America faces an unprecedented combination of challenges—a pandemic, historic economic disparity, a racial reckoning, and the threat of global climate change. Moments of crisis like this test our most basic moral foundations; the four major crises we face now challenge us to embrace the two fundamental elements of morality: empathy and honesty.
As we teach in the shadow of these crises, we must cultivate a capacious empathy, which would embrace everyone, especially those with whom we struggle to agree or even understand, and an ardent demand for honesty, first from ourselves and second of those whom we engage. If we are to overcome these crises—and the next should we endure the combination now facing us—we must rediscover these two core principles of all moral behavior and use them to forge a way forward.
Central to our ability to build relationships is our capacity to feel empathy for others. (This is a contested claim; I prefer a virtue ethic, so I lean toward this view, but here is one example of the debate: “Does Empathy Guide or Hinder Moral Action?”). We must recognize the basic humanity, at a bare minimum, of others, if we are to enter into the relationships that morality governs. Without empathy, other human beings are merely objects to be manipulated or avoided.
Trust is impossible without the presumption of honesty. The fragile social networks that facilitate our interactions are premised on a basic assumption of honesty as the general rule. Without honesty, we are incapable of any interaction beyond fear. Honesty is unlike empathy in that while empathy is generally other-oriented, honesty can be other-oriented and reflexive. We can treat honestly with others or not and we can be honest with ourselves or fail to do so.
The danger of a failure in either empathy or honesty is alienation.
Philosophically, alienation is the “the problematic separation of a subject and object that properly belong together,” that is, when a person or group is improperly separated from some object, person, or institution with which it should be in relationship. More colloquially, alienation is a rupture in a fundamental relationship between a person and an object, idea, or person that is crucial for their identity. Empathy and honesty are the basic prerequisites for relationship, thus a failure on either is damaging to proper relationship and a failure on both makes relationship impossible.
A failure of empathy estranges us from other human beings, making relationship impossible. Since we are social beings, when we are alienated from other human beings, we lose a part of our humanity. When we fail to be honest with ourselves, we are no longer in proper relationship with ourselves. When we imagine ourselves to be other than we really are, we develop a distorted self-image and are alienated from who we truly are. When we are dishonest with others, we rupture the basic principle of trust upon which relationships rest, making relating to each other properly impossible, alienating us from the social networks that constitute our identities.
The Red Tower by Giorgio de Chirico. Oil on canvas, 1913.
The public discourse on the storming of the National Capitol on January sixth reflects the denial that is a mainstay in American discourse on all four of these challenges. “This is not who we are,” some say. George Bush said it about racism in 1992; Angus King said it about torture in 2014, and Barack Obama said it about excluding Muslim immigrants in 2016. Many have recognized the danger of this rhetoric (See Tim Dowling’s “‘This is not who we are’ is American for: ‘This is sort of who we are,’” written in 2014. More recently, Soraya Nadia MacDonald penned “The Dangerous Magical Thinking of ‘This is Not Who We Are.’” See also recent essays by Paul Waldman and Ibram X. Kendi, as well as this political cartoon by Jason Kottke.)
At the core of the assertion that this is not who we are is a failure of both empathy and honesty. When we fail to look upon our neighbors with empathy, we fail to see them as human beings and they become objects to be manipulated in the marketplace, feared in our neighborhoods, or used in political rhetoric. When we deny someone else’s experiences, we deny them their humanity. But that denial is a lie.
In some cases, we have been lied to. The dominant myths about America—told in history books, political speeches, and at the knees of elders in our family—deny the facts of our racist past, the violence of partisan politics that goes back to the founding of our nation, and the deep-seated discomfort with democracy that has been a part of our national experiment with democracy since the beginning. These illusions distort our national self-image. (See “Wrestling with White Supremacy,” about the work of Richard T. Hughes).
In some cases, we have lied to ourselves, resisting facing the facts when the myths are exposed as such or failing to recognize the truth of the changing reality of life in the US.
We cannot reject the responsibility for these failures by claiming ignorance. The humanity of other people was never in question, just the relevance of their humanity to us. The call for honesty has never been in question, just diverted or rationalized away (See “Why Some People Vote for Politicians They Know are Liars”). But we should have been aware, thus we are responsibility. Denial is both a cause and a symptom, but it is not an excuse.
Failures of empathy and honesty alienate us from each other and from the truth. They make it impossible to be in proper relationship with others. Like missing or broken puzzle pieces, they distort our picture of reality. Raised and indoctrinated with distorted pictures of reality—myths—we develop malformed consciences. These myths distort our perception of ourselves, of each other, and of the world. Just as no map perfectly matches the territory is describes no worldview—or its particular myths—perfectly reflects reality, but the more distorted our image of the world is, the harder is it for us to know ourselves, relate to our neighbors, or understand our world. We are alienated from each.
If we can feel our own pain and suffering, then we can recognize the call for empathy to be heard in the suffering of others. Our starting point in any relationship, in any moral decision, should be the basic empathy of recognizing the other as a human being first. All else is secondary to their humanity and should be considered after that.
If we hope to hear the truth, then we can recognize the call for honesty from others. This is more difficult than empathy because of our innate capacity for illusions, which easily morph into delusion. The call to honesty starts with a strict demand to see the world as it is. The illusions that comfort us are tempting, but they lead to delusion and denial, which inevitably lead to pain and suffering.
We must also demand honesty of others. Lies alienate us from the truth. The crises we face at this moment in history demand a great deal of us, but overcoming those challenges starts with empathy, so we can see how they affect others, and honesty, so we have a better picture of the crisis. The price for failure is not simply more suffering and death, as horrific as that prospect is, but perhaps even the end of democracy in our country and an environmental catastrophe that will forever alter human civilization.
Teaching in the shadow of threats to our health, our livelihoods, our social fabric, and our very environment demands that we begin to foster in our students both empathy and honesty. We no longer have the luxury of catering to one or the other.
Matthew Sayers is Professor of Religion teaching in the Social Justice and Civic Engagement Program at Lebanon Valley College in Annville, Pennsylvania. He is the author of Feeding the Dead: Ancestor Worship in Ancient India (Oxford, 2013). Matt’s essay, “The Story of Me: A Myth-understanding of Vocation” appeared in Hearing Vocation Differently: Meaning, Purpose, and Identity in the Multi-Faith Academy, ed. David S. Cunningham (Oxford, 2019). To read Matt’s other posts on this blog, click here.