W.E.B DuBois used an expression when discussing what he referred to as “The Talented Tenth”, a term which he used when discussing the premise that one out of ten black men should become leaders of their race in the world, as that would be the way for the black man to rise out of slavery and oppression. He discussed these concepts in the 1890s.
In one speech he explained this much better:
“Men we shall have only as we make manhood the object of the work of the schools — intelligence, broad sympathy, knowledge of the world that was and is, and of the relation of men to it — this is the curriculum of that Higher Education which must underlie true life. On this foundation, we may build bread winning, skill of hand and quickness of brain, with never a fear lest the child and man mistake the means of living for the object of life.”
The operative phrase here, as far as this writer is concerned, is “broad sympathy”. It struck me when I first read it since, being such a simple phrase, it surprised me that I had never heard it or read ever before in my lifetime, especially given my extensive reading and research for my education and writing.
Upon reflection, I believe that the understanding of this phrase is critical to open-mindedness and the ability to understand someone whose opinions might vary greatly from yours. It does not describe sympathy in its most common usage, including feelings of sorrow for someone who has suffered a loss or pity for those less fortunate than one’s self.
I think that his use of the term speaks to what is required for intelligent thought and communication. An example of the use of broad sympathy is when communicating, with verbally or in writing, and understanding that what you’re thinking is not necessarily what the other person is thinking. This can manifest itself when someone speaks in pronouns rather than common or proper nouns. The excessive use of he, him, her, she, it etc., as if the listener knows who these people are without being reminded, can be very frustrating. The speaker assumes that you can see the people s/he is picturing in their head while speaking to you. They are not displaying broad sympathy since they are concentrating on their own thoughts and ignoring yours.
It can also mean knowing where a person with an opposing viewpoint is getting his logic from, and respecting it, even when disagreeing. This is the essence of any negotiation. Understanding the other person’s point of view is critical if you want to change their mind. And I don’t mean this in the platitudinous sense as we hear in so many Facebook memes about putting yourself in the other person’s shoes and the like. It means understanding your opponent’s motivation and the rationale for his position even though you are trying to dissuade him of it.
Broad sympathy is what makes a good attorney a great attorney. Understanding the assumptions of the opposing attorney and the jury and dissuading them of their position, not by force or ridicule, but by using the logic of their own positions to sway them to yours.
An example of this is let’s say, two people arguing about the use of animals for medical testing. Your opponent says that the particular animal in question cannot feel pain from the testing done to him, and so this testing is justified since it causes no harm. If one has broad sympathy, one has determined that this is the basis for the opposing argument-lack of pain. This is what is apparently important to your opponent. So now, rather than argue a different point, if you can show a study that claims that this particular animal might feel pain, you are addressing the specific argument made by your opponent. Since he has already tacitly suggested that a lack of pain is justification for these animal experiments, it follows, by extension, and the presence of pain is the opposite and is cause to cease these tests. You have used your opponent’s argument against him, due to your ability to recognize what part of his argument is the most critical. At this point, he may move on to a different argument justifying the testing, but he has exposed himself to you since most people will lead off with their best argument and be forced to use less convincing one’s subsequently. My favorite way of expressing this is what I call the “your mother’s a whore”, tactic. When someone is not well prepared to make an argument or all of their arguments have been dispelled by logic, they revert to an ad hominem argument and say, “Well, I don’t care what you say anyway. And your mother’s a whore”. This tends to be the tactic used by Donald Trump quite often. When he runs out of defense of his position, he attacks his opponent personally, and smugly. It reveals more about him than his opponent. Donald Trump displays an utter lack of broad sympathy toward anyone who would oppose him.
This is true in other aspects of life as well. Although there are times when we simply can’t imagine where another person got their ideas, it is often a lack of broad sympathy on our part, not necessarily their ignorance of the subject. It helps to distinguish between those who have opinions with little or no substance, and those who have thoughtful, reasoned, defensible attitudes and are comfortable expressing them without personal attacks.