The limits of empathy

Is empathy always best for organizing?

Is empathy always best for organizing?

I’ve written before that “empathy is the core of organizing.”

Empathy has its limits, though.

Here’s an example. Recently the organization I worked for wanted to hang an anti-torture banner over Main Street in our city. The city permit process requires that such actions get approval from the area merchant association. When they received our request, the Main Street group decided to put all banner permits on hold while they reviewed if they could deny banners that are political in nature.

I was angry at their decision, but I also had empathy for their perspective. I want downtown merchants to do well, and I didn’t think that pictures of aborted fetuses, for example, would be good for business. I saw their side of the story.

Not everyone in the organization was inclined to be understanding. Some said we should march down Main Street with the banner they wouldn’t let us hang up (as a publicity stunt, this was a beautiful idea). Some had no patience for the merchant association’s concerns, and therefore they were willing to take a much more assertive approach.

Which disposition is the correct one? They both have merits. I have begun to re-think my advocacy of empathy over all things as I see that my respect for the business association’s concerns limited my ability to respond forcefully.

Still, I cannot bring myself to give up my general approach to see and understand my the perspectives of those I disagree with.

Demagoguery, de-humanization, and denial of other perspectives can be a powerful ways to mobilize people, but that is a road that I fear to travel. Instead, I remain committed to seeking empathy and understanding.

How it ended. We had so much else to do with torture awareness month, we never chose a path of action to deal with the merchant association’s rejection of our banner.

We did get to put the banner up, but not on Main Street

We did get to put the banner up, but not on Main Street

We did get permission to hang the banner on another street by a different merchant association. I am deeply uncomfortable with handing over decisions about what speech is permissible to a business group, especially if there are no clear standards for their decisions and no means for appeal. We have had some contact with local civil liberties attorneys and we have not ruled out trying to change the approval mechanism working either through our elected officials or through the courts.

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