The Trappings of Empathy
I had a hero growing up. He never really came to mind in that context, but I always looked up to the way he moved through his world. He was a natural if reluctant leader. He was brilliant. He felt lonely, isolated, like he never fit in anywhere. He faced incredible challenges with determination and creativity and found novel solutions to seemingly impossible scenarios.
He also committed mass genocide (Well, technically xenocide?) His name: Ender Wiggin
Ender, if you don’t already know, is a character in the Ender’s Game series. The first book drops us into a future where we are well into a war with an insect-based alien species, and they have the upper hand. Earth has cast aside (most of) its intra-species fighting to band together against a common enemy. The world we’re dropped into is that of a children’s military training facility.
It may be more than obvious at this point but I’m spoiling this 40 year old book plot. Ender’s admitted to the training program and naturally but reluctantly rises to lead his cohort of child warriors-in-training. They are given a “final exam” simulation which is to command a fleet of ships against an impossible armada of alien attackers. Ender notices the aliens are clustering around a planet, so he creates a scenario to destroy the planet at the expense of a bunch of other ships. Ender delivers the final blow, the simulation goes dark. And then the room full of observing adults erupts into applause. Turns out, Ender was commanding an actual fleet, and actually destroyed the home planet of Earth’s common enemy, all without realizing it. Oh, and the fleets he was commanding and sent to their deaths in all those other sims they were training on? ALL REAL. This child assassin absolutely wrought havoc on a whole race. This, uh, took a toll… But it also brought peace from alien threat (and allowed humanity to resume destroying each other, naturally). So he saved the day?
In subsequent stories he leaves earth and inserts himself in far more high stakes interspecies hijinx. It’s honestly a phenomenal series, and again, for my whole adolescence this character was my hero.
And then I did a little reading about Orson Scott Card.
Ugh. This fucking guy.
The first essay I read by him was a fairly full-throated endorsement of eugenics. Funny enough I can’t seem to find it on today’s internet (good job Orson Scott Card’s PR Team!) but his fiction is riddled with examples of societies that practiced eugenics and just ended up so great you guys.
I also remember some fairly anti-semetic stuff in there too… (seriously, nice job search scrubbers!) But his comments on Obama being likeable only because he “talked like a white man” are still there. His chest-beating homophobic essays are still there.
Card is the subject of so many think-pieces about separating the art from the artist, and the subject of so many blogs about how he ruined people’s childhoods. This blog isn’t really about that.
Because I can’t quit Ender.
So now you must be asking yourself “wait… why do you give Ender a pass for mass murder?” Great question rhetorical straw-man! Because he didn’t think he was pulling a real trigger? Because I know Ender is just a character? Because no matter what’s in their hearts and minds we have to honor the cold brutality of human nature in situations of extreme stress? Wait, when did I start talking about police?
OK one more point on art v. artist. Just to be totally clear I am not defending or excusing human behaviors nor is anyone immune from consequences for violating our social contracts. I can’t recommend you buy or financially support any of the Orson Scott Cards or Michael Jacksons or Bill Cosbys or Harvey Weinsteins or Doctor Dres or Richard Wagners or James Browns or Jay-Zs or Woody Allens or Afrika Bambaataas or Kevin Spaceys or Marlon Brandos of this world. But, I mean, you can pirate that shit? I guess my point is I believe the art still has meaning and value even if we eventually throw away the artist. And as it’s art, I welcome your disagreement.
Listen, this reflection isn’t really about police brutality either.
It’s about why talking about police brutality is so difficult.
Police are, essentially, a function of what we lose as individuals when we choose to live in a society.
In nature, a threat to your safety or life must be defended and sometimes violently, BY YOU, otherwise you can be injured or killed. Living in a society, we have established rules agreeing, collectively, to defend against larger threats with state-sponsored agencies, and to eliminate the smaller threats by, y’know, helping each other or minding our own business.
Subsequently, the state holds the monopoly on perpetration of violence, and is tasked to minimize violence. The ideal is that the presence of police ensures there will be peace.
Of course, humans are animals. We frequently ignore that our behaviors tie to our “baser instincts” aka all the tools that shaped our brains and reflexes over eons to get us to be this apex of biological engineering.
All attempts at inserting layers of civility and ‘society’ fall apart in moments of ‘primal distress’ aka threats to our direct health or safety. We’ve delegated these responses to state-sponsored agencies like the police, so we’ve put ourselves in a situation where we feel ‘defenseless’ in the moment.
Enter the personal defense/firearms industry, flooding the US with weapons.
The ubiquitous presence of guns dissolves the concept of safety in its entirety. It has increased the odds that your average human interaction is an armed human interaction. Logically, this should (and arguably does) reduce conflict. But it makes each conflict much more potentially deadly.
A police officer’s job in its ideal is to defuse/mediate these conflicts. However, police are people, and people behave as people behave. And when you’re talking about a conflict that includes a police officer, the interaction is 100% an armed interaction, so the likelihood of this interaction turning deadly shoots up dramatically.
Now here’s where it gets complicated… Sure, I’m not talking about how American police stations were founded or their purpose of catching runaway slaves. I’m not mentioning the disproportionate amount of policing that’s done in communities of color or lower income communities (which are FREQUENTLY correlated), or how those communities were intentionally formed on a systemic level through red-lining practices.
BUT, I’m meeting the police where they are today.
I’m seeing them as people. I’m hearing their challenges.
It’s why I think defunding police departments - aka taking jobs they’re not equipped to do off their plates - is a noble (if aggressively branded) negotiation approach. No more mental health calls. No more domestic terrorism responses.
It suggests a problem-solving mindset not just a “who has caused the problem?” mindset. But it falls on deaf ears, because BLM and similar social justice movements are an exasperated reaction to systemically poor police behavior.
OK AGAIN, my point wasn’t to talk about police here per se. Or about bigot eugenics authors that shaped my childhood and character-building aesthetic.
I want to address why empathy isn’t always a useful tool.
Part of what motivates cooperation is empathy. We thrive as a society because we understand that working together will always produce a greater outcome than if we all are working individually. We know that intuitively, and for millenia we’ve built upon these foundations of ‘civilization’. And as a species, we’re crushing it.
One of the major critiques of humanity right now is a lack of empathy. Lacking empathy can lead to dehumanizing behaviors that validate our violent behaviors towards others as somehow against something not fully human. Lack of empathy also solidifies cognitive biases and erases most of the information outside of your own lived experience. Most dangerously, lack of empathy can lead to blaming the victim, as you can misunderstand a situation through your own experience and then falsely assume the victim of a conflict somehow ‘deserved it’.
Pretty strong argument to having a healthy amount of empathy.
But then how can I sympathize with a mass murderer like Ender? Why am I kind of bummed I didn’t get to see Bill Cosby’s final stand up special? Why do I understand why officers feel attacked and unappreciated for ‘doing their jobs’ (even if I condemn the violence they perpetrate)? How is it I can relate to an ‘incel’ or a jihadist that I am supposed to see as my enemy (again, openly condemning the violence they use to communicate their message)?
None of these are particularly good looks… but I own that I feel this way. And I can’t ignore how fascinated people are with “profiles of a killer” type shows, so I’m not alone in owning up to these dark thought experiments.
I also note that empathy can be manipulated. Propaganda aka really good marketing is designed to capture your imagination and enhance/reduce empathy towards a subject. It takes an incredibly strong understanding of empathy to distort its effects to your will (something I’ve only had the stomach to employ towards the goal of ingratiating myself to others vs. exploiting people for $$, to my bottom line’s great dismay)
Empathy like anything is about balance. Too little and you’re shouting for people to get out of your neighborhood (aka also their neighborhood), too much and you’re talking about actual rapist Brock Turner’s exemplary athletic credentials when considering his sexual assault sentencing.
The balance is razor thin, though. And the nuance is excruciating. The above were extreme examples, but our minds and thoughts are shaped by implicit biases, our behaviors stained with microaggressions, our systems designed to perpetuate and exacerbate these tensions and injustices indefinitely. And, perhaps most infuriatingly, people behind the scenes gleefully profiting off the chaos.
Empathy demands you search outside yourself for perspective, especially when we’ve made up our minds about who’s the hero and who’s the villain.
As an artist and a creative, I am endlessly exploring the perspective of others. It’s been a thrill in the last few years to be able to more articulately explore my own perspectives; both in how I actually feel about things, but also in how I convey these opinions to you, dear reader.
Making creative choices occasionally involves deep explorations in empathy, but usually in the service of deep introspection and reflection. Being empathetic is thrilling, and occasionally horrible, but I would never trade it for the world.
I appreciate the opportunity, and the relative safety, to explore these ideas.
And I hope you enjoyed sharing them with me ;-) All the best, Jonathan “Doc Wattson”
The Native Stranger