Daily Discourse: Making a plea for empathy, engaging conversations

David Hormell

Stereotypes are insidious ideas. They push fiction as fact and lump entire groups of people into a limiting box. Most people are familiar with these falsehoods – for example, southerners are uneducated due to their dialectal variation and Chicagoans all appreciate the titular musical about their city.

This just isn’t true for the most part. Not only is this lazy, it’s also problematic. Why then do stereotypes exist?

Humans prefer to paint with a broad metaphorical brush because it’s an easy way to define the swirling uncertainty of the world. People don’t like what they don’t understand. By applying simplistic labels to large groups of people, a lot of guesswork is removed.

Instead of spreading mistruths and falsely spitting fiction, we should strive for something better. We should stop talking and start listening to others. We need to recognize other perspectives.

After a particularly tense election season, the pain of political polarization still manages to seep into daily discourse. Empathy and kindness are in short supply these days. It’s a terribly sad brand of irony: in an age of digital interconnectedness, humans have developed an inability to connect with one another and see differing perspectives.

Last weekend, I attended the annual Gender & Communications Conference, hosted by WKU’s Housing & Residence Life. The conference aims to help students recognize these differing perspectives.

I attended a session titled “Exchanging Identity Through Reading.” Led by MFA student Clinton Craig, our group talked about how humans perceive sex, gender, power structures and one another.

Our perception is constructed through the characters we see and interact with in pieces of popular culture.

I drew my own connections. The titular Hamlet made me question conventional masculinity. “The Death of a Salesman” reminded me of my father’s mental faculties, which are now fading. I grew up reading “Great Expectations”; I easily relate to Pip, because he’s inordinately stupid.

I saw myself and pieces of my life in these characters. Because of this, I believe the liberal arts still matter. It helps us recognize ourselves and others.

Chris Purcell, the Director of LGBTQI Life at Vanderbilt University, gave the conference’s keynote address.

“You can’t just force tolerance or push attitudes upon others,” Purcell noted. “Policy is not culture.”

He’s right. Pieces of legislative paper won’t sway someone.

Policy and pieces of legislative paper won’t shape hearts or change minds. Only human interactions and conversations can do that. Strive to understand other perspectives. Many people view voting as the absolute highest form of political participation. It isn’t. Voting is the lowest form of political participation. It’s certainly a start, but it’s not the end to a political means by any measure.

The change starts with us.

Create thoughtful, open-ended conversations about the current political climate. Think critically. Regardless of what you believe, don’t ever lose the ability to be objective. Respect others, regardless of their views – this shouldn’t be such a radical notion today.

If every person extended empathy towards others and snuffed out hate with love, the world would undoubtedly be a better place. Because at the end of the day, all we have is one another.