I have a confession to make. I spent way too much time on my final project. I donât mean this in a bad way. I had so much fun making my videos and my website that I probably would have made them even if I didnât have to. Part of the reason I spent so long was simply because I had never made a movie or a website before. I had to undergo a lot of trial and error to get both parts to work. But another reason I spent so long was that I kept wanting to find new ways to make my project more persuasive. It was exciting to see my movies getting better and better. I had to finally cut myself off so I could study for my other finals. The ironic thing was that the day after we turned in our cybermedia project, a friend and I actually went down to Boston College to make another movie designed to honor an old football lineman. I went from having never done a movie before to having done two in the last couple of weeks. And I canât wait until finals are over so I can try making another. The appeal for me was not just the making of the movie, although that was certainly part of it. The major part of the appeal, I think, was how easy it was to communicate effectively with a large audience, to make myself heard in the court of public opinion. I had never really experienced that before.
Along the way, both in the class and in making my final project, I think I developed at least the beginnings of some tools to help me be more effective in this new arena. The first, and probably biggest, was an improved sense of empathy. My final project involved the debate over whether Massachusetts supermarkets and other big stores should be allowed to be open on Thanksgiving. My first attempt at empathy (the writing of the opposition memo) was not very good. I didnât let myself go. Rather than really trying to put myself in the other sideâs shoes, I wrote the opposition memo with an eye towards how I would rebut it. I had the mentality (subconscious or not) that if I showed too much strength in my opponentâs argument then it would make my argument look weaker. Itâs hard to admit that your opponent has some really strong arguments and that you might not have a perfect answer for them. I think such an admission, however, gives you a lot more credibility in the court of public opinion. It is easy to dismiss a biased advocate; it is much harder to ignore someone who seems to have honestly considered both sides of the debate. I may not have expressed my opponentâs arguments perfectly in my movies and website, but the main thing that told me that I was getting better at empathizing was that, ironically enough, I had more doubts at the end of the project than I did at the beginning about whether I was on the right side of the debate.
Part of my greater understanding of empathy involved recognition of the multitude of interests involved in every issue. At the beginning of my project I just assumed that there were only two sides to the debate. You either thought supermarkets should be allowed to be open on Thanksgiving or you didnât. What other viewpoints could there be? I talked to a lot of different people over the course of my project, however, and realized how many different viewpoints there really were. People raised issues that I would have never thought of. What was important to me was not always important to others and vice versa. People I expected to take one position took a completely different one. The multitude of positions and interests made me realize how much room there was for flexibility, for compromise. With input from all sides, a new policy could potentially be developed that better satisfies the interests of a number of different groups. The main barrier seems to be a simple lack of recognition of what the other side really wants, a failure of empathy. For example, the manager of the Super 88 market (the Asian-themed supermarket that has opened the past two Thanksgivings and was shut down by police on Thanksgiving in 2005) clearly has different priorities than Attorney General Reilly (who has threatened criminal prosecution to enforce the law). I donât think their positions are necessarily adverse to each other though. If both sides really understood each otherâs needs, I think there would be room for a compromise that protects both sidesâ interests. The problem is that without any communication, without any exploration of common ground, both men see each other as opposites, as enemies with no chance for compromise. Perhaps if all interested parties presented their ideas to the court of public opinion, a new policy could still be forged.
The Weeks Project we did in class helped me see that common interests can be found even among seemingly opposite positions. I worked on the Music/IP rights week, primarily because it was an issue I was interested in. I expected to not like the people from Viacom. I have to admit, I thought they would be bureaucrats only interested in protecting their copyright and their money. Going to lunch with them and hearing them talk in person, however, made them seem so much more reasonable. Part of the reason, I think, was that they were very skilled at empathy. They seemed to genuinely understand the oppositionâs arguments and, rather than deprecate those arguments, acknowledged them as reasonable. That doesnât mean Viacom was willing to concede on all these issues, but both men seemed open to working on compromises that might serve the interests of all parties. This may sound incredibly naÃ¯ve, but it really made me wonder how much more people could accomplish if they would just sit down face to face and try to understand each other. It seems like we too often get wedded to our own position such that we lose sight of the fact that the other side likely has a rationally defensible position as well. Not only that, but by not empathizing with the other sideâs actual interests, we lose chances to create alternatives that would add value to both sides. That is one of the main lessons I took away from both my final project and the class as a whole. Empathy is more than just a device to make our argument stronger. It is a tool to understand an issue that much better and come up with solutions that help not only our side, but all sides.