For the Liberal Left:  A Challenge to Climb the Wall of Empathy

It’s November 7, 2018, the day after mid-term elections in the U.S. 


There are great victories and great defeats for both Republicans and Democrats.  I’m heartbroken by some of them, but that’s not what concerns me most this morning. What concerns me most as I see the many, many, close-to-50/50 races, is this vast evidence that we still aren’t able to listen to and understand each other. 


In particular, it concerns me that the liberal left—those of us who believe ourselves to be more tolerant and enlightened, more progressive; those of us who operate in circles where mindfulness and compassion and empathy are buzzwords—we aren’t listening to the predominantly white, working class, Americans (and many conservative Christians) who have been crying out for years now that they want to be heard. 


I feel concerned in conversations like the one I had with colleagues yesterday, in which they assumed (correctly) that I am a Democrat who would be pleased by the defeat of Ted Cruz (which didn’t happen.)   


I’m concerned because I think most of us these days can make generally accurate assumptions about the views of the other people at our tables because we have so little contact with people whose views differ significantly from ours. 


Lately I’ve been reading from Pádrig Ó Tuama’s book Daily Prayer with the Correymeala Community most mornings and interestingly today I read this line:


“May we populate our tables with all kinds of people.”


It reminded me of Priya Parker’s book, The Art of Gathering, which I haven’t yet purchased, but I heard her talk about it in an interview (I think it was on The Good Life Project podcast.)  Two things from the interview stuck with me.  One was the idea of intentionally facilitating gatherings in which we set the stage for deep conversations, rather than focusing primarily on table settings and flowers.  Deep conversations among diverse groups of people, where we know there are truly divergent perspectives.  Can we have these conversations?


The other was a quotation she shared from a young man, a former college student, who had been accused and convicted of some kind of sexual misconduct.  He had admitted that he was wrong.  He felt remorse.  He’d been kicked out of school.  He wanted to make things as right as he could.  But he was having trouble finding any way back into community of any kind.  “What do you want me to do?” he said.  “Do you want me to go off and die?”  (or something to that effect.)


I believe these are challenges that those of us seeking both healing and social justice must face.  These are the hard questions we need to answer with action.


Can We walk our talk in the most difficult of ways? 

Can we grapple with the problem of our intolerance of people who aren’t tolerant? Can we take the simple (not easy) step of listening to their stories?  Can we invite them to our tables?



Will we grapple with the challenge of this young man’s question?  When people mess up, really mess up (particularly in ways that harm historically oppressed people) do we offer them any path to healing and redemption?  Or do we leave them forever exiled, defined by their one worst action, their one worst statement, or their one biggest blindspot.


Arlie Hochschild, a UC Berkeley sociologist has paved a path for us.  A few years ago she left the liberal enclave of Berkeley, California and traveled to Louisiana to get to know some Trump supporters.  She spent several years getting to know them, climbing what she calls the “wall of empathy” to understand their anger and their pain, to hear their stories and she was changed by the experience.  She wrote about what she learned in her book Strangers in Their Own Land. She didn’t change her political views, but she changed her view of these human beings.  She came to care for and respect them.  She could no longer write them off as simple “racist rednecks.” (You can hear her talk about her experiences – and some of what she learned in the interview she did with Krista Tippet.)


I believe, along with Arlie Hochschild and others, that liberals should be leading the way on this new path towards healing.  At least some of us should be.


I do have a caveat here, though.  I don’t think that I can know FOR YOU, whether you are in this moment (or even ever) called to build bridges.  Or with whom.


If you, like my bi-racial son, like my friend whose husband is transgender, are so raw and angry that you can’t see straight and feel called mostly at this point just to yell a very loud “no more, no more, no more!)  I, personally, will give you the benefit of the doubt that you are exactly where you need to be in this moment. 


As a white woman, I want to go on the record saying that black people and brown-skinned people have a lot of reasons to be angry.  And their expression of anger doesn’t in any way diminish the truth of what they are saying.  Way too many white people tell people of color the time for anger has passed.  Way too many men tell women the same thing. 


Some of you need to build FIRM boundaries right now to keep out those who have and continue to harm you.  Do it.  Your first job is to protect yourself and heal.  That may take a lifetime of firm boundaries.  I’m good with that.  You know your own path.


But some of us know that we COULD build bridges – if we tried.  It just that it’s hard.  And we don’t really want to do it.  


I think we need to recognized that we are asking people who have strong emotions and deep beliefs, often associated with their personal interpretations of pretty painful life experiences, to set them aside in an instant or we will call them evil, backward and treat them as barely worthy of existence.  Racist.  Homophobic.  Sexist. 


Can we do what we are asking of them, in order to be leaders in healing?  In order to bring more justice?  Can we set aside, for a moment, OUR strong emotions and deep beliefs, often associated with OUR personal interpretations of pretty painful life experiences long enough to listen?


Because I don’t see how labeling people as racist is getting us very far down the road to more justice.  And I can say personally that as someone who grew up conservative and Christian, it was a 10 to 20-year-long journey for me to grapple (sincerely) with my faith and how it informed my views on homosexuality (wrong) and feminism (evil.) Beliefs change slowly. One area of intolerance in a person doesn’t necessarily define all of who they are.

There were some exciting changes yesterday – Native American women in congress, for example.  So exciting! And Democrats won a few seats in the house, so there’s a shift in power there.  But many, many races were close to 50/50.  We haven’t won a lot of people over to the side of justice as I see it.


So, I think, my liberal friends, that if we truly care about social justice, we need to recognize that if we want more of it, we’re going to need to find a way to honor the humanity of some people we really don’t understand. And who really don’t understand us.


What’s one tiny step you can take in that direction?  (Make it tiny – an easy win will get you started.)


Share it in the comments or shoot me an email by hitting reply or sending a message to me at  and we’ll start walking this path together. 


Here’s to thriving – and justice.




P.S. If I’ve managed to keep a few conservative readers here (I’m trying but I’m not sure it’s worked) please know that you are welcome.  I don’t think you’re evil.   I think you are human with a complicated mix of amazing goodness and messed up stuff – as am I.  And I’d love it if you’d bring a few more of your friends to the Thriving for Equity table so we can get some more conversations going.