January 26, 2022

Guest Room | Novak Djokovic and the Case for a Radical Empathy

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Novak Djokovic doesn’t care about your rules. 

The Serbian tennis star, who was detained in Australia and ultimately barred from entry into the Australian Open, is the latest high-profile athlete to find himself at the heart of a culture war firestorm over vaccine denialism. The media has shouted him down for two weeks, his fellow anti-vaxxers for two years, and it seems that here we find ourselves stuck. 

Such dramas, captivating as they may be, have brought us no closer to mending our bitter political divides. The antidote to our insufferable culture war is dreadfully boring: empathy. But, crucially, the ability to express it need not mean sacrificing our ideals to political moderation. 

Cornell promises that its students can usher in a better world in the face of cultural and political strife. Tell that to a first-week freshman and their eyes will sparkle. Tell that to a senior and they’ll laugh in your face. 

But even as our culture of ironic detachment washes over campus, hope remains alive and well, albeit in the loneliest corners. I found mine in the sea-green walls lining the basement of a Gothic chapel, and no, it wasn’t through a religious service. It was through the undergraduate student training for Cornell’s Empathy, Assistance and Referral Service (EARS).

EARS has a near fifty-year history of training students as anonymous, volunteer peer counselors who provide a walk-in and call-in service to anyone within the Cornell community. Through its informal counseling service and workshop trainings, EARS has sought to fill the gap left by months-long wait times at Cornell Health, fostering a warmer campus culture at a school that can feel oh so cold. 

EARS gave me so much. But the thing that will stick with me the most from training is also the simplest — the power of validation. The conventional advice tells us we should engage with people we disagree with and practice active listening, but what next after that? 

The center-left, with Mr. Empathy™ Joe Biden at the helm, presents political moderation as the solution. The “identity politics” wing rejects this centrism, but chucks out empathy along with it. Both sides operate under the logic that one’s political views and one’s level of empathy for the other side should be in lockstep. This is a fatal mistake. 

EARS showed me, alternatively, that to validate the feelings of another person is not to compromise your own beliefs. In fact, it’s in validating that politics are emotional that we put democracy into practice. Which brings me back to the case of Novak Djokovic. 

I grew up watching Djokovic score sliding two-handed-backhand returns, with his signature taunts to the crowd and roaring celebrations in victory. He’s always possessed a ruggedness that cut through the aristocratic culture of the sport, and he’s duly obliged to play the villain as penance. 

It was my father who brought a love of tennis into the family, and as the son of Croatian immigrants — though mortal rivalry against Serbs was also on the cards given historic conflicts — the shared heritage of Yugoslavian origins proved strong enough to lure in his, and my own, support. When Djokovic finds himself in controversy, and over the years there’s been plenty, I find myself clicking my tongue in disapproval like my Croatian grandmother would.

But, truthfully, when I look to Djokovic, I see qualities that I also find in my father, my relatives, myself. I see a man who discovers passion and intensity in sport, who resists conformity, who is deeply skeptical. I see someone whose lineage traces back to the Balkan powder keg and whose personal philosophy is borne of that rocky history. And so, even as he champions a libertarian and pseudoscientific worldview that aggravates me to the point of wanting to rip my hair out, what I feel for him could hardly be called hatred.

Less than half of the entire population of Serbia has received even one dose of the vaccine. Rates across all of Eastern Europe, similarly, sit at worrying lows. And the reason is no mystery: a history of political instability that’s produced mass public distrust. To understand this situation as anything but the work of history is, in its own way, antithetical to academic consensus. That doesn’t exempt Djokovic or anyone else from criticism – it simply offers us a path forward that doesn’t involve childish blame games. 

Perhaps my sympathies will fade as Djokovic’s politics find an even greater stage. The incident in Australia stoked considerable nationalist fervor among Serbs, most notably from Serbian President Aleksandar Vučic. Djokovic himself may be eyeing future political office in his home country, where he is celebrated as a god-like figure. The thought is deeply concerning, but today, what I feel for him above all else is a sense of shared humanity — twisted, flawed humanity.

In our current period of crisis, the recurring debate happening left of center weighs offensive and defensive approaches — in other words, idealism and pragmatism. But for the young radicals of the world, it often feels like we’re losing the last set of the match five to nothing. It often feels like idealism isn’t an optional choice — it is quite literally the last and only hope. And so we attack the net.

The balancing act that we must perform is not one of negotiated center politics, but rather of holding up bold political ideals and empathy at once. We must have the courage to stand up for justice as well as the humility to practice validation. 

To put this into action is damn hard — I write this column to remind myself of this lesson, not to lecture — but it appears that we have no alternative.

When it’s said that the truth is always somewhere in the middle, that doesn’t literally mean the political center. Perhaps it’s useful to instead imagine some emotional midpoint where shared humanity can be found and greater fundamental truths revealed. Only empathy can guide us toward that middle, which invariably points us to a radical reimagination of society. 

In light of this, the University’s shuttering of EARS’ peer counseling service constitutes a tragic loss. But EARS has lived on; this community service has adapted its model and will be offering new programs such as Peer Mentoring and Empathy Chairs to continue its outreach efforts across Cornell’s campus.

Where big institutions fail, students are willing to start stepping up. Stronger policy is, of course, the end goal. But until then, we will keep fighting, with empathy, in the absence of any other conscionable choice.

John Monkovic ‘24 is a student in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. He served as multimedia editor for the 138th editorial board. Guest Room runs periodically throughout the semester. Comments can be sent to [email protected].

Correction: the initial version of this article misstated the name of the organization mentioned; it is Empathy, Assistance and Referral Service, not Empathy and Referral Service. EARS also has a new service model that has been clarified in the article.