Thursday, September 11, 2008

The DNC, Illinois, and Group Empathy; a theory

A caveat: I am a supporter of Barack Obama. However the following is meant to be more in the nature of a sociological essay than a political one. It is primarily about my unique (I think) point of view of the situation, and due to my current (and probably unhealthy) obsession with everything election related. Comments are welcome.
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Approximately nine years ago I had the good fortune to hear Barack Obama give a talk at a small youth conference I attended when I had just started counseling teenagers. He was a state senator then, and though I didn’t pay much attention to what his role was I did notice that the way he was introduced was as if he were someone very special. He spoke about youth – particularly inner city youth, as was appropriate – with knowledge and empathy. Not knowing his background I assumed he had been raised on the South Side of Chicago. One of the things that really stuck with me was how he discussed the (false) viewpoint that African American boys don’t read, and that it’s not considered cool by their peers to be a reader. This was one of those vague concepts I think I knew but had never heard anyone speak out loud.

I was so impressed by this thin, well spoken black man that I wrote down his name on the program (it was not listed). Years later, when he became U.S. Senator and gave that now famous speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, I actually looked for and found that program to confirm that he was indeed the person I had heard speak that day.

Hearing him talk about changing the 'us vs. them’ mentality, I thought to myself if he ever ran for president I would support him. The buzz on all the local news stations was that “everyone” said he would be president one day. That day is almost here – if he wins, that is. I never expected him to run so soon and I was torn, at first, because I did want to support Hillary, but the message of conciliation quickly won me over.

My one experience volunteering for the campaign was wonderful. I went to Gary, Indiana to help out on primary day. There were so many volunteers I had little to do, but just being there around the diverse group of supporters, including a retired life-long steel mill worker and Republican (a white man), was invigorating. Obama lost Indiana, but by a lesser margin than anticipated by the polls – in large part due to volunteers helping supporters in the Gary area get out and vote. Few thought he would win the state, though the hope was great. It was, for lack of a better term, an experience in group optimism.

This brings me to my most recent experience with the campaign, which to me occurred completely through my television and internet connections (a virtual experience). This was the most recent Democratic National Convention, starting with the candidate’s wife -a strong woman if ever there was one - and ending with a stadium full of supporters who were just as excited as I was. The glimpse I had of Mayor Daley in rolled up sleeves, with his hair in disarray, bouncing around, was one I will not soon forget!

What sort of phenomenon do we have here? Brainwashing? A cult? These are some of the accusations I’ve seen by critics. Obamaniacs, some call us. Lately some say we think he is the messiah. I don’t know, they could be right, I could have been brainwashed and am in denial. But I have a different idea, perhaps just as wacky, but everyone has the right to their opinion. I call it group empathy.

Just to clarify, the definition(s) of empathy:

- The intellectual identification with or vicarious experiencing of the feelings, thoughts, or attitudes of another.
- Identification with and understanding of another's situation, feelings, and motives. (American Heritage Dictionary).

I did a little reading about group dynamics – very little, actually. Just enough to be able to say there are various theories about group behavior. One believes a group will follow a charismatic leader, others believe that groups take on a personality of their own, yet others say that it is the members in the group that reinforce each other. In any case, it does appear true that the phenomenon of group belief and behavior can be for negative or positive reasons/purposes. In this candidate’s situation, obviously, I choose to believe that it is for the good.

On the one hand, in his critics’ minds, you have Obama the elitist and out of touch candidate, on the other you have the community organizer who doesn’t have leadership experience. I would say neither is true. My belief is that Barack is like me and millions of ‘ordinary’ people who attempt understand others, to find what is common and similar in others, rather than to focus on our differences.

For example, some may think that since Barack didn’t come from the South side, didn’t grow up with the same disadvantages that many poor African Americans did, that he can’t understand them. He doesn’t really know what it’s been like for them. I disagree, and, using me as an example, here is why: I grew up a as middle class suburban white girl, someone with no idea what it was like to be poor, a minority, or involved with or witness to violence on a regular basis. Yet I immersed myself in urban youth culture for more than five years, and I can attest to having an understanding of these kids -- because I put in the time and effort. I watched, listened, asked questions, and was present for, or near, numerous disturbing events that they became involved in. I know enough to say that I know.

Empathy is also, in part, the ability to put aside one’s ego and personal beliefs, at least while in the service of the other person(s). I would never claim to completely understand someone who has walked in different shoes. However complete understanding is not required for empathy, for “intellectual identification”. All of us – all human beings – are capable of feeling the same feelings. Almost everyone knows what it’s like, for example, to feel angry over having been unfairly treated – regardless of the reaons.

I say all the above to say this: I think what we witnessed at the DNC was an ideal example of what I call group empathy. Because the candidate attracts people who identify with him, who identify with his call to service, to his vision of working together in spite of differences, having had some experiences in these areas ourselves. We identify with him because he identifies with many of us; we believe he is authentic because he has put in the time and effort to understand people. Also, with his example (which meshes with many supporters’ values) of taking the high road, not bashing his opponents and sticking to his beliefs I believe others were also able to take the high road.

Had Barack been saying things for example, similar to what John McCain says about him, regarding Hillary (had he insulted her) would she have wanted to stand up at the convention and not only support him but ask her supporters to support him? Would she really have placed the unity of the party first, without his example? Had Barack reacted to Bill Clinton’s comments, would Mr. Clinton have gotten up on that stage and said what he said -- to the point of saying Obama will make a good president? I doubt they would have been able to put aside their egos that much – it’s only human nature. (I realize that people in Barack’s CAMP said things about them, but the man himself did not).

It’s the golden rule. It’s Karma, it’s what goes around comes around. No wants to be shown up as being petty and a sore loser when the winner has always been gracious. They cannot complain that he said this and such about them, because he did not. He didn’t cheat them, lie to them, or manipulate them in any way. In fact he lauded Hillary and is helping pay her debts. Perhaps it’s safer in the long run to be cynical. But I did not see resentment in Bill and Hillary’s eyes. Perhaps a bit of envy or nostalgia on Bill’s part, but at that time their anger appeared to be subdued. I saw Bill Clinton’s face, when Barack acknowledged him, saying he was a president who cared about people. He looked – humbled.

To add to all the good feelings, there was the Illinois contingent at the convention -- hugging each other!! I don’t know if this was shown on national news but a description of what happened is here. The short version is that Jesse Jackson, Jr., gave a speech about reconciliation and proceeded to hug some people who were his political enemies (then Mayor Daley hugged him), then insisted that our governor and the speaker of the house hug and make up – these two who had not spoken in years!

I am not so na├»ve to think everyone will all get along back in Springfield, because of a hug, but for that moment they allowed their common humanity to come to the forefront, due, I believe, to the example and the atmosphere of the people in the campaign. What I do believe is this is not brainwashing, that a cult would emphasize an “other”, people who are somehow different, as opposed to trying to bring people together. Empathy is inclusive.

The news had almost nothing negative to say about the DNC, except to comment that it wouldn’t last, or that they still have to deal witch the McCain camp. Well, I don’t have cable, so I mention only what I saw. And what I saw, and felt, was empathy.

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