First published on Medium.
We are in a rough place, America.
Our idea of America is based on noble principles. We define ourselves by our independence from tyrants, our birthright to freedom, our commitment to democracy, our belief in a person’s uniqueness as an exceptional piece of the country’s fabric, and our promise as a land of opportunity.
“Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free…”
— Emma Lazarus
These ideals are noble because they are selfless. They are borne from protestations against the status quo in 17th century Europe. We are (mostly 🙄) descended from communities of immigrants fleeing persecution. America embraced its role as a safehaven and refuge for the downtrodden and those that dared to dream. And while America has never been perfect, it has always been Americans’ earnest belief in our ability to serve and help others that truly made us great.
To be empathetic is to embrace the truest form of American exceptionalism.
Unfortunately, we have strayed away from this foundational tenet of Americanism — in our conversations, in our interactions, and in our priorities. Ironically, the idea of making America “great” is now defined by an aloofness and indifference toward others and a characterization of civility as some restriction on freedom of expression.
Perhaps this aloofness and indifference always lay at the root of the American psyche, and our history as a country continues to be a war between these poles — empathy versus apathy — for the soul of our nation. If that’s the case, then our current state of political dialogue is certainly the next battle in the long war.
“Speaking one’s mind” without regard to its impact on others has become all the rage these days. That somehow, the real danger to America is our inability to have raw, unfiltered dialogue about what we like and don’t like. Brashness has become another word for “honesty”, and in an odd development, respecting someone’s lived experiences is characterized as dancing around an issue.
This “honesty” — unsurprisingly — is not actually sparking the real dialogue to make America great. It is tearing us further apart. This honesty is more like beginning a conversation with “with all due respect…”, saying the most inconsiderate thing possible, and following that statement with feigned surprise about how it was received.
I wrote an article before about entering difficult conversations productively, and felt that the tactics we use to communicate are often a defense mechanism, because being wrong or opening ourselves to something different is just too uncomfortable. Being brash and disrespectful is not a strategy for honest dialogue. It’s a tactic to avoid conversation with people that disagree with you and push people away that may challenge your worldview.
It’s the easy way out. We can’t even discuss what we disagree on and why we disagree if we use misinformation and mischaracterizations as our opening thesis for our beliefs. We can’t truly make America great again if we don’t honor and respect the diverse backgrounds of individuals that have contributed to American greatness throughout history.
America has never been perfect; however, the sets of ideals and principles this country were founded on are pure and simple. At its core, those values are rooted in empathy — the ability to understand and share the feelings of others. Freedom, giving people a voice, self-determination, and an embrace of individualism are parameters that define the space for sharing our truest selves. When America has missed the mark, it is because our practices and laws have deviated from or distorted the purity of these ideals. And America’s ancestors have had to fight, struggle, suffer, and endure in different ways throughout history to push America closer to those ideals and evolve the nation.
Being an asshole is easy. The privileges and rights that living in America affords us means we have the freedom to choose and determine how we show up in this world. However, a great American is one who strives to be more — to be selfless. To not only be our truest selves, but to make an earnest effort to understand the truest selves of others.
Only when we start with empathy as our baseline, can we really have the conversations that will ultimately evolve the nation, and make America great again.