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Thursday, May 19, 2011

The DSK Affair - Empathy

None of us, I think, are ignorant of the recent events which have monopolized the headlines of all the major newspapers this past week.  The facts are few - the interpretation of those facts are multiple.  I would not presume to judge the guilt or innocence of any person on the basis of newspapers, Internet articles and blogs.  As one rather wise journalist put it, those who know what is really going on are not talking while those who have few facts feel free to speculate without limit.

As someone who sits squarely on the fault line I refer to as "The French-American Divide" it is personally quite painful to read the words of those who take this as a fine opportunity to demonize the Other.    It is tiresome to hear the same old trite stereotypes being trotted out: the French are this, the American (or Anglo-Saxons) are that...  I note that those who have the nastiest things to say are usually people who are in no position to make these kinds of distasteful and often outrageous statements as they have little or no experience with the other country or culture.

I am a fervent, almost radical, believer in free speech and the right of every person to express himself as he sees fit.  We have the right to be wrong.  We even have the right to be disagreeable idiots.  However, this is not conducive to building a better world and does not increase cross-cultural understanding one iota.  On the contrary we regress when we should be progressing toward greater understanding which is absolutely essential as our world shrinks ever smaller.

In the midst of all this anger and angst  the only answer I have is a plea that everyone step back and take 30 seconds to use their human capacity for empathy.  As human beings we are graced with the ability to imagine what another person might be thinking or feeling and to put ourselves in that person's shoes in order to better understand the prism through which that person thinks or acts.  We do it all the time with the people we love.  We do it far too little with the people we despise or fear and yet it is probably with those people that we have the most need of it.  Let me be very clear, empathy is not about making excuses for bad behaviour nor does it imply that we will magically change our minds and our opinions.   It is nothing more than a thought experiment where we imagine how the world (or an event) might look to someone who is not us.

So I would ask all the parties involved to try looking at the DSK affair through the eyes of the Other.  For better or worse our two countries are tied by centuries of common history.  It has never been an easy or simple relationship.  At times we have literally spilled blood for each other.  In other eras it has felt more like we were trying to draw blood from each other.  We gain so much when we are respectful toward each other, when we take each other points of view seriously and when we disagree thoughtfully and compassionately.  We have everything to lose when we forget that nothing that is human is truly foreign.

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