Empathy

Cathedral Thinking

Cathedral of Notre-Dame of Paris fire aftermath, France - 16 Apr 2019A quote in a story reported in Positive News made me happy. It comes from 16-year-old climate activist  Greta Thunberg.

It is still not too late to act. It will take a far-reaching vision, it will take courage, it will take fierce, fierce determination to act now, to lay the foundations where we may not know all the details about how to shape the ceiling. In other words, it will take cathedral thinking.

Cathedral thinking.

As you know if you’ve followed this blog, I became depressed in the wake of the fire at Notre Dame cathedral in Paris. I’ve been giving thought to why the criticisms of repairing the cathedral had such an effect on me, and I think the answer might be found in the phrase that I found so uplifting.

When you are invested in a cause, or are enthusiastic about a political candidate, there are two ways to react when you see people pouring their energy into a different effort. You can identify with that enthusiasm and take inspiration from what they are doing right, or you can resent them and view their enthusiasm as energy that is being siphoned away from your own project.

The second version sounds like “Why are we spending money on a building when we are ignoring climate change?” The first says, “If we can rebuild the cathedral, there is nothing we can’t do if we pull together. Let me tell you about something that needs that energy.”

Cathedral thinking.

We have more means of communication than ever, and yet we have never felt so unheard. We act as though concern, compassion, empathy and respect are finite and we’re in competition for them.

There are two ways to put your issue on the same level as others. You can either lift yours up, or tear others down. Tearing down is easier than building. You can do it with a few keystrokes. You can do it with sarcasm or a sneer.

Incidentally, in the first edition of Trevor Noah’s new podcast “On Second Thought,” he and his guest David Kibuuka talked about the backlash to the effort to rebuild Notre Dame, and they suggested that the reason people responded so quickly to that cause rather than something like world hunger or climate change is because fixing a cathedral is finite. It is something that you can contribute to and see the problem solved, whereas poverty or climate change are much more complex. People like to be part of something were they can feel like they achieved something. A moon shot.

Arlo Guthrie said of the 1960s, “I came out of that time thinking I’d only met two kinds of people–people that give a damn and the people that don’t. And the truth was that you could find both of those kinds of people on every side of every issue. In the long run I thought I’d had more in common with people who cared about stuff than people that might’ve sided with me on an issue or two.”

It can be hard to find the commonality in “giving a damn.” Sometimes people’s eyes need to be opened to the way their causes rhyme. But I can tell you the worst way to persuade anyone of anything is to criticize their enthusiasm and to tell them what they ought to care about instead.

Instead of grumbling that people were not paying enough attention, 16-year-old Greta Thunberg said, “Let’s make climate our cathedral.”

That gave me hope.

 

 

 

 

 

A Post-Cathedral World

I have edited this post a number of times over the past couple of days because something has been eating at me. It has taken me a while to process why I have been feeling so dispirited and to put it in words.

Today I did some reading of articles posted on blogs by other people who were grieving over the fire at Notre Dame de Paris– fortunately the damage was not as devastating as we feared it might be, but it was a loss none the less.

“There are few events these days that garners the same response from everyone. In a hyper-polarized culture, there are often several interpretations of events and even tragedies rather than a collective response,” wrote Karina Reddy-Brooks. “When the 850 year old Notre Dame de Paris caught fire Monday night, we saw one of these events that united us in our grief.”

It reminded us, wrote Brendan O’Neil, of the importance of human legacy.

What the widespread humanist concern for the fate of Notre Dame spoke to is people’s continued attachment to the ideal of legacy, to what is in many ways the founding principle of human civilisation: that we transmit culture and knowledge and art from one generation to the next. We recognised that the flames were consuming more than wood and stone; they were consuming tradition, the past itself. And for all of today’s cult of the new, most people recognise that our societies and our lives only make sense as a result of the gains of the past transmitted to us by our elders, which we then transmit to the next generation.

It was, wrote John Pavlovitz, “a reminder that we belong to one another.”

This, I think, is the crux of my ennui.  If we did have that feeling, I wish we could have held it longer.

For most Americans, Notre Dame is distant. It is a vacation destination. And perhaps this is why a burning French cathedral didn’t pull us together for as long as it might have. The feeling of unity lasted a few hours, maybe, before we went back to our regular causes and narratives and made the fire at Notre Dame a symbol of them.

Inevitably, these kinds of posts emerged on Twitter and Facebook from people I follow because I value their diverse points of view.

“Why are you grieving Notre Dame when you didn’t grieve… the burning of African-American churches, the victims of colonialism, this mosque that was destroyed, the victims of the worst crimes of the Catholic church…”

If you feel a connection to that place, to Paris and to Notre Dame, and if you have a long time interest in history and preservation, and the “angels in the architecture” of churches, (see my earlier article on the damage to the steeple of a Detroit church) then of course you grieve the loss of irreplaceable art, architecture, places of cultural and historical significance. Of course you do.

But suddenly in the funhouse mirror, being  moved by something outside of your daily life and concerns becomes evidence that you are not sufficiently compassionate or deep.

I am not the only one who has expressed this feeling.

A fellow Unitarian Universalist who I follow on twitter, Adrian L.H. Graham wrote:

“I can, and often do, hold many sadnesses within me in any given moment. I don’t share all of them; that would be tedious and exhausting. Some of my sadnesses are numbing. Some of them so sudden and unexpected that they cannot be contained and they pour out from me. I am not going to apologize for being sad about the fire at Notre Dame; and I’m not going to be bullied into feeling shame about it, either.”

Kim at Traveling with Books also felt compelled to defend her grief and to post a list of other tragedies and destruction of artifacts from other cultures and recognize that they also matter.

Ironically, Kim and Adrian and I are probably feeling this way precisely because we have tried to fill our feeds with diverse voices. It is because we actually do care that we are feeling shamed for caring about this particular thing.

And to be quite honest, while I am horrified whenever I hear about the destruction of an irreplaceable object from some other culture– a statue, a library, a Mosque, a Buddhist shrine–I do not experience it as the same visceral gut punch because I am not as close to it. I lived outside Paris for a short but significant time in my life. Notre Dame was the first place I experienced that sense of the mystic nature of places. Even though I am not Catholic, those European works of devotional art are part of my own cultural heritage. I experience the loss of it in a different way. How could it be otherwise?

This issue came up before in the wake of terrorist attacks in France and this is what I said at the time:

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?

Today it seems clear that the damage at Notre Dame was not as extensive as we originally feared, and as the hope of what can be rebuilt starts to displace the grieving over what was lost, I find that I am mourning something else.

I am mourning the sense that the cathedral united us.

“…modern people are disinclined to pay for the past,” wrote Steve A. Wiggins, “and some analysts are saying that lack of funds for regular upkeep of the cathedral over many years are at least partially behind the tragedy.  Monuments that have stood for centuries require constant care, but it’s so easy to take them for granted.  Cathedrals aren’t just religious buildings.  They are humanistic in the sense that they stand for our natural tendency to create great markers of our time on earth.  So very human.  Many human acts we wish to erase, but some represent a loss to the very soul of our species when they’re gone…Symbols of the unity of a nation, demanding resources beyond what could really be afforded, cathedrals served to unite.”

Today we live “in a post-cathedral world.”

I wish we’d held on to that sense of common purpose a little bit longer.

The Womp Womp Mindset

We live in a country where politicians have always pandered to voters by talking about their hard-working, poor, immigrant ancestors who came here with nothing but a dream and the determination to make a better life for their families.

By sharing these histories, politicians write themselves into the Great American Story.  We are a nation of people who are proud of our humble origins, our struggles to get here, and “the Great American Melting Pot.”

It occurred to me lately that something changed in the last election. Candidate Trump did not tell a heartwarming story about his hardworking immigrant ancestors. He said, “I’m rich, and that makes me smart, and it means the old rules don’t apply to me.” This appealed to a segment of the voters.

Was this the unraveling of the Great American Story? Do we no longer hold as an ideal the story of the poor but hard-working person who works for a better life?

Maybe this is a tacit admission that America’s great age of social mobility has ended and is not coming back. According to research I did for a previous book, if you wanted to be a self-made man in America, the best year to be born was 1850.

Instead of idealizing the land of opportunity, we’ve changed gears and are now just trying to be sure that in this unequal terrain, we’re on the favored side.

Doing away with the story of the poor immigrant ancestor is a good first step if you want to be sure people do not identify with more recent immigrants coming to our shores with nothing but the clothes on their backs, fleeing religious persecution or famine or violence.

It reduces some of the cognitive dissonance people might feel as they idealize their refugee ancestor while applauding a Muslim ban or describing people who cross the Southern border as dangerous, unclean, frightening vermin.

I’ve been thinking a lot about something I wrote in March 2017 when Trump was still a candidate.  I was shocked when a friend of mine, who supported Trump, started to refer to Mexicans as coming to the United States and “popping out babies” so they would be U.S. citizens.

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…

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?”…

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… 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.

I see a straight line from the anchor baby rhetoric to the moment we’re in today.  “The others” don’t have children for all the complex reasons we do. It is a trick, a ploy, to get citizenship. They are crafty, and it begins with popping those babies out. “Popping out” babies sounds easy. There is no labor. The women do not feel pain, because “the others” do not feel pain like we do. You needn’t worry about that. The children, who were not born the way our children are born, aren’t really our concern.

Yesterday I responded to a friend’s Facebook post. The friend writes Christian novels, and his post expressed a certain ambivalence about the family separation policy. “It’s terrible, but…” One of the people who commented remarked that there is no way to tell which of these immigrants are drug mules and that they put drugs in the babies diapers. Those children, popped out, not born, are now dangers in themselves. They try to trick us into compassion, but we give into it at our own peril. Once the concern was that these babies would grow up to become citizens and take what is rightfully ours (they’re all imagined as being on welfare and taking benefits, not building communities or contributing to the economy).  We’ve now moved beyond that. They are part of a wave that is going to overtake us. They’re going to turn our cities into ” “Blood-stained killing fields. Savagely burning, raping, and mutilating,” as the President put it.

I feel a sense of weariness and sadness having seen a number of my friends describing people by categories and using subhuman language.

Fast Company had a story today on what it called the “empathy gap” in politics. It contrasted MSNBC’s host Rachel Maddow getting choked up on air reading a breaking news story about “tender age” facilities for young children separated from their parents with a Fox News guest, a Trump campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski whose reaction to the news that a child with Down’s Syndrome had been separated from her family by making “the sad trombone noise, which phonetically looks like ‘womp womp.’”

Lewandowski’s reaction to the news that a child with Down syndrome was separated from her parents at the border is literally a parody of sadness. There’s no other possible interpretation, it’s all right there. Whatever he is supposed to feel, as a member of the human race, about a child with Down syndrome separated from her parents, he doesn’t feel it.

Not only does he not feel it, he seems to have contempt for the idea that he should feel something. Tugging at the heartstrings is nothing but an attempt at manipulation, and he is not going to fall into the whole compassion trap.

You can see this same mindset in Trump’s decision to separate families. The idea of tearing crying children from their parents is distasteful to people with normal human empathy. If you have none, or barring that, if you can find ways to tamp down that natural reaction by dehumanizing a category of people, then you are in a position of power. Trump assumed that the people who couldn’t bear to see children harmed would be soft-hearted liberals, not “his” people. (Trump does not aspire to be President of the United States, but President of the Right, in opposition to the Left. “I’m representing the best people on earth, the deplorables,” he said at a campaign rally yesterday.) They would say “We’ll give you whatever you want, just stop hurting the children!” He expected that he would be able to coerce them into agreeing to his wall that way. He underestimated how many Americans there are who have empathy and a sense of history. Or maybe he did not.

Ann Applebaum in an opinion piece in the Washington Post argues that politicians of his stripe use shock and awe tactics to show their strength. They are signalling to their followers that they are willing to be cruel in order to meet their ends.

“Virtue-signaling” is a snide little phrase that people vaguely of the “right” invented to tease people vaguely of the “left.”… it implies insincerity and self-righteousness. Those who brag about doing something good — say, riding their bicycle to work every day — are said to be “virtue-signaling” their desire to fight climate change…

More recently the British journalist Nick Cohen has identified another way of sending social messages. This is something he called “vice-signaling,” and it is precisely the opposite tactic. It applies to politicians who do something evil — deliberately — with the aim of proving they really are very sincere indeed. Cohen invented it in the context of an immigration scandal in Britain which had led not to the deportation of illegal immigrants, but to the deportation of actual British citizens, albeit with poor documentation. When uncovered, the policy led to a scandal and the resignation of the home secretary, Amber Rudd. Cohen argued, nevertheless, that the policy had never been a mistake or an accident: The Conservative Party had decided to pursue cruel and unfair tactics on immigration, precisely in order to “signal” to their base their seriousness about fighting immigration.

This is a useful context in which to understand the reasoning behind the Trump administration’s horrific policy on family separation at the border — a policy that, if it were enacted in another country, would be described by American officials as state-sponsored child abuse. It’s incomprehensibly cruel, separating small children from their parents and sending them to institutions that resemble jails.

…Because it signals to their base that they are really serious about stopping immigration — so serious that they will abuse children, damage families, and shock anybody who cares about civil rights or human rights in the United States or elsewhere.

..Morality is for losers, apparently. Cruelty is for winners. And this will be the long-term effect of vice-signaling: it makes its proponents, and its audiences, vicious themselves.

What has been equally shocking to me is to learn that in a poll 75 percent of white Evangelicals reacted positively to Trump’s family separation policy.

Looking back, it seems as though this moment  is just the culmination of something I’ve been lamenting for a while. A culture that not only fails to make a virtue of compassion, it views compassion as a weakness and as manipulation.

I was writing about a “womp womp” point of view in 2013 when I saw how easy it was for people to come up with reasons not to care about the poor. I wrote about it again in 2017 when Mick Mulvaney tried to cast the people who receive Meals on Wheels as lacking compassion for the taxpayers. With the family separations womp womp-ism has reached a new low.

I don’t know how to conclude this piece except to say that I’ve been feeling an existential sadness over this, and I think I am not the only one.


 

How the Story Ends: Thoughts on the Move Christine (2016)

The 2016 film Christine is based on the true story of a Sarasota local news personality Christine Chubbuck. I did not know her story when I selected the film under the category “critically acclaimed dramas” on my streaming service. The blurb described the movie this way: “In a film based on true events, an awkward but ambitious TV reporter struggles to adapt when she’s ordered to focus on violent and salacious stories.” Journalism movies are a genre I often like, so I selected it. It was not at all what I had been expecting based on the description.

In retrospect, I believe I had read about Chubbuck when I was studying broadcasting in college, but I didn’t connect it to the film I was watching. The filmmakers undoubtedly assumed that the people who bought tickets would know how the story ends. It is not a spoiler to say that what is best known about Chubbuck is how her life ended. One morning on live TV before her regular segment she read the following “In keeping with Channel 40’s policy of bringing you the latest in blood and guts and in living color, you are going to see another first: an attempted suicide.” And then she shot herself on live television.

 

Had I watched the trailer before selecting the film, I would have had more of a sense of its tone. This is one case where I feel knowing the ending in advance would have made the experience of watching the film better. It would have added a tension and urgency to what was unfolding on screen. Instead, I spent most of the film wondering why I was watching this woman struggle with mental illness. What was the purpose, the point of view, of this story?

It is, however, a film that has stayed with me and in retrospect, what seemed to be its weaknesses while I was watching, are its strengths. It is a film in which easy answers and clear villains are absent. She has co-workers and family who are patient with her mood swings and who want to help. Chubbuck’s frustration with the shift towards sensationalism for ratings is present, but it is not a bogey man, just one of many problems that Chubbuck is ill-equipped to deal with. She is not seen as worthy of promotion by the powers that be, and the sexism of the time is present, but even if there had been a level playing field, it is not clear that Chubbuck had what it took to succeed in her field. Her erratic behavior, and outspoken insubordination would have gotten her fired in most places of work. She was stiff on camera. The obstacles she faced were real, but her internal struggle was bigger than anything external.

It is rare to have a film in which a woman who is difficult to understand and to like is the viewpoint character. That alone makes the film interesting. Rebecca Hall who played Chubbuck in the film said she was drawn to the film for just this reason. “There are a lot of films about the coolness of being a misfit,” she said, “I don’t know how many films there are, certainly about women, where it shows how painful it is to feel that you don’t fit in and that you are different…”

In this era, where we are sensitive to the idea of appropriation, something that comes up quite a bit in articles about the film is the fact that the writer and director are both men. Should a man have been the one to tell this woman’s story? Is this just exploiting Chubbuck again?

Each of us has many facets to our identity. Yet we consider some identity categories to be more fundamental than others. I am firmly of the opinion that the best person to tell as story is the one who is taken with a story and can’t let it go. Craig Shilowich, the writer of Christine, was drawn to the story because he had experienced depression himself. In the lead up to her dramatic last act, he saw a vehicle to explore mental illness. I would argue that the most important aspect of Chubbuck in this story is not her femininity but her mental illness.

Shilowich refuses to turn Chubbuck into a symbol of a greater cultural message. It might have served the drama better if he had, but he was right to resist the easy sensationalism that Chubbuck’s final statement seems to critique. In the end, I was left with a visceral sense of the frustrations of trying to reach someone who is depressed and who makes herself unreachable. Most of us have experienced–if not clinical depression–at least periods of feeling like an outcast, feeling misunderstood or unable to connect to others.

I was not left with an answer to the perhaps more compelling question of why Chubbuck chose to act in such a public manner.  Why did she chose to make her final act a violent rebuke? It was a death that was engineered not only to end her own pain, but to inflict trauma on others who were forced to witness it.  We can understand and empathize with the person who finds it too difficult to go on living, but the person who wants to force other people– strangers, society at large– to suffer with her?

I find a line from the Boomtown Rats song repeating in my head: “They could see no reasons ‘cos there are no reasons.” It is fortunate that most of us find this incomprehensible and can’t truly empathize.

The film succeeds, then, in what it attempts to do. It is a think piece. A story about a sensational, tabloid-esque story that is consciously anti-sensational and humanizing. It is at the same time disturbing and, for a film that is framed around an ending, strangely unresolved.

There was a line in a Rolling Stone review of the film that struck me. It was, wrote Sam Adams, “a time when things could happen without being recorded.” This led me to a whole series of reflections on how the dictates of what constitutes a good story, and a proper ending, effects our day to day lives and how we see ourselves. This article is already too long, so I will leave those thoughts for another day.

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 few years 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.

Researching Oscar’s Ghost was a long journey of 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.

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. We should feel at least a bit uneasy about the whole thing.

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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.

 

Anti-Polarization Hacks

sandwichI was watching a news feature the other day that was talking about Russian activities on social media designed to increase polarization among the American electorate.

I got to wondering if it would be possible to use the same technique in reverse, to have social media bots amplifying non-polarizing messages and stories, while armies of anti-trolls swamped the comments on news sites with messages designed to steer people towards finding common ground.

What do you suppose the memes would look like?

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.