From the Editor: Of Empathy and Our Future

By Andy Lien May 16, 2013

Categories: Our Affairs, Politics

I’m writing this the Friday after the Minnesota House of Representatives passed the marriage bill with a vote of 75-59 on Thursday, May 9. The next issue of Lavender will hopefully be one full of triumph, with a special section covering all-things-marriage at the Capitol.

Earlier this week, I had the opportunity to interview ex-Vikings punter, Chris Kluwe, for the second time as Editor of Lavender. As of press time, he had been released by the Vikings but his next venture is not yet known. I do hope whoever picks him up knows they’re getting a football player with a halo-effect of decency, intelligence, wit, and empowerment. I know I’m not alone in feeling fortified by that guy; his example made it easier to speak up for the community, whether using our own words or his. His were usually more colorful and to the point, no more so than when he speaks of empathy.

In the interview later in this issue, Kluwe talks of how civilizations who lack rational empathy inevitably fall. Societies war with each other, societies splinter and war within themselves…but if we were to put ourselves in each others’ shoes and see how an action could negatively affect someone, we will be better prepared to not explode or implode as a civilization. We can see how this works on macro and micro levels; particularly, on the macro level, the GLBT community is fighting for rights in the workplace, in the state, in the nation. Helping the fight is telling stories, humanizing the issues, and forcing empathy. I use “forcing” in terms of evoking empathy as there can be a daunting level of denial in our society–a refusal to acknowledge another’s situation as being similar enough to mean that the playing field should be level. Sometimes, this forcing of empathy happens because the tables turn and the person who refused to put him or herself in the position of others is suddenly in that position–as when someone’s family member comes out and it’s suddenly not okay to discriminate against GLBT people. And, sometimes, there’s no forcing of empathy required, it comes by way of leading by example and well-worded messages.

I received a Letter to the Editor as our last issue went to press, it’s hand-written by Nancy Hauer of White Bear Lake. It’s short, poignant, and hits home the point that people need to have empathy for each other, that our state needs to have empathy for its people:

It’s astoundingly wonderful that couples who want to be legally married but currently can’t in our state may soon be able to do so.

Not having the basic human right to marry the consenting adult of one’s choice also deeply affects the level of well-being of every currently single person who knows that if they do marry, the marriage will not be legal.

Although not nearly as extreme as when African Americans had no rights and were legally considered 60% of a person in slave states, our not having the basic human marriage choice right that everyone else has in our state makes us, perhaps, 95% human in the eyes of our state. Everyone wants to be considered 100% human.

Letters like this are the equivalent to a speech made on the floor of the House of Representatives. Eloquence in ink on a college-rule sheet of paper. I am thrilled for Nancy–and so many others–that this community is on the cusp of being considered 100% human, at least on the basis of marriage equality. May we never forget that we need to continue to bring others with us who are treated as subhuman, which will be a continuing and evolving struggle.

Some of us were able to follow the debate as it happened in the House of Representatives, in the gallery or on TV, online or streaming. Twitter was very effective for following the debate and it was clear when something that was said struck a chord across the listening audience. Memorable pieces came from Rep. Laurie Halverson who levelled the parenting experience by mentioning how we all know “how it hurts to step on a Lego” and Rep. Rena Moran made it clear that she was seeing through the community’s eyes as she thought of her ancestors and their fight for civil rights: “Either we are equal or we’re not equal.”

Rep. Steve Simon spoke of empathy in a calm, assured way during the debate. A vocal supporter of the rights of this community, he took us all to a place of being taught how to be empathetic:

So, this is about freedom and love and commitment. It’s about live and let live, live and let love, you might say. But, it’s also about compassion. And I know it’s most difficult sometimes to be compassionate where the object of the compassion is someone who you maybe don’t know. You don’t know who they are or what they are or what they hope for. But in that vein, there’s a story I love from my own religious tradition about a rabbi who was meeting with his students in a religious school and the rabbi asked his students the question, “What is the precise moment when night ends and a new day begins?” 

One of the students said, “The moment when night ends and a new day begins is the moment when there’s enough light that I can tell the difference between a cedar tree and an olive tree.” And the rabbi said, “No, that’s not the answer.” Another student said, “Well, Rabbi, I know. The moment when night ends and a new day begins is the moment when there’s enough light that I can tell the difference between a sheep and a goat.” And the rabbi said, “No, that is not the answer.” The rabbi said, “The moment when night ends and a new day begins is the moment when you look into the face of a stranger and see the face of your brother. Until that moment, no matter what time it is, it’s still night. But at that moment, that’s when the new day begins.” I like the sound of that, a new day. I hope we can all go there together and I urge you to vote yes.  

Our society as a whole is leaning toward tolerance and equality for the GLBT community, using empathy as either its catalyst or its fuel–or both. We need to take the momentum of these historical moments and carry them further. We should look to our future and consider the prophetic possibilities of catastrophes that can end our civilization according to a brash book called Beautifully Unique Sparkleponies, and hope that we’ve got our proverbial shit together before such catastrophe strikes, so that we survive it. But, whether there’s a doomsday on the horizon or not, let us learn from what the empathy of others has given this community, and what we can pay forward to those less fortunate.

With gratitude,
Andy

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