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Monday, December 09, 2019 {{ new Date().getDay() }}

Reprinted with permission from AlterNet.

For some of us, the approaching holidays are a time of dread. Beyond beloved traditions like overindulging on food, alcohol and shopping, for some people, it’s inevitably a time when they will clash with loved ones over politics. Plenty of Americans have family members with opposing political views, and Trump has made these divisions even more severe. If progressives are having trouble understanding the conservatives in our own families, how can we begin to empathize with Trumpers who don’t share our blood?

The sharp division in beliefs among Americans today has prompted some to search for solutions. Meet Narrative 4, which was launched five years ago with the goal of spreading the practice of “radical empathy” across the world using the act of storytelling. As the group’s founder, author of Let The Great World SpinColum McCann, says, “every story has a place, even the stories we don’t like.” McCann proposes radical empathy as a way to actually make people listen to one another.

Those who live near or on college campuses may recognize the term, as radical empathy has taken off in universities in recent years. It entails literally placing oneself in another’s shoes by living in a person’s house, shadowing them or otherwise initiating close contact. Radical empathy means knocking down the walls that exist between yourself and another person to better understand them.

Narrative 4 brings radical empathy practice to schools, universities and workplaces in the form of workshops where participants follow a simple story exchange. Partners A and B share a story with one another; then, Partner A tells Partner B’s story to a group using the first person, as if B’s experiences actually happened to A. Then the two switch. Participants in Narrative 4’s radical empathy story exchanges say they often feel changed after the experience. “It’s changed my life for the better,” said Narrative 4 student ambassador Alondra Marmolejos. “It’s such a positive and beautiful thing.”

In these divisive political times, empathy is a more important skill than ever. Lee Keylock, Narrative 4’s director of global programs, agrees that using empathy to understand different political views is hugely important: “It’s one of our biggest priorities this year—it’s why our phones are ringing off the hook.”

While the group focuses on the exchange of stories individual-to-individual, their work frequently resonates with the larger project of spreading political empathy across parties. Perhaps their most well-known project is a collaboration with New Yorker Magazine last year, when Narrative 4 brought together a group of individuals with drastically opposing views on one of the most divisive issues in the U.S. today: gun control. Participants in the gun control radical empathy session included a prominent Second Amendment advocate, members of the police and Marines, a parent of Sandy Hook victims, and Samaria Rice, mother of Tamir Rice.

“People crave discourse,” said Keylock. “Debate isn’t the only way to go.”

Much of Narrative 4’s radical empathy practice focuses on students and young people. “It’s easier to get them when they’re young because they come with this fresh, open-minded attitude,” said Keylock. “They find they’re very similar to each other. Wheres as adults have had more time to become cynical. They think they need to be guarded.”

But older progressives can bring the practice into their own lives, too. “When I look at the news right now, there’s lots of shouting and name-calling and vilifying on both sides, and that includes the Democrats,” said Keylock. “When you start labeling people as an ideology, you’re not really seeing them as a person. Let’s face it, not every conservative voice is what they’ve been charged within the media, which is homophobic, racists, Islamophobic. That’s just not the case. There are narratives out there that are being missed, so you need to have an open mind.”

Since the 2016 election, a popular explanation for the surprising wave of Trump votes is that Trump tapped into fears and concerns of the white working class that Democrats have long ignored. Whether you give credit to that storyline or not, it seems true that Trump supporters felt their stories weren’t being heard or represented by the mainstream media, and in Trump, they saw a voice they believed would speak for them, misguided as that belief may seem. Keylock agrees with this analysis. “In my experience, one of the hardest voices to bring to the table is the conservative voice. Conservatives are a little scared to speak out because they feel like they get shafted.”

He continues: “What happened is that because of all the labeling, people like to dig their heels in the sand. If you ask a political question, people have their argument ready to roll. We don’t do that; we get people to share their personal stories, and we get them to sort of become lovestruck with each other. It’s amazing what happens. We get to some really deep places. We’ve started friendships among these political divides.”

He said hundreds of Narrative 4 story-exchange participants with opposing political views later become Facebook friends and now frequently defend one another’s political posts. It’s incredible to imagine people with different beliefs behaving civilly on the internet, where the cloud of anonymity turns humans into trolls. But Keylock says he’s seen it happen many times.

Narrative 4 does not claim to have a 100 percent success rate when it comes to healing divides. Sometimes, two people can be so different in terms of their life experiences it’s simply impossible for them to empathize with one another. “Usually on the issue of guns,” Keylock said. “It’s very contentious. Sometimes it’s not the right time to bring people into a room together to do it—if you’ve lost a kid to gun violence, it’s hard for that person to even entertain the idea. On those issues, you need to give it more time. The more times you bring people together, the more success you have.”

But, Keylock continued, “Honestly, I’ve very rarely seen the impossible. Political divides can be turned around really quick.”

Keylock also shared advice for those of us with Trump supporters in our families as the holidays approach. “Empathy takes a massive amount of courage, even though it’s considered a soft skill. We have to be vulnerable, be ready to let go. You have to listen to what somebody is saying. That doesn’t mean accept it blindly, but you learn nothing from talking and everything from listening. All people’s stories matter.

“Go in, open your ears, watch your tone. Then tell them your story. A lot of these conversations are bred from fear and ignorance. That turns into hate later. But empathy is about being vulnerable and courageous, and listening and being present. Those are leadership skills. If you can’t do that, how can you lead your conversation forward?”

Also: “Breathe, meditate.”

Liz Posner is a managing editor at AlterNet. Her work has appeared on, Bust, Bustle, Refinery29, and elsewhere. Follow her on Twitter at @elizpos.


If Boss Trump is headed for defeat, he's getting his revenge early. His revenge upon his deluded supporters and the people they love, that is. Trump's re-election campaign now consists mainly of what epidemiologists call "super-spreader" events: large-scale rallies of unmasked, non-socially distanced Trumpists yelling in each other's faces while the Big Man emits a non-stop barrage of falsehoods, exaggerations, and barefaced lies.

Let me put it this way: If, say, the Rolling Stones decided to put on free concerts at airports around the country, they'd likely end up being taken into custody and deported as undesirable aliens. Of course, they'd also draw far bigger crowds than Trump, but that's not the point. The point is that Trump's actions are reckless and immoral; the peacetime equivalent of war crimes.

"Covid, covid, covid, covid, covid," he hollers. Trump claims that the United States is "turning the corner" on the pandemic, and that the accursed news media will quit reporting Covid-19 fatalities come November 4. He claims that health officials are motivated by greed because "doctors get more money and hospitals get more money" if they report that the virus was the cause of death.

Surveys have shown that more than a thousand physicians and nurses have died fighting the disease nationwide.

As ever, what he accuses others of doing is an excellent guide to the question: What would Trump do? Answer: he'd steal the silver dollars off a Covid victim's eyes and demand an investigation of Joe Biden

According to the Washington Post, the Trump campaign organization signed an agreement with officials in Duluth, Minnesota to limit attendance at a September 30 fly-in rally, in accordance with public health guidelines. Hours before the event, it became clear that no effort was being made to honor the agreement; some 2500 Trump supporters bunched up without masks on the tarmac, ten times the agreed limit.

Health Department officials' protests were simply ignored. Three days later, Trump himself was taken to Walter Reed Hospital by helicopter. Three weeks after that, the following headline appeared in the Duluth News-Tribune: "St. Louis County sees another record-breaking week of COVID-19 cases."

Any questions?

The Trump Circus subsequently performed in Janesville and Waukesha, Wisconsin in the midst of a record-setting pandemic outbreak there. "It took us 7 and a half months to reach our first 100,000 cases, & only 36 days to reach our second," the Wisconsin Department of Health tweeted. "In just two short months, the 7-day average of new confirmed cases has risen 405%."

But the show must go on. Trump regaled his Janesville audience with a veritable torrent of lies. The New York Times did a thorough fact-check of his October 17 speech. Reporters documented 130 false statements during Trump's 87 minutes onstage. Nearly three-quarters of his factual claims were untrue. The most egregious concerned Covid-19, probably because the disease represents his single greatest failure and most damaging political liability.

Another question: Does Trump count upon his supporters' invincible ignorance or simply share it? I fear it's a little of both. In Janesville, Trump made this absurd claim two minutes into his harangue: "When you look at our numbers compared to what's going on in Europe and other places," he said "we're doing well."

Any regular newspaper reader knows that this is simply nonsense. As the Times reports, "America has more cases and deaths per capita than any major country in Europe but Spain and Belgium. The United States has just 4 percent of the world's population but accounts for almost a quarter of the global deaths from Covid-19."

Germany, to choose the most striking comparison, has suffered only 122 deaths per million of its population, according to Johns Hopkins University. The United States has recorded more than five times as many: 686 per million. Neighboring Canada, meanwhile, is at 264 per million. Several Asian countries, have handled the pandemic even better.

It's a matter of capable leadership and public cooperation.

No wonder Trump appears to have succumbed to a case of dictator envy. "COVID, COVID, COVID is being used by [the 'Fake News' media] in total coordination" he tweeted the other day "in order to change our great early election numbers. Should be an election law violation!"

Yeah, well they all report the same World Series scores too. Furthermore, if Trump had good election numbers, he wouldn't whine so much. Has there ever been a bigger crybaby in the White House?

(In related news, Vladimir Putin has issued a mandatory mask mandate after a surge in Russian Covid infections. Go figure.)

Meanwhile, the rallies go on; a bizarre spectacle people treat as if it's normal. Trump has become Covid-19's Typhoid Mary, an Irish cook who unwittingly infected 53 people back in 1906.

But unlike Mary, he should know better. If anybody should be locked up, as his rapt admirers chant, it's the Super-Spreader in Chief.