When Talking About Race, Empathy is Never ‘Cheap and Cowardly’

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Last week I was called out by someone on Facebook for what he called “being emotional.” He told me that I could not hold a logical discussion because I was emotional. In fact, he called my emotional appeal—during the debate we were having—’logically inconsistent’ and promised that he would use my ‘style’ of argumentation to show his 9-12-year-old students what logical fallacies look like.

He also promised that I would become a ‘star’ after him using me as a case study.

What happened with my friend is something anthropologists would quickly put a finger on. While we both sought to have ‘logical’ discussions, we approached them differently. He could not envisage an intellectual conversation which partly appealed to the emotive. At the same time, I could not imagine that someone would discuss human persons and totally divorce emotions from that discussion.

What my friend did is something many Westerners (read: white people) would easily do: argue that their way is the only way, and any attempt at a different approach is a sham.

My continued appeal to this person that we are different and that the socio-cultural contexts which we come from shape the way we see, understand, and arrive at truth fell on deaf ears. He accused me of pulling the race card which in his words was “cheap and cowardly”.

By no means am I saying all these to store up sympathy from the internet. Instead, I say this because, I think, this conversation is crucial if we are to make headway on such important, and challenging topics as race, and the sad history of what this country has come to call ‘people of colour’.

Do emotions, or what I will refer to as empathy, have a stake in civil discourse. Can we make a claim that this country (The US) would be a better place if it cared more about our, and other’s emotional appeal instead of calling it cheap and cowardly?

A Case for Emotional Appeal

From the discussion I had with my friend on Facebook and many others I have had in my two-year-old stay in this country, it is evident that these times have been marked by a strong appeal to the intellect. Logical constructs, [some] numbers, expert opinion, etc. have come to be treasured above anything else.

Yet, we don’t seem to be making progress in dealing with the hardest topics—the ones we cannot avoid. Information and its consumption are not helping. One would think that having all the information would help us tackle the problem of race, systemic racism, police brutality, white supremacy, reparations or any other topic we may want to discuss.

This country is so unique that when faced with a profoundly moral question, most will first appeal to their social and political lenses to discern the times. The leftists, as well as the rightists will speak with a united voice. After this, many will join book clubs, or recommend books to read so that the question at hand is ‘understood’.

What normally follows this understanding is a mystery to me.

The American mind is shaped in a way that there will be no redress whatsoever unless people know the facts. Here, knowledge, or knowing, is key.

The problem with this approach, however, is that logic, constructs, numbers, estimates, and loads of books which inform ‘mob reason’ cannot reach down to the experiential level of human pain and suffering.

Understanding people and their experiences demand that we feel with them. It requires that we understand that theirs is a different struggle which we will not know unless we die with them in their death, celebrate with them in their achievements, and drown with them in their tears.

It is an experience to be soaked in, not a case study to be examined.

People feel, celebrate, worship, cry, mourn, struggle, hope, believe, and lament. You cannot fully comprehend these from a paragraph however well-written it may be. You cannot measure them either. This is why empathy becomes essential. One person’s story matters. It cannot be dismissed because—according to the experts—it accounts for just 0.00002% of the population.

It always saddens me when some people, out of a sheer lack of empathy, claim that systemic racism is a myth or that police brutality against people of colour is something that exists only in the minds of wishful thinkers like me. The explanation is always one of numbers. They will say that Amaud Aubrey, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Terrence Crutcher and many others are just a drop in the ocean if the US population of 331 million people is taken into consideration.

You see, this argument would make sense if we were talking about how many wildebeests migrated from the Serengeti this year. But we are talking about human beings, with families, and mouths to feed. We are talking about God’s image-bearing children. We cannot leave feelings outside the door as if we are discussing or reading about rocks.

Jesus is Empathetic

Our Lord in Luke 15 tells a set of three parables. The lost coin, the lost son and the lost sheep. He describes how the owner of the coin puts everything on hold, turns her house upside down to find this one lost coin. He also tells the story of the father of the son gives up honour to welcome his son back home. And then the shepherd of 100 sheep who leaves the 99 to go find the one sheep that was foolish enough to think that it could make it on its own.

By our American logic, the one sheep accounting for just 1% of the flock would be inconsequential compared to the 99%. It would therefore not be necessary to go seeking it out. But Jesus Christ does not buy into that empathy-starved narrative. To Jesus that one sheep matters: “Rejoice with me; for I have found my sheep which was lost.” (Luke 15:6)

Jesus feels for the lost. “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathise with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin.” (Heb 4:15) Because he has lived in a body (and continues to do so), he is able to empathise with.

The Apostle Paul also demonstrates what empathy looks like when he talks about the body with its many parts in 1 Corinthians 12:12-27. Here he shows that all believers in Corinth are one body—which is Christ—consisting of many parts. These parts, according to Paul, cannot exist without each other. They are useless unless they complement each other. What would an eye do by itself? Imagine walking along a street and meeting a human eye. The statement itself sounds stupid because eyes don’t walk around on the street. They give vision to the body.

He then concludes by saying that “In that way, the parts of the body will not take sides. All of them will take care of one another. If one part suffers, every part suffers with it. If one part is honoured, every part shares in its joy.” (vs 25-26)

The parts of the body understand what it means to suffer for each other, they get empathy. When a foot hits a stone, the whole body feels the pain. This is how the body of believers is supposed to be. It is meant to enter the suffering of another so that it will understand that other better.

Even when we talk about other people’s experiences, we need to be aware of the pain involved. Our words, which always come from books, podcasts, YouTube videos etc. hurt other people because they lack empathy. They don’t feel for those they are addressing.

It is essential, therefore, that the American thinks deeply about how she interacts with people, especially those who have been hurt. She mustn’t treat other people’s lived experiences as case studies that lack any relatability beyond the ink on a book page. Written words may speak, but they don’t feel, and they can never really invite the reader into their lived experience because they lack one. People, on the other hand, have flesh and feel pain. They are also able to invite others into their understanding of pain and suffering.

If this country is ever going to genuinely tackle racism and the painful past it always shies away from, some people will have to stop buying books. We are going to need vulnerable people who can be trusted to be invited into [our] pain, and suffering; people who will be ready to hear and see our pain as a reality we carry around every day. Maybe then people will start to be humane about the pain black bodies carry.

About the author

Nuwamanya Mategyero

D. Nuwamanya Mategyero is a Ugandan Public Theologian, blogger, and social critic.

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