On The Subject Of Cultivating Empathy

Predictably, Facebook is pretty much a shit-show after last night.

Of course, that’s a glimpse of the privilege I possess, isn’t it? That for me, Facebook is a failed, unreal, intangible place — and I can turn it off, or I can filter out the conversation and look at funny Buzzfeed articles instead, or I can wall myself off and post pictures of my kid and my dog. Ferguson, though, isn’t like that. The rest of the real world isn’t like that. Some folks — again, not me, because I’m white and have a little money — are in the thick of it. They live the things we’re arguing about on Facebook and Twitter and — well, I guess Google-Plus?

(Is that even a thing anymore?)

Just the same, I wanna talk about the response to all of this.

Because that shit-show on Facebook has a way of radiating outward — it’s got energy, it has a cascade effect. It both reflects the world outside it like a mirror that shows the truth and like a mirror that  — as mirrors do — bounce an image back into the world for all to see.

What I’m seeing on Facebook is a startling lack of empathy.

It’s so bad I’m surprised people aren’t saying of the rioters or the family, “Just let them eat cake!”

I’m seeing a lot of “what kinds of animals would burn down their town,” or, “see, this is how those people act.” (Pro-tip: calling them ‘animals’ and ‘those people’ is you being racist and shitty.) Or it goes back to the case itself, making commentary on Michael Brown — “Well, he punched a cop.” Or it attempts some kind of equivalency (“Both sides are really to blame, here,” as if one side doesn’t have a whole lot of power compared to the other side). Someone on FB called the townsfolk “domestic terrorists” for rioting, which is, by the way, super fucked up.

Where is the empathy?

I want you to think about it. I want you to imagine being a family who lost their unarmed son in a police shooting. I want you to imagine being in a town full of such families — families who know that they are without power, that at any time one of their own could get shot by a cop a half-a-dozen times and nobody will even send that to trial. (Because, of course, those determining its fitness for trial are all part of the same system of power to which you do not belong.) Imagine that kind of frustration. Imagine being someone who has long existed in a power vacuum like that — lot of other folks were born outside in the world and you and your friends and your family were born in a metaphorical barrel and it’s damn hard to get out of that barrel, because you have walls in place that other people don’t have. You’re asked to climb out of a barrel and clamber over walls that other people don’t even know exist. Imagine being part of a history of this sort of thing, that goes back not just decades but mere hours — an old wound that will seemingly never heal.

Okay, take most of that away and still distill it down to — the police shot your unarmed son, and nobody is going to be called to the mat for it. I mean, take away the race component, take away the “what was the evidence” component, just pretend you’re playing make-believe like a kid and you actually have to imagine someone shooting your child, someone you love and who is your life, and what is your response? Do you shrug and say, “Oh well?” Do you become immediately and comfortably resigned to it?

Me, I’d wanna burn the world down.

And I’d want everyone who was my friends, my family, my neighbors, to do the same.

You kill my kid and — god, just thinking about it is a horror movie to me. The anger I feel at the imagined event is raw, pure, and only a fraction of what I’d feel if it really happened. I mean, fuck, they kill my dog and I’ll be ready to flip cars and set fires.

Just have a little empathy.

Think before you speak.

Try to feel before you speak.

Empathy is key. Empathy is itself a privilege — because we imagine ourselves inside a situation rather than, y’know, actually being inside the situation. But it is one way to use privilege well. To close yourself off from empathy is cruel to others and, honestly, bad for yourself. And if too many people refuse to possess empathy and demonstrate it — then it’s bad for the whole damn country.

(It’s doubly surprising to me when folks who identify as Christian don’t demonstrate empathy. I mean, if you had to distill Jesus’ platform down, it was a whole lot of, “But what about these poor motherfuckers over here? Who’s helping them?”)

Now, surely someone will say, well, I have empathy for the cops. And you should. Being a cop is fucking hard. And it just got a whole lot harder. But remember: the cops are the ones with the guns. They’re the ones with the training to deal with this stuff. (And increasingly they’re the ones with high-test military equipment that they are not trained to handle.) The cops’ jobs didn’t just get harder because of Mike Brown. The cops’ jobs just got harder because of Darren Wilson and because of Bob McCulloch.

I’m not saying you need to have a legal opinion on the case.

But I do ask that you do better. Be kinder. Don’t just think — “Well, to play Devil’s advocate.” Actually try to feel. Imagine. Demonstrate compassion. Cultivate your empathy. And it’s not just with this one thing, with Ferguson and Mike Brown. It’s in all the things. Immigration? “Those people” want to be here for the same reason you want to be here, so maybe don’t be so quick to judge because probably you’d do the same fucking thing. Rape culture? Just a passing glimpse at rape stats is enough to chill your blood. Try to examine where the power is. Try to see how power travels — and how it doesn’t travel. Try to feel for those who have less of it than you. Try to imagine what that’s like — you’re not the rat in the cage who chooses when he gets a food pellet. You’re the rat who gets random shocks.

This isn’t about agreeing and disagreeing, it’s about privilege and empathy.

Use your privilege, and find some empathy.

And then go take it to Facebook.

(Or to your dinner tables at Thanksgiving — because I cannot imagine how some dinners will go on this upcoming Turkey Day. But even that, a privilege — we can worry about family fights at the table instead of riots and cop shootings.)

Try to be nicer, okay?

Is that such a weird request?

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