Compassion

Empathy is Not a Zero Sum Game: Further Reflections on Kevin Spacey and Oscar Wilde

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After Oscar Wilde’s downfall, William Powell Frith wrote to the owner of his famous painting The Private View of the Royal Academy, which featured the playwright, and offered to paint Wilde out of it at no cost to the owner.

“I will do whatever you wish as regards Wilde — it is unfortunate for the picture but what could be so inconceivably unexpected.”

I spent the last six years of my life immersed in the story of Oscar Wilde’s downfall and the effect that it had on the people who loved him.  My book Oscar’s Ghost finally came out just last month in the U.S. (in August in the U.K.). It is still very fresh in my consciousness.

When the public first learned that Wilde had engaged in illegal sex with male prostitutes they were appalled. It was an act that was considered as immoral and disgusting as anything they could imagine in his day, and there was a rush to disassociate from him. The mere thought of Wilde, who had been at the height of his fame as a beloved wit just days before, made people uneasy. They heard “Oscar Wilde” and thought of perversion. They didn’t want to be confronted with his name or to have to see his face. They wondered if having enjoyed his work made them somehow complicit or suspect.

George Alexander, the manager of the St. James Theater, was overseeing and starring in the production of Wilde’s new comedy The Importance of Being Earnest.

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This was the original program for the production, but after Wilde’s arrest for gross indecency new programs were printed without the playwright’s name. The play, it seems, had written itself. These days, with Wilde now redeemed, we tend to interpret this as a act of disloyalty and cowardice.  The Victoria and Albert Museum’s blog, for example describes Alexander as “ashamed of the connection, but not too ashamed to keep making money out of it for himself and Wilde’s family.”

Alexander explained his decision differently. Wilde was not the only one involved in the production. The theater had a whole cast and crew that were counting on Earnest for their livelihoods. Alexander wanted to try to keep the production going for their sake, but he knew he couldn’t do it with Wilde’s name attached. It was inevitable, however, audiences stayed away and the play closed. It was replaced on May 11, 1895 with a play called–I am not making this up– “The Triumph of the Philistines.”

Oscar Wilde joined the convict ranks, placed in a solitary cell, identified by a number not a name.

A prison wall was round us both,
Two outcast men were we:
The world had thrust us from its heart,
And God from out His care:
And the iron gin that waits for Sin
Had caught us in its snare.

The worst day of Oscar Wilde’s life was November 20, 1895, the day he was transferred from Wandsworth Prison to Reading Gaol. He wrote:

From two o’clock till half-past two on that day I had to stand on the centre platform at Clapham Junction in convict dress, and handcuffed, for the world to look at. I had been taken out of the hospital ward without a moment’s notice being given to me. Of all possible objects I was the most grotesque. When people saw me they laughed. Each train as it came in swelled the audience. Nothing could exceed their amusement. That was, of course, before they knew who I was. As soon as they had been informed they laughed still more. For half-an-hour I stood there in the grey November rain surrounded by a jeering mob…. For a year after that was done to me I wept every day at the same hour and for the same space of time.

I spent six years reading personal letters, diving into archives, and putting myself in the place of a man who lost his profession, his sense of identity, his good name. I wrote about his time in exile in France, where he vacillated between hopefulness and despair, sometimes defiant of public opinion, sometimes afraid to show his face in public because he feared being shunned.

One of the things that drew me to Wilde’s story was the spectacle of this process of ostracism in motion. To see someone go from the greatest heights, being lauded, to the deepest depths, reviled and ostracized was riveting.

For six years I contemplated the ripple effects of Wilde’s ostracism. I read about how it became the central fact of two of his closest friends’ lives. I read about how these once intimate friends spent years locked in combat in the courts trying to come to terms with their own roles in Wilde’s downfall.

Wilde’s lover, and the subject of his bitter prison letter De Profundis, Lord Alfred Douglas, was an aristocrat, raised with the expectation that he would receive deference. He became an object of gossip, exclusion and ridicule himself. How did those experiences shape him and steer his actions? I know now, very well.

There is something you should keep in mind about Oscar Wilde. He was guilty. He broke the law and his crime was considered to be disgusting and damaging to society.

These are topics I have contemplated, in depth, for the past six years of my life.

So when I read a story about the producers of the series House of Cards, first instinctively canceling the series, then deciding to go on without Kevin Spacey in order to preserve the jobs of the rest of the cast and crew, I think of George Alexander and Earnest.

When I read about the paparazzi snapping images of the disgraced actor jogging on the grounds of a sex rehab clinic, I think about the gawkers trying to catch a glimpse of prisoner Wilde on the train platform.

When I see a story about a Spacey mural being painted over because it disturbs the owner of the building it is painted on, I think of William Powell Frith offering to paint Wilde out of his own work. I feel those resonances keenly.

When I hear people dismissing the ramifications of ostracism, saying “it’s only a job” or giving a sarcastic “boo hoo,” I know that they are wrong. Whether the target of the ostracism deserves it is a separate question from whether or not it is painful. Kipling D. Williams, a scholar of ostracism, found that the objects of exclusion often say they would rather be physically beaten or put in prison than shunned.

All societies have used ostracism to define acceptable behavior in their communities because it works. It is a serious punishment. We should not engage in it casually or blithely.

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I think I had a personal attraction to Oscar Wilde’s story as someone who felt excluded and bullied in school. I have a bitter memory of two bullies throwing rocks at my back, joking about my butt being a big target, and how many points they would get for a bullseye. I never forgot what it was like to be dehumanized like that, and it produced in me an instinctive empathy for anyone who is being dehumanized, shunned or excluded.

Yesterday, I posted a link to the Kevin Spacey mural story in a twitter discussion that someone else had initiated about the actor’s “erasure.” In a reply to the thread, I was accused of not caring about the victims, “do they not matter?”

I ache for the victim of the harasser’s casual debasement. I also feel empathy for the man who has been toppled from his perch and sentenced to cultural exile.  I recoil at the story of a famous man grabbing someone’s genitals with impunity and treating that person as an object or plaything not a person, just as I recoil at human beings being given dehumanizing labels like “predator.” Dehumanizing is distasteful. Empathy is not a zero sum game.

Over the years I’ve learned that befriending a social pariah can be hard because there are often good reasons people don’t like them. They often have abrasive personalities, do questionable things and do not play well with others.  To feel empathy for the pain they must feel is not to excuse their eccentricities or bad behavior. It is not to make them innocent.

“It’s easy to forgive the innocent,” wrote Sister Helen Prejean, “It’s the guilty who test our morality. People are more than the worst thing they’ve ever done.”

I understand that it is too early, and too fresh, to talk about forgiving some of the perpetrators who have come to our attention. To welcome the transgressor back too quickly would be a sanction of his behavior. There are some we may never fully be able to forgive.  We’ll only know with time.  Oscar Wilde did not start to receive a measure of social forgiveness until five years after his death.

It is good to remember that Oscar Wilde’s most famous poem, The Ballad of Reading Gaol, was not about a man who had been unjustly accused. It was about the common humanity of the guilty.

And alien tears will fill for him
Pity’s long-broken urn,
For his mourner will be outcast men,
And outcasts always mourn.

 

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Yucky Framing: Health Tragedies as Market Opportunity

doctors-call Bloomberg is bullish about crowdfunding sites.  Soaring health care costs and the possibility of a new health act replacing the ACA means that there will likely be an increase in uninsured and underinsured which means more people than ever will be scrambling to find a way to pay medical bills. That means more and more people will be asking for support via sites like Go Fund Me.

“For more and more Americans, vying in a popularity contest for a limited supply of funds and sympathy may be the only way to pay the doctors and stay afloat,” writes Suzanne Woolley.

This turns health funding into a contest for who can craft the most sympathetic sob story, a modern, high-stakes Queen for a Day.

And that means that the crowdfunding sector, for which medical bills already make up a large percentage of their volume, is facing a boom.

“With enough volume, the business of helping people raise money for medical care has a lot of profit potential.”

 

Thoughts on The Normal Heart

MV5BMTcyODYyOTk3M15BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwNDkwNjc3MTE@._V1_UX182_CR0,0,182,268_AL_I have the song “The Only Living Boy in New York” stuck in my head.

It has been there for a few days since I watched the 2014 film The Normal Heart. The song was used to great effect in the film’s last scene and I can’t shake it.

The Normal Heart won a host of awards including a Screen Actor’s Guild Award for its lead actor Mark Ruffalo, who played Ned, and a Golden Globe for supporting actor Matt Bomer, who layed his lover Felix. It was based on a 1985 play of the same name by Larry Kramer, which chronicles the early years of the AIDS crisis as it ravaged New York’s gay community.

It will come as no surprise then, given its subject matter, that it is a difficult film to watch. It has the intensity of a symphony made up of all crescendos. About 3/4 of the way in, I was longing for a bit of psychic relief, a scene with flowers, puppies and unicorns. But my immediate reaction is only part of the story. The film has lingered in my consciousness, like “The Only Living Boy in New York.” It is haunting.

I am old enough to remember the 1980s. I was a teenager in 1985 when the original play came out. Society has changed a great deal and it is almost hard to bring back the cultural assumptions of the era. I do, however, remember the fear of AIDS. It had the elements of more recent health scares, like the ebola panic. AIDS was seen in many quarters as an epidemic of the other, a sickness that was moral as well as physical, which might escape from the dark corners and infect innocent, moral, bystanders. It was “their problem.” Indeed, it was only when the media started to find sympathetic victims, people like Ryan White who were clearly “innocent,” that society started to mobilize in a big way. I am old enough to remember the fear, but I need the occasional nudge to bring it back.

What happens with any prejudice is that people define what they are in opposition to the group they call the other. To imagine the gay community as morally suspect and physically diseased was to imagine the straight world as its opposite– morally upstanding and healthy.

People are resistant to changing their prejudices because if one group stops being an “other” then the category of “normal” needs to be reconsidered. If you are not sick, maybe I am not well. Put another way, if we are not different, if your heart is as normal as mine, then we are equally prone to moral slips and to the misfortune of disease and unexpected death. If we are the same, our fates are intertwined. That is a responsibility, and it is scary.

And so we allowed fear to override our compassion. It was easier to look the other way and to pretend the health crisis could not touch your kind than to admit how vulnerable we all are. We feared association. If you were too focused on AIDS maybe it meant you were gay yourself or at least some kind of firebrand.

When I got my first job working at McDonald’s, I used some of my earnings to support some AIDS related charities. I think I might have supported the Gay Men’s Health Crisis and PFLAG and probably one or two other organizations if memory serves. This got me onto a mailing list of people who supported liberal causes. I was bombarded with invitations to save the whales and fight for women’s rights. One letter, I swear this is true, came addressed to “Dear Radical.”

I wasn’t a radical, and I don’t think I was exceptional. Spin Magazine, by the late 80s, when I was in my last high school years, was running a regular series on advances fighting AIDS. But how you felt about these things varied a great deal depending on your social circles.

My first year of college, I went to a university that drew largely from more rural parts of the state. There was, in any case, a Gay Lesbian Student Alliance. (They hadn’t added the BT and Q yet.) They announced a Gay Pride day and encouraged students to show their support, but the method was one designed to have plausible deniability. You were supposed to stand in solidarity by wearing jeans.

I was shocked by the reaction of some of the neighbors on my floor of the dorm. Someone had cut out the photograph of the picture of the young woman who led the Gay Lesbian Student Alliance and tacked it to the wall with a big red “no” sign over her face and in red the words “NO Lezzies.”  On jeans day one of my neighbors went door to door reminding students to remember to wear a skirt or slacks.

I was appalled. I was horrified. I was straight.    I said nothing.

How many people on my hall might have agreed with me if I’d had the courage to say, “Hey, that’s not cool.” How many of us were waiting for someone else to speak up? Could there have been a lesbian on my floor whose life would have been made a little bit easier if I had said something?

One of the most memorable lines in The Normal Heart is uttered by Felix, who tells his lover, “Men do not naturally not love. They learn not to.”

The title “The Normal Heart” points to a subplot involving Ned’s brother, who cannot accept his sexuality. The brother believes he is the one with the normal heart. Ned pleads with him that his heart is also normal. But the normal heart is more than that.

The normal heart is full of compassion. We do not naturally not love. We learn not to. If we can learn, then we can, we must, unlearn.

“Compassion”

Compassion..gives the person who feels it pleasure even in the very act of ministering to and succouring pain.”-J..B. Mozley, Sermon at Oxford University, 1876

3330819045_6234b27d08_oSince writing yesterday’s post, I have been unable to shake a sort of existential sadness at the condition of, for want of a more secular word, the American soul. There is just something about Mick Mulvaney’s attempt to redefine “compassion” as not supporting Meals on Wheels that has played on my mind.

The word “compassion” comes from Latin roots com meaning together and pati to suffer. Compassion is to “suffer with” someone. It has been part of our lexicon since English looked like this: “Huanne on leme is zik oþer y-wonded. hou moche zorȝe heþ þe herte and grat compassion y-uelþ.” It has always conveyed a sense of fellow-feeling for someone who suffered and a desire to do something to alleviate that suffering. As the Oxford English Dictionary puts it: “The feeling or emotion, when a person is moved by the suffering or distress of another, and by the desire to relieve it; pity that inclines one to spare or to succour.”

Compassion is recognizing that a home-bound senior suffers and finding a way to alleviate some of that suffering, by delivering meals. What does it mean then when the perspective is shifted so that the home-bound senior is essentially accused of not being compassionate to the person who is asked to help?

Mulvaney likes to use the rhetorical device of casting the tax payer as a West Virginia Coal miner or “a single mother from Detroit” when the real beneficiaries of the budget he is promoting would seem to be the wealthy, military contractors and border wall builders. (Salon has a good analysis of who the budget is designed to benefit. It sure ain’t single mothers in Detroit.) And by the way, as someone who grew up and lived most of her life in suburban Detroit, I’m getting tired of my region being caricatured in the popular press as an island of urban poverty surrounded by a sea of “rust belt” working class Trump voters.

One of the most enduring images for me of the financial crisis of 2008 was an attractive, young woman with a satisfied smile on her face, holding a large sign that read “Your mortgage is not my problem.” The sign makes a virtue of non-compassion. It states a flat refusal to suffer with. “Your pain does not touch me,” it says, “I will not be moved by it.”

There is some element of our culture, an element that is now ascendant, that fears that in trying to relieve suffering, someone undeserving might get some of the aid. Some of us would rather let everyone starve than risk feeding someone who could get food for himself.

The question at the heart of all of this is what do we owe one another as fellow citizens, as neighbors, as fellow human beings?

It especially confuses me when the virtue of non-compassion is preached by someone calling himself a “Christian.” (Mulvaney is Roman Catholic.) The earliest Christian writings we have are Paul’s epistles. Scholars generally think that Thessalonians and Galatians were the first two books of the New Testament when arranged in chronological order. In Galatians, Paul recounts the details of a theological dispute he had with James who was the central figure in the early Jesus movement. The Galatians did not know whether they were to listen to James’ representatives or to Paul. They differed on the question of whether a gentile Christ-follower had to be circumcised in order to be a full member. James thought they did, Paul did not. In the end, they came to something of an agreement. Paul could preach to gentiles. “They desired only that we should remember the poor, the very thing which I was also eager to do,” Paul wrote. (Galatians 2:10)

So helping the poor was central to Christian practice from the beginning. When they seemed to disagree on everything else, the various factions could agree on this.

"Bear one another's burdens and so fulfill the law of Christ." (Galatians 6:2)

In Biblical times people had a different understanding of poverty than we have today. Survival was hard. It was assumed that everyone understood hardship and deprivation and had an intimate acquaintance with hunger. Before the age of the self-made man in the mid-1800s, social status was viewed as essentially unchangeable. If you were born a peasant it was unfortunate but not a moral failing. In the mid-1800s, however, society was being transformed. In the UK the aristocracy was beginning to lose its power. In the still largely undeveloped United States, conditions were ideal for poor boys to make good. As P.T. Barnum put it, “In a new country, where we have more land than people, it is not at all difficult for persons in good health to make money.”

Irvin G. Wyllie, in The Self Made Man dates the golden era of the self-made man from 1835. If you wanted to go from rags to riches, this was the year to be born. (It was the year of Andrew Carnegie’s birth.) This generation came up with a new narrative. Horatio Alger wrote about boys who were born to poverty and who improved their lots in life through hard work and moral correctness. It seemed that anyone who was willing to work could become rich, men were in charge of their own destinies and the role of fate in our fortunes began to recede.

In what author Michael B. Katz author of The Undeserving Poor calls the “irony of optimism,”it followed that if a man made his own way, the poor must be to blame for their economic failings.

“The age of the self-made man was also the age of the broken man,” wrote Scott A. Sandage in Born Losers, “This ‘American sense’ looked upon failure as a ‘moral sieve’ that trapped the loafer and passed the true man through. Such ideologies fixed blame squarely on individual faults, not extenuating circumstances.”

The belief that people are entirely in control of their own destinies became so strong that Americans are now blind to the fact that there is a famine in the tale of the Prodigal Son and we tend to interpret it as a cautionary tale about being irresponsible and foolish with money.

In spite of our American industriousness, poverty has persisted. As we increasingly viewed it as a problem of persons (as Katz puts it), we looked for ways to separate the deserving from the undeserving poor in our policies. The identity of the undeserving has shifted over time. In the early days of our nation it was usually an able-bodied man, viewed as drunk and lazy, who was targeted out as undeserving. Increasingly, in our day, it is the unmarried mother.  Katz observes:

Empirical evidence almost always challenges the assumptions underlying the classifications of poor people. Even in the late nineteenth century, countervailing data, not to mention decades of administrative frustration, showed their inadequacy… Still, as even a casual reading of the popular press, occasional attention to political rhetoric, or informal conversations about poverty reveal, empirical evidence has remarkably little effect on what people think. Part of the reason is that conventional classifications of poor people serve such useful purposes. They offer a familiar and easy target for displacing rage, frustration, and fear. They demonstrate the link between virtue and success that legitimates capitalist political economy. And by dividing poor people, they prevent their coalescing into a unified political force. Stigmatized conditions and punitive treatment, moreover, provide powerful incentives to work, whatever the wages and conditions.

This has led to an ironic situation in which we now define those who are more well-off as the deserving poor and those who are the poorest, by virtue of being poor, as the least deserving. The results of a recent study on government spending on social programs to alleviate poverty found that there has been a marked shift away from supporting those earning the least money, as little as 50 percent of the federal poverty line, to those with incomes as much as 200 percent above the poverty line.

We do not suffer with the extremely poor, we blame them. In Mulvaney’s view of compassion, it is we who suffer because the poor need our help.

With finite resources, compassionate people can disagree on how best to help the poor, who needs a helping hand and who does not. The question will always exist. In the past, however, there were certain things we could pretty much all agree upon. We have not had, as Katz wrote, “much sympathy for poor persons throughout American history other than children, widows, and a few others whose lack of responsibility for their condition could not be denied. These were the deserving poor.”

Today it seems even those boundaries have been transcended. People in political power are now arguing that poor children should not be given free lunch because they need to learn responsibility, and that giving meals to elderly widows does nothing to improve the GDP.

So you will forgive me if I look beyond politics and wonder if America is losing its soul.

Yucky Framing: If It Doesn’t Lead to Good Jobs, Feeding Children is a Waste of Money

In this clip Mick Mulvaney defends cutting programs that provide meals to low income children because he says they have not led to good jobs. He also defends cutting funding for Meals on Wheels because it has not demonstrated “results.”

I’m not clear on what “results” he is talking about with with Meals on Wheels. Do housebound older people get meals or not?  And why is it that Ebenezer Scrooge’s dialogue from Dickens’ A Christmas Carol is sounding less and less a comic exaggeration by the day?

“At this festive season of the year, Mr. Scrooge,” said the gentleman, taking up a pen, “it is more than usually desirable that we should make some slight provision for the Poor and destitute, who suffer greatly at the present time. Many thousands are in want of common necessaries; hundreds of thousands are in want of common comforts, sir.”

“Are there no prisons?” asked Scrooge.

“Plenty of prisons,” said the gentleman, laying down the pen again.

“And the Union workhouses?” demanded Scrooge. “Are they still in operation?”

“They are. Still,” returned the gentleman, “I wish I could say they were not.”

“The Treadmill and the Poor Law are in full vigour, then?” said Scrooge.

“Both very busy, sir.”

“Oh! I was afraid, from what you said at first, that something had occurred to stop them in their useful course,” said Scrooge. “I’m very glad to hear it.”

“Under the impression that they scarcely furnish Christian cheer of mind or body to the multitude,” returned the gentleman, “a few of us are endeavouring to raise a fund to buy the Poor some meat and drink, and means of warmth. We choose this time, because it is a time, of all others, when Want is keenly felt, and Abundance rejoices. What shall I put you down for?”

“Nothing!” Scrooge replied.

“You wish to be anonymous?”

“I wish to be left alone,” said Scrooge. “Since you ask me what I wish, gentlemen, that is my answer. I don’t make merry myself at Christmas and I can’t afford to make idle people merry. I help to support the establishments I have mentioned—they cost enough; and those who are badly off must go there.”

“Many can’t go there; and many would rather die.”

“If they would rather die,” said Scrooge, “they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population. Besides—excuse me—I don’t know that.”

“But you might know it,” observed the gentleman.

“It’s not my business,” Scrooge returned. “It’s enough for a man to understand his own business, and not to interfere with other people’s. Mine occupies me constantly. Good afternoon, gentlemen!”

Seeing clearly that it would be useless to pursue their point, the gentlemen withdrew. Scrooge resumed his labours with an improved opinion of himself, and in a more facetious temper than was usual with him.

The Others

This was the darker side of community. For a group to have a sense of cohesion, a sense of being “us,” it had to define what was outside of the group. It had to define a “them”— the excluded. Who “they” are changes over time and from society to society, but the process never changes. It is part of the nature of community life. To have an inside, a tribe must have an outer boundary. For most of the members of Paul’s community, young men dancing in gay clubs, people like Andy, were not “us” but “them.” Judging by his own reactions, Paul had to admit with some shame that he felt the same way. “I am not like him.”

I find that I have been thinking about this passage from the novel “Angel” quite a bit lately.

Something has happened this election cycle. It seems as though an epidemic of “othering” has descended upon us. To some extent this has always happened in election years. People dig in their heels, politicians try to differentiate between their views and those of their opponents. Republicans and Democrats try to set the stakes high and make it seem as though the people in the other party want to harm the country and only they can save it.

Then there are the pundits, covering the horse race and predicting how blocks of people vote based on demographic categories and stereotypes about them. “This area is rural and those will be big Ted Cruz voters…” “This area has a lot of students so they will vote for Bernie Sanders.” “Secretary Clinton expects to do well in South Carolina because of its large African-American population.”

The Los Angeles Times ran a story today by Liana Aghajanian in which she expressed her disillusionment with this kind of stereotyping.

After Bernie Sanders won Michigan, the media and its pundits were whipped into a frenzy, touting shock and confusion of how Arab and Muslim Americans — who constitute a healthy portion of the population in metro Detroit — could have supported a candidate who is Jewish.

The only way it felt appropriate to respond was to ask: Why wouldn’t they? Why do we so easily fall into these polarizing traps set up by mainstream media that paint and pit two communities against each other and then accept the idea as truth?

To assume anti-Semitism on behalf of an entire, very large population is not just irresponsible, but as the International Business Times wrote, “Reveals how much reporting on American Muslims is still rooted in an unsophisticated naiveté about what motivates them.”

Every four years we’re treated to this superficial analysis and asked to see our fellow countrymen as representatives of different groups.

“I can’t help feeling wary when I hear anything said about the masses,” the English chemist J.B. Priestly once said. “First you take their faces away from ’em by calling ’em the masses and then you accuse them of not having any faces.”

All of this is depressingly par for the course in elections.

Now we have Donald Trump, a candidate who elicits cheers and sighs of relief for saying “we’re too politically correct,” implying, of course, that those of us who do not agree that Muslims should all be treated as suspected terrorists or that illegal immigrants should be thought of as rapists do not actually believe what we are saying and are simply being polite.

There is room for polite disagreement on immigration policy. This is not about that. I am concerned that it is becoming increasingly acceptable to other and dehumanize groups of people. This is not a political problem, but a cultural one and, as photographer Brandon Staton put it in his viral open letter to Trump, a moral one. (If you want any more proof of this, and you have a strong stomach, you can scan the comments on his open letter for the phrase “you people.”)

To pillory “political correctness” is to overlook the fact that language does matter. There is a difference when you say that an immigrant “pops out a baby” or that she “has a child.” In the first case, you are speaking of her as something less than fully human.

“Is that why they pop out babies? To make them U.S. citizens? Is that why you popped out yours?”

What is the result of constant exposure to the idea that a group is not only “other” but “less than?” A racial empathy gap. As Lisa Wade wrote in Sociological Images:

Psychologists continue to document what is now called a racial empathy gap, both blacks and whites show lesser empathy when they see darker-skinned people experiencing physical or emotional pain. When white people are reminded that black people are disproportionately imprisoned, for example, it increases their support for tougher policing and harsher sentencing. Black prisoners receive presidential pardons at much lower rates than whites. And we think that black people have a higher physical pain threshold than whites.

This bears repeating: Somewhere in the uncritical parts of our minds, we actually believe that dark skinned people feel less physical pain than we do.

Talking about the civil rights movement, Martin Luther King, Jr. once said, ” “Instinctively we struck out for dignity first because personal degradation as an inferior human being was even more keenly felt than material privation.”

The only moral thing to do is to stand up for the dignity of other human beings, whether they are our fellow citizens or not, whether they share our religion or not, whether they speak the same language or not.

By the way, when Marco Rubio sent out a tweet in Spanish, he immediately received a predictable response.

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This is, of course, demonstrably untrue if “we” are taken to be all U.S. citizens.  More than 300 languages are spoken in the U.S. according to the U.S. Census Bureau. America has the world’s second largest population of Spanish speakers, more even than Spain. We have a growing population of Vietnamese, Russian and Chinese speakers. There are native speakers of Pennsylvania Dutch, Navajo, and Hawaiian. (In the latter two cases, they were here first.) There are even 1,000 speakers of the Pacific island language Samoan in Alaska. The only way to make this statement true is to define “we” as people who live in America and speak English. In that case it is true, but it is a meaningless tautology. (“We who speak English and live in America, speak English.”)

The strange thing is that illegal immigration has become such a hot button issue now as the number of Mexican immigrants leaving America is now actually greater than the number coming in.

But clearly the scope of the problem is much less important than the political value of having someone from the outside to blame for our ills.

Recently I questioned a Facebook friend who supported Trump and wrote about Mexicans “popping out babies” and getting free stuff in America.  In defending her views, she pointed to her own family history and contrasted it with the baby poppers of Mexico. Her grandfather fled Russia when the communists took over, and was forced to leave all of his possessions behind.

What fascinated me about this response is that being the descendant of a refugee did not produce empathy for other refugees, assuming that she agrees with Trump’s proposed Muslim ban. (I did not ask.) When her grandfather came to the U.S. he was fortunate that we distinguished between him and the people he was fleeing and did not keep him out because he and the communists were both Russian.

We can debate immigration policy. We can disagree. We can do it with respect.  But we cannot, as a moral nation, accept the notion that empathy is weakness. There is a way to take a hard line on immigration, and do it without dehumanizing people in the process. It is important.

In fact, empathy is hard. You have to work at it. You have to examine your own comfortable blind spots.  You have to be willing to adapt to others and not only assume they will adapt to you. It matters when we dehumanize people. Language matters.

Immediate Emotional Reactions

BeirutA friend of mine shared his Facebook meme this morning. it is a well-written appeal for a wider sphere of compassion penned by Karuna E. Parikh who has a personal connection to Beiruit.

I would like to talk about my subjective emotional response to this appearing in my feed this morning.

I lived in France, just outside Paris, as an exchange student when I was 16, which is a foundational period in life. I consider my French family to be part of my family in a real sense. So Paris is not an abstraction for me. Last night as I watched what was transpiring in Paris, I remembered the messages of support and concern from my French family that came in following the attacks of September 11 and I felt that it was appropriate to express a similar solidarity. I posted a one line status update in French expressing condolences and I changed my Facebook picture to the French flag.

I agree with Parikh that my fellow Americans can be myopic. We have, for example, a “special relationship” with England because of our common language, but we often forget the historic contributions the French made to our nation. We forget that there were 4,000 French troops and 24 French ships at the Battle of Yorktown to George Washington’s force of just 2,500 under-equipped men. Whenever French politicians fail to support a U.S. mission someone is sure to say that they owe us because we supported them in World War II, entirely forgetting that we were only returning the favor for their support of our nation’s existence in the first place. Our founding fathers were heavily influenced by French philosophers when drafting the constitution.

We do not share this history with other nations. I grieve and mourn for all people who suffer anywhere in the world. I agree that the real enemy of peace is people who want power through violence. In this the victims of a shopping mall shooting in an American suburb are linked to the victims of attacks in the Central African Republic. And so I mourn for the victims of violence. I can imagine a better world where people are not divided and seeking power.

But my grief for the people of  the Central African Republic is more abstract than my grief for people in France, whose history is intertwined with ours, whose way of living resembles our own, we can see ourselves in them, and these attacks were a message “to the west,” to our family of nations.

I am saddened when someone in my city dies. I am more saddened when someone in my neighborhood dies. I actively grieve and mourn when a friend dies. And when a member of my family dies, a part of me dies with him. How would you feel, then, if someone told you your mourning for your friend was misplaced because you were not equally mourning for everyone who had died that day in a similar fashion?

I refuse to feel ashamed or to accept that it is misplaced to post the French flag. I understand the fear of nationalism, which the op ed by Clair Bernish I linked to above expressed. I am one who also worries when there is too much flag waving. But I remember how different it felt to see the flag after the attacks of September 11. Do you remember? In that moment, the flag did not mean “America #1.” it meant we are still here. We have not been destroyed by this. And when my friends are hurt, I stand with them in that feeling.

So no, Ms. Bernish. I do not agree that I should “shake that flag from your social media profile; and your home; and your thoughts. Because as long as you wear just one flag, your attempt to stand with victims of terror is a most embarrassingly hollow solidarity, indeed.”

I am not embarrassed.

I think I understand on some level what Parikh feels when watching the news (or more accurately, I think, watching hashtags trend on twitter) when the amount of attention given to a story is determined by who news producers think “we” are as Americans; when they make decisions about what parts of the world are relevant to “us” and what tragedies, therefore, deserve wall-to-wall coverage and which should be wrapped up quickly to get to important matters like the color of Sarbucks coffee cups. I would like our television news to have a broader international scope and to be less inwardly focused.

(If you get your news from the internet, which most younger people do these days, you have the option to follow the news from all of the nations you like. There are news feeds in English from all parts of the world. The fact is, most of us don’t. We blame “the media” anyway for our own apathy.)

My partner is Russian, and therefore Russian news is always interesting to me. Parikh wrote on her Intagram “I understand Paris is a beloved and familiar space for a lot of people, but it troubled me that Beirut, a city my father grew up in, had received so little attention after the horrific bombings two days earlier. It also troubled me that Baghdad, a place I have absolutely no connection with, received even less attention after the senseless bombing took place there last week. Worst of all, I found the understanding of the refugee crisis skewed and simplistic.”

One of the most horrific terrorist attacks that I can recall was the school siege in Beslan, Russia.  It happened on the first day of school, usually a day of celebration. More than 700 children, elementary school age, were held hostage for three days and in the end 186 children were murdered. it was one of the most horrifying and inhuman things I could imagine, and because of my connection to Russia, I had a strong emotional reaction to it.  Our news did cover it, but not with the wall-to-wall treatment like that devoted to Paris. Much of the commentary on the politics and culture of the region seemed detached and overly simplistic.  For most Americans, however, the Russians are “them.” They are not “us” the way Western Europe is. We try to understand Russia with a view towards abstract geo-political consequences. So I wondered, why didn’t they give more attention to Beslan? If these were British children there would be no end to our grieving and outrage. I get it. I really do.

It is a scientific truth that human beings feel more empathy for those who they perceive to be part of their social group. We are not gods, our brains and our emotions have limitations. “Pray for the world” is beautiful poetry, and it is an important ideal. But when you actually consider the scope of the world, the number of tragedies happening every day, it is an overwhelming and impossible demand. Yes, refugees in Papua New Guinea deserve our compassion. The victims of Boko Haram violence in Lake Chad deserve our compassion. The victims of domestic violence in Bolivia and the Pacific Islands deserve our compassion. The victims of sexual violence in South Sudan deserve our compassion. Mexicans displaced by drug related violence deserve our compassion. The Lumand indigenous people of the Philippines deserve our compassion.

When we’re made aware of a tragedy we can give it our focus. But “praying for the world,” for all victims of violence and tragedy, is so abstract that we can’t really feel any of it. To focus on everything is to see nothing.  This is not to say that we could not and should not always endeavor to expand our sphere of compassion and understanding. It is simply to explain that it will always be the case that we will focus on the individual tragedies that we believe are closest to us. The world is too big to take it all in.

For the majority of Americans, Western Europeans are perceived to be part of their larger social group whereas Middle Eastern people and Russians are perceived to be part of other social groups. We make all sorts of distinctions as to who is “like us” and who is “different from us.”  We each occupy different circles and spheres and have different emotional bonds. So I, for example, think of Russians as “us” because I am intimately connected to Russian people, even though as an American growing up in the cold war era I was trained to think of Russians more as “them.” So the boundaries of who “we” are and who “they” are can shift. If you knew about Russia only from news stories about Putin on CNN you would have a very incomplete view.

So there is much that I find to agree with in Parikh’s appeal, and if Paris were more of an abstraction to me, I might have found myself nodding entirely in agreement. But reading it after just changing my profile picture to the French flag, I felt a bit slapped by this graphic. It was asking me to feel ashamed for my expression of sympathy for the French. In particular, I was struck by the line that no one’s Facebook status said “Bagdhad because not a single white person died in that fire.”

This line in particular made an expression of solidarity with the French akin to saying “White Lives Matter.”

I will be the first to admit that I am a life-long beneficiary of white privilege. Through no effort on my own part, I have the advantage of being similar in a lot of major ways to the group that our mainstream culture identifies as “us.” I am white, I am from that group that politicians pander to– the great middle class. I come from the Protestant tradition. I’m not a sexual minority. If I want to, I can go through life largely unaware of the challenges faced by people with physical disabilities, or  immigrants or the rural poor. Even when I want to be compassionate, as I have said here before, if you are experiencing a kind of pain that I have not, I might not just be unsympathetic, I might not even notice.

So in that sense, I applaud Parikh for using an emotion that “people like us” might be feeling to try to use it to expand our awareness of something we might be blind to.

But it feels bad to have motives attributed to you by someone who does not know you personally. It feels bad to have someone say they know what you “really mean,” and that it is something negative.

I spoke about this in my last entry when I tried, clumsily, to express what bothered me in a review of my novel. It was not that the reader objected to what I had written. She has every right not to like my work. What bothered me was when she explained why I had written what I had, as if she could see inside my mind. She said she knew my motives– and they were unflattering.

Saying that people did not rally behind the hashtag “Baghdad” because Iraquis are non-white is a gross over-simplification. There is a difference in the level of shock that people will feel when confronted with an act of violence, even to civilians, in an area that has been at war for decades than in one that is perceived to be at peace. When there are repeated stories of violence in a certain area, or of a certain kind, people become numb to it. We are not shocked by violence in Israel, even when victims are white or even American.A terrorist attack in Jerusalem would not evoke the same response.

We still get upset by mass shootings in malls, schools and theaters in the U.S., but the response to more recent events does not match the intensity of our reaction to Columbine. I remember where I was when Columbine happened. I remember feeling horror. I remember my desire for information. How could this happen? When the most recent mass shooting happened, the details of which I honestly don’t recall at the moment, even President Obama expressed the sentiment that our response was becoming routine and that we were weary. Were the lives of the victims of that event any less valuable than those of the Columbine shootings? Of course not. The fact that we cannot react with the same horror to their deaths should not be read as a lack of compassion for them.

We are not able to mourn every U.S. soldier who dies or is injured. Every day gun violence kills more people than mass shootings, but we’re not shocked by statistics. We report on these kinds of shootings only if they are local, when they hit close to home.  Ideally our compassion would not be limited, we would not become weary and would not have famine blindness, but we do. We are human, we are finite, and we mourn our close friends in a different way than we mourn others.

So I agree with much of what Parikh has to say. All of these people matter. But I will not accept that standing with a friend who suffers is the same as denying other people’s suffering.