Domestic Affairs

Why Austinites Need More Empathy

As COVID-19 most negatively impacts Black and Latino communities, contentious debates rage about police reform, and a divisive presidential election looms large, Ausinities should strive to confront the empathetic divides that exist in our city. 

An empathetic divide is a subjective gap in understanding and concern among different social groups — conversely, one could define it as the presence of apathy, ignorance, or hatred between groups. To be clear, diversity of opinion is itself not a divide: rather, the problem is a chronic lack of discussion with people “across the aisle.”

How many empathetic divides exist? The real question is how many relevant ones exist for our city. The reality is that the empathetic divides present across racial, socioeconomic, and political lines are the most prevalent today (and indeed across the nation and world.)

In truth, Austinites have always suffered from a gap in understanding with regards to race, class, and politics. In February of 2018, I gave a TED talk about one of the factors of this cognitive dissonance, namely the infamous “separate but equal” policies that segregated our city in 1928. This, of course, is not news: many Austinites know that de jure and de facto segregation shaped the racial and socioeconomic compositions of the East and West sides of the city. And yet, the key interpretation of this history isn’t that it happened: it’s that it’s placed us in a position to foster polarization. 

Take, for instance, the current socioeconomic segregation of the city, which traces the geographic and racial patterns of the 1940s. When the rich and the poor live as far away from each other as they do now, how can one group possibly begin to understand the other’s perspective on life and politics? When young Austinites grow up in their respective racially homogenous bubbles of uniform affluence or poverty, how can they fully understand the humanity and viewpoints that exist outside of their neighborhoods?

The answer to both questions: it’s difficult.

One factor in the empathetic divide is that the physical distance between neighborhoods is a practical barrier to cross-community interaction. If I’m a kid who’s engaged in seven AP classes in high school, after-school basketball, and an internship, I likely don’t possess the time nor the stamina to get out of my bubble. Similarly, if I’m working several jobs and am on food stamps, going out of my way to drive to Westlake is not a priority. 

The second factor is that the in-group, out-group instinct is harmful to meaningful interaction — a vestige of humanity’s time as savage cavemen. This socio-biological urge to tribalize and demonize solely based on identity (a phenomenon well-achieved in our social media era) not only prevents Austinites from reaching across the dividing lines — be they race, class, or politics — but in the most extreme cases urges hatred, violence, and ignorance towards those who are not part of “our tribe.” 

Take another pre-COVID example: the violence of the 2017 anti-gentrification protest at the Blue Cat Café, a (now closed) hipster restaurant that had replaced a razed pinata store in a predominantly Hispanic area of the city.

Leaving the details of the incident aside, it’s clear that the community residents/activists and the “yuppy” consumers of feline coffee spots were unable to reconcile their different meanings of “the G-word.” For white tech workers moving into the Eastside, gentrification is revitalization, a chance to enjoy an urban lifestyle, and/or simply an apolitical movement of people. For pre-existing Black and Latino residents, it’s something closer to an invasion. 

Considering the fact that people even have issues with trying to understand different viewpoints, the result of the protest was inevitable: violence, arrests, and not a single attempt to have a cross-public dialogue on what to do (if anything) about gentrification. Ultimately, by overlapping two competing polar opposite racial/socioeconomic groups (and throwing in the Radical Left and Alt-Right for good measure), the Blue Cat Cafe debacle reveals how Austin’s empathetic gaps can actually yield social regression.

To be clear, this tribalist example is not wholly representative of Austin’s empathetic divides. In fact, I’m inclined to believe that a majority of us, regardless of social group, are simply too busy to talk with people outside of our immediate social circle rather than being consciously motivated to fully despise and demonize other people. 

Nevertheless, as Austin’s numerous social tensions are exacerbated by the events of 2020, the danger that the extreme tribalist factor of our empathetic divide leads to individual and social harm is very real. Indeed, we’ve already seen human suffering erupt out of local protests around police reform, such as claims of APD brutality during marches, looting and vandalism, and the killing of Garret Foster. Ultimately, there is something about being in a heated environment — whether it’s a protest, family dinner, or social media “discussion” — that yields an “us vs. them” mentality on all sides, the cognitive bias of old that is often so detrimental to cooperation and conversation. 

Our empathetic gaps, with their roots in human instinct and historical mistakes, run across all of Austin’s dividing lines. If anything, our closed-mindedness will only grow wider as our year of COVID-19, BLM, and Trump v. Biden extends into a future of frightening uncertainty.

What, then, can we do?

First, Austinites must think of social issues at the scale of our city, our communities, and ourselves. 

Instead of pondering how we can heal the nation, we should first look at how we can heal our city and bridge the empathetic gap among our neighborhoods. As individuals, we must first identify our biases and ignorance, taking note of the socioeconomic, racial, and political bubbles in which we exist. We must think of the ideas, experiences, and people we do not understand and consider how we may get to understand them on a higher level.

Secondly, we must each deliberately strive to break out of our bubbles in the most practical and natural ways possible. For instance, if I realize that I do not understand the perspectives of anarchists, I would choose to spend more of my free time researching those viewpoints. Likewise, if I notice that I have no engagement with communities outside of my immediate own, I would choose to (e)volunteer for a nonprofit with ties to people from across Austin.

The key to this process is that it isn’t necessary to make racial/class-based quotas for your friend groups or to try and achieve perfect parity in the minutes you spend watching Cornel West and Ben Shapiro. Breaking out of your comfort/ignorance zone should not be forced by arbitrary numbers; it should be guided by a sense of curiosity, self-improvement, societal improvement, and friendship.

I must admit, mitigating the empathy gap will not directly fill important public policy gaps. That’s not really the point: it’s more about allowing ourselves to think more critically of who we are, who we wish to become, and how we wish to help others. Indeed, the entire concept of the empathy gap itself is subject to individual interpretation and circumstances; it is more so a fluid philosophy than a fix-it-all prescription for our current socio-political woes.

Ultimately, we Austinites should reflect deeply on who we are and how we relate to others. We should re-examine our dogmas, biases, ideas, stories, friends, communities, and think about how we can know those qualities that belong to the people we don’t know. At the very least, we will inform ourselves; at the most, we may foster empathy that will get us through into the post-2020 future and beyond.

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