Breaking Down the Empathy Walls Between Us

By Scilla Wahrhaftig


I, like many others, have been asking myself what went wrong? What could we have done to have prevented the catastrophe that Trump’s presidency is likely to bring about. I have been asking myself, did we create this situation by building “empathy walls” between us and the “other side”?

“An empathy wall is an obstacle to deep understanding of another person; one that can make us feel indifferent or even hostile to those who hold different beliefs or those whose childhood is rooted in different circumstances. In a period of political tumult we grasp for quick certainties. We shoehorn new information into ways we already think. We settle for knowing our opposite numbers from the outside. But is it possible, without changing our beliefs, to know others from the inside, to see reality through their eyes, to understand the links between life, feeling, and politics: that is, to cross the empathy walls?” (Strangers in Their Own Land, Arlie Russell Hoschschild)

This quote fits so much with what happened and has been happening in this country, especially as we led up to the election. We saw the Republicans, and the right, fit Trump’s messages and rhetoric into their own fears and concerns about where the country is going. We know there were those who didn’t like much of what he was saying. However, they voted on the belief that they could mold him into what they wanted and promote the change they wish to see. They had to ignore some of the things he had said that shocked and upset them, and his views on women.

But, did we not do the same with Hillary Clinton? We saw all her flaws and so much that concerned us about her rhetoric, her militaristic attitudes, her lack of focus on the environment, her ties to big business and corporations; and how she bent the truth to fit her needs. Yet we still voted for her because we saw her as the lesser of two evils and felt we could mold her to our own way of thinking. I recognize there were some who stood out and refused to compromise their position, and that they are now being vilified as having influenced the final decision. I imagine that would have been the same on the other side if Trump had lost.

The empathy wall is very high and dense, but unless we begin to tear it down, the country we all know and love will be in even more trouble than it already is. Yes, we must build a movement and see the connections between the different concerns: the Black Lives Matter movement, the environmental movement, the Bernie Sanders revolution and the destruction of the rights of the native peoples. But at the same time we must find a way to break down the empathy wall and reach out to those who see things differently from us and ask, “ What are your concerns about the way this country is going? What do you see as the solutions? How can we find common ground so we can work together to rebuild this broken country?”

I don’t know how to do this yet, but I believe it is essential. After 9/11 the American Friends Service Committee initiated a listening project in a number of states, Pennsylvania being one of them. We trained people to be listeners and to try to find at least five people to listen to who held varying views from their own. We provided them with a list of questions about what true security meant to them. Some people went into what we would view as hostile country with American flags flying and Protect Our Troops signs everywhere. What they discovered was that people were so grateful to be listened to and that the message was almost universal. Security meant a home to live in, food on the table, health care and a good job. This is what Arlie Russell Hoschschild did. She went to Louisiana to conservative country to listen to people’s stories and to try to understand their dissatisfaction and concerns. In her book she points out:

“Our polarization, and the increasing reality that we simply don’t know each other, makes it too easy to settle for dislike and contempt…We on both sides wrongly imagine that empathy with the ‘other’ side brings an end to clearheaded analysis when in truth, it’s on the other side of the bridge that the most important analysis can begin.”


Scilla Wahrhaftig is a long time peace and justice activist.



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