The profession of journalism is in something of a pickle these days. Its practitioners are covering news and ferreting out and disseminating facts that are deeply connected to questions of morality. Back in February, a young reporter named Lewis Wallace started shining some light on this relationship, and even suggested that the profession start rethinking the way it does its work. He scared up a fair amount of journalistic angst. When New York Times or Washington Post reporters write columns, they can express their thoughts about the morality of myriad complex issues: the president’s decision to ban individuals from seven predominantly Muslim countries from entering the United States; the ramifications of a wall on vulnerable individuals who cross the border illegally, the immorality of denying health care to poor people. On the op-ed page reporters can question the decency of legislation that stands between a poor child and his or her right to a free breakfast. Continue reading It’s a FACT: White Supremacy is Immoral
Recently, while teaching a course that focused on journalism and the importance of one’s employing an ethic of empathy, my students and I read and studied Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates. A national correspondent for The Atlantic, Coates is well known for his analytical and opinion pieces. His book, a letter to his 15-year-old son, is at once intimate and expansive, his attempt to explain what it means to grow up black in this world and, in particular, in the United States of America. He expresses his hopes and fears for his son, who is coming of age in a culture within which racism persists.
What does it mean, he pushes the reader to wonder, to have to tell your child, when that child is old enough to understand, that there are those who think themselves superior–and others therefore lesser–because of the color of their skin? Coates wants not only his son but all others who read his work to resonate with his belief, his deep and personal understanding, that the American Dream “rests on the bodies of black people.”
At this moment in our history, we are witnessing the bold resurgence of white supremacists, among them Richard Spencer, a leading voice for the alt-right. Spencer, at a rally in a federal building in D.C. this past November, quoted Nazi propaganda and proclaimed that America belongs to white people. He and others extended their arms to salute Trump, shouting, “Heil, Trump!”
Every time I visualize this scene in my mind’s eye I am overcome with grief. And rightly so. But this I believe: Their voices will not carry the day. For now, though, their presence in this world stands as evidence of just how far the human race has yet to go to become a species defined by love, not hate. Most of us are smarter and better than Richard Spencer and his ilk. We’ll persist and we’ll triumph.
I hope my students enjoyed reading Coates as much as I did. I hope they found themselves empathizing with his feelings and his perspective. Empathy is never easy, but when, for example, a young white woman reads the work of a black man who is a father, an intellectual, a realist, and someone who has known the bottomless pain of oppression, she must be willing to open herself not only to feeling as he feels and to taking on his perspective as her own, but also to acknowledging her own biases and assumptions. Reading Coates becomes, if one lets it, a journey into self-examination.
I resonated with Coates’s perspective because I encountered in his words and in the deep love that motivated them our shared humanity. Coates’s book–his letter–is a call to our deepest, best selves. It is an invitation to become acutely conscious of the interior life of another human being and the history he represents. It is an invitation to understand and internalize his perspective by connecting and resonating with his concern, his pain, his hope, and most of all his love. It has taken up permanent residence in my mind and in my heart.
Prairie Chickens Dance — Here in South Dakota, the prairie chicken has seen its habitat disappear as the land, acre by acre, has been plowed under. Many times, my husband and I have watched the chickens perform their spring mating ritual on the rough ground of the prairie. They dance for a future that we must protect on their behalf.
Marc Ian Barasch, author of Field Notes on the Compassionate Life, defines empathy as “our ability to feel and perceive from another’s point of view.” At the Jaipur Literary Festival in India in January 2011, David Finkel, Washington Post reporter and author of The Good Soldiers, told a rapt audience that he was obligated to be empathetic not only with the soldiers in Iraq but also with the policy makers in Washington, D.C., including then President George W. Bush. He noted that it might be more difficult to summon empathy for Bush than for the soldiers but that it was no less important that he do so. In saying this, he acknowledged the most basic precursor for empathy: recognition of human equality, no matter the differences, and no matter one’s personal perspective. “It’s impossible,” he said, “not to have empathy for American troops and Iraqis.” It is more difficult, he said, to have empathy for those making policy in D.C.—but “you have to.” Somehow, one has to “keep empathy for all the players.”
His point is key to two parts of my definition of empathy: First, empathy allows one to gain understanding, and, second, it does not require that agreement follow from the connection. In addition, empathy, given this definition, compels fair, unbiased treatment of all sources.
Compassion is integral to the creation of an ethical life; nonetheless, the institution of journalism has worried for more than a century that compassion might somehow provoke the profession’s downfall. And it might—but not because we have ever actually let loose its imagined power to wreak havoc. Quite the contrary. The profession has largely stifled its promise—the potential to strengthen the quest for truth—through a dogged dedication to objectivity.
But journalism, despite itself, is evolving, as is a multidisciplinary theory of empathy, one that contains elements and principles essential to good journalism. In the past few decades, a body of journalists has become the moral compass of an institution deeply in need of one: the press. These individuals reflect in their work an ethic of empathy and a respect for the principle that grounds any democratic system: the life, liberty, and happiness of the many must be protected. A couple years ago David Finkel, Washington Post, skyped with 10 or so students enrolled in a course I was teaching on the relationship between empathy and journalism. At the end of our conversation, Finkel summed up in five words his motivation as a storyteller who uses the narrative form: “The world needs more witnesses,” he said. The students wrote Finkel’s words in their notebooks, as did I. Through his words he evoked a basic truth essential to the evolution of humanity—and therefore journalism: People must diminish the distance that exists between self and other.
Because my students had been studying Finkel’s work, they knew just how closely he had taken himself to soldiers of the 2-16 in Iraq. Aware of those who argue that the narrative form invites subjective bias, Finkel emphasized that reportage must undergird every sentence in a narrative work, that the reader must be able to connect the writer’s interpretation, as well as his or her own, to verifiable facts, strong sourcing, and unfiltered observations. We were moved not only by the power of Finkel’s words but by the tone in Finkel’s voice: an amalgamation of conviction, purpose, and hope. The conviction that drives Finkel—the need to witness, the obligation that one human being ought to feel toward another—drives many writers today. Journalists are and should be humanitarians and storytellers who can, through their work, alleviate suffering and promote change in the world of the 21st century. Journalists must be witnesses, and they must be witnesses that gain understanding of the other through connection.
For information about JBL: http://www.augie.edu/faculty-7
Every day, reporters cross, or should, the boundaries that exist between self and Other.
Once a person navigates that transition, his or her world expands, and in the newly created space, the self comes to know better the potential of its humanity. At times, though, we may find the act of empathy repulsive. We may want to retreat, not reach out. Do I want to see through the eyes of a serial killer? The answer is yes, if my purpose is understanding, a goal decidedly different from agreement. Do I want to see through the eyes of the 14-year-old girl who has been trafficked, suffering sexual assault after assault, beating after beating? To be empathetic one must feel her pain, her loss, her desperation, her fear. And one must feel the evil intent that drives the abuser. One who works empathetically knows his or her purpose: to translate for the dominant culture the reality of the Other.
Michael Schudson, in his book Why Democracies Need an Unlovable Press (2008), argued that social empathy ranks among the six functions of the journalist in a democratic society. “[J]ournalism,” he wrote, “can tell people about others in their society and their world so that they can come to appreciate the viewpoints and lives of other people, especially those less advantaged than themselves” (12). Social empathy, the ability to understand people from diverse socioeconomic classes and racial and ethnic backgrounds, enables “insight into the context of institutionalized inequalities and disparities” and “can inspire societal change and promote social wellbeing” (Segal et al, 2012, 541). Martin Hoffman argued in his book, Empathy and Moral Development: Implications for Caring and Justice, that the outcome of teaching empathy would be a more moral and just society: “If caring and justice are valued in our society and children are socialized to internalize them both, and if I am right about empathy’s links to caring and most justice principles, it follows that most mature, morally internalized individuals have empathy-charged caring and justice principles in their motive system” (21). He encouraged training in the art of empathizing (24). Such training, one would hope, would lead the individual to see him- or herself as part of an interconnected world. To do so helps one understand that what happens to another human being is relevant to oneself.