On Ad Hominem, Empathy, and Other Things

It is entirely rare for someone who disagrees with me on almost every point to argue against me in a calm, considerate, respectful and thoughtful way. Instead, people rely on ad hominem arguments, complaining that I am a millennial thus idiotic and ignorant; that I simply have no idea what I’m on about; that I’m a crazy feminist therefore should be ignored.

Do you see how that gets us nowhere? I am not perfect, but one of my talents is listening to what people say and trying to understand their perspective, even if I disagree with everything coming out of their mouth. Just yesterday I listened for a good while to someone go on about how supporting Bernie Sanders means I don’t support the Constitution, even daring to ask if I’d ever heard of our founding fathers. I listened and listened. When I finally had a chance to explain my perspective, he immediately interrupted me, trying to talk over me. And when I touched his shoulder and said, “Stop interrupting me, you have to listen sometimes,” he acted miffed that I would dare suggest he doesn’t listen because he is such a good listener.

This kind of behavior is not conducive to solving problems. The argument itself becomes a problem instead of the issues we claim we are trying to solve.

I am tired of ad hominem arguments. I am tired of being interrupted all the time. I am tired of people looking at the bad behavior of the few and punishing the masses because of it, such as in cases of welfare programs (a favorite of the GOP to attack).

Do you know how to overcome these hangups, at least to some degree? Empathy. It’s okay to disagree with people. But by putting yourself in their place, you can at least try to understand why they feel the way they do. Sometimes it’s still too difficult to understand. (For example, I can’t wrap my head around why any decent human being would support Trump. If elected he just might be the American Hitler.) But even the effort allows you to connect with someone just a little bit more, and that connection is a first step to accomplishing something beyond pointless arguments and hurt feelings.

A while ago as I drove home from work listening to NPR, I heard Marco Rubio say in reference to Republican candidate bickering during debates that the enemy isn’t each other, the enemy is the democrats. That attitude is a perfect way to run a nation into the ground. Different philosophies and parties might disagree on how to accomplish certain tasks and solve problems, but those differences should never amount to seeing each other as the enemy. When you approach a colleague as an enemy, your tactics will be like those in a war or vendetta. If you approach each other as friends with different philosophies, you can work together to find solutions. We need to commit to a political ceasefire, and instead be like Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Antonin Scalia, who despite their political differences and different interpretations of the law, were great friends and had a successful working relationship.

The recent death of Justice Scalia is a perfect example of what not to do. It is the president’s job to appoint new justices and yet GOP members are already lining up to deny President Obama’s constitutional right to appoint a new justice. Not even a day after Scalia was found deceased did the GOP start to raise their hackles at the idea of Obama appointing a new justice. That Obama has less than a year left as president is irrelevant. He is still the president and if we wait for the election to be over and the new president to be sworn in and the appointing process to take place, we’re looking at likely over a year for a ninth justice to take the bench. That is unacceptable. We need a fully functioning judicial branch of our government, and an even number of justices does not a fully functioning court make. Regardless of the need for all branches of government to be in working order, it appears to be more important to the GOP to stop Obama from doing his job at any cost. That is not what the founding fathers had in mind.

(I know it probably seems like I am picking on conservatives, and I apologize. Liberals are in no way perfect, but I have to admit in my personal realm of acquaintances, friends, and family members, it is usually my good ol’ conservative pallies who issue the ad hominem attacks and forget their empathy. That is not a fair representation of all conservatives, but this is what I have to work with. In addition, the GOP in this primary election cycle is a farce and we all know it. That’s where we are, that’s why the GOP keeps being the example in my points.)

We need to stop this. It’s not okay to doubt people’s understanding of U.S. history or the Constitution simply because you disagree with them. It is not okay to hold that history and Constitution hostage because your views are reactionary. The Constitution is a living document thus enabling us as a nation to make needed changes as time progresses, and new and unforeseen problems arise.

We need to stop blaming the other party. We need to stop punishing the poor and the underrepresented. We need to embrace empathy and set aside pride long enough to listen and understand. There are many wise quotes about the importance of listening but this one is probably the most apropos to political debates:

Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply. –Stephen Covey

Don’t be “most people.” Interrupting and shouting and grinding your teeth while you wait to speak again, it’s all about pride. It isn’t about solving problems, it isn’t about understanding. If we build this nation on pride, we are doomed to fall.

Everyone could stand to lose a little pride, myself included. Dare yourself to listen to someone you disagree with. Dare yourself to understand. If we refuse to do such things, this great nation, regardless of your interpretation of the Constitution, will never be the land of the free and brave. It will be the land of the arguing children who pointed fingers while the union plummeted into the annals of history as a nation that merely once was.

(There is also this fantastic thought by His Holiness the Dalai Lama):




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