Prince John: A knife! He’s got a knife!
Eleanor of Aquitaine: Of course he has a knife, he always has a knife, we all have knives! It’s 1183 and we’re barbarians!
— “The Lion in Winter” by James Goldman
Empathy is generally considered to be a positive trait.
If one person can imagine, just a little bit, what it is like to be another person, there is reason to believe that levels of hostility might be greatly reduced. Instead of looking down on someone else, or being irrationally afraid of them, or dismissing their dreams and fears as silly or threatening, each of us might try to see things from another’s point of view, work up a little compassion, lower the temperature and be helpful rather than defensive.
It works often enough to be the default position for a decent human being. And, as I’ve said a few times before, the effort to convey at least a glimmer of understanding of what it is like to be someone else is the core of literature and of the best journalism.
But — and you knew there would be a “but” — there’s also a negative side to such imaginings.
It is also possible for a person to just assume that other people are just like themselves. To think that others see, want and fear the same things as they do. And that, in a similar set of circumstances, those others would act and react in the same way.
It can be as simple as bringing to the party the brand of beer or the variety of pizza that you like on the assumption that everyone else will like it, too. (Unless you only brought enough for yourself. Then it’s just selfish.)
But it also guides people’s thinking about political and public policy questions. When it comes to proposals to enhance or reduce programs that help out the poor, or minorities, or single parents, for example, whether your kind of empathy is positive or negative cannot help but affect your view of what ought to be done.
If you think it would be a horrible experience to be poor, sick, out of work, behind on the rent, even homeless — or if you have actually been any or all of those things — you would probably be inclined to support both public and private efforts to help people in such situations.
Or your image of someone holding it together on public assistance or from charity might be of a person who sits home all day, eating potato chips, drinking Big Gulps and watching Netflix, while paying little or no attention to your children. So you’d be against offering such help. But maybe that thought comes from the knowledge that such a lifestyle is what you would do, given the chance.
If you are the sort of person who believes, against all available evidence, that the last presidential election was stolen by hacked voting machines, floods of phony absentee ballots and illegal immigrants standing in line for six hours to cast illegal votes, it might be because you think that’s the way elections work and you are just jealous you didn’t cheat more effectively.
If you are a man and you think it would be fun to dress up as a female and use women’s restrooms as a way of preying on unsuspecting young women, or if you would be willing to publicly identify as female, dress and act as such, undergo some pretty life-altering surgery and pump yourself up with hormones, all just so you could stand a chance of taking the bronze medal in the state championship 400-yard dash, then you’d be out there warning that other people were out to do that and work to pass laws against it. Otherwise, none of that is likely to even occur to you.
If you are a police officer, or a law enforcement wannabe, and you know deep down in your gut that Black people in this country, especially young Black men, are suspected, mistrusted, hassled, feared, looked down upon, denied jobs and housing and educational opportunities for no reason whatsoever, then it is entirely possible that you might suspect that young Black man over there is angry, hostile, potentially violent and, of course, armed, even at age 13, because you know that if you had been treated that way your whole life, you’d be pretty steamed, too. And maybe you should shoot first and ask questions later. And be able to pass off a story about how you were threatened, even though you clearly weren’t, and in fear of your life, which you might actually have been.
This is why the idea that more guns on the streets make people safer is clearly daft. Yes, sometimes the fear that that man over there is packing might make your just keep your distance. Or, especially if you are armed, especially if you are a police officer, the impulse might be to just assume that you are about to be shot if you don’t shoot first.
That’s the nature of a society that is nuts about guns. Everyone assumes the worst. And sometimes they make it come true.
George Pyle, opinion editor of The Salt Lake Tribune, knows you want to read everything he writes because, hey, who wouldn’t?