Less than two weeks ago, LeBron James and Kevin Durant were in an interview with Cari Champion from ESPN, in which LeBron criticized Donald Trump. According to a Feb. 19 NPR article, Laura Ingraham, a pundit for Fox News, responded to James’ comments by saying, among other things, “shut up and dribble,” and “must they run their mouths?” 

The immediate controversy drawn was to the racial context, given that James is an African American professional athlete, and Ingraham is a white woman. This debate, regardless of its propensity to incite indignation, is ultimately tangential to the core issue that is besieging American discourse from all sides. There is an underlying lack of empathy and compassion in any contemporary debate. 

Both sides claim to be in pursuit of upholding their own brand of justice or righteousness against the profligate masses. The profligate masses can be racists, homophobes, liberal elites, conservatives or any arbitrary group of people who have been judged by society. There are few fruitful debates about race in America’s public sphere because there is an underlying lack of empathy between each side, the idea of racism being present completely terminates any discourse, and the two of these combine to create a world where people are too focused on how messages make them feel instead of making judgments based on facts.

Racism is a symptom of the social construct called  race. Like all social constructs, race, and subsequently racism, are present where people think they are. A statement is ultimately racist because someone thinks it is. Given the superfluous nature of these social constructs, we ought not defer to them for any sort of moral justification or vilification of individuals or their statements. Racist comments are not virulent solely on the grounds of the adverse reaction of the recipient, because sometimes there is no recipient. Often times these discussions are held in private, with people that look like us and walk around the world agreeing with our own conceptions of what’s right and wrong. The issue is that people are only held culpable when these discussions are publicized and consequently think that what is said behind closed doors does not matter. This is a flawed ideology that society passes down.

A better world is one where all people acknowledge both the greatness and the failures within each other, because when the label of “racist” is placed on someone, all fruitful discussion stops. This is also where our discourse as Americans has to evolve. The mention of the word “racist” incites a false ultimatum. Either the defendants vehemently defend themselves from the attack and drag the conversation into the mud, or they simply ignore the accusation altogether. The former happened in this instance, as Ingraham pointed to a book she wrote 15 years prior entitled “Shut Up & Sing,” according to the same NPR article. This aside is irrelevant, a red herring to escape the label of “racist.” It is a fallacy to think that one can disprove the way that someone else feels based on evidence. Furthermore, it is impossible to delegitimize anyone’s perceptions of the world around them because every person sees the world through their unique lens, and that is the beauty of a democratic society.

Ingraham’s veil of poise and intelligence belies the same supremacist ideals that continue to fracture civil discourse across this entire country. What she said was wrong not because James is black and she is white. The fact of the matter is that it is antithetical to the idea of democracy to opt to silence one’s opposition as opposed to entering into a formal debate. The underlying problem is that anyone in America feels that any opinion ought be discounted or discredited based on an arbitrary matrix of superiority. There is no hierarchy in logic, there are no gradients in factual evidence. All that it takes to prove someone wrong is to lay the factual evidence before them. Had James brought up the 1500 factory workers in Carrier plants in Indiana that were laid off during the Trump Presidency, or the additional 1.3 percent of Americans left uninsured in the wake of the abolition of the Affordable Care Act, this would have been a different debate. Regardless of James’ given reasons for making his statement, any legitimate critique ought to defer to factual evidence to either support or deny his claims.

James faces a different set of obligations, all of which are derived from himself. The pervasive issue in American history, in all places, at all times is that some narratives can be ignored. Without leadership, coherence, and public figures to voice these narratives, injustices continue in an endless cycle. When we as Americans look back at Jim Crow laws, at America’s tentativeness in ending the Holocaust, at laws prohibiting Chinese immigrants from buying homes, we question why these injustices pervaded. The answer is because the wronged had no voices. That is where James, for better or for worse, has taken a stance. His refusal to stay silent and his conviction in his opinions in the face of derogation is an inspiration. In an age where so few African-Americans have attained fame to such a degree outside of athletics or entertainment, it is nonetheless paramount that this narrative be brought to the attention of the public. His struggle echoes that of so many African-Americans striving for excellence in their fields despite lower expectations of them and the knowledge that even when they are successful, their excellence may still be discredited. James has made the choice to stop predicating the validity of his sentiments on their reception and to voice his mind about what he believes, because his responsibility is not to speak for himself, but rather for all the people whose voices would not ever have been heard.

The solution here is for America as a country and Americans as individuals to take a step back. We need to understand that we are not so far removed from the struggles of our compatriots, and the best way to do this is by opening up the discussion. Entering into earnest, awkward, and contentious debates with one another allows us to relate to each other. Regardless of how much disrespect a person may have for an argument, democratic institutions like this great country hold axiomatic the value of the individual. In the end, that is all that society is. We all live in our own worlds, and the burden laid on each of us is to recognize that we are not unique in our selfishness, and that we must strive to be more compassionate for others. In the end, acceptance, empathy and compassion are mutual ventures that hold us all together.