Walt Whitman, Democracy, Empathy

20 Dec

I have thought and read quite a lot about empathy, but I was startled when I read recently about empathy as the essence of democracy:

“Democracy is a way of being: in particular, it is a way of being with others. It has much more to do with how you approach your fellow men and women. Do you respect them? Do you acknowledge their dignity? Can you identify your interest with theirs? In short, do you love them?”

These are the words of Walt Whitman, the quintessential American poet, whose 200th anniversary we celebrated last year.

Customarily, we discuss democracy with terms like, “equality,” “power rests with the people,” “one person, one vote,” or “grass roots initiative.” We think in terms of politics or sociology; we don’t use the rhetoric of empathy to describe our democracy.

Whitman speaks of radical empathy towards all others: respecting them, acknowledging their dignity, identifying with their interest, loving them. And he defines democracy with those attitudes.

This is so radical that it is difficult even to imagine. Merriam-Webster defines empathy as understanding and vicariously experiencing experience of another person. It ranges from intellectual “knowing” another’s situation to sharing and entering into another’s experience. For me, the most vivid image of empathy are the Latin American curanderas—folk healers who actually enter into the fear and despair of those they treat.

This is so radical that it is difficult even to imagine.
I read Whitman’s words for the first time when. I was recovering from illness in the rehabilitation unit of the retirement community in which I live. I thought of my fellow residents and also the caregivers, nurses, doctors, wait staff, maintenance workers, and the many others I had met in the hospital and rehab environment. I had been in touch with a true cross section of American society—working class men and women, highly skilled professionals, retired academics—people who cover the spectrum of urban America.

I tried to picture these people as individuals. Did I enter vicariously into the experience of these people? I gave myself a rather low grade on this score. Then I turned to Whitman: Do I respect each of the persons I mentioned? Do I acknowledge their dignity? Can I identify their interest with mine? If, as Whitman suggests, these are the elements of love, do I love the individuals that I meet in hospital, rehab, and my fellow retirees?

The social class system in academia (where I and many of my fellow residents have lived for many years) and in the United States generally, the political alienation that marks our life in this country, and also the prejudices and discriminations that have been so prominent in the worlds where we live and work—these factors make it difficult at times to truly respect each other and to acknowledge their dignity. To be honest, these same factors make it impossible at times for me to identify my interest with the interest of the cross-section of people I live with.

Whitman’s proposal tells me that it is difficult to practice genuine democracy with my fellow travelers. It is not a question of whether I am good or bad, moral or immoral. Whitman is moving us to a different level: Can we practice democracy in America? Can we truly make America what America claims to be?

I hazard the guess that most have recited the pledge of allegiance from the days we were in elementary school: “I pledge allegiance to my Flag and the Republic for which it stands, one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.” Walt Whitman digs into the specifics of what this pledge means.

This is an ideal: I ran across Whitman’s words in an issue of Poetry magazine. Ideals and poetry both are meant to prod us, deepen our understanding.

Not a bad agenda for a new year.

(c) Phil Hefner 20 December 2019

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