On Civil Discourse in Online Forums: Learning From Immigrant Youth

06/16/2010 06:55 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

On-line forums are a new space for the public sharing of opinions. There are few established forms of etiquette, as the responses to my two previous blogs would suggest. The aim of the May 21 essay -- an appeal to the hearts of readers for empathy toward the children of immigrants -- was dismissed by most respondents, and ridiculed by some.

The first person to respond referred to immigrant children by using the dehumanizing pronoun "it." Most followed with cold detachment and no serious engagement with my views, much less with the perspectives and experiences of immigrants. They used my blog to launch their own positions on immigration issues, and didn't seem to really hear what I had said. The notion of empathy was scoffed, or treated as if it's a bad word.

Certainly, I don't expect everyone to agree with me on this or any other issue. But are there ways to have healthy debates in which we state our positions firmly while opening ourselves to the perspectives of others? What would it mean to begin by trying to understand others' views?

Perhaps we can learn from the immigrant youth about really listening, hearing, and understanding others' ideas.

For more than a decade I have researched the work that the children of immigrants do as a language and culture brokers. I have seen children negotiate between their family members and doctors, lawyers, teachers, store clerks, and more. In doing this work children display what I call "trans-cultural dispositions" -- the capacity to understand the perspectives of people with life experiences different from their own, and to adapt their own behavior in culturally sensitive ways. Many of these young people also show high degrees of empathy for others.

To be open to the perspectives of others doesn't mean that we have to agree with them; it just means that before staking our own positions we listen and seek to understand. Interpreters have to understand others' perspectives if they are to translate effectively.

Let's see if I can practice what I preach.

I understand that many respondents do not agree with me when I suggest that immigrants, who may have broken the law to come here, should be treated with dignity and respect. These bloggers hold parents responsible for their children, not the state. Some think that because I am speaking up for the rights of undocumented children, I am somehow not concerned about other children, other people, or other issues. Underneath most of the comments, I heard a good deal of anger, and a variety of reasons for the fear and resentment that these readers feel toward immigrants who broke the law to enter this country.

Recently I heard a presentation by Jack Kornfield, author of The Wise Heart: A Guide to Buddhist Psychology. Kornfield talks about opening our hearts to the experiences of others, and the transformative power of compassion. We don't know what others have experienced or what has led them to the beliefs that they hold or the actions that they take. But if we open our hearts - and empathize - we may open our minds. This may not lead us to easy answers on issues like immigration reform, but it may make us a kinder and more compassionate nation.

We need wise hearts on all sides of the political spectrum, as we engage with the thorny issues of our day. When, after all, did empathy become a bad word? The transcultural dispositions that immigrant youth cultivate from their life experiences would serve all of us well in the increasingly interconnected, globalized world in which we live.