A Liberal Dose

Flags, mascots, and outrage: Empathy is the key

Author is White County native, novelist, and history professor


I talked in this column before about the differences between liberal and conservative approaches. Liberals, I pointed out, are usually focused on changing things - from their perspective - for the better and moving toward the future. Conservatives, on the other hand, want to keep things the same or change them back to how they used to be  - in effect, to “conserve” the status quo. This makes conservatives real strong on maintaining tradition. Liberals are also real big on trying to be more “tolerant, accepting of different cultures, and willing to accept new ideas and new ways of doing things.” (Yes, I just quoted myself.) There is also the difference in how the two groups think the government should spend money, but we are not going to focus on that part much this time. Instead, we are going to take a couple of examples that are in the news right now, both nationally and in the Upper Cumberland, and see how liberals and conservatives approach them and what that tells us. Spoiler alert: the key is empathy.

Recent studies indicate that the more empathetic you are, the more likely you are to lean left. Now, bear in mind, empathy is not the same thing as compassion. Conservative people can be extremely compassionate when it comes to helping people in need. Empathy has more to do with understanding how those other people feel. This comes down to the previous definition of terms. Conservatives want to preserve the status quo and believe everyone else needs to get with that program. Liberals are more likely to value several perspectives on things rather than a straight this-is-good, that-is-bad, nothing in-between approach. One frequent by-product of this is that, as a result, Democrats have usually been more easily divided than Republicans. This is what led Will Rogers, a century ago, to say things like “Of course Democrats don’t agree with each other, if they agreed with each other they’d be Republicans” and “I am not a member of any organized political party, I’m a Democrat.”

Let’s get to our examples. The first one: athletes kneeling in protest during the National Anthem. Many conservatives go crazy over this one. I know senior citizens who are lifelong football fans who refuse to watch an NFL game because athletes are allowed to protest in this manner and still have jobs. More specifically, when black athletes and their non-black allies protest the pervasive police killings of unarmed black men. To many conservatives, this is such a profound flouting of tradition - and lack of respect for that tradition - that it is unjustifiable. They tend to see it simply as “hating America,” and not - as liberals tend to do - as a peaceful, even respectful, gesture protesting the fact that, in that specific area, America needs to be better. People incensed by kneeling have probably never read the stirring words of Frederick Douglass’s (I hear he’s doing great things) 1852 speech “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?” They may have a hard time wrapping their minds around the fact that the great (and Republican) baseball star Jackie Robinson said, in 1972, “I cannot stand and sing the anthem; I cannot salute the flag. I know I am a black man in a white world.” Never having experienced what it is like to be treated as a second-or-third-class citizen in one’s own country, white conservatives rarely seem to imagine how they would feel and how they might want to attract attention for their cause. Or, perhaps even more telling, when white conservatives feel their absolute right to exercise power and say what they want with no social consequences is being impinged, they cry to the heavens about how persecuted they are - without ever seeming to realize that other groups have suffered and are suffering far worse indignities than they are.

There were white people just as incensed, and saying many of the same things, about African-Americans peacefully sitting in protest at lunch counters in the 60s. Many today are primarily angered at the “disrespect” and violation of tradition in this form of protest (kneeling). Now, we have to admit, there are a large number of white Americans today who would be incensed at any form of black protest, peaceful or not, and who are enraged at any mention of the Black Lives Matter movement. And we also have to admit to ourselves, white American neighbors, that a lot of people who have chanted “Blue Lives Matter” were among the seditious mob who tried to beat cops to death with fire extinguishers and flagpoles a couple of months ago, so there is more going on there. By more, of course, I mean blatant racism. But I know that is not true of all conservatives. So let’s look at my other example, and then tie them together.

Protesting Native American sports mascots is not a new thing, as many people seem to think. Lakota activist and future American Indian Movement spokesman Russell Means was leading protests in Cleveland against their baseball team’s name and mascot in the 1960s. Other major league sports teams were being regularly criticized by Native American organizations by the early 1970s. While many people argue that American Indian-themed school mascots are meant to honor indigenous people, most Native Americans find them to be offensive on several levels - appropriating and trivializing Native culture and identity, reinforcing insulting stereotypes, and profaning things that many Native people hold as sacred. For example - and you probably didn’t know this - the ceremonial long-feathered headdresses worn by Plains tribes, and appearing on many school mascots, have a very specific meaning. It is both spiritual and social. Only certain people in a tribe earn the right to wear them, and each feather represents an act of courage or service to the community. Dancing around in one without earning it is kind of like dressing as the Pope but covered with Purple Heart medals, which many conservative Americans would find extremely offensive.

Nothing, though, is as insulting to indigenous people than the mascot used until recently by the Washington NFL team and still used by public schools around the country. That particular word has never been considered an “honor”- dictionaries literally define it as insulting and offensive. It is a racial epithet of the sort that used to be publicly applied to various minority groups but which now get bleeped out on television (appropriately). And yet when Native individuals protest such mascots - even “the R-word” - they are frequently harassed, intimidated, and even targeted with death threats (I’ve seen it happen).

Empathy would teach you that Native Americans’ feelings on this matter are very similar to your own feelings when your treasured cultural traditions are treated in a way you find insulting. But too many people only see how things affect them or their group, without trying to imagine the feelings of the other side. I wish everyone would try an experiment for a week or so - every time you want to say “political correctness” substitute the phrase “human kindness and decency” and see how your sentences sound.    


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