By: Mark McCormick
When William Allen White said “liberty is the only thing you cannot have unless you are willing to give it to others,” he must have been campaigning for greater community empathy. A good dose of empathy wouldn’t hurt today.
A political radio show host claims the murder of 20 first-graders in 2012 was a hoax and their parents, paid actors. A political television host blithely drops an “N-bomb” on air. Cities insist that Confederate memorials maintain places of honor in public spaces.
Today’s bitter divisions would have troubled White, who ran for governor in the 1920s on an anti-Ku Klux Klan platform. His work remains a passionate appeal for civic empathy.
“If each man or woman,” White wrote, “could understand that every other human life is as full of sorrows, or joys, or base temptations, of heartaches and remorse as his own … how much kinder, how much gentler he would be.”
White supported social uplift in defense of civic life, saying, “no man can give a government an intelligent vote whose life and environment is cramped.”
He encouraged heart-felt conversations.
“We … say that money talks, but it speaks a broken, poverty-stricken language. Hearts talk better, clearer, and with wider intelligence,” said White, for whom the University of Kansas named its school of journalism and mass communications.
According to another KU journalism great, John Bremner, empathy is more personal than sympathy.
“Empathy involves vicarious identification and extends beyond feelings of pity or commiseration to an understanding of the very soul of another,” the late editing icon said.
Society wrestles with empathy.
People record unfolding dramas on their phones rather than help. People wonder what sex assault victims were wearing and what police shooting victims did to provoke police. People with health insurance don’t seem to understand the horrors of not having it.
Can empathy go too far? Sure. It could lead to coddling and enabling.
It’s difficult, though, to imagine too much opposition to empathy.
Living it and overcoming internal barriers would be another story.
What makes empathy difficult is not only its requirement of deeply understanding someone else, but embracing the fact that understanding could mean having to give up something important.
Could people actually do that, or would they stand pat? White said there was room for everyone, even “standpatters.”
“It takes all kinds of people to make a world,” he wrote in 1912, “and I am willing to admit that the conservative brake on the progressive wheel is a good thing.”
Empathy asks us to understand someone else’s point of view. To speak from our hearts.
To move closer to someone else’s vulnerabilities as you ask them to move closer to yours. It won’t make us agree, but the disagreements might be less bitter.
This seemed a non-negotiable with White, whose hopefulness assured him this state and nation would prosper.
“The orderly business of life will go forward if only men can speak in whatever way given them to utter what their hearts hold,” he said.
Mark E. McCormick is the executive director of The Kansas African American Museum in Wichita.