Spotlight On: Why empathy is more important than ever

28 October 2022


This article first appeared in Queenwood Weekly News on Friday 28 October, 2022

I remember listening to Ms Stone in Assembly in 2018 when she told us about a lifelong Republican and his desire to be heard. His name was David Weissman. Your “typical Twitter troll” who, like many others, felt isolated in the then political climate and was using social media as his platform to vent.

Amid a cyclone of aggressive tweets, he accused Sarah Silverman of caring more about people residing illegally in America than American Veterans. Silverman was a high-profile comedian with very different political views and a large social media following. To the surprise of Weissman, Silverman replied and a remarkably respectful discussion between the two parties took place.

Over months of “tweet” discussions, Weissman slowly began to question his long-held assumptions and re-evaluated his principles. The power of Silverman’s words caused a complete shift in Weissman’s political mindset.

I still remember this story four years later because it so clearly demonstrated the importance of empathy when engaging in conversations with people. Silverman showed empathy toward Weissman and understood his behaviour as reflecting someone who was troubled and led by media that promoted extreme views. She saw that his views were shaped by his environmental context. Silverman engaged in a respectful conversation with him instead of responding with hatred, anger or forcing a political agenda. The result speaks for itself, and of course this can work in either political direction.

More than ever, it is paramount we start our conversations with empathy. Empathy encourages open discourse where people are not afraid to express themselves or be criticised for what they feel. Some of the most rational people can be backed into a corner of extremism when they feel isolated or attacked by the world around them.

Social media is not a tool that naturally lends itself to empathy – it is difficult to understand how a person feels through a screen. Yet we are more connected than ever and social media’s predominance as a form of communication is having a seismic shift in the way we engage with each other. It’s no secret that social media can be divisive. Just like Weissman, it allows people to think out loud and voice thoughts without immediate tangible consequences. They can spread misinformation to millions with the click of a button. Users play a game where contention creates clicks and views with no identifiable emotional recourse. They can then become separated into, or identified by, groups of like-minded people who propagate groupthink.

We implicitly practise empathy at school when we are having lunch with friends or talking with teachers, with family members and colleagues. We benefit from an education that encourages understanding different perspectives. But our reach is limited. We spend most of our time in the same neighbourhood, talking to similar people and going to similar places. Whilst this familiarity is important to maintain a sense of control in our lives it tends to validate our opinions and also create groupthink. The ability for us to have a diverse and open discourse is therefore, by circumstance, limited.

As a young woman only beginning to understand the world we live in, the story of Silverman and Weissman makes me realise how important it is to listen, particularly when I superficially disagree with someone. I know my views are impressionable and they will change with time and experience. I also know that attacking someone’s beliefs will not change them nor will it diffuse the situation and will, most of the time, make it worse.

We live in a dynamic world. Our views are subject to a flood of information. It is easy to be tempted into groupthink or reject anything that threatens our beliefs. We must introduce ourselves to new people, ideas and concepts, have challenging discussions and be inquisitive about the world around us. This can be difficult. But Silverman shows us that if we lead with empathy it can lead to surprising outcomes. Let’s embrace this lesson.