These days when fear and anger can lock us in endless cycles of reactivity, it’s worth remembering that the willingness to take an opponent’s perspective is a reliable source of inspiration.
I learned this in August 2005. Texas voters were about to approve a constitutional amendment to define marriage, and my friends were fearfully speculating about how couples could be separated in the hospital or have their wills overturned. We couldn’t imagine why voters could support something so cruel.
That summer I was writing a theatrical monologue about collecting vintage Fiestaware. The State Theatre had commissioned the work and sold tickets, and the show was set to open in October. One problem: We were about to start rehearsal, and we didn’t have a script — just pages of witty repartee and snarky self-justification with no plot to speak of.
The theatre wanted a show about dish collectors, their quirky subculture and the neurochemistry of compulsion, but I couldn’t write it. I was stuck on marriage. One day in August it hit me: When do you get dishes?
I called Scott Kanoff, the producer: “The play is about me and Eugene getting married.”
A long pause.
“Yes,” he said, as if he already knew. “Steven, we’re going to produce whatever you write. At this point we have no choice. Only promise me one thing. Write a story that respects the people who can’t see things your way. They’ll be in the theatre. You have to love them, too.”
Anger is powerful and urgent. You’ve seen those MRI scans of your brain on anger, activity colorfully concentrated in the primal parts. That power welds us to the keyboard or pushes us out on the street. When we’re angry we can run fast, make bold sacrificial gestures and throw wicked shade. Sometimes adrenaline is all you need.
But sometimes we need more.
Sometimes we actually do need good ideas. Like when we’re trying to write a play that someone might actually want to watch. Or when technological change and economic dislocation upends a social order that millions of our neighbors depend on and people start reaching for whatever seems to promise any hope at all.
Anger is an essential response when we’re threatened. Anger is fuel.
But it doesn’t make us smarter. On the contrary, fear and anger override creative thought. They spark lower-level thinking, the search for someone to blame and demonize. We project. We grow disgusted with them — and disgust is the end of conversation and the beginning of violence.
Without Scott Kanoff’s challenge, “American Fiesta” wouldn’t have happened. It would never have occurred to me to make my political opponents the most sympathetic characters in my play, but taking their perspective instantly lifted the block.
I cast them as the people selling me dishes and in the process sharing their hope and pain. I drew on conversations with my cousins in Oklahoma, with friends from the Church of Christ in the little town where I’d grown up. I thought of all the ways I’d been shown kindness by people whose lives had just not prepared them for me and Eugene — and in the process had to confront the ways in which my own perspective limits my capacity for kindness.
Eugene and I have been reading Arlie Hochschild’s remarkable book “Strangers in Their Own Land” in which the University of California — Berkeley sociologist cultivates friendship with a group of politically conservative working-class folks in southwestern Louisiana. She sets out to scale the “empathy wall” that separates her from them, to be their student and learn what their lives are like.
Eugene wrote about Hochschild on Facebook, and several of his friends expressed interest, so we convened a book club to test our capacity for empathy. Again and again our guests said: “I just can’t imagine.” I can’t imagine why they think that. I can’t imagine why they’d vote that way.
Finally someone asked: What is this lack of imagination costing us? And what is it doing for us? For many of us in that book club our limited imagination keeps at a distance the families and hometowns we’ve rejected or that have rejected us. We’ve built empathy walls where we need them.
Of course, many folks think empathy is the last thing we need these days. As one bumper sticker puts it: “We dare not walk in the enemy’s shoes lest we falter in our resolve to destroy him.” But what if empathy is the essential complement of energizing anger? Put another way, what if loving our enemies actually makes us smarter?
In high-profile cases where political opponents have undertaken the tough work of listening to understand each other’s perspectives — on abortion rights, gun regulations, marriage — people’s positions on the issues rarely change. What changes are attitudes towards opponents. Disgust gives way to curiosity and even respect. Common ground emerges; creativity sprouts.
Anger is fuel. Empathy is direction.
“American Fiesta” opened in October. The marriage amendment passed a few weeks later. After most performances, someone from the audience would be waiting to talk with me, to tell me they didn’t agree with me, that they didn’t understand people like me, and then silence; and then, “Your play helped me,” and sometimes, “My friends need to see it.”
Why not risk discovering my opponent’s point of view?
What is my limited curiosity about other people’s perspective costing me?