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December 2023 – Vol. #21, No. 9

Welcome to the December edition of Tips and Topics and happy holidays to all.

In SAVVY, “Parochial empathy” helps understand why we are so polarized. It is not a lack of empathy for others, but can be extreme empathy and care for those in our own community.

In SKILLS, for there to be a solution to conflict and polarization, there has to be empathy for the other side. But how to do that? Start not with facts and judgements, but rather share our stories and narratives.

In SOUL, Keith Magee paid his Uber driver for an extra hour so he could park and explain why he was a fervent Donald Trump supporter. Magee came away with a better understanding of the fears and hopes that motivated his driver, and a strong sense of human connection despite the gulf between them.

David Mee-Lee, M.D.
DML Training and Consulting


I have never heard of the term or concept of “parochial empathy”. So when I listened to a November 22, 2023 segment of Here & Now Anytime, it helped me answer the questions: “Why are we so polarized in so many arenas and have we lost empathy altogether?”. More importantly, it gave me hope on what to do about it.

Stanford University, Jamil Zaki, a psychologist who's devoted his career to studying empathy, gave some SAVVY and SKILLS tips about “parochial empathy”. The content is all from Here & Now Anytime. I have merely formatted it in Tips & Topics style.

Tip 1

Conflict and polarization is not a lack of empathy for others. It is more complex.

A couple of definitions to ponder:

  • “Psychic numbing” is when the number of victims rise in a tragedy or conflict, our ability to empathize drops.
  • “Empathy” is our ability to care about, understand and share the experiences of other people.

Bad actors in politics, business, or any agency of power are interested in stamping out our empathy for others. In conflicted and polarized communities, it was thought to arise from a lack of empathy for outsiders.

But it is more complex than that because It’s not that people don’t have empathy, they may be very empathetic.

  • Political conflict arises from people who have extreme care and empathy for people in their own community.
  • “Parochial empathy” means that we hear very well the pain and turmoil of people in our own community.
  • That intense caring and empathy though can use up our empathy on those inside our community leaving little empathy for those outside our community.

Tip 2

Parochial empathy arises when you feel you and your family is at existential threat.

Parochial empathy arises because of the existential threat to that community.

  • Parochial empathy is our default and that increases in existential threat situations like the current Middle East conflict (for both Israelis and Palestinians).
  • When you feel you and your family is at existential threat, it is natural to circle the wagons and pour all your energy into those in your circle.
  • This results in dehumanizing those that are a threat and schadenfreude (delight in another person's misfortune and pain).
  • When you see someone who is a threat to you, it relaxes you to see that threat in pain.

Tip 3

How would you feel if something bad happened to someone on the other side of your community? 

Such a question is confronting and forces you to stop and think, especially when you consider yourself to be a compassionate person.

  • We want to be moral people who care and feel for humanity.
  • Yet when we feel we are in a zero sum setting where the other side and we are locked in a struggle, it can feel like it is emotionally unaffordable to care for the other side.
  • In times of conflict, we want a black and white story where we feel we are on the right side of history.
  • We want to believe that anyone who we are against is just as wrong as we feel we are right.

But when we see and contemplate such suffering of clearly innocent people, it challenges that ability.

  • It can even feel that empathizing with the other side is a betrayal of our own community.
  • Extreme voices on either side, can actually treat us that way. That if we even stop and express sympathy for a victim on the other side, that somehow we are abandoning our own side and are traitors.
  • Leaders and propagandists can weaponize parochial empathy. Look at the admittedly horror and victims on our side and the only thing that can be done is to have overwhelming revenge on the other side.


With that understanding of parochial empathy, what are some solutions and skills to address polarized conflicts?

Tip 1

Empathy beyond Parochial Empathy is not weakness or betrayal of those on our side.

For there to be a solution, there has to be empathy for the other side. But how does that happen?:

  • We don’t owe empathy to others under whom we are in direct threat.
  • But there is power when we try to extend empathy beyond parochial empathy.
  • Empathy for outsiders does not have to be a weakness or betrayal of those on our side.

Tip 2

Empathy for those on the other side is a strength and opens up curiosity about those not in our community.


  • In Dr. Zaki’s lab, when they teach Democrats an Rebublicans that empathy with outsiders (for the other side) is a strength, they become more curious about outsiders and want to learn about the other side. They communicate with outsiders in a more open-minded way.
  • If you want someone to listen to you, one of the best things you can do is listen to them first.

Tip 3

Engage in conversations where it is important to not start with facts and judgements, but start with our stories. 

We imagine the average outsider to be much more aggressive and violent than they really are.

  • When we have the space, safety and bravery to engage in conversations, it is important to not start with facts and judgements, but start with our stories.
  • When people share narratives with each other, that opens the door for a shocking amount of common ground.
  • “Self compassion” – suffering tends to be a wall. When it turns into parochial empathy, it separates us from people. 
  • But it can also be a bridge when we share loss and allow ourselves to listen to the pain of others on the other side. It is something really deep and tragic that so many of us have in common.


Keith Magee is senior fellow and visiting professor in cultural justice at University College London Institute for Innovation and Public Purpose. He is the author of “Prophetic Justice: Essays and Reflections on Race, Religion and Politics.” Earlier this month, he wrote an opinion piece about meeting someone with radically different views and how he learned an important lesson.

Here is the beginning of his piece:

It was a car ride that changed my life.

I took an Uber in Cleveland, Ohio, years ago focused only on getting to my destination, and found myself quite by chance being driven by a man whose politics were radically opposed to my own. I might have been tempted to sit in silence or to climb out of the car, but I did something else instead: I canceled my plans and paid him for an extra hour so he could park and explain to me why he was a fervent Donald Trump supporter.

I came away with a better understanding of the fears and hopes that motivated my driver, and a strong sense of human connection despite the gulf between us. For his part, he was moved that an “opponent” cared enough to listen to him. It was a moment that crystallized for me the profound power of empathy.

You can, if you want, read his full essay and the rest of the story. I was impressed with Magee’s willingness to not only cancel his plans but to also pay money to listen to the “other side”. It got me thinking:

  • Do I ever take the time to actually listen and empathize with those who have radically different views; or do I stick with my own bubble of news and views?
  • How often have I found joy in someone else’s misfortune or even pain (schadenfreude) like when a person from the opposite political spectrum gets caught for doing the very thing they have railed against in the past?
  • When have I self righteously condemned the other side from a position of parochial empathy and dehumanized others in the process?

In this season of peace on earth and good will to all people......not pretty reflections.


Thanks for joining us this month. See you in late January. Happy New Year!.


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