Take a look at this picture. What do you see?
The more imaginative among you will look upon the subjects and setting and envision some form of backstory for both; examining the moment and asking yourself what these two people might be thinking or doing, and what brought them to this particular time and place. To do so, you will examine many visual cues: their clothing, the environment, their body language, and, most importantly, their eyes. What you are looking for is a sense of familiarity; something in them reflective of a similar something within yourself that places the scene within a subjective context that feels familiar and “right” to you.
This is empathy: the ability to relate to the thoughts, emotions, or experiences of another without direct communication. For millennia, human beings have cultivated a certain level of empathy as the primary social tool enabling us to relate to others without knowing them first hand. Empathy influences our initial opinions of not only the people we meet, but the conditions and situations we observe in the world around us. Later, as we gain firsthand knowledge of these subjects, empathy takes a back seat to experience, and we begin to compile an internal library of distinctions between initial perceptions and experienced reality. This is how we determine our own, internal idea of truth.
But truth — real truth — is a slippery subject. Time teaches that things change, and just as plants an animals evolve to better adapt to the conditions of their environments, so do people, places, events, and our own opinions of all of the above. We grow older, and just as time changes our physical appearance, it also changes our way of thinking about the past and our experience of it. Things we once considered as absolutes, experiences that seemingly fixed our perspectives, or carved and idea in metaphorical stone, seem less solid as they slowly recede into the mists of the past. We begin to doubt both our experience and our perceptions, realizing that perhaps our reasoning isn’t as solid as it once seemed.
Doubt, like the devil, is a subtle foe. For some minds, doubt is challenge to be overcome; a gift to tickle the curiosity and keep the neurons firing on a path to new adventures and knowledge. For others, however, doubt all too often serves as an excuse to shut down the intellect altogether; to hide from knowledge out of fear that it may undo the fragile intellectual ecosystems we have constructed around our lives. But such shutdowns, like their real-world counterparts, come with a collateral cost. When doubt drives the debate, empathy is pushed aside, and the mind becomes no longer capable of relating to experiences, opinions, or realities it hasn’t already accepted.
Such is the case with partisan politics.
Here in the U.S., the current political climate seems to be founded more on the principle of “Fuck off” than “My Fellow Americans.” When it comes to questions of politics, many Americans seem to have lost their capacity for not only intellectual perspective, but social perspective as well; replacing it with sets of ideals gathered not from personal experience, but passed down from pundits and mass media ideologues. It’s as if we have voluntarily stopped thinking for ourselves, electing instead to let others, who may or may not have our best interest at heart, do the thinking for us.
Otto von Bismarck once famously said, “Laws are like sausages, it is better not to see them being made.” Thanks to the rise of the twenty four hour news cycle, the public has been exposed to the mechanics of law-making more than ever before. We now know how the sausage is made, and the discovery has made us a little bit sick to the stomach, or, more accurately, sick in the head. Perhaps the continual imagery of political meat grinding has driven out our desire for empathetic and intellectual participation Perhaps the sight of so many despicably motivated, and blatantly self-serving political animals has made us leery of any personal self-analysis, or self-awareness, out of fear that to look too closely at ourselves will show us to be just as petty and unimaginative as the politicians we despise. What we see disgusts us, and as we recoil in horror of the system we have wrought, we push empathy and perspective aside and cocoon ourselves in a shield of willful ignorance. Like a child refusing to hear it’s mother’s pleas for peace and quiet, we plug our ears and scream, “La, la, la. I’m not listening,” until the big scary new idea goes away. It’s a futile game, of course, but still we play.
Take another look at the picture above, and ask yourself the following questions: “Are these people ‘liberal,’ or ‘conservative’?” “Are they ‘Democrats,’ or ‘Republicans’?” “Are they ‘capitalists,’ ‘socialists,’ or [gasp] ‘communists’? Can you tell from the picture? Does it matter if you cannot? Perhaps another question is in order: Ask yourselves if either of the two people gazing deeply into each other’s eyes as they walk arm in arm through a sun-kissed park gives a tinker’s damn about any one of those labels?
Such is the subtle charm of perception; words that once seemed to matter pale in comparison to the things that actually do.