On the cold, rainy day of April 4th, I along with a fellow Honors Student, Sophie, sat down around a table with mutual acquaintances living in the Bowling Green area for a traditional Kentucky kitchen table dinner. Inside the college house located on Chestnut Street we devoured cheesy pizza, salty chips, and cold soft drinks and discussed what citizenship meant to us in individual and communal terms. Our guest list was comprised of WKU students with varying geographical, political, social, and economic backgrounds. First on the guest list was Harper. Harper is a highly involved sophomore on WKU’s campus from rural eastern Kentucky. She identifies herself as a liberal democrat. She finds most of her interests lie in politics and legal processes. Next, we have Kaitlyn. Kaitlyn is a junior student at WKU that is from the western Kentucky area. She is heavily involved within her greek organization. She describes herself as someone who does not know a lot about political affairs but would consider herself as a liberal democrat. Her friend, Hayley, was also in attendance. Hayley is from the same small town as Kaitlyn. Hayley is a transfer student that is not greek and comes from a strict, religious household and recognizes herself as someone with republican leanings. Our last guest being Ashton. Ashton is a senior at WKU. She is from Owen County, Kentucky. She describes herself as huge animal lover and someone who has great interests in racial equality and votes primarily for the republican party.
To begin our night, we started our discussion with the question “Beyond voting, paying taxes, and following laws, what does citizenship mean to you?”. Harper responded, “Helping your fellow man”. Hayley agreed with Harper by stating, “I agree with Harper, it just about fostering the spirt of community and helping out one another”. The rest of the group agreed, with Ashton adding, “It is about being supportive of your fellow neighbors”. These statements were the vehicle for our conversations for the entirety of the evening. Prior to our dinner, the consensus among the girls was that they had never considered what citizenship meant. Oddly, though, as we chatted away eating greasy pizza I found that all of them had a stake in politics and were exemplary citizens. Accompanied with my realization I uncovered that their passions on citizenship resided with the matters that were attached to their empathetic feelings.
The article The Baby in the Well written by Paul Bloom was presented in our Honors course. This article provided substance to our class discussions on empathy’s relationship to our community. Bloom’s analysis of empathy provided highlights on the dialogue on the inner role of empathy and its significances in our modern society. Specifically, Bloom looks at what causes us to have more empathetic feelings on particular subjects weighed against other subjects. He uses multiple cases to support his examination of empathy. For example, he looks at Baby Jessica, the 18-month year old that fell down a narrow well in Texas during the 80s, and a plethora of other cases, for instance the disappearance of Natalee Holloway, to distinguish what generates the human feeling of empathy. He concludes that “The key to engaging empathy is what has been called “the identifiable victim effect.”” (PG 3). In essence, he argues that when we can identify a specific victim, we can better connect with their story and have empathy.
As we chatted away through the night I kept finding myself referencing Bloom’s argument. Case in point, Hayley was heavily empathetic about the cost of healthcare and as a result I found that in any of our discussions about our community she referenced the personal struggles her family had with affording the costly treatment of her mother’s diabetes. She had an identifiable victim and as a result she could find a deep, empathetic connection. By fostering empathy on a particular subject, she was more willing to speak on the issue as a citizen and bring awareness to the community around her, overall a more civically engaged citizen.
This theme of empathy’s relationship with citizenship was sewed throughout the night’s conversations. When the discussion of racial equality was brought to our dinner table. Ashton referenced the multiple service trips she had made with her church and how that brought awareness to the differences of social, political, and economic treatment that members of different races experienced. All of us listened intently to each other as we individually spoke on racial equality. Soon, after a quick glance at the clock and empty potato chip bowls, I realized we had spent a large portion of our dinner openly deliberating on race relations within our community.
After our dinner, Harper, noted that she was exceptional fond of our dinner as she can rarely find the time in her strenuous student schedule to have such in depth conversations on issues, like race, that she sees within her community with her peers. This dinner was a unique opportunity for myself and the other members of our dinner to express our deeply held convictions on the relationship of oneself and citizenship.
From an outside perspective, I could identify that the household dynamic between our dinner participants was highly civic. Their house entertained daily, assigned chores, all roommates had sincere relationships with each other, were cognizant on each other’s life happenings, and generally the house fostered an inclusive and effectual environment of living. There consensus on the role of citizenship allowed for such a highly civic household. By analyzing the nature of their home, I was able to uncover that by living in such a highly civic home that they were better able to understand the viewpoints of others. Furthermore, understanding the context of their answers I better understood why they viewed citizenship the way they did.
As our cheese pizza began to congeal and our sodas became flat we concluded our dinner. After reflection on the night I shared my finding with two of the dinner participants, Harper and Kaitlyn, and explained to them my take on our dinner. We agreed that it was refreshing to see such a variation of mindsets and viewpoints. We also agreed that talking about these issues in such an informal environment allowed for respectful conversations that made us feel better about the future. Who would have ever thought insightful conversations were hidden underneath pizzas and kitchen tables?