Khizr Khan Has Introduced the Idea of Empathy Into Our Democratic Culture

Khizr Khan, the father of American military hero and Purple Heart winner Captain Humayun Khan, has been all over cable news this week after his moving speech at last week’s Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia.

Here is the speech:

A lot has been said about the speech and Khan has taken his fifteen minutes of fame to send out a powerful message about American identity.

As a historian, I am always struck whenever Khan uses the word “empathy” in his criticism of Trump.  I like this term.  Not only is the concept of empathy essential to the survival of American democracy, but it is also vital to the discipline of history.  The study of history requires empathy.  Thus, if my logic is correct, the study of history might also be useful to a robust and thriving democratic life in the United States.

As the readers of The Way of Improvement Leads Home know, I have been making this argument for several years.  I most recently wrote about empathy in a Christian Century piece on the recent police shootings in Dallas, Minneapolis, and Baton Rouge.   But since I am the proprietor of this blog, and we are always getting new readers, I reserve the right to make it again.

Here is what I had to say about empathy in my Why Study History: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past:

As historian John Cairns notes, empathy “is the passport to gaining a genuine entry into the past as a foreign land, and something distinct from our time.”  Empathy requires the historians to step into the shoes of historical actors in order to see the world as they did, to understand them on their own terms and not ours.  Historian John Lewis Gaddis writes, “Getting inside other people’s minds requires that your own mind be open to their impressions–their hopes and fears, their beliefs and dreams, their sense of right and wrong, their perception of the world and where they fit within it.”  The practice of empathy may be the hardest part of being a historian.  This is largely because our natural inclination, or, as Sam Wineburg calls it, our “psychological condition at rest,” is to find something useful in the past.  We want to make the past work for us rather than enter into it with an attitude of wonder about what we might find and the kinds of people and ideas we might encounter.  Historical empathy thus requires an act of the imagination.  The practice of bracketing our own ways of seeing the world in order to see a strange world more clearly requires discipline on the part of the historian.  It demands a certain level of intellectual maturity.  It requires a willingness to listen to the past…

Empathy differs from sympathy.  Empathy is all about understanding.  It is an attempt to discover why a particular individual in the past acted in the way that he or she did.  It might even mean exploring such actions in an attempt to grasp how he or she reflects the mentality of all of those living in that time and how such a mentality differs from our own.  Sympathy, however, carries a deeper moral component than empathy.  The sympathetic person develops an emotional attachment–such as a desire for the other person to be happy–that can sometimes make empathy difficult and might even get in the way of an accurate historical interpretation.

To illustrate the differences between empathy and sympathy, let me relay a conversation I recently had with my fourteen-year-old daughter.  Allyson had just finished reading Harriett A. Jacobs’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Written by Herself, in her eighth-grade American Studies class.  Published in 1861, the book tells the story of how Jacobs was physically and sexually abused by her master and, in an attempt to escape the torture, hid for roughly seven years in a storeroom crawl space.  Allyson returned home from school emotionally shaken by Jacob’s story.  This was her first exposure to such a graphic slave narrative.  Her response was outrage, anger, and sadness.  She sympathized with the plight of Jacobs, but she was unable to empathize–to rid herself of what she perceived as the moral injustice done to this slave woman.  She failed to fully understand the world of the nineteenth-century South in which Jacobs lived.  My daughter developed an emotional connection with Jacobs, and I was glad that she did.  She grew as a moral being through the reading of the narrative.  But she was unable to understand Jacobs historically because sympathy kept getting in the way.  This, of course, should be expected from a fourteen-year-old.  Historical thinking of this nature, as I noted above, requires intellectual maturity.

And this:

The sixteenth-century writer Montaigne once said, “Every man calls evil what he does not understand.”  Our everyday lives will always be filled with disagreements and misunderstandings, but a democratic society will survive only if we are able to live civilly with them.  We are correct to believe that in the United States we have a “right” to our opinions and beliefs, but there are also times when we must rise above private interests and temporarily sacrifice our rights for the greater good of the larger community.  Such a view of the common good, which the late Pope John Paul II called “solidarity,” requires that we see others, even those who we may believe are “evil,” as neighbors and “sharers on part with ourselves in the banquet of life to which all are equally invited by God.”  To put an alternative spin on Montaigne’s quote, “The more you know about another person’s story, the less possible it is to see that person as your enemy.”adbb2-why2bstudy2bhistory-baker

Because we all have our own views and opinions, civil society requires conversation.  We may never come to an agreement on what constitutes the “common good,” but we can all commit ourselves to sustaining democracy by talking to and engaging with one another.  As author and activist Parker Palmer puts it, “Democracy gives us the right to disagree and is designed to use the energy of creative conflict to drive positive social change.  Partisanship is not a problem.  Demonizing the other side is.”  The inner working of this kind of democracy is described best by the late historian and cultural critic Christopher Lasch in his book The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy.  His description of the mechanics of democratic conversation is worth citing in full:

“The attempt to bring others around to our point of view carries the risk, of course, that we may adopt their point of view instead.  We have to enter imaginatively into our opponent’s arguments, if only for the purpose of refuting them, and we may end up being persuaded by those we sought to persuade.  Argument is risky and unpredictable, therefore educational.  Most of us tend to think of it…as a clash of rival dogmas, a shouting match in which neither side gives an ground.  But arguments are not won by shouting down opponents.  They are won by changing opponents’ minds–something that can only happen if we give opposing arguments a respectful hearing and still persuade their advocates that there is something wrong with those arguments.  In the course of this activity, we may well decide that there is something wrong with our own.”