No matter what you believe in or how you identify, people are naturally drawn to communities of likeness. This isn’t condemnable, it isn’t unreasonable, but it is notable - especially when you consider the reality that active citizens are interested in thriving communities for all people.
In social justice education, at some point we all learn that our world is socialized. Consequently, we’re responsible for unlearning notions that were once normalized and reinforced by individuals, systems, and culture. That knowledge gained expands our frame of reference.
The time and effort it takes to attain a new understanding of the world also happens to distance us from the realities of where we once were. And as we settle into distinctive communities of affinity, we go through a new sort of socialization. This micro-socialization regulates a particular language, code of ethics, and culture.
This “new normal” has allowed us to antagonize those who hold differing beliefs or levels of understanding. This distance often results in the difficult undertaking of practicing patience, assuming best intent, or hearing someone with a differing viewpoint.
To mend the apparent polarized divide, the majority of people (including us) bestow the same advice: practice empathy. Easier said than done, though. Naturally, how we talk about empathy is often selective: folks interested in justice work will lean toward feeling empathy for marginalized communities and stop there. Those with a worldview limited to their own lived experience may tend to lean toward feeling empathy for their specific communities or those similar. There’s an invisible disconnect between who we’re willing to feel empathy for - a truth that ultimately furthers our misunderstanding and divide.
Arlie Russell Hochschild, in her most recent book Strangers in Their Own Land, described this phenomenon as an empathy wall or “an obstacle to deep understanding of another person, one that can make us feel indifferent or even hostile to those who hold different beliefs or whose childhood is rooted in different circumstances.”
This week, consider which communities you more naturally feel empathy for and others where you feel the empathy wall may exist. In our next blog post we'll tackle specific ways to apply this knowledge to expand our capacity for empathy.