the responsibility of empathy

What makes one life more important than the other?

It’s a loaded question, but it is easy for our current president to answer. The year is 2017, and our current, newly appointed leaders – those who are expected to lead by example and do what is in the best interest of the country and its citizens – determine the importance of one’s life based on the color of their skin and/or their chosen religion. And this principle is startlingly similar to one introduced over eighty years ago. Most of us sat through elementary, middle, and high school history classes, and with heavy hearts made our way to the lesson about World War II. Some of us even cringed  when we saw the photos in our textbooks – the photos of concentration camp prisoners with bodies so thin that you could see their ribcages, and deceased human beings in piles ready to be burned. Our hearts broke and our eyes shed a few tears when we had to read Anne Frank’s diary or Elie Wiesel’s Night  and some of us have been fortunate enough to visit the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam to pay our respects or satisfy our curiosity about her story. And every year, during the last week of January, we set aside a day of remembrance. But this year,  Holocaust Remembrance Day was different from any other.

Signing an executive order to ban people of a particular religious faith from entering the country on the same day that remembers the mass genocide of millions of people – the majority of whom were murdered because of their religious faith  – is a smack in the face to human decency. 

Protecting the country and its citizens from potential threats and future acts of terrorism is understandable and logical, but isolating (and targeting) a mass group of people based on their chosen religion in order to do so is not. Denying others the chance of a better life – access to financial stability, safety, education – based on the religion that prevails in their country of origin – is xenophobic. Thinking that race is synonymous with religion is a dangerous, disheartening mindset to have, especially when said mindset is the very foundation of the discrimination carried out by our leaders.  And we have already learned of the consequences that come from such a mindset being placed into the hands of power.

The United States is a country founded by immigrants. Most if not all of us have read about the voyage of the Mayflower, and the twelve million immigrants who came to Ellis Island between 1892 and 1954 in hopes of a better life. Most of our population, most of our sacred institutions, would not be here today if our great-grandparents or grandparents or aunts or uncles chose to stay in their countries of origin. If my maternal grandmother had not come to Ellis Island from Germany in 1948, I would not be here in this very moment writing this. As of 2007, 311 languages are spoken in the United States, 162 of which are indigenous and 149 of which are immigrant languages. To turn a blind eye to the fact that the United States is ethnically, racially, and socioeconomically diverse is shameful. There is not a superior race, religion, language, or way of life, contrary to the fear-mongering rhetoric that has been making itself known. Each and every one of our histories are all different but simultaneously intertwined, and American culture is made up of other cultures.

People are growing annoyed by protests – from the Women’s March and the airport protests around the country that immediately followed the news of our president’s executive order. But our protests are not a matter of the right or the left – it is a matter of empathy. Something much bigger than politics, something much bigger than being a Democrat or a Republican, being anti-Trump or pro-Trump. Getting people to care about things outside of themselves, their lives – just because you are not directly affected by something our president or government does, it does not mean that it is not an issue. What does not affect you or even someone you know personally most likely affects the well being and freedom of someone else; not only an individual person but a whole group. That being said, everyone in or wishing to have a better life in this country should feel safe, not scared of being at risk or being shut out from opportunities or fundamental human rights because of something that is a part of their identity – whether it be religion, gender, race, class, or sexual orientation.

I’m not so much disappointed by Trump and his administration’s actions – I’m disappointed in the hatred and overall decline of empathy that he has inspired – people not caring about what’s going on, or not caring enough to learn more. I’m disappointed and frightened by the increase of miscommunication and misinformation – those are the things that are dividing us and creating tension.

As Meryl Streep said in her Golden Globes acceptance speech last month:

“We have to remind each other of the privilege and the responsibility of the act of empathy.”

It is important to note that empathy cannot and should not be selective – if you can grieve for the Anne Frank’s of the world (the Frank family tried to enter the US as refugees during WWII but were denied), then you can grieve for the refugees of Syria, Iraq, Iran, Sudan, Libya, Yemen and Somalia.

“Empathy” is not a bad word, nor should it be. Caring about things outside of our own self-interest is what makes us all human beings, but it amounts to a great deal of responsibility. Caring about each other is what brings us together, and speaking up when harm or wrongdoing is being inflicted upon an individual or group is not a crime.