BY JAMES HEILMAN
As the election unfolded I felt increasingly uncertain about the future of America’s national politics. All elections come with uncertainty, but this particular feeling was mixed with fear, sadness and a concern for how the uncertainty that follows this election will divide people not only over issues of public policy (as all elections do), but issues that are fundamental to people’s identities and life opportunities. I have not felt this way since Sept. 11, 2001. The events of that day left me with the same mix of emotions. I know this election is important to me because of this feeling.
This particular type of uncertainty is a dangerous feeling to experience. There is the potential that people will act on this feeling by judging those who disagree with them before trying to understand why this disagreement exists. One of the most difficult parts of being a human is having to live amongst others who may have fundamentally different beliefs about the world and other people. I think it is important to understand why others are different, why others think they are right and I am wrong, what about their life has led them to hold such different opinions and what about my life has led me to hold mine. After Sept. 11 little was done to try to understand why others would hate America in the aggregate. I hope this time, we do more to understand each person’s motivations for supporting or not supporting Donald Trump. In this climate of fundamental differences of opinion, it is important not to hate, judge or fear in the aggregate but to develop empathy and understanding of individuals. Over the past day, I have sought out stories of people who voted for Donald Trump. I want to know why they supported him and did not support Hillary Clinton. I hope those who voted for Mr. Trump seek out the same stories about those who supported Secretary Clinton.
Empathy and understanding enable not only conversation, they enable the possibility that I and others could change our beliefs about the world. I am purposefully not evoking the metaphor of the common ground. A common ground could imply there are aspects of my beliefs and others’ beliefs that overlap, like some venn diagram. If there is a common ground then I do not have to change nor do I have to struggle with the possibility that others are radically different than me. Common ground is the something similar in both of us that we will emphasize while de-emphasizing our differences. On common ground, others become a reflection of myself; I deny them the opportunity to be different than me. I prefer to allow others to be fundamentally different. The responsibility is then put on both of us to learn how to live with each other’s differences instead of assuming we can eradicate those differences. Eradication usually entails coercing or convincing one group to conform to the beliefs of another group. Learning to live with differences entails the development of a sensitivity to empathizing with others, understanding others and then figuring out how to work with others. In a country that, on election night and throughout the campaign, showed such divisive differences, I think a sensitivity to empathy and understanding is needed in order for all of us to have the liberty to create our own goals and try to achieve them.