Empathizing with Others

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I’ve written several posts in the last year about the sad state of our national discourse and about the “echo chamber” that arises when people talk only with those they agree with. In my seven decades, I have not seen such a deep divide, or such hostility of one “side” to the other. These issues are of great concern to teachers of writing, who want student writers to be able to communicate across differences and to reach audiences of all different kinds. So, I have been collecting articles and materials that provide examples of how to communicate more effectively with those you don’t necessarily agree with, along with strategies for helping students develop their own abilities to listen fairly and openly and to engage in productive conversations rather than shouting matches.


A recent article by Arthur C Brooks in the New York Times provided me with another good example to add to my collection. In it, Brooks describes a pro-Trump rally in Washington DC that drew a group of counterprotesters from Black Lives Matter of Greater New York. The scene, Brooks says, was becoming “combustible” as the groups shouted back and forth and began moving toward one another.


But then—something completely unexpected happened. The leader of the pro-Trump group invited the leader of the Black Lives Matter group to speak: “We’re going to give you two minutes of our platform to put your message out,” the pro-Trump leader said. “Whether they disagree or agree with your message is irrelevant. It’s the fact that you have the right to have the message.” The Black Lives Matter leader accepted the invitation and took the stage, saying “I am an American . . . and the beauty of America is that when you see something broke in your country, you can mobilize to fix it.” When someone in the crowd shouted “All lives matter,” he responded with “You’re right, my brother, you’re right. All lives matter, right? But when a black life is lost, we get no justice. That is why we say that black lives matter. If we really want to make America great, we do it together.”


This person-to-person exchange dissipated hostilities and even drew cheers from the other group. Brooks concludes that what he calls “the toxic anonymity of virtual interaction through social media” leads to those echo chambers in which we assume we are good and they are bad, leading to further hatred. But, Brooks says, “on the odd occasion that people are exposed to each other as people, as at the rally in Washington, othering is hard to maintain. And that is the rare moment when human compassion and empathy can break out.”


As teachers of writing, we have an opportunity to help compassion and empathy “break out.” Our fairly small classes allow students to know one another “as people,” and to find ways to connect with them across many kinds of differences. We can also engage students in assignments that allow them to interact with others in empathetic and compassionate ways, using the techniques of invitational rhetoric (which I discuss in all my textbooks).


That rally in Washington shows that it can be done, that opposing sides can listen to one another, and perhaps find common ground. To see for yourself, check out the video of that rally and what happened. And show it to your students!

Credit: Pixabay Image 1985863 by rawpixel, used under a CC0 Creative Commons License

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About the Author
Andrea A. Lunsford is the former director of the Program in Writing and Rhetoric at Stanford University and teaches at the Bread Loaf School of English. A past chair of CCCC, she has won the major publication awards in both the CCCC and MLA. For Bedford/St. Martin's, she is the author of The St. Martin's Handbook, The Everyday Writer and EasyWriter; The Presence of Others and Everything's an Argument with John Ruszkiewicz; and Everything's an Argument with Readings with John Ruszkiewicz and Keith Walters. She has never met a student she didn’t like—and she is excited about the possibilities for writers in the “literacy revolution” brought about by today’s technology. In addition to Andrea’s regular blog posts inspired by her teaching, reading, and traveling, her “Multimodal Mondays” posts offer ideas for introducing low-stakes multimodal assignments to the composition classroom.