The Importance of Empathy, As Taught by the 2016 Presidential Election

The day after the 2016 presidential election, my residential college president decided to host an open forum. Truthfully, I wasn’t sure what to expect. All over the news and social media, I had heard so much vitriol directed at both Trump voters and non-Trump voters, even among my Rice peers. At Rice, we take pride in our campus’ culture of care. Yet that supposed care for one another seemed far removed from the current discourse. When members of my residential college convened on November 9, I was prepared for the worst – shouting matches, anger, and above all, antipathy. However, none of these very plausible events materialized. People actively listened to voiced concerns, challenged their peers respectfully, and sought to maintain open minds. We all participated in this conversation for the purpose of better understanding perspectives contrary to our own, hoping to heal the wounds inflicted by what was such a divisive and emotionally charged election.

Some Trump supporters, in explanation for their vote, elaborated on having grown up in poverty-stricken areas with hardly any economic growth, an experience I personally could not relate to. As a Houston native born to an upper-middle class family, I never had to worry much about the state of the economy, because it didn’t affect my everyday life. No matter how much you may research issues or convince yourself of the "rightness" of your beliefs, intelligence alone cannot account for personal experience, a truth I was forced to step back and realize. Active listening allowed me to empathize with someone from a completely different background. I gained so much from that experience, as I believe many of my peers did. 

This turn of events took me by surprise, and I watched in shock as some individuals reevaluated certain positions they had previously held. One person in the group, after hearing many people’s distaste for Trump’s blatantly oppressive language and their genuine fear of being mistreated in the wake of the election, openly confessed that he never knew his vote for Trump would cause so much pain. He even went so far as to apologize for the negative effect of his vote.

His bold declaration threw me for a loop; I wasn’t expecting anyone to change his or her mind, much less a white male Trump voter. I was so ready to dismiss any reason someone provided for supporting Trump that I hadn’t realized how much my own perspective and background hindered me from grasping the full picture. And therein lies the problem: we tend to shut people out due to superficial assumptions we make about them, and we then allow these assumptions to color our perspectives. This phenomenon occurs all too often at Rice. We believe intelligence and well-researched opinions allow us to definitively tell right from wrong, something I admit to having been guilty of in the past. 

The only way to truly comprehend our differences and garner new perspectives is to actively listen to and engage with one another. It’s what we learn at Rice in terms of our academics, so why can’t it be applied to other interactions we have? No matter how intelligent we think we are, we must never stop learning. We are bound to come across perspectives we have never before encountered. Though I can’t possibly comprehend every issue a person may experience, I will never stop asking questions. I will never stop listening. I will never assume I know better than other people because of the assumptions I make. 

We must empathize with others for us to grow not only as college students, but also as human beings. This is how to truly embrace the culture of care that makes Rice such a wonderful and supportive environment.