Obama Uses 'To Kill A Mockingbird' To Remind Americans Of The Importance Of Empathy

U.S. President Barack Obama arrives to deliver his farewell address in Chicago, Illinois, U.S., January 10, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
U.S. President Barack Obama arrives to deliver his farewell address in Chicago, Illinois, U.S., January 10, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
Jonathan Ernst / Reuters

President Barack Obama in his farewell address to the nation Tuesday argued that empathy for those who are different is an essential pillar of democracy.

Quoting one of American literature's most famous characters, Atticus Finch from "To Kill a Mockingbird," Obama urged Americans to "start with the premise that each of our fellow citizens loves this country just as much as we do; that they value hard work and family like we do."

He asserted that fighting racism and bigotry requires both political and social change.

"Laws alone won't be enough. Hearts must change," he said. "If our democracy is to work in this increasingly diverse nation, each one of us must try to heed the advice of one of the great characters in American fiction, Atticus Finch, who said, 'You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view ... until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.'"

"For blacks and other minorities, it means tying our own struggles for justice to the challenges that a lot of people in this country face ― the refugee, the immigrant, the rural poor, the transgender American, and also the middle-aged white man who from the outside may seem like he's got all the advantages, but who's seen his world upended by economic, cultural and technological change," he continued.

But Obama said the onus is equally on white and native-born Americans to understand the discrimination faced by minorities and immigrants, both historically and in the present day ― delivering an indirect rebuttal to President-elect Donald Trump, who ran a campaign predicated on divisiveness and fear-mongering against such groups.

"For white Americans, it means acknowledging that the effects of slavery and Jim Crow didn't suddenly vanish in the '60s; that when minority groups voice discontent, they're not just engaging in reverse racism or practicing political correctness; that when they wage peaceful protest, they're not demanding special treatment, but the equal treatment our Founders promised," Obama said.

"For native-born Americans, it means reminding ourselves that the stereotypes about immigrants today were said, almost word for word, about the Irish, Italians and Poles. America wasn't weakened by the presence of these newcomers; they embraced this nation's creed, and it was strengthened."

Obama noted that political polarization and social stratification prevents this type of common understanding.

"For too many of us, it's become safer to retreat into our own bubbles, whether in our neighborhoods or college campuses or places of worship or our social media feeds, surrounded by people who look like us and share the same political outlook and never challenge our assumptions," he said. "The rise of naked partisanship, increasing economic and regional stratification, the splintering of our media into a channel for every taste ― all this makes this great sorting seem natural, even inevitable. And increasingly, we become so secure in our bubbles that we accept only information, whether true or not, that fits our opinions, instead of basing our opinions on the evidence that's out there."