Escaping the Trap of Self-Righteousness

Sincere dialogue offers the chance to learn something not only about other people but about ourselves as well, write Gary Saul Morson and Morton Schapiro.

September 19, 2019
 
 
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“I do not like that man,” Abraham Lincoln is said to have remarked. “I must get to know him better.”

Not exactly words you expect to see tweeted from today’s White House, or for that matter, to be heard on today’s college campuses.

It seems that whenever a crisis occurs -- like the recent wave of mass shootings in California, Texas and Ohio -- one group of Americans blames the others for causing it, and the other blames the first for defamation, thereby inspiring more hostility. But democracy depends on honest disagreement, which in turns means crediting the other with good faith whenever possible and not leaping to hostile judgment. We need to see the world from the other point of view and hear how our own voice sounds.

Empathy is bigger than Republicans and Democrats. To persuade rivals you need to understand their point of view and respect it. Empathy accepts that our opponents are just as passionate about their views as we are about ours, and they have every right to be. By appreciating that, we can move toward more effective and honest persuasion. That’s what we try to teach our students.

Jane Austen’s novels often tell the story of how a heroine, sure that she sees the world correctly, turns out to have been governed by unsuspected “pride and prejudice.” As Pride and Prejudice begins, readers usually agree with the heroine Elizabeth Bennet that the snobbish Mr. Darcy is a moral monster and the charming George Wickham a good man. But as she at last discovers her error and recognizes the moral overconfidence that led to it, readers, if they are wise, may learn the same lesson. If our democracy is to survive, we want to allow for the possibility that our Darcys are really Wickhamish and vice versa.

Sincere dialogue offers the chance to learn something not only about other people but about ourselves, as well. But empathy is a skill, is hard to learn and requires practice. Perhaps the best way to practice it is to read literature, especially great novels. In addition to Austen, authors such as Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, George Eliot and Henry James give us practice in identifying with people unlike ourselves and sensing from within what it is like to be someone else. You experience the world from the perspective of a different social class, gender, religion, culture, sexual orientation, moral understanding or other categories that define and differentiate human experience. By living a character’s life vicariously, you not only feel what she feels but also reflect on those feelings, consider the nature of the actions to which they lead and gradually acquire the wisdom to appreciate actual people in all their complexity.

If we could only see others as they see themselves, we might just treat our ideological opponents with a modicum of respect. That might not be as personally satisfying as despising them. (Who hasn’t secretly enjoyed a sense of righteous indignation?) But being content to simply express your moral outrage often gets in the way of doing the hard work that results in lasting change. It is a lot easier to convince people to listen to you if you are willing to listen to them, and you are more likely to be heard among all the screamers if you are decent and thoughtful. In the words of Martin Luther King Jr., “You have very little morally persuasive power with people who can feel your underlying contempt.”

Just as we should develop the tools for empathy, we must also recognize when empathy fails us. Sometimes greater understanding does not lead to greater respect. Serbs and Croats both charged each other with horrible past crimes, and both were right; sometimes, if we really understood the real person sitting beside us, we would be even more revolted. How many gatherings of family and friends, especially when alcohol is involved, have left us with a disconcerting glimpse into what someone whom we thought we knew actually believes? Perhaps they made the same discovery about us?

Some people say that if we took the time to know one another, we would necessarily love each other more. They have never been to Thanksgiving dinners at our homes. It would be wonderful if taking the time to listen and engage always brought people together, but that is a fantasy. There really are people who want to do bad things. And yet, it is also true that we may leap to the conclusion that the other side is just plain bad in order to save ourselves the trouble of empathizing. Empathy is no panacea, but we do not know if it fails until after we have really tried it.

So while empathy is sorely needed, especially during these troubled times, it would be wrong to think it offers a certain escape from the tensions of the day. Don’t forget that even Lincoln, with his inspiring civility and soaring oratory, couldn’t avoid civil war.

But when the war was over, the same Lincoln who had won it called for malice toward none and charity for all. After World War I, vengeance was the order of the day, and we know where that led. We were wiser after World War II. We need the judgment to empathize as much as possible, to fight when empathy is not enough, and to avoid letting the sense of our own righteousness beget ever more conflict.

Bio

Gary Saul Morson is a professor of Slavic languages and literatures at Northwestern University, where Morton Schapiro, a professor of economics, is president. They are the authors of Cents and Sensibility: What Economics Can Learn From the Humanities (Princeton University Press, 2017).

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