Empathy and communication are in short supply, but more
valuable than ever. They can take us to the heart of things and help us see
into the hearts of others.
"The ability to kill is as innate as our ability to
Wild at heart. The world is not going to become any less
crazy any time soon. With the escalation of rhetoric and sabre-rattling between
President Trump and North Korea and news of white supremacist marches in Virginia, I find my hopes for the future currently reduced
to the very short-term: maybe there will still be a world in which we can live
by the time I’ve finished writing these words and hit ‘publish’?
Empathy and the ability to communicate effectively are two
of the most critical (or critically lacking) qualities in this world of ours at
It’s essential to cut through all the waste to get to the
heart of things. It’s essential to understand what’s going on in the hearts of
What you have to take out
Politics can still be an inspiring, positive force in 2017.
On Wednesday (9 August 2017) I had the privilege of coming to Senator Al
Franken’s appearance on Marc Maron’s WTF podcast with little prior knowledge of the good Senator. In this era of politics moving
beyond a joke, Franken has made the transition from stand-up comedian (and
early Saturday Night Live star) to strongly principled Democrat Senator.
Franken explains how his past in comedy provided a perfect
grounding for mastering political communication:
"I think that the actual showbiz training has helped. I’m
one of the few people on the Judiciary Committee who’s not a lawyer, but I can
frame things and I think I learned stuff from doing comedy. Comedians are good
editors. Because you realise what works, what doesn’t work, and you realise
what you have to take out so it lands. I think it has to do with having done
Perhaps it’s the editor in me, but I love Franken’s view
that truly effective communication is not just about what you are able to say.
Realising “what you have to take out so it lands” is at least as
Franken finds unpleasant echoes of his SNL days in the current
state of things. He used to feel moved to witness the gravitas that President Obama
would bring to his State of the Union addresses. Being 15 feet from President
Trump for the 2017 State of the Union, Franken felt he was back in a rehearsal
for an SNL sketch.
The Senator is upset by what he sees. But he is not about
to give up:
“The whole office in a way has been cheapened. And we
see it every day. Every day there’s a new affront. That is upsetting to me as
an American. But I’ve got a role to play.”
Empathy is as essential as communication if one is to be a
truly principled, truly effective politician.
Campaigning in Minnesota, Franken came across endless
examples of everyday people unable to afford health insurance:
“Going around Minnesota at that time, any cafe I’d go
to, on a bulletin board there’d be a thing for a fundraiser for someone who’d
gotten sick and didn’t have insurance or who had gone through their cap. It was
different seeing that and hearing that from people. I just got more and more
motivated to do the job.”
The White House carpet
Empathy might save us all. Its opposite will not. The same
day that I listened to Senator Franken’s words, Steve Silberman shared some
words that Harvard law professor Roger Fisher wrote back in the Reagan era. Silberman
describes them as “one of the most brilliant and chilling things ever
written about nuclear war.” He’s not wrong. Fisher wrote:
“I could see the President at a staff meeting
considering nuclear war as an abstract question. He might conclude: ‘On SIOP
Plan One, the decision is affirmative, Communicate the Alpha line XYZ.’ Such
jargon holds what is involved at a distance.
"My suggestion was quite simple: Put that needed code
number in a little capsule, and then implant that capsule right next to the
heart of a volunteer. The volunteer would carry with him a big, heavy butcher
knife as he accompanied the President. If ever the President wanted to fire
nuclear weapons, the only way he could do so would be for him first, with his
own hands, to kill one human being. The President says, ‘George, I’m sorry but
tens of millions must die.’ He has to look at someone and realise what death is
– what an innocent death is. Blood on the White House carpet. It’s reality
When I suggested this to friends in the Pentagon they said,
‘My God, that’s terrible. Having to kill someone would distort the President’s
judgement. He might never push the button.’“
Empathy and communication are in very short supply. But
they are more valuable than ever. Use them wisely.
* These words are from the intro to Bloodlust, the title
track of the latest album by Body Count, Ice-T’s metal band. Ice-T turns 60 next
year (on 16 February 2018). Age will not slow him, nor mellow his views. Bloodlust – the album – is vivid, furious and extremely hard-rocking. Subtle it is not. Ice-T argues on
this album that the USA is sliding into states of both war and civil war (the
latter being a war of rich against poor, a war which subsumes race-related tension and conflict). "It’s already started,” he suggests. “Maybe too late
** On the basis of this excellent introduction to Senator
Franken, I have ordered and am excited to read his memoir Giant of the Senate.
I shall report back as to its quality.
True serendipity. Not having a scanner to hand, I thought I’d photograph the drawing at the top of this page. I am still stunned that a bee chose to land on that picture at that precise moment.