Bleed, America: The Decline of Empathatic Discourse and How to Reverse It

On Thursday, July 7th, two very different – but interconnected – events occurred and much of the United States had not only a front-row seat to the carnage, but also an opinion.

Straddled by two police officers, I watched four bullets punch into Alton Sterling’s chest. In the unflinchingly graphic cellphone video, he twitched and bled out in front of a convenience store.

Later that night, as I was preparing to go to bed with my wife, my Breaking News App alerted me to the situation occurring in downtown Dallas. A sniper was methodically picking off police officers during a march protesting the death I had witnessed online earlier that day.

We Are Binary

We have become a culture in which we are forced to pick sides between divisive issues because the voices on the opposite ends of the spectrum are often louder and more persuasive than the meek and rational voices that exist in the middle. We have become binary – a series of ones and zeros.

You can either be Black Lives Matter or All Lives Matter. You can either be for unfettered access to guns, or you’re staunchly opposed to gun ownership. You can either be progressive, “anything-goes” socialist liberal, or a nostalgic, narrow-minded and prejudiced conservative.

This is because binary attitudes result in a damning linguistic glitch called “code switching.” When we unwittingly “code switch” in a conversation or discussion, we find ourselves attributing different meanings and implications to specific words and phrases that result in overly emotional and polarizing responses.

Some examples of code-switching include: You hear “gun control” and think “gun ban.” You hear “police” and think “racists.” You hear “Black Lives Matter” or “black protesters” and think “thugs.” You hear “Islam” and think “terrorists.” You hear “evangelical” and think “Pro-Trump.”

In an era of snarky tweets, provocative hashtags and internet memes, we have oversimplified complex issues in an attempt to belittle any opposition to our way of thinking. More often than not, we accuse the other side of adopting thought patterns and rhetorical fallacies that we ourselves are utilizing in defense of our own position. This problem is further exacerbated when we willfully choose to consume media that has been specifically crafted to cater to our own political leanings, value system and societal demographic.

How else can we explain the fact that both of our two presidential frontrunners are the two most historically disliked candidates of all time?

In his brilliant book Tribe, author Sebastian Junger remarks that the “level of contempt that is usually reserved for enemies in wartime is now being applied to fellow citizens.” He goes on to say that the “United States is so powerful that the only country capable of destroying her might be the United States herself” and the “ultimate terrorist strategy would be to just leave the country alone.”

Blood Feud

As our society shies away from nuance in public discourse in favor of a binary approach to our global and local communities, we will continue to see a fracturing and growing distrust between those communities.

Just look at the level of contempt between the Black Lives Matter and All Lives Matter movements (or the Republicans and Democrats): Both groups are guilty of code-switching and defining the opposition group’s theology on the actions of fringe, and yet both groups have legitimately noble goals that in a closed system would never be challenged.

Perhaps most disheartening of all is the erosion of shared cultural experience and empathy. Since the dawn of mankind, war, natural disaster, terrorism, and economic downturn would not only strengthen the personal bonds among those affected, it would also catalyze altruism and selflessness in the face of tragedy.

This is no longer the case. Disasters, shootings, and terrorist attacks are no longer creating the societal bonds that are necessary for a society to be resilient in the wake of such atrocities – but instead, have been reduced to bullet points used to push policy or justify racial prejudice.

As a white millennial that has lived all of his life within the cushion of the middle class, I have to acknowledge the fact that I am playing a part in the perpetration of the dominant cultural narrative in our country. I cannot speak into or for the black experience in America, nor the homosexual, Islamic or any other cultural experience in the United States.

Some may scoff at this admission of guilt. But I think it is necessary. Within the framework of a dominant cultural narrative, members of the dominant culture will often view themselves as the standard bearers of culture, values, and morality while simultaneously turning a blind eye to the ills within their own society and/or blaming them on a subservient culture.

And as a white male living in America, I am guilty of that.

Long Road Home

The road to reversing our radical partisanship and polarizing public discourse begins and ends with us. In order to be willing to seek restitution, each one of us must first openly acknowledge the possibility that some of our ideals, thought patterns, and prejudices may be wrong.

If we continue to assume that “once [that group] get its fact straight, then [the issue] will resolve,” then we are not yet mature enough to even begin to seek reconciliation, justice, and love with one another.

In a world of Us vs. Them, maybe it’s time to give Them a chance.

Do you believe the Black Lives Matter movement lacks credibility? Then ask a black acquaintance what it really feels like to grow up in white America (and read this research study). Do you have sinking suspicion of anyone you see wearing a turban? Visit a mosque and engage in a healthy discussion about the tenants of the Muslim faith. Distrust the police? Ask a police officer to sit down with you over coffee and discuss the problems you see in your community. Believe homosexuals are destroying the fabric of society? Invite a gay couple over for dinner and learn their story.

I’m not suggesting that we drop our convictions and accept everyone else’s convictions as Gospel. Passionate debate and public discourse have always been a part of a healthy society. I’m just suggesting that we make a little bit of an effort to talk with someone we disagree with and approach the conservation with the expectation that we may learn something – instead of convincing them on our viewpoint.

I know this won’t be easy. Believe me, I was raised in East Texas – a place where ‘tolerance’ is a basically a curse word. And in a western society that values individuality over community, the thought of reaching out can be panic inducing. But I’m also a follower of Jesus Christ. And in the Bible, Jesus was frequently derided by the religious leaders of His day for hanging out with drunkards, prostitutes, tax collectors, and unsavory immigrants.

But those religious folk got it all wrong. It’s not that Jesus was participating in or endorsing the behavior of those people; He was getting to know their stories, sharing life with them, and immersing Himself within their culture. You know, just acting like a decent human being.

And in the end, maybe that’s what we should strive for. The voices on either end of the spectrum will only get louder and more rabid. And even though I believe our societal ills are just symptoms of the corruption inherent in the human heart that can only be solved through a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, I also believe that we all have the ability to share a table and break bread together.

The only uncertainty is who believes themselves mature enough to make the first move.



One thought on “Bleed, America: The Decline of Empathatic Discourse and How to Reverse It

  1. I just discovered your blog today, and have been browsing it all morning. Thanks especially for this entry. My son and I have stopped speaking over the very issues you discuss here; specifically Black Lives Matter/All Lives Matter. He views me as a racist because I spoke out in general support of police and called shooters of cops in Dallas “domestic terrorists.” That’s still my feeling, but you have helped me to understand just what it is that I am actually guilty of, ie the judgement of other cultures as inferior to my own. I haven’t tried to re-open a dialogue as he doubts my sincerity, and our argument had degenerated to a personal attack on me.


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