On Empathizing With Trump Voters

Tyler Rayburn
Tyler Rayburn

One of the best things that ever happened to me was growing up with Republican family members. Our minds and personalities are informed by the environment we grow up in, we do what our parents do until we are old enough to think for ourselves and in my case this means I held deeply rooted beliefs I came to realize I was wrong about. In high school I read Paul Wellstone’s Conscience of a Liberal as a kind of opposition research, but it turned out to be a tipping point. Paul told me his story, he talked about why he cared about the politics he stood for and I empathized with him. We both wanted a better world for everyone even if we had different ideas about how to get there.

I went on to an evangelical, predominantly Republican college in the era of George W. Bush, I studied philosophy and turned the critical questions I was learning to ask inward. Quality questions were good, facts were also good, but I didn’t change my mind until I was in a parking lot in the middle of the night and a close friend was telling me that he was gay, something I vehemently believed to be morally wrong. He cried, he was honest, he told me how he, too, believed he was immoral and about all the religion he surrounded himself with hoping he could become straight.

When I empathized with his story, I understood that my beliefs were wrong.

If you’ve never been wrong about something so fundamental to your personality and values, let me tell you that it changes you forever. I will never 100% believe in anything again. Every belief I have is a flag held at half mast, I always leave room for doubt, for the very real possibility that I am wrong about this, too. It also made me realize that epistemology is a lot messier than most of us believe. Facts and arguments don’t change people’s minds, but stories do. Relationships and empathy and space to be wrong are required components of real change.

This election has been exhausting because there hasn’t been a side for me to cheer for. I voted for HRC and I was proud to do so, but I wasn’t proud to be part of a Left that had berated Trump and his supporters in a way that felt barbaric. No matter what people do, I want to have more integrity than to treat people badly. More importantly, I want people to believe what I believe, and treating them badly has the opposite effect. I was only able to change my mind about core beliefs I held because someone treated me like a well-intentioned human and told me his story instead of calling me names.

Half of this country voted for someone whose values I vehemently and viscerally disagree with. They were undeterred by his sexism, his racism, and the idea of giving a volatile man prone to emotion-driven lashouts access to nuclear codes. I wish they would agree with me, but I can also see that in a belligerent election cycle there was no impetus for them to come around.

You cannot polarize and proselytize at the same time. You have to give people room to be wrong without demonizing them. If they are ‘wrong’ about something and the people who are wrong about that something are ‘evil’, they will never be open to being wrong because no one considers themselves to be evil.

This is what I think right now. I am going to double down on kindness and storytelling. I’m going to try harder to treat everyone with respect and empathize with people I disagree with and who do things I consider immoral. I’m not going to call people sexist or racist or complain about white men anymore because I care more about changing someone’s mind than I do about shaming them. Those labels (the first two, anyway) represent things I consider morally reprehensible, and people tend to not be open-minded about the possibility that they are morally reprehensible. I don’t want them to be on the defense, I want them to listen.

I’m not perfect. I am a person who gets a thrill out of conflict. I consider disagreement to be exciting and intellectually interesting. I understand the gut impulse to say mean things to people who disagree with you — just as I understand the desire to write people with ‘bad’ beliefs off. This is a part of my humanity, too. It’s part of the appetite in my Platonically ordered soul that I have to work to reign in.

In his holocaust memoir Viktor Frankl talks about his empathy for the guards at his concentration camp, a display of such incredible open-mindedness that my jaw literally dropped when I read it:

”It is apparent that the mere knowledge that a man was either a camp guard or a prisoner tells us almost nothing. Human kindness can be found in all groups, even those which as a whole it would be easy to condemn.”

I read the book when #notallmen was trending, and I couldn’t believe someone who had been through so much worse than my (comparatively insignificant) experiences with sexism was going #notallholocaustguards on his captors. This is my aspirational level of empathy. People want to be good. They do not hold their beliefs because they are evil or want to be evil — and when we approach conversation with them through as if they are, we forfeit an opportunity to get them to listen. TC mark

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