the boss lady’s decision (I don’t know, after all, how many chances she had already given this borderline lady) but I also felt for the staff lady. Yeah, tough management positions are not for me… So, empathy, yes, I totally get that! The next step is – what do you do with that empathy? And I think this is where Richard Armitage and I differ somewhat.
Richard says that “our words are our weapons” and I totally agree with that. He then goes on to say, “We must consider the other persons feelings before we express our own, consider how our words wound […] In our own small way we can champion harmony, tolerance, balance and forgiveness.” Although this sounds wonderful and idealistic, it has too much of a ‘turn the other cheek’ feel to me. He also says, “It’s one of the big lessons in life, to leave yourself alone […] When we have this critical inner dialogue with ourselves, we do lean towards turning that outwards, towards the world at large”. Yes, sometimes it is best to let things go, but sometimes it is better to stand up for what you truly believe in your heart. So, where I differ with Richard is that you don’t necessarily have to leave the inner critical voice alone! Listen to it, and yes, turn it outwards if you feel strongly about it, but here’s the crux: do it in a respectful way, without insults and vitriol! Let me give an example…
Xenophobia is a huge thing for me – I am allergic to it! I think nothing enrages me more than xenophobia, the unjust treatment of groups of people that goes with it and not seeing people as individual human beings anymore. Right now, in my world, the most marginalised people are muslims and it seriously enrages me when I hear people like Donald Trump (or like our Dutch politician Geert Wilders) blame Islam for everything that is wrong in the world! I try to feel empathy for Donald and Geert and try to understand where they are coming from. They truly seem to believe the things they say and I totally understand it comes from a place of fear. So, to a certain extent I have empathy for them! I feel their rage and their pain and when I hear whatever latest thing ISIS did, I can understand their anger. In turn, ISIS is xenophobic towards the West and towards those who do not believe in the ‘right Islam’, just as Donald and Geert are xenophobic to all of Islam. And where am I in all this? I just feel enraged at all these people! I read articles and see discussions on Twitter and while it is good to talk about these things, what I mostly see is vitriol, demonization towards the other point of view and generalization. Real discussion is not possible. Quotes get bandied to and fro with a feel of malice towards the other behind it. Real understanding of the other is in no way facilitated. I have had to unfollow accounts because of this, I couldn’t bear it any longer. After election time I may follow them again, but for now I have to leave some stuff alone. In this instance I have chosen to leave it all alone, because I know nothing I could say would make an iota of difference and I would just get vitriol spewed at me. However, if I had felt there was room for understanding, I would not have stayed silent.
If only there were a little more empathy (that word again!) and acceptance that people are in fact all very different. As I am in the West, I would love to truly understand how any reasonably well-educated, intelligent person can even support such a man as Trump. Seriously, if anyone can explain that to me (without reverting to foul language and insults to groups of people) I would truly be interested! One of the best discussions I remember having a long time ago was with a missionary whose views totally opposed my own. For various reasons that I won’t go into here now, I am very much against missionising yet a long long talk I once had with this missionary made me understand why he felt the need to do it. I will never agree with it, we agreed to disagree at the time and I will always speak against it, but at least the need I felt to strangle that person faded away. I came to understand his concerns and he mine, and maybe we both became a little less extreme in our views and things became more harmonious. See, and that’s what is important for me – I have empathy, I want to understand where the other person is coming from, but with that information I want to open discussion and not just ‘turn the other cheek’ and ‘let go’. So, for me, empathy is the beginning of talking, of discussion and of hopefully coming closer together.
Discussion, however, can never work without respecting the other! Empathy can not work just one way, the other needs to be open to you as well. When Richard says “Words are our weapons” he is completely right. You can’t make anyone really listen to what’s in your heart with a gun pointed at them and you can’t make anyone really take you seriously when all you can do is use harsh words and insults. If you show true empathy, I believe that can be the opening to others being empathetic to you. And then the real games can begin… It will never be easy, though, because when you do choose to fight for something you truly believe in, that’s when it gets hard to watch your words and that’s when your words have the most potential to wound! And THAT is when you need to remember to be empathetic. State what you believe but, yes, watch your words and remember that not everyone will think as you do…
I really like when Richard says, “We believe we are good, and ‘they’ are bad, but what if the bad guys believe they are the good guys and vice versa? What if we are both right and both wrong?”. I think that is the essence and the only way to peace is learning to understand where the other person is coming from and trying to bridge that gap together!
So, what I would like to add to Richard’s message, which I believe has the best intent possible, is that empathy should lead to constructive discussion in a respectful way. Pick and choose your battles, sure, but don’t always just ‘let it go’ – be willing to be open and talk, really talk, without hatred and lashing out, and with, yes, empathy and maybe through that people will be able to come closer together…
ETA: other interesting responses to Richard’s Forgiveness and Intention blog post for Cybersmile: