On August 31, 2017

Empathy, part two

By Brett Yates

Last week, I wrote a column whose conclusion I myself found, at the very least, debatable. Fortunately, my conception of my job here has never included a requirement to be correct—every week, I try my best only to put forth a single thought that might be interesting, and that’s all: my opinions routinely contradict each other. By this standard, my previous article, titled “Good things for bad people,” was, by my own reckoning, a success, but its reasoning led me to a place that seemed to demand further examination. Since I’d run out of space, I thought I’d write a sequel in which I’d take a closer look at the implications of my prior argument.

A mildly derisive summary of last week’s column might report that, in the wake of the horrifying spectacle of alt-right aggression in Charlottesville, I was advocating empathy for Nazis—instead of, say, praising the brave counter-protesters who risked their lives to stand up to the Nazis’ madness. This is sort of true, although I knew as soon as I’d typed the word “empathy” that I was setting myself up for a (justifiable) retort to the effect that, given that I don’t belong to any of the groups threatened by these alt-right freaks, empathy might come more easily to me than to others.

Primarily, however, I was questioning the tactics of liberals on social media who, following the rally, went to work identifying the participants in press photos and then, en masse, contacting their employers to pressure them to fire their Nazi employees. My point was that leftists shouldn’t allow their wholly reasonable hatred for these despicable losers to undermine their commitment to a society in which all people, including the contemptible, are granted the material necessities of a decent life, and this point does hinge on some indestructible human affinity: a recognition, which might be called sentimental, that all of us are people and thus deserving of the same basic concern. I don’t think depriving people of their means of survival helps anyone.

But I’m not calling for forgiveness or attempting to push a rationalization for the behavior of these lowlifes, and I want to emphasize that, when it comes to Nazis, I don’t promote empathy as a replacement for resistance. I recognize that, while not all of the right-wing demonstrators in Charlottesville committed unlawful acts of physical violence, they were advancing an ideology in which certain races are deemed unworthy of life; they were promising genocide. I’m sympathetic to those who believe that threats of violence must be treated as violence, and to those who believe that violence must be quashed before any humanitarian care can be extended to its perpetrators.

So when, on “Saturday Night Live,” I watched Tina Fey tell an audience of liberals that, the next time a KKK-style rally comes to their hometown, they should “stay home” and eat cake instead of getting caught up in “screaming matches,” I rolled my eyes. For one thing, it’s simply too much to ask people of principle to allow their cities to be overtaken by white supremacists without a fight. Are they really supposed to give these mutants free rein over their downtowns and pretend that everything is normal, that this behavior is OK? Yes, counter  demonstrations may feed into a conflict that some of the Nazis will relish, and they will inevitably draw greater attention and publicity to the Nazis’ event. But the mass of negative coverage given to the rally in Charlottesville has likely been a good thing: it seems that many of the milder-mannered allies of the alt-right, who outnumber the hardcore and constitute a sizable chunk of Trump’s base, have been scared off by the copious outrage and fierce opposition that their bolder associates have generated. Many liberals take for granted that we live in a country where outright racism will be condemned—the ideology of the alt-right is so obviously wrong that for us to say so can seem unnecessary. But in order to maintain this state of affairs, where undisguised white supremacism lies clearly outside the bounds of what society deems acceptable, some folks actually have to do the work of confronting it when it asserts itself.

If there’s one thing I regret about last week’s column, it’s that it may have seemed to imply that the majority of the neo-Confederates in Charlottesville were “unfortunates”—broken-down hillbillies who arrived at white supremacism as an ideological last resort. Liberals are forever attempting to blame right-wing thought on poor people, but one glance at the crowd of torch-wielders shows that most were polo-shirt-wearing preppies and suburban dads with shotgun-stocked bunkers beneath their swimming pools. They weren’t raging against a system that had failed them; they were seeking to protect a system from which they’d benefited. They know that their prosperity is built upon the impoverishment of black and brown Americans, and they sense that, as the demographics of our country shift, the call for equality will soon be too loud to be ignored. In this sense, they’re not so different from moderate “liberals” whose vision divides the population by “merit” instead of race: they, too, believe that there isn’t enough to go around—surely not everyone can be promised healthcare and a living wage.

It’s harder to form a prescription for comfortably middle-class racists than poverty-stricken ones; material improvements can’t cure them. But the question is the same: how do we make these people better? In some sense, middle-class suburban life has failed the Americans who were lucky enough to attain it—it’s isolated them, made them afraid, and stripped them of generosity and fellow feeling. When well-fed white Americans turn off their big-screen TVs and imagine the “good old days,” before the swelling of minority populations, I think they’re mostly imagining a world in which they don’t feel alone. These people are monsters, but I guess I’m back where I started: we can’t begin to identify the underlying problem, let alone fix it, without first empathizing.

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