In many ways, everyone who is different from us is a bewildering, inexplicable enigma. They arbitrarily hate the things we like and like the things we hate, and behave in ways we can't predict. That makes us hate them a little. We end up concluding that these people (members of the opposite sex, opposing political party, owners of a rival video game system) are just one-dimensional stock characters placed as obstacles or foils in the movie that is our life.
This has created a society that is almost sitcomlike in its huge, but simple, misunderstandings. It would be hilarious if the results weren't so tragic, and it's all due to the fact that we not only do not understand each other, but don't even try. That's because ...
At some point after 9/11 when things had calmed down just a bit, some progressive guest on a news show was the first to say, "We need to understand why these people hate us." This person was immediately drowned out by a chorus of flag-pin-wearing pundits screaming, "The only thing we need to 'understand' about these maniacs is where to aim our cruise missiles! Now is no time to coddle terrorists, hippie!" You get the same reaction if you say you want to "understand" the motives of a spree killer or rapist, as if understanding bad guys is the same as giving in to them.
Somehow the idea has taken hold that understanding somebody you hate only benefits them, as if the only end goal is to be more sympathetic to the racist or terrorist or Wall Street crook or Star Wars prequel fan. Some people think that it's really about giving the awful people a chance to convince us they're not so bad.
We're afraid that trying to understand a terrorist opens the door for us having to say that blowing up civilians really isn't that bad, or understanding a criminal means we have to excuse all his crimes because he had a bad childhood. That is silly. Understanding is just about gaining knowledge. Once you've gained that knowledge, you can decide what to do with it. This includes using that knowledge to defeat them, if that's what the situation calls for. It applies to terrorists or criminals or aggressive co-workers or Internet trolls. You can't fight what you don't understand.
As a wise man once said, "In order to trap him, he must become him."
Everyone quotes this wrong.
Sometimes you need to metaphorically undergo surgery to replace your face with your enemy's face, and (also metaphorically) infiltrate a prison and talk to your enemy's brother in order to find out where the metaphorical bomb is. You don't have to learn any lesson about how he's "really not that bad," and quite likely will learn he's even worse than you thought, murdering all your co-workers and displaying a creepy obsession with peaches.
I'm not going to dive into the debate about whether torture is effective, but I will say that interrogators have "broken" al-Qaida operatives with gestures as simple as bringing sugar-free cookies to a diabetic or finding a suspect's childhood nickname and calling him by it. One link in the chain to capturing al-Qaida's top guy in Iraq involved an American interrogator taking the time to find out why one imam was so pissed at Americans and then just saying sorry.
More effective than waterboarding?
If you're not in the habit of defusing bombs, in daily life you can still figure out what annoying people (salesmen, clingy friends, prickly co-workers) want so you can convince them you don't have it and get them to go away. For example, if you understand what kind of attention a certain type of Internet troll is looking for, you can make sure they don't get it, and often they'll move on to a new target.
So yeah, sometimes understanding other people helps them out, but it always helps you out, because knowledge, power, all that. You can learn to be nicer and more sympathetic to them, or you can learn how to push their buttons to get what you want. That's up to you, but you'll never even get that choice until you get through step one and try to understand them.
"But wait," you might think. "Isn't that exactly what we're supposed to do? Isn't it a good thing?" The problem, as I see it, is it only gets you halfway there. Too often you put yourself in someone else's shoes -- but you stay you. You basically Quantum Leap yourself into someone else's situation with all your knowledge and emotional resources.
In this awful, well-meaning article, a middle-aged white writer talks about what he would do if he were a poor black kid, and about how he would take advantage of all the resources and options available to poor black kids who have the memories and knowledge of a middle-aged white guy implanted into their brains.
Which probably torpedoes their basketball prospects.
Unfortunately, while we have the technology to surgically swap the face of a cop with that of a criminal, we don't yet have the technology to implant memories into kids' brains. And good luck getting Congress to fund that kind of procedure for inner city kids anyway.
On top of magically knowing how to hit up accounting and architecture firms for cheap or free computers and instinctively understanding all the specific technical and scientific jargon in the research papers he wants these kids to look up, the writer has also been able to carry along his free time and stable living situation when he Quantum Leaped into their bodies, which I'm pretty sure goes against the rules of the show.
Does the house have to do a good deed before it can leap, too?
People in a different economic class aren't just basically you, in a different zip code, with crappier stuff. "Imagine all the stuff I have is smaller and crappier and I live in a bad neighborhood" isn't going to cut it.
Having less money doesn't just mean they can't buy a computer; sometimes it means they don't have time to use any computer because they are working or running the household every non-school hour. And less money doesn't just mean a smaller house; sometimes it means getting evicted every few months because you don't have enough money to really rent anything. Good luck keeping your ISP when you can't even keep your apartment.
"Have you tried browsing Google Scholar?"
Instead of learning two or three facts about people in a different situation and trying to fill in the rest by picturing ourselves if those two or three facts were true about us, you get a lot further much faster by just putting yourself away for a bit and maybe asking, or reading about, what a typical day for the other person is like.
If you really want to know what it's like for someone else, you have to be able to picture them in their shoes. Not you.