The Center for Building a Culture of Empathy

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Obama Video Clips > Oprah Talks to Barack Obama
The Oprah Magazine  |  November 01, 2004

Page 6

Oprah: I think you're uniquely situated at this time. You know what? When I went to Africa with Christmas gifts, my prime goal was to show African children as happy and responsive and loving so that people could see, "Oh, these children are just like my children." When people see children with distended bellies and flies on their eyes, they block it out and don't relate. When I got an e-mail from a white South African lady saying, "For the first time, I realize these children have birthdays," I thought, "We won."

Barack: That's great. I often say we've got a budget deficit that's important, we've got a trade deficit that's critical, but what I worry about most is our empathy deficit. When I speak to students, I tell them that one of the most important things we can do is to look through somebody else's eyes. People like bin Laden are missing that sense of empathy. That's why they can think of the people in the World Trade Center as abstractions. They can just crash a plane into them and not even consider, "How would I feel if my child were in there?"

Oprah: We Americans also suffer from an empathy deficit, because we often feel that the woman in Bosnia or Afghanistan who loses her child is somehow different from us.

Barack: They become abstractions.

Oprah: Would you define what you're doing as a new kind of politics? I don't consider myself political, and I seldom interview politicians. So when I decided to talk with you, people around me were like, "What's happened to you?" I said, "I think this is beyond and above politics." It feels like something new.

Page 7

Barack: When I speak, the first thing I confront is people's cynicism. I understand it. It seems like politics is a business and not a mission. Some of our leaders have been long on rhetoric, short on substance—power is always trumping principle. That's why we withdraw into our private worlds and lives, and we think politics can't address the things that are most important to us. But the civil rights movement was a political movement. The movement to give women the vote was political. We are all connected as one people, and our mutual obligations have to express themselves not only in our families, not only in our churches, not only in our synagogues and mosques, but in our government, too.

Oprah: How do you actually get people to be more empathetic?

Barack: Your story about South Africa was terrific. Images, actions, and stories always speak the loudest. That's why I see my book as part of my politics. And I'll write more books. Policy has to be guided by facts, but to move people you have to tell stories.

Page 9
Barack: Those slash-and-burn tactics have become the custom in Washington politics. But we will not play that game. People don't want to hear folks shouting at each other and trying to score political points. They want to solve problems. I'm determined to disagree with people without being disagreeable. That's part of the empathy. Empathy doesn't just extend to cute little kids. You have to have empathy when you're talking to some guy who doesn't like black people.

There's a level of viciousness in politics because power is at stake. Fortunately, most of my past mistakes are ones that people already know about. That's one of the nice things about writing a book.