Empathy, bigotry, and the tolerance paradox: Can America solve its social impasse?

There are a lot of tough conversations that stand between where America is now and "liberty and justice for all," says Van Jones.

Van Jones: This whole question around tolerance and empathy and understanding and where the limits are is a very, very tough conversation and I come down in an odd place. On the one hand I think we have to defend very aggressively the most vulnerable constituencies in America: Muslims, immigrants, transgender people, LGBT, women, African Americans, low-income people, and I think you have to be aggressive about it. I think you have to be passionate about it. I think you have to be serious about it.

If we’re going to have liberty and justice for all and not liberty and justice for some, then we’ve got a lot of work to do. And I think that’s important. At the same time there sometimes can be a loss of empathy for those constituencies that may feel that they have to give up something to get to equality.

For those of us who are trying to gain something to get to equality we can be very passionate, and it feels good—we're making up lost ground over generations of discrimination, we’re overcoming that, it feels great. For other people, even just psychologically, they may feel that they’re losing ground, and it’s sometimes hard for us to have much empathy for that and we tend to go into, “Shut up! You guys have had the game to yourselves. You're disproportionally the business leaders and the senators and everything else, and it’s our turn, and shut up.” And that’s totally understandable, it just may not work very well because change is hard for people.

If you’re a liberal—you look at gentrification. Here’s a neighborhood that used to have African Americans or Latinos or whatever, and then you go away for five years, you come back, and the hipsters have come and they’ve set up their kale shops and bike things everywhere, and you’re like, “Hey!”

It’s like Oakland California right now: West Oakland is being completely transformed by its proximity to Silicon Valley, and people who work for Google and all these places are now moving into West Oakland, totally changing the place.

I sometimes look at that and I go, “Hey, hold on a second; I liked Oakland the way it was!” And if I can build a wall around Oakland and make Silicon Valley pay for it, I might consider that, because I liked Oakland the way that it was. Now, that doesn't mean that we should close the borders or that Trump is right, I'm not saying that at all. I think we need more immigration not less, and I think we need a faster pathway for us to steal all the best talent from around the world and the hardest workers, rather than slower. I think America gets to compete better because we get to cheat and get all the good people from everywhere here.

But can I have a bridge of empathy and understanding to somebody who says, “Hey, wait a minute. I liked America the way that it was when I grow up, I liked certain things. I’ve got some grief now. I’ve got some anxiety now. I’ve got some fear now.”

Do we have to call that person a bigot? Do we have to say that person is a morally deficient human being and push them outside of the circle of decent company, or is there some way for us to say, “We don’t agree with you, we see it differently, but we can understand why there might be some anxiety here. And by the way, you might want to prepare yourself, because more change is coming. We’re going to keep pushing for more change on gender, on sexuality, on the demographics. So more change is coming, but we get it.”

Sometimes I think people just want to be witnessed in their struggle without being judged and condemned.

These are tough conversations to have, and if you start talking the way I’m talking, you’re going to get hit from all sides. I’m willing to do it because I just don’t think you can have an honest conversation any other way.

And the benefit of having a democracy with 300 million people in it—every color, every human, every faith, every gender—all of us actually working together, I mean, it’s worth having some tough conversations and going through some rocky periods to get to that outcome.
But our intolerance for the intolerant may actually create more intolerance. Our tolerance for the intolerant may leave in place too much intolerance.

So it’s a catch-22 that you can’t get through with just your brain; your heart has got to lead you to someplace where you can actually hold onto your principles and hold onto your neighbor at the same time. That's the challenge. No easy answer, but that’s what we’ve got to try to do.

For many years now, America has been tying itself into an enormous Gordian Knot. In Phrygian mythology, this was an epic tangle of rope that no man could untie, despite great rewards, until Alexander the Great came along and cut it in half with his sword—or so the legend goes. Cutting the Gordian Knot is an expression that has come to mean thinking outside the box or finding a creative loophole when faced with a seemingly impossible problem. America is in one such impossible tangle right now, struck by political division that has bled into devastating social division. So what is the loophole we aren't seeing, asks CNN news commentator Van Jones? He suggests having empathy and understanding for everyone who is affected by the march of progress—not just those who are gaining ground, but those who are losing it. If someone liked America "the way that it was," are they really a bigot? "I think people just want to be witnessed in their struggle without being judged and condemned," he says. There is a limit to empathy, however: you cannot tolerate the intolerant for too long—but having empathy for those who interpret change as scary, and understanding why they think that way, may be the only inroad to untying this great mess. Van Jones is the author of Beyond the Messy Truth: How We Came Apart, How We Come Together.

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