As students begin a new semester, practicing empathy has become more important than ever

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ANGELA VASISHTA // THE FLAT HAT

Last week, newly-inaugurated President Joe Biden called for all Americans to “begin to listen to one another again. Hear one another; see one another; show respect to one another.” As the Alma Mater of the Nation, history shows that the College of William and Mary has failed many times in the past to answer such a call. But now, we as the College community have a chance to reclaim our pride of place among America’s universities and lead the effort forward in transforming our broken society into one based on empathy.

The sharp divisions that have plagued our country for years now have not spared the College’s campus. Every Saturday at Confusion Corner this past fall, hundreds of students peacefully protested in support of the Black Lives Matter movement, sending out a cry for racial justice that still remains to be answered by local and federal governments. The chalkboard outside of the ISC became a fiery battleground over abortion. And for many students, social media became a safe haven for echo chambers which reinforced convictions but rarely reached across aisles — something which I admit I am definitely guilty of, lest I stand on a soapbox.

We, as a community, are all now presented with a choice. We can either continue to ignore the voices crying out for justice, assume the absolute worst intentions of others, and celebrate our moral righteousness within our enclosed communities. Or, we can practice, in the poetic words of Oxford Languages, “the ability to understand and share the feelings of another,” otherwise known as empathy.

If we all strive for empathy in the coming months, the College can make a stand against the tide of hate that has all but risen throughout the country over the past few weeks. We can be a community where we learn more about each other and even ourselves in the process. Listening to one another not only enriches our lives and those around us; it is also necessary for the future world which our generation is set to inherit.

Easier said than done, to be sure, since empathy requires more listening than talking. The College is a university filled with bright minds waiting to share strong opinions. I mean, here I am now, sharing neither my first nor last strong opinion. But it is my view that too often we take strong views we find comforting and then are forced backwards to cherry-pick supporting evidence to save face, rather than build productive solutions for all of humanity on the basis of learning from other voices. Whatever grand truth there is to the design of the universe, one guarantee is that the person standing next to you has quite a unique perception of it compared to your own.

That does not have to be scary. Our unique perspectives are what shape us as unique human beings, but it is only through empathy that we will be able to ensure everyone’s voice is heard. The College already has several policies in place to facilitate empathy on its campus, but it is incumbent upon us as the student body to practice what we preach.

For instance, we at The Flat Hat are working to establish a new print philosophy to better amplify the opinions of all students on campus. Only by exposing ourselves to a wide variety of voices and experiences — especially those that have often gone unheard — can we better understand one another and find solutions which benefit us all.

Of course, empathy toward one another entails an interest in the common good, and in no way am I suggesting that all beliefs are created equal. Earlier this month, we all witnessed the consequences of a shared but false belief allowing itself to strike at the very heart of our democracy. Those who do not have the common good of humanity in mind must be challenged with every effort available to us.

As a history major, I am regularly exposed to the personal accounts of people who lived in times and places very different than my own. To understand the pains and the joys that these people experienced in their historical moments is in itself a test of empathy.

This spring, as we all safely return to campus and strive to find some sense of normalcy, let us also strive to actively hear one another as well. We may all live in the same era, but we certainly all come from different places.

Lucas Harsche ’23 is a history major. In addition to his work at The Flat Hat, Lucas is also the treasurer for both Swim Club and Active Minds, and plays violin in the Symphony Orchestra. Email Lucas at lmharsche@email.wm.edu.