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Stepping out of the shadow

| Wednesday, October 5, 2016

The Belfast Peace Wall cast a cool shadow on an otherwise pleasant Saturday afternoon. The memories and experiences of conflict in the city, and in all of Northern Ireland, cast a much larger shadow over the entire island.

Standing in that shadow last weekend, I finally and solidly arrived at a rather simple conclusion I had been working towards for a long time: Empathy and understanding are a lot easier in theory than in practice.

I think, or at least hope, that most people would consider these valuable and admirable qualities. A smaller number would probably consider themselves empathetic and understanding. I hope a majority would say they at least try to be both.Yet when I look at the serious issues people grapple with today, I see a severe lack of both empathy and understanding.

For the past nearly three years, I have hung a piece of paper above whatever desk I have worked at, with the words “Keep asking why” scrawled in red permanent marker. I wrote the those words for myself on a sheet I tore out of my reporter’s notebook after a series of particularly frustrating debates that grew out of a class I was taking on race in the United States. It still hangs on the wall above the desk in my bedroom in Dublin, and serves as a small, personal reminder for my deeply held, if naive, belief that when addressing any contentious issue, the only way to move beyond superficial and emotionally clouded arguments and arrive at the serious heart of the problem, you must repeatedly ask why things are the way they are.

Nothing is ever as simple as it might seem on the surface. Nothing just “is.” To assume otherwise, and unquestioningly accept something as natural or given is to willfully neglect the truth. In such a polarizing American political atmosphere, I struggled to come up with of an example that illustrates my point without being construed as explicitly partisan or overly ideological. So I’ll borrow one from New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, who in a 2015 column wrote about what he called an “empathy gap” in the United States, one that I think spans the globe today. Using as an example his high school friend, Kevin, Kristof articulates the need for empathy and deeper understanding of complex social forces.

The doctors say he died at age 54 of multiple organ failure, but in a deeper sense he died of inequality and a lack of good jobs,” Kristof wrote. “Lots of Americans would have seen Kevin — obese with a huge gray beard, surviving on disability and food stamps — as a moocher. They would have been harshly judgmental: ‘Why don’t you look after your health? Why did you father two kids outside of marriage?’

Kristof views empathy similarly to the way I do: as a method to employ nuance to real life situations that demand deeper understanding. As a 2015 piece in The Atlantic notes, though, this is not the only way people have understood empathy in its relatively short life as a word, and concept, in the English language. Psychologist Paul Bloom argues that empathy can be “parochial [and] bigoted.” And, as the author of another Atlantic piece writes, “People are often more empathetic toward individuals who resemble themselves, a fact that can exacerbate already-existing social inequalities. And empathy can cause people to choose to embrace smaller goods at the expense of greater ones.”

But that’s precisely why I think empathy and understanding have to always go hand-in-hand. If people are psychologically more likely to be empathetic to people like themselves, then they must also strive to understand the challenges and issues facing people unlike themselves.

At home in Chicago, I live in a neighborhood full of public servants. No fewer than three police officers live on the same block as me. I deeply value and appreciate their sacrifice and service, and I know them all to be genuinely good people. But I have taken too many classes, read too many books and articles and had too many discussions to belittle the national conversation on race and police violence down to the level of a Blue vs. Black Lives Matter mentality. And to argue the ludicrously oversimplified point that “All Lives Matter” blatantly ignores the gravity and complexity of the issue. It’s not that simple, and nothing ever is.

To use another recent example, if you find it appalling that athletes refuse to stand for the national anthem as a form of peaceful protest, but aren’t equally appalled by the state of race relations and gun violence, you need to reach for a broader understanding of our nation and the people who feel it does not value them.

My trip to Northern Ireland last weekend put this all in perspective for me. Within my lifetime — and the lifetimes of the 50-some Notre Dame students who took the trip with me — people in the places we traveled were killed for their religion, or their political beliefs. I’m not saying that empathy and understanding alone would have solved or prevented The Troubles in Northern Ireland, or any other great social challenges. To do so would demean the historical and cultural complexities of the situation, a direct contradiction to the understanding such issues require. But in order to step out of the icy shadows of any conflict and into the light of peace, empathy and understanding must lead the way.

Jack Rooney is a 2016 Notre Dame graduate, and The Observer’s former managing editor. He is currently spending a year living and working for the University in Ireland, and writes these columns to keep him busy and satisfy his need for journalism. Follow Jack on Twitter @RooneyReports and/or email him at [email protected]

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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About Jack Rooney

Jack is a 2016 graduate of Notre Dame, and The Observer's former managing editor. He is currently spending a year living and working for the University in Ireland, and writing columns to keep him busy. For more random thoughts and plenty of news links, follow Jack on Twitter @RooneyReports.

Contact Jack