In these essays, students reflect upon the study of radical religious groups, including qualitative data analysis of video interviews, through an upper level course at Miami University.
Empathy and the Religious “Enemy” — A Tool for Humanization
Coming into the first day of class, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect out of “Empathy and the Religious ‘Enemy’” except a large amount of work and the stress that was bound to follow. In walked Dr. Hillel Gray, and I don’t think I had ever had a professor be so enthusiastic about a class. Though, I soon asked myself, “what have you gotten yourself into?”
I had no real experience in coding videos or analyzing those videos in any sort of significant way, and this was a hefty part of the requirements for our final paper and most of the class was based around this. I was already in too deep to back out now, so I began going through the hours of interviews from Westboro Baptist Church, a fundamentalist Christian group that is often thought of as hateful and intolerant by mainstream society and is a part of Dr. Gray’s ongoing research project based around the idea of empathizing with those who may have radically different opinions and perspectives.
As I was studying one of the elders of the church, Jonathan Phelps, I began to realize that there was more to these people than what is seen in the media. This is precisely the goal of the project, not to create change of any kind in the subjects of the research, but rather to change the researcher’s, and by extension larger society’s, understanding and ability to relate to an “oppositional Other.”
Jonathan Phelps is the son of Fred Phelps Sr., the original head and founder of Westboro Baptist Church. Through my own research, I had the opportunity to analyze the ways in which he conceptualizes empathy, and if this is the way that he puts it into practice. This analysis uncovered the connection between his religious ideology and how he is conceptualizing empathy, as well as the ways empathy may look different when “put into action,” so to speak.
In conceptualizing empathy, Jonathan expressed a view that members of the church should not feel empathy fully toward outsiders of the church because of the possibility that it might cause them to accept the sins of that person, which is based largely on the doctrinal teachings of the church. Yet, when he was speaking about outsiders, and especially clients that he works with as a juvenile defender, he was able to express deep feelings of empathy and compassion, sometimes being brought to tears as he was discussing specific client’s cases. This potentially was the cause of some tension I observed, when in some instances he would try to change the topic of conversation when he was beginning to get emotional.
Viewing Jonathan through this analytical lens of conceptual and practical empathy has helped me to expand my understanding of what empathy means, as well as practicing critical distance when analyzing interview footage. Of course, there were moments where he would express theological or moral viewpoints, but I was able to work on suspending judgement and approaching the research in an unbiased way.
Despite these findings and reflections, some may still wonder why we are doing this research. Why would we give voice to a group that is widely thought to have hateful rhetoric? Why might we subject our researchers to this potentially harmful viewpoint (considering they often express anti-LGBTQ and anti-military opinions)? It is a vast misconception of this project that we are sympathizing with any of these groups, or giving voice to their theological opinion. Empathy requires no moral requirement for action, and it doesn’t involve feeling pity, compassion, or sorrow for the situation that a person is in. On the contrary, our empathic approach is about creating a cognitive and affective understanding of how they are feeling, with the goal of simply understanding their humanity and lived experiences. This could contribute to a process of humanization, which is one of the most relevant implications of this sort of methodology in our modern society. There is often a tendency to dehumanize and villainize anyone who may be thought of as an “enemy” in any context. This can cause us to take them down to a lower status, thus making it easier to take a position of apathy or even opposition to their general welfare. Non-judgmental empathic listening has the potential to humanize those who are vilified and seen as the “enemy”, as well as giving the opportunity to forge relationships with these people allowing for enhancement of the research.
The broader results of the project also have the potential to dispel prejudices and stereotypes through the nature of its relationship-building methodology. By getting to know individual participants of groups which are often deemed hateful, it’s easier to see that they aren’t all of the stereotypes that are put on the whole group. Creating familiarity and cognitive understanding of the empathy and emotions of people provides a greater ability to see them not as those stereotypes, but as who they are, and as more fully as human. Practically, this sort of research and methodology can be helpful in having civil conversations with those who may have a different opinion. It is no shock that we live in an increasingly divisive and politically and socially polarized society, so a critical empathic approach has the potential to change the ways in which different political parties have civil discourse around issues that they differ on. Despite being somewhat controversial research, it could be really helpful to see how those whom we see as “other” are treated as lesser, and make efforts to show that they are just people, too.