by Ralph Blair
Empathways is an expanded version of Dr. Blair’s address at connECtions98 in the summer of 1998.
“Can I see another’s woe, / And not be in sorrow, too? / Can I see another’s grief, / And not seek for kind relief?”
What William Blake here had in mind was empathy as we usually think of it—in connection with another person’s misfortune. But empathy can also connect with another person’s good fortune. In his prayer-poem, “The Celestial Surgeon,” Robert Louis Stevenson reproaches himself at the thought that “beams from happy human eyes / Have moved me not.”
Someone tells of a man who came by to meet his friend and saw her talking with a shabbily-dressed woman with a small child at her side. As he approached, he saw his friend give money to the stranger who then, with her child in tow, quickly moved on. When he reached his friend she told him that that little child had leukemia. He said: “Nonsense. That kid’s not sick. It’s a scam!” His friend said: “You mean that child doesn’t have leukemia?” “Of course not,” he insisted. “Oh,” she replied, “That’s a relief!”’
Who do you think was practicing empathy here? The woman who gave money to that mother or the man who said the mother was lying? Maybe both? Maybe both. You might be as surprised about that as you were with the woman’s expression of relief. We’re going to think about empathy so we might do empathy better.
Some people insist on distinguishing empathy from sympathy. These purists want us to say we empathize with people in the same boat and sympathize with people in a different boat. To them, “I feel your pain” is empathy but “I can imagine your pain” is sympathy. Fair enough. We don’t want to be so insensitive as to tell people we “know exactly” what they’re going through when we’ve never gone through exactly what they’re going through. But fussing over rigid distinctions might mean we’ll miss the boat on empathy—no matter what we call it. Besides, are we not all in the same boat? Some may be in First Class and some may be in steerage, but we’re all on the “Titanic.”
In addition to empathy as this ability to feel for or identify with another in his or her situation, there’s another dimension to empathy. The emphasis here is on accurate prediction. Empathy can be the ability to predict accurately the thinking, feeling and behavior of others.
Back when I was in grad school I studied a psychometric instrument called The Empathy Test. Its validity was established on the basis of how well car salesmen (they were all men in those days) could predict the difference between those who were serious about buying a car and those who dropped by only to take a ride. Obviously, an ability to predict which were serious buyers and which were not could save lots of time and money for the dealer. He didn’t want to be taken for a ride. Here, empathy wasn’t about warm fuzzies; it was about cold cash. So empathy isn’t just hand-holding. The better we are at empathic accuracy, the more successful we’ll be in all sorts of relationships with other people.
Weegee was the ultimate tabloid news photographer. He worked the streets of New York City in the 1930s and 40s. He was proto-paparazzi. It’s said that he “craved a visceral response” and “went for the solar plexus, intent on taking your breath away.” That took skill m empathic accuracy, whatever was missing in empathic identification with his subjects. In his book, Naked City, Weegee said he cried when he took pictures of two women watching relatives burn to death in a fire. Nonetheless, he kept his camera focused and kept on shooting. Reviewing last year’s exhibition of his life’s work, a New York Times writer commented: “Well, empathy is in the eye of the beholder. [Vicki Goldberg] And she’s right. Empathy is in the eye of the beholder, though we usually think of empathy’s being more in the heart. Empathy’s about both perception and emotion, insight and passion. Empathy is about the ability to infer what someone else is thinking and feeling. We can be mind readers—in this sense. We can learn to “read” others—inferring with a practical degree of accuracy, what they are likely to think, feel, and do. But we can learn to do this only over time—through practiced observation of that other person, experience with that other person, and reasoning about that other person. The stranger gets stranger before becoming more familiar—predictable. People do tend to be their typical selves but it takes some time and observation to know what’s typical. And although it’s important not to confuse ourselves with others and our ideas, values, desires and so on with those of others, it’s nonetheless true that it we pay intelligent attention to ourselves and our own experience, we’ll be better able to “read” others. We share with them more than we often assume.
IS EMPATHY ALWAYS A GOOD THING?
Unlike all things from Martha Stewart, empathy may not always be “a good thing.” A New York Post editorial headlined: “Don’t Cry for the Criminal.” It objected to the light sentences given to gang-rapists. Empathy for gang-rapists can conflict with empathy for the raped. A Fuller Seminary professor recounts a response to his classroom lecture on Cain and Abel, a story that, he said, “underscores the imperative that we not demonize the perpetrator.” [Miraslav Volf] One student announced: “I want to make a case for demonizing the perpetrator.”
So hungry for sympathy himself, it’s sad that novelist John Cheever used to say: “If there is anybody I detest it is weak-minded sentimentalists with an excess of sympathy for others.”
When an HIV-positive porno actor, hustler and AIDS activist preached the “politics of defiance” for “HIV anarchy” and pushed the pleasures of condomless anal sex at something dubbed a “Sex Panic Summit” in San Diego, longtime lesbian activist Robin Tyler finally had had enough. “Do what you want,” she told him and other “Sex Panic” anarchists, “but I’m not going to be there to clean up after you this time.”
Even multiculturalists don’t think empathy’s always a good thing. According to the Handbook of Cross-Cultural Counseling and Therapy, “empathy, warmth, and genuineness are values specific to some middle-class Westernized dominant cultures, but not all cultures, and any attempt to enforce their universal acceptance would be inappropriate.” We could have predicted that postmodernist nonsense—with a bit of empathic accuracy.
It is important, though, to recognize that the ability to predict another person’s feelings can be used to do harm as well as to render help. After all, an evil skill at empathy is the torturer’s basic skill. He has to know what would hurt.
LONELINESS: THE POVERTY OF SELF
Empathy is a pathway into others. Empathy is connection with others. Without connection with others, empathy is impossible. And yet an editor for Vanity Fair magazine says that the 1990s are a time of “no connection” [Ingrid Sischy] A fashion critic wrote recently that “disconnection [is] the latest spirit of the times. … Why is it,” she wondered, “that the more consumers have in common [such as 15 or so designer labels], the more isolated they feel and the more disconnected they feel from the culture and one another?” [Amy M. Spindler] She illustrates the disconnection with the “mannequin-like quality” of fashion icons who “can never get beyond the esthetics of their lives,” the Calvin Klein models with “glazed gazes,” and the “designer customers who cluster under the safety of a label.” There’s a “ghostliness … a homelessness,” a deep sense of absence. That’s how a Yale literary critic describes it. He says “The feeling is that of being an outsider to life. Not just to social life or a particular group that I aspire to join … but to participation (perhaps always mystical) in life itself.” [Geoffrey H. Hartman]
There’s a loneliness that’s pervasive in our society. And that’s not just because more of us live alone than ever before. Being alone is not the same as being lonely. Being alone can be fine; being lonely can be fatal. Being alone means nobody else happens to be here right now. Being lonely means someone is missing. Says Sister Wendy, “Loneliness is needy. It wants. Solitude is fulfillment. It has.” Aloneness is me. Loneliness is me—me—me. In May Sarton’s wise words: “Loneliness is the poverty of self.” The self Sarton has in mind is our currently fashionable notion of self. The would-be autonomous, individual self, independent of others, independent of God. This wannabe self is hardly the biblical communal self that is dependent on God.
It shouldn’t be surprising that a culture of the independent self is a culture of loneliness—even when the self is writ a bit larger as my own little group identity. Says a Princeton Seminary professor: “The increased trust in the self along with doubt about God suggests that each of us is alone in the universe.” [Ellen T. Charry] She observes that “the ruthlessly secular ideology of late modernity, now pressed to a further extreme by ‘postmodemity, insists that there are no sources of nurture and guidance that transcend the self.” Indeed, the self itself is now its own self-styled “transcendence.” Even that chic fashion editor notes that “there’s a feeling of disconnection from all the old things people were born feeling they were supposed to feel connected to, like the church, God, institutions, school, parental figures.”
Well, what but isolation gets reinforced by scurrying around for self-centered self-expression, self-indulgence, self-gratification? An entrenched and isolating “Me! Me! Me!” can yield only an estranged and isolating me—me—me.
Yet “Me! Me! Me!” and Me, Myself, and Mine really is much of what our culture’s all about these days. The unquestioned but impoverished assumption is that “I am my own!” L. L. Cool J, the top rap artist and a number-one role model to his fans, calls his autobiography I Make My Own Rules. That’s just what his fans want to do and think they have a right to do.
According to one of the world’s leading social scientists: “In the mid-19th century, England and America reacted to the consequences of industrialization, urbanization, immigration, and affluence by asserting an ethos of self-control, whereas in the late 20th century, they reacted to many of the same forces by asserting an ethos of self-expression.” [James Q. Wilson] The psychiatrist who wrote Listening to Prozac cautions that “in our culture, ‘autonomy’ and ‘self-fulfillment’ are in the ascendant.” [Peter D. Kramer] At the same time, Charry notes that we’re “a society that has ceased to value self-reproach.” She could say the same about self-discipline and self-denial. So it goes without saying that our self-understanding is warped. What chance has the risky advice, “Know thyself!” in such a self-serving ethos?
Supposedly, people go into psychotherapy in order to gain some better degree of self-knowledge. But in their book, Psychology’s Sanction for Selfishness, two researchers conclude: “A surprisingly broad and influential range of psychological theory turns out to legitimize selfishness.” [M. A. Wallach and L. Wallach] In Misfit, a recent biography of a friend, the author posits that the reason self-absorption is the “dominant characteristic” of our time is because James Joyce and Sigmund Freud taught us that “we should look inside ourselves and see the universe in miniature.” [Jonathan Yardley] Much of the self-help movement “proceeds from a claustrophobic obsession with self,” as a Newsweek journalist puts it. [Andrew Ferguson] The disconnection culture is celebrated in pop psych books such as those that advocate “expressive divorce” for self-development and attack people “who love too much.”
Neonaticide is an increasingly common result of some new mothers’ mentally foreclosing attachment to unwanted babies. The psychiatrist who coined the term “neonaticide” writes that the baby is seen “as a foreign body going through her, not a baby. … She doesn’t think of it as her child but as an object to get rid of.” After 38-million abortions over the past 25 years, what did we expect? Before they killed their newborn son, Amy Grossberg wrote to her boyfriend, Brian Peterson: “All I want is for it to go away.” The “it” was the then unborn child. Peterson, the baby’s father, explained later that he didn’t want to violate his girlfriend’s wishes: “It’s not my body, it’s her body” was his unexamined rationalization. A gay columnist, unhappy with all the talk among lesbians and gay men about wanting to be adoptive or biological parents, argues that “childlessness confers essential advantages [of] freedom.” He concludes his essay in the gay/lesbian magazine, The Advocate,—it’s entitled “Make Love, Not Babies”—with these narcissistic words: “Rather than creating a child without, why not re-create the child within?” [Brendan Lemon]
The self-centeredness is everywhere in the politics and scholarship of academia. Gertrude Himmelfarb warns that literary critics, historians, philosophers, anthropologists, and others “have consciously brought their own personae into their work—not peripherally, as an occasional autobiographical aside, but insistently and pervasively, as the very theme of their studies.” In his book, Literature Lost: Social Agendas and the Corruption of the Humanities, another scholar recognizes that “If we are determined to take from literature only the attitudes that we bring to it, it ceases to have any point.” He concludes that many in the academy “have no real interest in what literature might say, only an interest in what they can use it for.” [John M. Ellis] It’s little wonder then that college students are following their teachers in distrusting all views that are not their own. For them, it was for nothing that Oliver Goldsmith penned: “People seldom improve when they have no other model but themselves to copy after.”
A New York Times book reviewer cautions about the “self-absorption and egotism promoted by talk shows: everyone’s an expert, anyone can be an artist and all opinions are equally valid, especially your own. The old notion of reading—immersing yourself in a stranger’s world—vanishes, replaced by the solipsistic belief that other people’s ideas are simply materials to be appropriated and manipulated for your own ends.” [Michiko Kakutani] Cable television’s multiplication of talking heads and Web sites run amok give vent to a seemingly endless proliferation of such “expertise” aimed at an ever-fractioning assortment of identity sub-groups.
Reviewing three volumes of women’s studies for the Times Literary Supplement, Melanie Phillips knows that “the air is still noisy with navel-gazing feminist revisionism.” She laments the rhetoric of “the platitudinous ‘diversity of family life’” that regards “as abhorrent those family values which, as [Betty] Friedan rightly says, are essential to a society which puts the interests of other people first” and that construes that “marriage is taboo, because it has been conflated with patriarchy, the ultimate gender crime.” She goes on to explain that this is all “hardly surprising, since,” in her words, “feminism was merely a gendered form of individualism, trampling down all constraints and boundaries in the cause of (female) self-fulfillment.” In her book called Bitch: In Praise of Difficult Women, Elizabeth Wurtzel confirms her reputation for self-obsession by writing: “Frankly, I have a tough time feeling that feminism has done a damn bit of good if I can’t be the way I am and have the world accommodate it.” Though feminism is certainly not always what Phillips says it is or what Wurtzel wants it to be, much of it—sad to say—has been just that. And much of it has been so very much better. But as it’s put by another woman, “feminism … vastly overestimated the sphere of its politics,” failing to grasp that “there is an impertinence in thinking that from the common fact of gender you can tell people what to do with their lives.” [Rachel Cusk]
The same mistake has been made in “Queer Theory” politics, judged to be “pathetic” by Camille Paglia. Homosexualities have been homogenized in a movement-construction called the “lesbigay and transgendered, two-spirit community.” In a New York Times review of a myopic biography of Walt Whitman, subtitled “A Gay Life,” Renee Tursi writes: “Wielding a blinding libido and a self-hugging autobiographical impulse, [author] Gary Schmidgall has re-created Walt Whitman in his own image. Finding nothing ‘more tantalizing and significant’ about Whitman than how the poet’s homosexuality made its way into his public life and works, an aspect Schmidgall absurdly declares ‘flaccid’ (meaning heterosexual) critics have slighted, the author pronounces much of Leaves of Grass to be ‘a cruiser’s apologia,’ a road map to a ‘life of the Closet’ wholly ‘defined by sexuality.’ The irrelevance of Whitman’s sexual activity to what his images, meter and line all served to affirm,” Tursi says, “is dismayingly lost on Schmidgall, who at one point even says we can ‘surely’ substitute the word ‘sexual’ for the poet’s use of ‘spiritualistic.’”
This blinding self-centeredness frequently gets played out in religion and the contemporary preference for “spiritualities.” We pick our spiritualities to confirm our favorite sense of self. Huston Smith endorses a spirituality that comes, he says, “bubbling up from the human spirit.” One thinks of gas. Gay Catholic priest John McNeill urges us to “drink deeply from our own wells.” The Royal Shakespeare Company’s New-Agey revisions of medieval Passion mystery has Jesus explaining to his disciples: “The Oil of Mercy is come to men / Each must find it in his heart / Whoso brings forth what lies within / Shall be soothly saved.”
There is a popular demand-driven consumer orientation across much of American Evangelicaland as well. What are called “new paradigm” churches, originating on the West Coast, have become megachurches. Too much in these megachurches begins with me! They are self-oriented and, by default if not always by design, they fail to orient to others. Often, though, it is indeed by the market researched and calculated design of church growth theory that these megachurches cater to a me-mentality.
So-called women-church or feminist Bible interpreters, in Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza’s words, place “a warning label on all biblical texts: Caution! Could be dangerous to your health and survival.” She says that a feminist critical hermeneutic “does not appeal to the Bible as its primary source but begins with women’s own experience and vision of liberation.” No matter that the experience is never sheer but always interpreted, no matter that it’s tunnel vision, that’s where they start. So it’s not surprising that that’s where they end up. Union Theological Seminary’s Chung Hyun Kyung does that—adding “Asian” to “Women’s Theology.” She asserts that her theology comes from her anger as a Third World Woman. It’s inspired, she says, “by [her] burning desire for self-determination and it originates from a liberation oriented, Third World interpretation of people’s history.” A Duke University New Testament scholar counters, “Experience (of a certain sort) is treated as unambiguously revelatory, and the Bible is critically scrutinized in its light. Regrettably,” he observes, “many practitioners of the hermeneutics of suspicion, and by no means only feminist interpreters, are remarkably credulous about the claims of experience. As a result, they endlessly critique the biblical texts but rarely get around to hearing scripture’s critique of us or hearing its message of grace.” [Richard B. Hayes] Instead of The Story illuminating our stories, our stories sit in judgment on The Story. We become our own canon.
“That Jones shall worship the God within him turns out ultimately to mean that Jones shall worship Jones.” That was G. K. Chesterton’s warning. Writing against the nonsense of New Age gurus, literary critic Harold Bloom concludes in the Chestertonian tradition that Shirley “McLaine worships Ms. McLaine (with some justification) and Mrs. [Arianna] Huffington reveres Mrs. Huffington (with perhaps less).” Best-selling author Kathlene Norris warns of “the narcissistic babble that masks itself as spirituality.” A theologian says that all this “spirituality lite” is “more deleterious to Christian life than explicit opposition to Christianity would be.” The robust faithing of the persecuted churches in totalitarian states illustrates the truth of this assertion. Writing of the views of a popular spiritual guru, this theologian says that Thomas Moore commends a “polytheistic ‘sacredness’ the ultimate referent of which is simply the individual’s tastes and preferences.” But of course, Moore “explicitly rejects Christian or Jewish theology, even when it is ‘open-minded.’” What is needed, therefore, is, he says, “a theology that is individual and unique, conforming to the vision and tastes of the person it serves.” A Jewish Bible scholar critiques such an unbiblically self-centered do-it-yourself approach to reading the Bible. He writes against the use of “the text as a spur to novelistic confession and anecdote … [so that] the [biblical] stories become reduced to our own size.” In this popular approach, displayed in Bill Moyers’ PBS series on Genesis, Edward Rothstein laments that “no judgment is simple, no moral is clearly taught and no heroes are heroic. … These tales do not preach, they provoke; they do not impose a single meaning, they resist it. … Each reader creates a different meaning; nothing is determined. Thus does [the Bible] become post-modern.”
So our disconnection turns out to be deliberate, though not always or exactly by our design. Such disconnection is an unintended effect of our unexamined effort at self-celebration as well. But each of us is throwing his or her own party to which we’ve invited only the self or the self- writ-a-bit-larger. It’s a very exclusive party. No wonder we’re lonesome. And no wonder we’re lacking in empathy. Empathy requires real connection with others. The ability to empathize dries up in isolation. If there is no empathy for others, there will be no reaching out to others. And if there is no reaching out to others, the isolation will increase and whatever empathic ability might have been developed is suffocated in self- centered self-defeat. The rich diversity of human connection that can overcome the isolating loneliness is snuffed out.
There can be no true empathy without a lurking danger of pseudo-empathy.
In one of Lewis Carroll’s wonderful adventures, the Walrus and the Carpenter invite the scrumptious oysters to a picnic on the beach. But the menu is oysters—these invited oysters! The Walrus is speaking to the oyster guests. “’I weep for you,’ the Walrus said, ‘I deeply sympathize.’ With sobs and tears he sorted out those of the largest size.” His professed sympathy for the oysters he was about to eat didn’t spoil his appetite one bit. The Walrus pretended empathy.
It’s pretended empathy when antigay heterosexuals on the Religious Right say that, when it comes to homosexuals, they “love the sinner and hate the sin.” That rings hollow. No matter how well-intended some might be, “love the sinner and hate the sin” is pseudo-empathy because it refuses to realistically understand that the being and the doing can’t be artificially separated, that some sort of expression of the core sexual orientation is as natural for homosexuals as it is for heterosexuals. If every expression of any homosexual affection is ruled out, the homosexual person is ruled out. And a heterosexual need look no further than his or her own core sexual experience to understand that and to identify with the corresponding felt needs of homosexual neighbors.
Besides pretended empathy there is also a pretexted empathy. Rather than reaching out and identifying with the truly other, it identifies with itself—writ a little bit larger. It was pretexted empathy that drove members of the Ku Klux Klan and the Black Muslims, not to mention much of the media, to show up in Jasper, Texas to “empathize” over the racist murder of a black man.
Another example of empathy as pretext for a self-serving agenda is found in the media coverage of celebrity deaths. As Maureen Dowd puts it: “After the prolonged death coverage for Diana, Michael Kennedy, Sonny Bono and Tammy Wynette boosted the ratings at CNN, MSNBC and Fox, the networks became vultures, scanning the horizon for the carrion of celebrities, planning the coverage for the Sinatra funeral as though it were the Normandy landing.”
One who endorses the saner aspects of multiculturalism nonetheless sounds an alarm against the doctrinaire efforts to enforce multiculturalism’s lopsided ideology of mascoting some “others” at the neglect or expense of other “others.” She recognizes that multiculturalism does not celebrate cultures indiscriminately. In her words: “some Others are more Other than other Others.” [Eleanor Heartney] Anyone who is familiar with the agenda of radical multiculturalism knows that there are good others and bad others. The good others are identified with us, of course,—the self-writ-larger—and the bad others are identified as them, who are, of course,—the truly other. Thus, the much-touted “diversity” of certain circles turns out to be not so inclusive after all.
THE MAJOR OBSTACLE TO EMPATHY
It was quite natural, when we were little children, to experience the rest of the world as revolving around ourselves. We had yet to grow up. And we all still have a way to go in revising that childish perception that others’ worlds revolve around us.
So we still tend to personalize what others say and do as though what they say and do is said or done only in terms of our own sense of self, our own agenda, and our own experience of the world. Such self-centeredness cannot empathize with others if we don’t respect their otherness, if we see them as merely extensions of ourselves and our agendas.
Yet in another sense, we’ve all gone too far in separating ourselves from others. We’ve exaggerated the gap between each other, between us and them. This exaggeration between us and them is probably the major obstacle to empathy. Perceiving others to be so very different from ourselves—either so much worse or so much better—simply because we experience ourselves from the inside and others from the outside, we construct a narcissism of exclusion. It is, of course, an expression of our continuing self-centered immaturity.
Since each of us can experience his or her own self only from the inside and experience all others only from the outside, each of us can get a misconceived impression of how we stack up against others. We’re susceptible to confusing our subjective experience of self and others with their experience of themselves and us. We experience our own sense of self internally—all our own self-doubts as well as all our own best intentions. But we can only infer others’ self-doubts and intentions. So it’s easy to think that others don’t experience such troubling self-doubts as we do and that they don’t have such good intentions as we like to think we have. We mistake our “take” on us and them to be the truth.
This misuse of our senses of self and others can set up the irrational “me/them” or “us/them” dichotomies that impede empathy. It never dawns on us how much we really are like the others since we never do experience them as we experience ourselves. We mistake our versions of us and them to be their us or their them. Our version of anything becomes our standard for measuring all things.
Even when they tell us they have self-doubts, we tend to minimize the significance of their doubts for we view their confessions through the lenses of our own versions of them and us and believe us over them. We really don’t let them speak for themselves. And they do the same. And even when they tell us of their good intentions, we tend to minimize the significance of their goodness for we view their professions through the lenses of our own versions of them and us and believe us over them. We really don’t let them speak for their own intentions any more than we do for their doubts.
Out of this uneasiness with our own self-doubts and our own special pleading for our professedly good intentions, as well as out of our failure to empathize with the others, we all construct defensive strategies to protect ourselves from the others and this, itself, begins to fulfill our prophesies that they are dangerous.
So defensively, we all rationalize that we’re really better than we think we are. One way we do this is by trying to look down our noses at the “threatening” others with whom we’ve failed to identify. We’re sure to “find” their flaws since we’re looking for them. We’ll even project what we don’t like about ourselves onto them. But it doesn’t help us since our uneasiness is about how we see the gap between who we think we are and who we think we should be. That’s the problem we give ourselves. They don’t give us that problem. So our putting them down doesn’t help us because it doesn’t address our belief that we don’t measure up. In fact, it underscores it, for after all, we try to put down only those we think have some advantage over us. Who puts down anyone perceived to be down already? But again, it doesn’t help because it’s our own versions of ourselves and them about which we trouble ourselves. We fail to change our versions of either us or them. Then we fail to side-step our versions of us and them. We persist naively in the unproductive extrapolations, becoming even more threatened and then defensively more threatening. Where’s the chance for empathy in all of this? Our misallegiance to self obstructs alliance with others and maintains “us” against “them.” It constructs an empathy-destroying xenophobia of suspicion and hostility that gets us nowhere.
The defensiveness that’s centered in the individual’s sense of inadequacy gets expressed in disputes between individuals. They can then gang together to gang up on others—us against them. Long before reaching the level of war between rival nation-states, this us-against-themness gets expressed in what a leading cultural physiologist calls the “chronic ‘wartime’ mode” of tribal societies [Jared Diamond], illustrated today in identity politics and culture wars.
US v. THEM
Lesbian columnist Norah Vincent recalls that when she began to work at The Free Press publishing firm she was “still mired in the reductivism of Women’s Studies 101.” She writes she “was a conditioned ‘feminist’ ‘queer’ who thought what I was told to think. … All I knew—and know it I was convinced I did—was that I was in the right, that is, on the left.” After a while she says she noticed that her leftist friends “often scrutinized my face when I said I worked [at the neo-conservative company] trying to determine from my expression and tone of voice if I was one of ‘them.’” She reports that “People often said things like, ‘God, it must be hard working there as a lesbian.’ And I found myself kowtowing to their biases though I had no grounds for sharing them. I chimed in that, yes, I guessed it was a hard place to be a lesbian and yes, [editorial director Adam] Bellow was in my opinion a ‘fascist.’” She says that “Neither assertion was true, of course, but that seemed immaterial.” Before some people would agree to have lunch, she says, “I had to prove I was the three Ls—liberated, liberal and lesbian.”
I can identify with what she was up against in the stereotyping. The Presbyterian ministers in the mainline church of my adolescence tried to dissuade me from going to the unknown “them” of Bob Jones University. Once at Bob Jones, I found that people there disparaged the unknown “them” of my mainline church back home and later disparaged the unknown “them” at the state university to which I was transferring after my sophomore year at BJU. Of course, to Bob Jones, virtually all others are “them.” In their turn, people at the state university disparaged the unknown “them” at Bob Jones. To secularists, virtually all fundamentalists and evangelicals are “them.” After graduation from Bowling Green State University I enrolled at Dallas Theological Seminary. Dallas was disparaged as “them” by the likewise conservative but Reformed ministers back home. At DTS I heard those same Reformed “them” disparaged. After 1 transferred to Westminster Theological Seminary, a conservative institution in the Reformed tradition, I heard disparaging comments about the likewise conservative but Dispensationalist “them” at DTS and about the liberal “them” at The University of Southern California where I studied after Westminster. With my Master’s degree from USC I joined the staff of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship at The University of Pennsylvania. The evangelical InterVarsity was disparaged by the liberal mainliners at USC and at the ecumenical campus ministry at Penn State where I worked after IVCF refused to renew my contract because I supported “them” homosexuals. I went on to earn my doctorate at Penn State, writing my dissertation on homosexuality. That topic choice was discomforting to some of my professors. They warned other students that my topic would haunt me for the rest of my professional life! Although in the early 1960s I supported what was then called “the homophile movement” and supported the “gay liberation movement” of the 1970s, founding The Homosexual Community Counseling Center in 1971 and The Homosexual Counseling Journal in 1972, I became less and less welcome in an increasingly recreational-sex-centered New Left movement after I founded Evangelicals Concerned in 1975 and spoke out in the lesbian and gay communities as one of “them” evangelical Christians. Since I was speaking out as one of “them” homosexuals, I was met with just as much suspicion from the evangelical establishment.
There’s a line of George Herbert’s that reminds us that “the absent partie is still faultie.” Commenting on a new book by Richard Rorty, “the leading gadfly of contemporary philosophy,” Peter Steinfels writes in The New York Times: “the anti-religious sentiments of [Rorty’s book] are matter-of-fact, presented in the untroubled tone that people often use in criticizing a group they cannot imagine is even in the room.” And so it is that, speaking only with ourselves, we reinforce “us” against “them.” The basic division has always been: us/them, me/him or her. And it’s always “us good,” “them bad.” There’s us and, as someone’s said, there’s NOCD (Not Our Class, Dear). Oscar Wilde’s quip about masturbation says it all: “cleaner, more efficient, and you meet a better class of person.” Some Judephobe once mused: “How odd / Of God / To choose / The Jews.” A Judephile explains that God did so “Because the goyim / Annoy Him.” Us/them—from all sides. And it’s not always so seemingly good-natured. Harvard law professor Martha Minow, in her Not Only for Myself says that identity politics strains our community bonds into tribalisms and constrains us to reduce even our individual complexities into a single category of sex, race, disability, etc. And things aren’t getting better. Unfortunately, as the author of Data Smog: Surviving the Information Glut warns, the so-called global village is being inundated with an over-stimulation that forces us to resort to hyperbole and histrionics in order to be heard. This, he argues, increases fragmentation and factionalism. We lose the overview and hunker down into our own blinkered bunkers. And “like niche radio and cable TV,” he points out, “the Net encourages a cultural splintering that can render physical communities much less relevant and free people from having to climb outside their own biases, assumptions, inherited ways of thought.”
Everyday headlines—not to mention the headlines of history—are rife with constricting oppositions of us/them: men/women; black/white; liberal/Far Right; conservative/Far Left; Aryan/non-Aryan; Jew/Arab; Orthodox Jews/all other Jews; all “real” Jews/Jews for Jesus; Low Church Episcopalians/High Church Episcopalians; “normal” Episcopalians/Charismatic Episcopalians; Protestants/Roman Catholics; Irish Catholics/Italian Catholics; Catholic Croats/Orthodox Serbs; Armenian Orthodox/Syrian Orthodox; Hutu/Tutsi; South African blacks/African Americans; people of color/colorless (?) people; Crips/Bloods; pro-choice/anti-choice; pro- family/anti-family; gay/straight; gay men/lesbians; lesbigay and transgendered two-spirit people/whatever else that doesn’t include; and so on and on and on. Self-serving blame-game media and special interest groups incessantly frame everything in terms of race, ethnicity, political correctness, good guys/bad guys, victims/victimizers, the screwers and the screwed, either/or, all-or-nothing, “in” or “out”—in short, us/them.
It’s a narcissistic social disorder, projecting onto one’s own group the grandiose sense of special self-importance and entitlement that is a recognized character disorder on the individual level and that leaves others as bereft of the special group’s empathy as clinical narcissism leaves those around the entitled narcissist. Just think of all the self-centeredness, estrangement and politics of vengeance as well as bloodshed created, perpetuated and rationalized by these divisive divisions!
EMPATHWAYS AROUND US-AGAINST-THEMNESS AND INTO EACH OTHER
Since the defensive construction of us-against-themness is such a major obstacle to empathy, here are some of the empathways around us-against-themness and into each other.
1. The Empathway of Proportion
A good sense of proportion softens us/themness. A mature sense of “on balance” gives a needed balance. Martin Luther used to say that those without it were unfit to be around people. Robert Louis Stevenson called such folk “the greenhorns.” Said Henry Drummond: they’re “morally illiterate … hav[ing] never learned how to live.” He said they “go about the world looking out for slights, and they are necessarily miserable, for they find them at every turn—especially the imaginary ones.” These are the people of thin skin and thick skulls. With offense on the brain, they take offense at every opportunity. By their personalizing, they hurt themselves; by their politicising, they hurt others. These complaints are stock items in the news these days. Can’t we identify with them?
At a recent news conference, reporters from the black press attacked comic Chris Rock for paining his fellow blacks by appearing in whiteface in Vanity Fair. Rock explained that he’s “a clown. I’m a comedian.” He said it was sad that “I’ll never be able to do [some routines] because of people like you … [people with] closed minds.” Hefty opera star Jessye Norman tried to sue British Classic CD magazine for reporting that she had been wedged in a doorway and that upon being advised to turn sideways is said to have said: “Honey, I ain’t got no sideways.” Instead of taking the joke on her proportions in proportion, Norman claimed she never said it and that the report was a “degrading racist stereotype of a person of African American heritage.” A London judge denied her suit, calling the report “gentle fun” and saying it was too bad that her “remarkable voice” was not matched by an “engaging sense of humor.” When too much is seen as “offensive,” too much that is offensive will go unchecked. In novelist/screenwriter Frederic Raphael’s The Necessity of Anti-Semitism (the “necessity” is not prescriptive, but an allusion to Shelley’s The Necessity of Atheism—lest someone take offense), his main argument is that there is an anti-Semitism that’s simply silly and frivolous and one should not waste effort against it when there is really serious anti-Semitism with which to contend. A sense of proportion is a sense of humor. It’s what Peanuts creator Charles Schulz had in mind in saying: “If I were given the opportunity to present a gift to the next generation, it would be the ability for each individual to laugh at himself.” It’s what kept Mae Questel going for all those years in the rough and tumble world of show business. She was the voice of Betty Boop, Olive Oyl, and Sweet Pea in over 500 animated cartoons. She used to say that her secret in life was this. “Don’t make a megillah out of every little thing.” If more of us would learn that lesson, there would be less perceived us/themness and less of a need for our even looking for more empathways into others. That sense of proportion would be its own fine empathway.
2. The Empathway of Fairness
Precisely because life is unfair, an intentional fairness is one empathway into others. New York Daily News essayist Stanley Crouch’s “Flip Test” is an expression of such intentional fairness. This test is the goose and gander principle, the application of the same standards to all groups and situations. If we say something about one group, how does it sound if we say it about another group? It’s really nothing new. If s just the fairness of The Golden Rule.
Applying the flip test to a New York Times article about black parents who are teaching their children how to cope with police bias and abuse, one must ask why white parents see no particular need to teach their children how to cope with such. Might that itself indicate that police deal with black and white youth differently? Or are white parents just not as street-smart?
In his Harvard Lectures in the History of American Civilization, Yale law professor Stephen L. Carter rejected the currently popular notion that religious morality has no place in public debate. He pointed out that “Had the nation tried to enforce in the 1860s or the 1960s the depressing rules for public dialogue that liberals too often endorse today, our history—certainly my history, as an African-American—would have been radically different … for the worse.” He argues that if the Constitution proscribes religiously based political arguments, “then either the Constitution is wrong or the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., leader of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, was a dangerous religious fanatic whose words and work should have been condemned by liberalism.”
Both conservative and liberal leaders long ago warned that the 1970 RICO Act to combat organized crime with triple punishment could one day be used against political protesters. After a 12-year civil suit brought by the National Organization for Women and two abortion businesses against anti-abortion activists, the RICO statute has been used against these protesters. The ACLU acknowledges that if RICO had been on the books in the 1960s, it could have been used effectively against anti-war protesters and against black civil rights sit-ins at lunch counters in the segregated South. But, as social critic John Leo explains, “because the target group [this time]—antiabortion demonstrators—is very much out of favor with civil liberties groups … the ACLU’s voice has been muted and ambivalent, mostly because [of] its feminist allies.”
Here’s another one for the flip test. Have you heard people say they’re “recovering Catholics?” Andrew Sullivan, who is both openly gay and a practicing Catholic, says he hears that from many gay people. He notes, though, that people “would never say ‘recovering Jew.’ Can you imagine how offensive that would sound?”
The New York Times editorialized against the “noxious brew of Hindu chauvinism” in Indian politics and of “the militant Hindu chauvinists with their vision of India as a Hindu state.” Well over 90 percent of Indians are Hindu. How does it sound if another dominant national religion is substituted—say, “the noxious brew of Jewish chauvinism” or “the militant Jewish chauvinists with their vision of Israel as a Jewish state?”
It’s as entertainment that a black performance group, Onyx, calls for the murder of white Americans. Flip the races and how does it sound? A Seattle art gallery has been exhibiting paintings that show a pedophile priest in flagrante delicto, Jesus hanging on a cross of penises, and Bible pages defaced with Satanic marks. Seattle Times columnist Michelle Malkin asks if there would have been the same indifference, amusement and even enthusiastic embrace if the paintings “showed a gross caricature of a lascivious rabbi dangling naked from a Star of David?” She writes: “There is no question the city’s civility police would be out in full force, decrying such stark, tasteless bigotry. So why the double standard? … Complain about the right kind of hurt, and you will be anointed a progressive worthy of the spotlight. Complain about the wrong kind, and you will be branded a kooky, right-wing Philistine.”
The Religious Right never fails to identify a same-gender pedophile as “a homosexual” and to use the incident as an argument against all homosexuality. How does it sound to identify an opposite-gender pedophile as “a heterosexual” and to use that incident as an argument against all heterosexuality? The Religious Right says that the instability and failure of gay relationships is an argument against homosexuality.’ Is the instability and divorce rate for heterosexual relationships an argument against heterosexuality?
Author Toni Morrison has observed that “we slot and characterize people when we know their race.” She says that’s why “I never say what color [the women] are” in her new novel, Paradise. But, contrary to most mainstream reviews of this book, Pulitzer Prize winner Michiko Kakutani, in her review in The New York Times, points out that “almost all the women in this novel are victims [while] the men, on the other hand, are almost uniformly control freaks or hotheads, eager to dismiss independent women as sluts or witches, and determined to make everyone submit to their will.” What if the genders were reversed? Kakutani sees the novel as “a heavy-handed, schematic, … contrived, formulaic book that pits men against women, old against young, the past against the present.” Says another reviewer: All this “is a contemporary cliche, and Morrison plays it too heavily.” [Brooke Allen] Detroit News columnist Cathy Young calls attention to a rising tide of male-bashing, including buttons, calendars and other merchandise with slogans like “All Men are Bastards,” “It’s Always His Fault,” and “Men We Love to Hate.” Reverse the genders and how do these slogans sound?
When the president of ABC explained that the cancellation of “Ellen” was because Ellen was a lesbian on every show, it didn’t seem to occur to him that one’s sexual orientation is an everyday experience. He would not have made the same complaint about a heterosexual character’s being a heterosexual on every show. Imagine canceling “Friends” because they were obviously heterosexual in every episode!
If we refuse to apply the flip test, we make it much harder to develop the ability to feel with the truly other. If we discipline ourselves to apply the flip test, we’ll increase the likelihood of empathy, truly identifying with others and effectively moving out of the isolation of us-against-themness.
3. The Empathway of the Mixed-Up
We’re all mixed up. We’re all mixed up, as in: complex. And we’re all mixed up, as in: confused. So before we’re quick to “mix it up” with each other, before we continue to contend against each other, let’s be realistic about these mix-ups of complexity and confusion. When we’re too sure, we can surely misread others.
If empathy is blocked by us/them opposition of the “good” us over the “bad” them, one way to diminish this obstacle to empathy is to take more seriously the fact that people can’t really be so conveniently stereotyped as only good or only bad, only us or only them. G. K. Chesterton used to say that the Bible tells us to love our neighbors and our enemies because they are generally the same people. And as Pogo used to say, we’ve met the enemy and it’s us! In the past, biographies tended to be hagiography—the subjects were presented as all good, wonderful, larger-than-life. Some may wish it still were so. Historian Nell Irvin Painter’s balanced biography of Sojourner Truth was met with what she terms “resistance” from those who wanted only the “mythic” Truth instead of a picture of the ex-slave abolitionist as a complex and even flawed individual. Painter herself concludes that “Sojourner Truth belongs to a company of ‘invented Greats.’” She writes that “The symbol of Sojourner Truth is stronger and more essential in our culture than the complicated person. The symbol we require in our public life still triumphs over scholarship.” Joyce Carol Oates responds: “Not all historians or readers will agree with Ms. Painter that ‘symbol’ is more valuable than history or truth.”
Writing of the canonization process for Dorothy Day, the Newsweek religion editor points out that “the faults [of the candidate for sainthood] make the saint both real and believable.” [Kenneth L. Woodward] On the probability of Mother Teresa’s canonization, USA Today editorialized against her critics: “No true saint leaves a legacy of perfection.” It was Pascal who wrote: “I do not admire the extreme of one virtue unless you show me at the same time the extreme of the opposite virtue. One shows one’s greatness not by being at one extremity but by being simultaneously at two extremities and filling all the space between.” Writing about Jesus, C. S. Lewis stated. “The most striking thing about our Lord is the union of great ferocity with extreme tenderness. … Add to this that He is also a supreme ironist, dialectician, and (occasionally) humourist.” Lewis urged his reader to get “to the real Man behind all the plaster dolls that have been substituted for Him. This is the appearance in human form of the God who made the tiger and the lamb, the avalanche and the rose. He’ll frighten and puzzle you, but the real Christ can be loved and admired as the doll can’t.” If Lewis can well say this about Jesus, we should be warned against expecting less ambiguity in ourselves and others around us. Some biographers even these days do manage to achieve balance—not for the sake of balance merely—but simply because their subjects are, indeed, complex people. They’re writing about real human beings. Thus, as a reviewer writes of a Nelson Mandela biography, the “best pages reveal the contradictions and paradoxes of a deeply complex individual, autocratic with family and followers, yet blind to the murderous ways of his wife, a fiercely decent man strangely unwilling or unable to act when his ministers failed or party favorites rifled the till. There is the genius for reconciliation, yet there is his ruthless treatment of De Klerk.” [Christopher Hope] A writer for the British magazine, The Spectator, concludes her review of Hugh Small’s new biography of Florence Nightingale by saying: “She was worse than we ever thought, but she was greater too.” [Jane Ridley] But typically, “the golden mean,” “sweet reasonableness,” and truly balanced perspectives of both/and are more difficult to achieve than the either/or divisions and divisiveness. So nowadays, if biography’s not going to be hagiography, it more and more resembles the obsessions of the tabloids.
The former archbishop of Canterbury, Robert Runcie, so dreaded his upcoming biography by the vitriolic Humphrey Carpenter that he said, “I have done my best to die before this book is published.” The feared Carpenter, reviewing someone else’s biography of Somerset Maugham, complained that “the only shocking incident is of Maugham sitting in an armchair, watching a drugged guardsman being raped at a gay party.” Dennis Potter is the latest to be Carpentered. Columnist “NB” writes in The Times Literary Supplement “A year or two ago, Potter was seen as a great man, the long-suffering victim of a crippling disease, who laboured at his final plays knowing he had only weeks left to live. At death’s door, he gave an inspiring television interview. By last week, he was a ‘sex pest,’ an ‘emotional blackmailer’ and ‘Dennis the Menace.’” Bertrand Russell’s latest biographer presents the crusty philosopher as what another Russell authority objects is a “profoundly disturbed man, not merely egotistical and cold but literally murderous in his impulses … who was blind to others’ sufferings, and always ready to sacrifice them to his own insecurities and desires who wore out his lovers with his obsessions and intensity before tossing them aside in preparation for the next victim.” [A. C. Grayling on Ray Monk’s book] He points out that this “hostile portrait is only half the story, for it yields too little of Russell’s achievements and better thoughts, his generosity, his intellect, his wit and his hunger for love.”
The writing of biography, or any history for that matter, is always a rewriting. Writing about the tendency of historians to lie, Chesterton remarked that “our fashionable conceptions of the past change with every fashion.” What is emphasized at one time is censored at another time, what is put forth by some is suppressed by others. When the rewriting of history is in either/or categories for us/them propaganda, empathy is frustrated and can even be destroyed between one group and another. A recent example of the rewriting of history in us/them purposes is the decision of the New Orleans School Board to change the name of George Washington Elementary School to that of a black hero because, in the exaggeration of a local black civil rights spokesman, “To African-Americans, George Washington has about as much meaning as David Dukes [of the KKK].” [Carl Galmon] And Galmon was going to see that that remained the case. But according to the chairwoman of the United States Commission on Civil Rights, Mary Frances Berry (who is an African American), that school board decision was “petty” and “no way for students to learn about history.” Acknowledging Washington’s slaveholding and the fact that he “insured that the slaves he owned were freed upon his death,” Berry asks: “Is slaveholding, in the end, the sole issue by which to judge Presidents?” The Commissioner argues that Washington “was a great, if complex man. His reputation for courage, integrity and good judgment inspired confidence. He held together a starving, poorly supplied revolutionary army through many defeats.” She concludes he “was the only truly essential founder of our nation and no apologist for slavery.” It is Berry’s rather than Galmon’s appraisal of Washington that will contribute to empathy between the races. Galmon’s only perpetuates resentment between the races.
When the liberal pastor of a major United Methodist church was removed for having “had relationships of a sexual nature” with several women in his congregation, conservatives used his misdeeds for their own us/them agenda. When the conservative pastor of a major Presbyterian church was removed for having had relationships of a sexual nature with several women in his congregation, liberals used his misdeeds for their own us/them agenda. And both liberals and conservatives overlooked each man’s stride and chose, for their own purposes, to focus on each man’s stumbling. When J. Edgar Hoover, the head of the FBI, discovered that Martin Luther King, Jr. was having adulterous affairs with various women, he tried to use the information to discredit the whole civil rights movement. Apparently his agency went so far as to try to intimidate King into killing himself. Hoover’s own sexual irregularities, kept under wraps during his lifetime, were uncovered after his death. His liberal critics couldn’t stop smirking. When the sexual misdeeds of Jimmy Swaggart, Jim Bakker and other television preachers were exposed, those who had an anti-Christian ax to grind ground away. They used these incidents to discredit not only all the rest of the man but also all of his message. In every case, the critics knew or should have known that sexual temptation and misbehavior is “common to man” and not confirming of a lack of integrity in a disfavored political position or theology—much less the “whole story” of the man himself. But instead of empathizing, as any self-aware sexual person could do if he only would, the self-righteous windbags used the incidents of misconduct to reinforce a defensive us-against-themness. They had been there and so have we all. So we’d all do well to see ourselves and others as merely less well-known versions of those whose lives, truly told, reveal the range of human complexity—both good and bad.
What we do in interpersonal perceptions and relations, we do on intergroup, transcultural and international levels as well. We’re tempted to project innocence and victim status onto ourselves and our favored groups while projecting guilt and the victimizer role onto others.
It used to be that the Wisdom of the West—“us”—trumped that of “them” in “the inscrutable East.” Now, there’s a sort of masochistic preoccupation with a seeming reversal of “us/them.” Some disillusioned relativistic yuppies are rummaging through dumbed-down Hinduism and Buddhism, picking up pantheism and yoga and rejecting the rigidities of the laws of karma, caste, and self-denial.
There was a time when the movie cowboys were “us,” the “good” guys (except, of course, for “them bad cowboys”) and the “Injuns” or “them” were the “bad” guys (except for Tonto). Now, all Native Americans are said to be the “good” guys (and women) with whom the fashionable elite count themselves. Columbus and his fellow European invaders are said to be the “bad” guys or “them.” But who did the various waves of invading “Native Americans” displace? What were the atrocities committed by these “Native Americans” against those more Native Americans? Of the many migrations over thousands of years, which among the so-called First Nations were indeed first? Which among the earlier migrations were wiped out by later arrivals? And how? And if those who Columbus found here were indeed all “Native Americans,” why were these “Native Americans” engaged in wars among each other? Lawrence H. Keeley writes in War Before Civilization: “In the past few decades, the hypothesis of unserious, ritualized primitive war has … been transformed—through the consistent de-emphasis of prehistoric violence by archaeologists and later through the explicit arguments of some social anthropologists—into a neo-Rousseauian concept of prehistoric peace.” Keeley shows that this idea of the Noble Savage is essentially nonsense. But, as Christopher Lehmann-Haupt puts it: “revulsion with the excesses of World War II has led to a loss of faith in progress and Western civilization. With the recent disappearance of the last remnants of primitive culture, distance has made the heart grow fonder and the mind mushier, and the sentimentalization of the savage has proceeded apace, even in the face of hard contradictory evidence.” Keeley concludes: “If Westerners have belatedly recognized that they are not the crown of creation and rightful lords of the earth, their now common view of themselves as humanity’s nadir is equally absurd.”
It is indisputable that some Europeans did terrible things to some of the people they encountered in this hemisphere. They had had a long history of mistreating fellow Europeans. It’s also indisputable that some of these native people did terrible things to some Europeans. They had had a long history of mistreating other natives. But it is also true that both the earlier people and the newcomers were blessings to each other. Their histories are mixed. Besides, whether it’s the older recollections or the later ones, the past—an individual’s, a people’s—is never merely brought back. It is constructed in the present.
There’s another mix-up that can impede empathy as well as provide an empathway. Everyone we might label as a member of a particular group may not be seen as such by other members of the group or by the person herself. If we lump them all together we don’t see their individual differences and thus prevent ourselves from identifying with at least some of them.
People carelessly speak of “the Greeks” when they have in mind only the Athenians of the fifth and fourth centuries BC. But the very different Spartans were also Greeks. Today in Israel, as well as in America, there’s a rancorous debate over “Who is a Jew?” Is a Jew only a Jew if Orthodox? Is a Jew also a Jew if she’s in the Reconstructionist movement? What about a secular Jew who’s an atheist? Is a “Bu-Jew” [Buddhist] a Jew? Is a Jew for Jesus a Jew? And who are “the Arabs?” As one observer puts it: “The unity of the Arabs would scarcely have been insisted on so endlessly if the Arabs had been united. … The Arabs are not a nation, though they share a culture. In private, Egyptians will tell you that they are not Arabs at all, and that ces messieurs are, some of them, e.g. Algerians and Iraqis, pretty well beyond the civilized pale.” [Frederic Raphael]
Can we mix up all whites and then identify them all as “whites?” That would mix up White Power agitators with the majority of the citizens of Norway and most of Thomas Jefferson’s descendants. Can we mix up all blacks? Henry Louis Gates, Jr. of Harvard’s African American studies program speaks of his feelings about black ghetto gangs: “I find it hard to concede that these young hoodlums are part of the same community I belong to.” On “gangsta culture,” Gates protests: “Since when does being black mean embracing the worst of what we can be?” In what The New York Times writer Eric Bogosian calls “an exorcism by laughter,” here’s black Comic Chris Rock: “Who’s more racist: black people or white people? Black people. You know why? Because black people hate black people, too. Everything white people don’t like about black people, black people don’t like about black people.” Rock goes on that some blacks blame “the media [for] distorting] our image to make us look bad. … Please! … When I go to the money machine at night, I’m not looking over my shoulder for the media. I’m looking for niggers.” And many whites distance themselves from “white trash,” many Irish distance themselves from “shanty Irish,” and many gay men distance themselves from “dykes.” And who are “the Hispanics?” Do Cuban businessmen in Miami identify with Puerto Rican gang members in The Bronx? Do the gangs identify with the Pentecostal Puerto Ricans down the block? To Christian Coalition members and even many gays and lesbians, a queer is a queer is a queer. Yet, lamenting that (1) the largest gay rights group (The Human Rights Campaign) endorsed the Right-to-Life Party’s Alfonse D’Amato, (2) the gay Log Cabin Republicans gave an award to anti-Affirmative Action activist Ward Connerly, and (3) the fact that The Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation accepted a large grant from Coors while other gay activists are boycotting Coors, lesbian activist Urvashi Vaid asks: “Will everyone in our very diverse community ever unite behind one set of ideological politics?” Her answer: “No, we will not.”
Some of what is observed as intra-group rivalries in these “communities” of racial, ethnic, religious, cultural, or sexual identity is more empathy-crushing us/themness. But some of it can be used to circumvent stereotypes that separate and thus the intra-group variety can facilitate points of contact between groups. We’re all so mixed-up that we often have more in common on some important matters with those outside our “group” than with those inside.
If we know ourselves—individually as well as our own groups—and if we know each other, we know we’re all mixed. But we can improve empathy by recognizing these facts of mix and by acting on them—whether with ourselves or with others, our groups or other groups. But I said if we know ourselves, if we know each other. We probably don’t know ourselves as well as we think we do. We probably don’t know each other as well as we think we do. Our self-perceptions and our perceptions of others are heavily edited, even illusory, rationalized and user-friendly constructions of what we find it convenient, even necessary, to believe about ourselves and others. So we’re all somewhat mixed up on the mix and the mix-up each of us is and each of them is. But mixed, we are. And mixed, they are.
Here are some sobering words of comfort from the novelist Francois Mauriac. They are words of grateful and humble prayer. They are true of others and they are true of ourselves. “I see,” Mauriac prayed, “that every judgment is rash, and the judgment we make about ourselves is no less rash than that of others. We do not know ourselves. We seem to take it upon ourselves to discourage Your justice ahead of time. There is no impulse in us which is not ambiguous, which does not conceal a dark calculation, no gesture which does not come from a pose we believe we profit from, a pose we take in your presence or in the presence of our own conscience, or in the presence of others.”
If we fail to take for granted the inevitable mix that we and others are, we’ll minimize the unattractive in ourselves and exaggerate the unattractive in others. If we take for granted that each of us is a mix, we won’t have to hide behind hagiographic distortions of ourselves or our own kind and demonized distortions of others. We’ll be better prepared for realistic empathy.
4. The Empathway of One Blood
Someone has said that “a good biographer is one of whom you feel, so complete is his empathy with his subject, he has almost got the blood of his subject to flow through his own veins.” [Bevis Hillier] The blood that flows through all our veins is an empathway into others. That’s because their blood, too, flows through our veins and our blood flows through theirs. We are all one-blooded. Job recognized that he and his slaves had this fundamental identity in common: he and they were created by the same God. Paul reminded the Athenians of their own Stoic tenet: God created all people out of one.
Here’s the poetry. Genesis says we’re brothers and sisters, sons of Adam and daughters of Eve—created from dust in the image of the One God—and placed inside and then, alas, exiled outside Eden, somewhere east of the Mediterranean, sometime in the primeval past, after being in the Creator’s Mind from all eternity. Here’s the science: We’re brothers and sisters, made of star dust, DNA descendants of a prehistoric Adam and proto-Eve, trekking out of Africa east of the Mediterranean, some 140,000 years ago, after what one scientist terms the “billion-year coagulation of our genes into co-operative teams [and] the million-year coagulation of our ancestors into co-operative societies.” [Matt Ridley]
The well-known Lakota prayer goes like this: “Great Spirit, Help me never to judge another until I have walked two weeks in his moccasins.” Have you ever prayed that prayer? Do you pray someone else would pray that prayer while thinking of you? But it’s an answered prayer. At least the second part is: “until I have walked two weeks in his moccasins.” That conditional clause has been met already. Inadvertently, unknowingly, we’ve all walked for far more than two weeks in each other’s moccasins. We’ve all been doing the same thing for a long, long time. We’ve all been walking, walking, walking—left foot in front of the right, right foot in front of the left—on and on and on. So what if we’ve walked in sandals or slippers or boots or Nikes or pumps instead of moccasins. We’ve all been walking.
If we’ve all been walking for all these thousands upon thousands of years—one foot at a time, one foot in front of the other, in- and out-of-step with each other—we’ve all by now covered a lot of the same ground. We’ve more than retraced each other’s steps over all this common ground of human experience.
In Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, Shylock the Jew addresses the Christians and asks rhetorically: “If you prick us do we not bleed’ . If you tickle us do we not laugh? … and if you wrong us shall we not revenge?” Shylock was appealing to common human experience—we’re like each other in this and we’re like each other in that. Says a sociologist (who is black): “There can be no empathy and no persuasion that crosses racial lines unless we begin with the understanding that the conditions and feelings of particular human beings are universally shared.” [Glenn C. Loury] And a scientist puts it this way: “for all their superficial differences of language and custom, foreign cultures are still immediately comprehensible at the deeper level of motives, emotions, and social habits.” [Ridley] He points out that the most important psychological differences between human beings are differences that can be found within any given group, not differences that one might perceive between groups. He goes on to conclude that human beings are “built to be social, trustworthy, and co-operative.” Evidently, we’re made for empathy.
5. The Empathway of the Bloodied and Bloody
The Bible and science say we’re all one family, blooded together. Well we’re also bloodied and bloody together. The Bible’s first mention of blood is a brother’s blood shed by his brother. The violence done to Abel is our human experience and the violence done by Cain is also our human experience. We all may be bleeding but there’s others’ blood on our hands. Although all the how and why in our cases is often as hidden as in the case of Cain and Abel, “We are hostages to each other in a deadly interrelatedness,” says Garry Wills: “There is no ‘clean slate’ of nature unscribbled on by all one’s forebearers.” And as bad as memory can be, bad memories are vengeance. Long-held grudges and refusals to forgive fuel the fighting. Grievances real and imagined, nursed and rehearsed and restructured beyond memory refuel the suspicion and hostility between “us” and “them.”
This makes it even easier to identify with only our bloodied selves and with the us-writ-larger in approved “others” and makes it even harder to identify with our bloody selves and with those others we define as only bloody.
Our bent toward bloodying each other was recognized in a fundamental insight of our country’s founders. Here’s John Adams’ caution to Thomas Jefferson: “Checks and Balances, Jefferson, however you and your Party may have ridiculed them, are our only Security, for the progress of Mind, as well as the Security of Body. Every Species of these Christians would persecute Deists, as soon as either sect would persecute another, if it had unchecked and unbalanced Power. Nay, the Deists would persecute Christians, and the Atheists would persecute Deists, with as unrelenting cruelty as any Christians would persecute them or one another. Know thyself, human Nature.”
Over against these realistic observations of our common human hostilities, today’s proponents of a picturesque and pacific past preserve a one-sided us-against-themness. For example, pushing the propaganda that there were apparently no inter-tribal raiding parties, no war paint, no scalping and no peace pipes before Columbus landed here makes it more difficult to identify with both Native Americans and Europeans. It’s an unintended consequence of such fashionable fantasies that we then fail to see our truly common human nature. Failing to see that we share such a common human history of both bloodying and being bloodied, we lock on to what we say divides and defines “us” from “them” and we thus make it harder for any of us or them to empathize with those our ignorance tells us all are “them.”
In the real world, this line between victim and victimizer is much more easily crossed than the rhetoric of special pleading and willed ignorance admits. In The Drowned and the Saved, the Auschwitz prison survivor Primo Levi wrote of “a gray zone” inhabited by the Kapos, prisoners with homicidal power over other prisoners. He saw this phenomenon as a fundamental reality in human beings, observed in what he called the “cruel laboratory” of the concentration camp’s “ferocious sociological observatory.”
Without the bigger picture of the whole human family’s ability to function as both bloodied and bloody, both victim and victimizer, the selected snap-shot can be very misleading. Without the both/and of the wider lens, a parochial special pleading makes empathy virtually impossible.
There is hardly anything more troubling for more Americans today than the continuing problems of race relations. And yet the problems are so incessantly framed in black/white, either/or stereotypes that neither blacks nor whites can readily identify with each other. This is especially perpetuated by what is said and not said about the inhumane history of slavery—often symbolizing the primal phenomenon of race relations. The picture of slavery that comes most readily to mind today is a picture of black cotton-pickers and white overseers in the American South of the 1800s.
But the institution of slavery is an evil that goes back much further than that. Writing in The Times Literary Supplement, a Johns Hopkins University historian states: “It is probable that all human societies have, at some stage in their histories, practiced slavery.” [Anthony Pagden] In the Bible, Egyptians and Babylonians enslaved the ancient Jews and the Jews enslaved Canaanites, Moabites, Edomites, and Ammonites as well as other Jews. According to Pagden: “Benin, China, ancient Mexico and Peru, Moghul India, Assyria, ancient Egypt, Elam, Urartu, all built extensive material civilizations in part, at least, on the basis of slave labour. … The empires of ancient Greece and Rome could not, in the absence of mechanical technologies, have spread far beyond the limits of their own ethnic regions without the extensive resources provided by free, and more importantly, subservient labour.” Captured Angles, members of a Germanic people who had settled in England in the fifth century, were to be seen in the slave markets of Rome in the sixth, prompting the remark that these beautiful and fair-haired boys were “not Angles, but angels!”
If we can understand that people from all human societies—including people of color—have enslaved others (and even each other), might we not possibly get beyond one-sided blaming and better identify with those we’ve called “them?” If we can understand that people from all human societies—not only people of color—have been enslaved (and even by each other), might we not possibly get beyond one-sided grievance and better identify with those we’ve called “them?” If we can realize that “our own kind” have been enslaved and have enslaved, might we not better identify with both enslaved and enslavers?
The “modern” era of slavery that began in the late fifteenth century resulted in the largest forced migration in human history. It involved mainly Portuguese, French, English, and Spanish merchants who purchased enslaved Africans in Africa and, in turn, sold them to other Europeans settled in the Americas. But today, there tends to be a silence on a step in this slave trade. If, as popular stereotypes have it, only whites are enslavers and blacks are seen only as enslaved, it isn’t strange that racial tensions continue to be perpetuated. What tends to get silenced today is the fact that the enslaved Africans were enslaved by other Africans who then sold them to the Europeans. Though the Europeans were usually the original buyers as well as the sellers and buyers at the end of the process, Africans were the captors, captives, and sellers at the beginning of the process. Howard W. French observes in The New York Times: “Today Africans and African- Americans [as well as whites] may often share a common view of slavery as the evil work of whites.” Of course it was the evil work of some whites. And it was the evil work of some blacks. In the words of a freed slave in the later eighteenth century: “I must own, to the shame of my own countrymen, that I was kidnapped and betrayed by my own complexion, who were the first cause of my exile and slavery; but if there were no buyers there would be no sellers.” [Ottobah Cugoano]
Historian Felipe Fernandez-Armesto, writing on the African slave trade for The Sunday Times (of London) states: “Above all, the slave trade was kept going by culture. The African societies that supplied it with captives were ruled by war-chiefs and military aristocracies who depended on war.” As French explains: “Few African slaves were enchained by Europeans themselves. Instead, massive slave raids, huge marches of captives from inland areas and continuous rivalries between coastal kingdoms and local ethnic groups were driven by demand for Europe’s coveted goods—cloth and candies, grain, horses, spiced wine, pots and pans.”
Interviewed on “60 Minutes” (November 30, 1997), an African tribal priest acknowledges that slavery in Africa “was in place before the white man came.” And it’s in place long after the white slave traders left. French makes the point and brings it up to date: “African slavery … began long before the arrival of Europeans and continued well after slavery’s abolition in the West.” Indeed, Village Voice columnist Nat Hentoff has been among the very few who are crusading against the continuation of slavery in Africa today. In a recent column, he deplores “the thousands upon thousands of black Christians and animists who have been enslaved in the Sudan with the encouragement and support of the government based in the North.” According to A. M. Rosenthal of The New York Times: “The slaves live slave lives—murderous labor, rape, hunger, torture, the totality of degradation. They are said to be worked harder, fed less, beaten more than were even the slaves of the American South and Caribbean, because they are cheaper. Fifty dollars buys a slave, so it really does not matter how long they survive before their bodies are thrown into some river.”
On a recent History Channel “History Undercover” documentary on the old slave trade (October 4, 1998), tribal chiefs interviewed expressed their envy of opportunities others have and their ancestors had to become wealthy by capturing and selling their rivals into slavery. They said they would welcome such opportunities—and they were not joking.
Rosenthal says he does not why today’s slavery “is a subject with shocking few exceptions is evaded by journalist and by Democratic leadership” but he suspects that it may have to do with the fact that “mostly slavery befouls third-world countries that are the current favorites of so many Western journalist, intellectuals, and ‘statesmen’ and businessmen.” Hentoff faults American black leaders—from Jesse Jackson to Louis Farrakhan, as well as the Clinton Administration—for their silence on the “horrifying chattel slavery” in present-day Africa. Partly because of this silence on current slavery as well as because of racial orthodoxy’s censoring of the fact that, as French puts it, “the slavery of the Americas could never have approached the scale it attained without the active and widespread collaboration of Africans,” racial ignorance continues and so, of course, does racial strife. When and where these facts are presented—apart from the agendas of racist rhetoric—there is, naturally, shock and disbelief. According to the late African American scholar, Nathan Huggins, cited in The New York Review of Books by historian David Brian Davis: “The 20th-century Western mind is frozen by the horror of men selling and buying others as slaves and even more stunned at the irony of black men serving as agents for the enslavement of blacks by whites.”
How could this happen? How could blacks capture and sell other blacks into slavery to whites? Those blacks who captured and sold other blacks into slavery could do so because they did not identify with them as “fellow blacks.” To the captors and sellers, the enslaved were “them” even though they were black. They did not see them as fellow Africans or fellow blacks. They drew distinctions between themselves and these others but did not draw the lines where we tend to draw them today or where we think they’d have drawn them then. As French explains: “the very notion of shared Africanness so commonplace today existed only in the minds of foreigners during the time of this trade. To Africans, their own divisions on ethnic and linguistic lines mattered far more.” In Huggins’ words: “The racial wrong was lost on African merchants, who saw themselves as selling people other than their own. The distinctions of tribe were more real to them than race, a concept that was yet to be refined by 19th- and 20th-century Western rationalists.”
Ottobah Cugoano’s words on the “betrayal of my own complexion” was something he was able to say only after his release from slavery in the West. As another historian puts it: “How could Kenyatta have written about the Kikuyu, Kulet about the Masai and Achebe about the Ibo, if they had only been allowed to refer to ‘black people’?” [Roy Kerridge] Indeed, Western governments’ failure to recognize sufficiently the old identities, deeply entrenched tribal rivalries and even hatred among various groups of people Westerners saw collectively as “Africans” during decolonialization and the drawing of “national” boundaries that ignored these old identities have contributed to continuing friction and even mass slaughter down to the present. But, of course, there should be nothing strange about black on black rivalries to whites who know that The Revolutionary War was fought between “whites,” the Thirty-Years War was fought between “whites,” World War I was fought between “whites,” and so on and on.
Furthermore, there were black sailors who were not slaves who were employed on the slave ships crossing the Atlantic. This is documented in Black Jacks: African American Seamen in the Age o f Sail/ a new Harvard University Press book by W. Jeffrey Bolster. There were some 20,000 free blacks employed on these ships in the early nineteenth century—nearly one in five of all American sailors. But, of course, “the crews of slave ships [both blacks and whites] were themselves [often] little better than slaves; condemned to long voyages under captains who might put them in irons, flog them, or transfer them to men-of-war without appeal or redress,” as is noted by a biographer of John Newton. [Bernard Martin] Between ten and twenty percent of white crews died along with the slaves on the Atlantic crossing, as Hugh Thomas recounts in The Slave Trade. Newton, who was one of many white men “impressed” into maritime servitude on British and American ships, went on to become a slaver himself. And he went on beyond that to become an Anglican priest, abolitionist, and the author of the hymn, “Amazing Grace.” He worked with William Wilberforce and others in both church and Parliament to battle against the slave trade. That battle was won in 1807. Since at one time, Newton was a slave himself,—a slave of blacks in Africa—he knew first-hand what it was like to be in that terrible position.
Along with other evangelicals such as John Wesley, William Cowper, and the Tappan brothers, Newton and most of the abolitionists were white—if only because, in Great Britain and America, they were in a power position to act against the slave trade in a way that black slaves or even black freedmen were not. Empathy between blacks and whites today could be further enhanced if both blacks and whites better understood the involvement of whites in the abolition of the slave trade as well as in the emancipation of slaves in the British colonies and in this country. But this is not a popular emphasis these days, it’s not politically correct to highlight the white abolitionists, so blacks and whites are left largely in the dark. Steven Spielberg’s movie, Amistad, is a case in point. A Columbia University history professor notes that the film portrays “white abolitionists in a highly unflattering manner—they’re self-righteous and hypocritical.” [Eric Foner] He says the film “tells us more about the time in which it was produced than the event that it tries to portray.” In her New York Times review of the film, Janet Maslin is wrong to say it “create [s] the full empathy.” How can it do that when the slave leader is portrayed only as “radiat[ing] extraordinary presence and fury” while the white abolitionists are pictured as grim hymn-singers that the slaves mistake for bad entertainers, as Maslin notes. But sadly, she is right to say that the film “demonstrates what it really means” to speak of “Power in Hollywood.” Another reviewer points out that “Unfortunately, the man who did most to free the Amistad prisoners, [white businessman] Lewis Tappan, gets cursory treatment in the film. … [In] an invented conversation with a black abolitionist, … Tappan [is made out to be] something of a racist, a complaint nobody ever made about the real man” who threw his fortune and reputation into the cause of the slaves’ welfare and was ruined financially for it. [Tim Stafford] The Amistad Committee, organized to rescue the captives, was a group of white Congregationalists that went on to fight against slavery and for the benefit of blacks’ education, finally becoming the United Church of Christ’s Board of Homeland Ministries. According to the head of that Board: “What those Christian abolitionists really did was to create what we now recognize as the nation’s first human rights movement.” [Thomas E. Dipko] But who can “recognize” this if they get their “history” mainly from Hollywood?
White agitation for abolition of the slave trade and for the freeing of slaves split white families, white economies, white churches, and finally a “white” nation, with the white sons of the North giving their lives in unprecedented numbers in order, at least in part, to win the freedom of black slaves in the South.
And even in the period before the Civil War, as World Policy Journal editor Benjamin Schwartz writes in The Los Angeles Times: “for all their ignominious compromises with the slave system, antebellum ‘white’ Southern evangelical churches remained, in fact, biracial. In a society that forbade blacks from testifying against whites in courts of law, blacks’ testimony in church was heard and accepted and even overruled whites. In fact, as John Boles, perhaps the leading historian of Southern religion, concludes, ‘in the churches, slaves were treated more nearly as equals than anywhere else in the society.’” According to historian Christine Leigh Heyrman, in her book, Southern Cross: The Beginnings of the Bible Belt, until the 1830s, the Baptist and Methodist churches were “the only settings in the South in which white men were required to compete for standing not only with white women but also with African Americans.”
Slavery was never a simple matter of race. Both blacks and whites were villainous; both blacks and whites were valorous. Both were victimizers as well as victims. Without the demand for human chattel there would have been no supply. Without the supply of human chattel there could have been no satisfied demand.
Both blacks and whites continue to victimize each other by failing to realize that there was black and white complicity in the slave trade and there was black and white cooperation in abolishing it. Frank discussion of both the complicity and the cooperation might allow for a more realistic reconciliation between blacks and whites today. We are them; they are us!
It’s not, fundamentally, about race or color. It’s never been simply that. It’s always been about people in or out of power. Everyone has a certain kind of power over certain others; everyone is under a certain kind of power from certain others. If both blacks and whites understood that the horrors of the history of the slave trade and slavery itself were never simply a matter of race as we define that today, might not both blacks and whites have an easier time empathizing with each other, recognizing that there were blacks and whites on all sides in that history?
Moreover, in the words of Floyd H. Flake, a former member of Congress and still the pastor of the Allen African Methodist Episcopal Church in New York City: “regardless of what color you are, regardless of what background you come from, you can’t spend your life talking like a victim, acting like a victim, walking like a victim.” Neither, of course, can you spend your life as though you or others were nothing but victimizers.
The bloody and bloodied tribalisms of yesteryear’s Africa are presnt today in the atrocities carried out against each other by Hutus and Tutsis, the campaigns of terror and butchery of massacred villagers in Sierra Leone and Liberia, and the continuing enslavement in the Sudan. Though all concerned in these bloody and degrading demonstrations of power are “blacks” and “Africans,” that does not prevent their drawing deadly distinctions and divisions in other terms. Moving out of Africa, one thinks of Serbs, Bosnians, Kosovars, “ethnic cleansing” and the terrors of that part of the world. All the parties concerned are “white” but obviously “white” is not enough to overcome all the divisions perceived in other terms. Tribal hatreds trump any possible identification as “fellow Europeans.” Irish Catholics and Irish Protestants in the North of Ireland obviously don’t see themselves as “fellow whites” when they blow each other to bits. One thinks as well of East and West Germans—Germans nonetheless, but killing each other because they saw each other as us-against-them, not as fellow Germans, much less as fellow human beings. One thinks of North and South Koreans—Koreans nonetheless, but killing each other because they saw each other as us-against-them, not as fellow Koreans, much less as fellow human beings. Japanese and Chinese disemboweled each other without seeing each other as fellow Asians, much less as fellow human beings. All of these on all sides were and are so much more than East or West, North or South, German, Korean, Irish. Each is and was a person with more in common with other persons than can be obliterated by constructs of politics, race, ethnicity, religion, color, etc. But these constructions are made to play the predominant role in identity. Consequently, instead of the us-against-themness being bridged, it is made the basis for continuing prideful separation and even death.
Sadly, a victim/victimizer mentality is popular and even politically correct today. We’re pressed into seeing ourselves (myself and my kind) as oppressed but not oppressing. We’re pressed to see the truly others as oppressing but not oppressed. This emphasis on ourselves as oppressed accompanies a sort of one-upsmanship among people who see themselves as competing for victim-status with others who are claiming to be victims. For example, the liberated curator of the archives of the late Soviet secret police in Lithuania says that global Communists’ genocide surpassed that of the Nazis: “If you take all the victims of Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot,” he says, “there’s no question that that was the biggest genocide of all.” At the same time, Jewish leaders now say it’s anti-Semitic to use the term “holocaust” for any genocide except that against Jews. Yet, according to Peter Novick, founder of the University of Chicago’s Jewish study program, what’s come to be known as “The Holocaust” was “hardly talked about” before the 1960s. For two decades after World War II, concentration camp survivors were encouraged to look ahead, not back, with the rise of identity politics and the “culture of victimization,” Novick argues, the Holocaust has become “virtually the only common denominator of American Jewish identity,” giving Jews “the gold medal in the Victimization Olympics” and providing leverage for America’s wholesale support of Israel against the Palestinians. Meanwhile, Black Muslim Khalid Muhammad, speaking at Howard University, disparaged “the so-called Jewish Holocaust.” On the eve of the so-called Million Man March in 1995, he and other black separatists preached that Jews had dominated the slave trade and conspired to infect blacks with the AIDS virus. In the rant of one of them: “The Black Holocaust is absolutely 100 times worse than the Jewish Holocaust or any other holocaust that’s ever existed on the Earth. We not only have a holocaust; we’ve paid a hell of a cost. We’ve lost over 200 billion lives. Don’t step in here with that six million.” [Malik Zulu Shabazz] Of course, six million multiplied by “100 times worse” is not 200 billion, but his figures are beside his point. His exaggeration is dwarfed by the inflated victim mentality of protesting artist-vendors outside the Metropolitan Museum of Art. They carried posters picturing Mayor Rudolph Giuliani defaced with a Hitler moustache and captioned “Police State’ !”
No matter what may be said for the curator in Lithuania, the black Muslims or the angry artist-vendors, they all victimized others in making their own claims to victim status. Thus, our common roles as oppressor and oppressed continue.
In some refreshing contrast, the Christian Reformed Church’s national synod earlier this year decided to issue a strong statement against the many millions of abortions since Roe v. Wade. The initial proposal called abortion “an American holocaust.” But some of the delegates expressed an empathic concern that the word “holocaust” would offend the Jewish community which gives the term its own distinctive meaning. So in the final version of the declaration, the Christian Reformed Church substituted the word “atrocity” for “holocaust.”
We’re victims of each other, but we’re also victims of our victim-mentality. An editor of the Jewish weekly, The Forward, wisely warns of the “risks of allowing the Holocaust to overshadow other defining events in the Jewish people’s long, rich history.” He says there’s “a question of priorities here.” [Jonathan Mahler] Discussing the same issue—the establishment of a chair in Holocaust studies at Harvard—a professor of Jewish history at Indiana University has this to say: “I’d prefer to see the Jewish experience studied in its entirety, with no greater emphasis placed on anti-Semitism, persecution and the Holocaust than is warranted by a long-term historical perspective. Teaching in these subjects should not be done to the disadvantage of the entirety of Jewish civilization.” A Harvard professor of Yiddish and comparative literature agrees. She comments: “You don’t have a chair in modern Jewish history, but you have one on the destruction of the Jewish people.” [Ruth Wisse] “Victimhood” can no more define us than “victimizer” can define them.
Likewise, there’s lots of what we all misread as destructive abuse that might be better understood as constructive criticism—in effect if not by intent. Not every challenge to Israeli policies on the Palestinians is anti-Semitic. Not every critique of the church is Christian-bashing. Not all objections to Affirmative Action are racist. Not all disapproval of what may pass for feminism is sexist. Not all dissent from lesbigay transgendered agendas is homophobic. The fact is: Empathy does not require agreement—only identification. In empathy, we identify with another’s fear, frustration, zeal, anger, hurt, as well as with another’s feelings of pleasure, excitement, wonder, satisfaction.
We can empathize with Pat Robertson on homosexuality. That’s not because we agree with him on homosexuality. It’s because we, too, know what it’s like to think we need things to go our way. We can empathize with James Dobson on gays and lesbians because we, too, buy into stereotypes and use stereotypes of others for our own purposes. We can empathize with Jerry Falwell because we, too, read the Bible selectively. We can empathize with others in their irrationality, nastiness, meanness, and hypocrisy because we, too, are irrational, nasty, mean-spirited, and hypocritical at times. We all can be more self-righteous than right. If we don’t empathize with those with whom we disagree, either we don’t really know ourselves and therefore don’t see ourselves in others or we can’t stand ourselves and so can’t stand to see ourselves in others.
One’s ability to identify as a fellow sinner is realistic and practical. It allows us to empathize. Goethe said he was able to see himself in all the offenders he read about in the newspaper. During India’s struggle for independence from Great Britain, Mohandas Gandhi acknowledged: “My first fight is with the demons inside me, my second fight is with the demons in my people, and only my third fight is with the British.” Said Carl Jung: “Knowing your own darkness is the best method for dealing with the darkness of other people.” R. Maurice Boyd of The City Church in New York reminds us all that “people who are shocked by others’ sins are phony.” Would that we all could willingly learn these lessons!
In the current culture wars, long-standing enemies can experience some empathy for “them” as well as self-critical evaluation of “us” through honest observation. For example, in an essay entitled “The Intimate Enemy: Finding Myself in the Religious Right,” New Left lesbian activist Donna Minkowitz tells of her journalistic sojourn among politically-active anti-gay fundamentalist Christians. She’s a politically-active pro-gay secular Jew. She begins by saying that she had assumed she “knew very clearly who they were: everything I was not.” So do we all. They were “evil’s special people.” She then spent a week, not with just any fairly mild-mannered members of the Religious Right but with Fred Phelps. He’s the preacher and former lawyer best known for picketing at the funerals of gay men who have died of AIDS. He and the members of his congregation carry big signs that read: “God Hates Fags” and “Fags are Worthy of Death” and “AIDS Cures Fags.” To her surprise, Minkowitz found that Phelps and his kin “were very familiar.” She saw that she and Phelps “were motivated by the same desire” though from opposite sides. “To me,” she writes, “Phelps didn’t feel like an alien, but a brother—hurting his enemies any way he could.” She realized that in spending time with Phelps she had spent time in her “own personal frightening place.”
Responding to a hostile review of one of his own books, a review done by Jody Bottum of the neoconservative Weekly Standard, gay activist Bruce Bawer observes: “It’s fascinating how you can look back at things I wrote several years ago, before I really was a Christian, that were coming from very much the same place that Jody Bottum is.” Here, Bawer was seeing himself in Bottum, not merely as an apologist for one’s point of view but as an apologist for a particular point of view held at a previous point in his life’s experience. We’ve each been of a different mind on any number of issues over the years. We’re each of a mixed mind on any number of issues even now. We’ve been where others are now. We’ll be where we are not yet. Last summer David Brock, the gay neoconservative journalist who trashed Anita Hill in an earlier book and later was the first to identify a “Paula” [Jones] from Arkansas, wrote a piece for Esquire magazine entitled “Confessions of a Hit Man for the Right Wing.” In it he wrote that he wanted out: “David Brock the Road Warrier of the Right is dead. … My side turned out to be as dirty as theirs.”
Sometimes some individuals within identity groups that, as groups, remain hostile to each other, can see their way clear to empathize with at least some of those in the other group. A splendid demonstration of such empathy is the relationship between Leah Rabin, widow of the late Israeli prime minister, and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. Speaking of her friendship with Arafat, she says: “We have developed a real kinship. I have a very warm feeling for him.” She says that he refers to her as “my sister.” Interviewed in Newsweek, she said: “You know, he came here after my husband’s murder. He was here in this apartment, and we spent a very amazing hour or two hours together. He couldn’t have been nicer. It really was amazing, you know, that this person until not too long ago we thought we shall never reconcile with. And now he comes in like a member of the family and is accepted like one. What I am saying is that it is so easy to forget—to get over—longtime misunderstandings.”
It can be costly to violate the expectations of one’s own group while openly empathizing with the “them.” To members of one’s own group, the “others” are still “them.” Leah Rabin and Yasser Arafat have both been harshly criticized by “their own” for their friendship. Yuval Lotem of the Israeli Army Reserve has been denounced as an “Arab lover” and sentenced to a month in an army stockade for refusing to serve in an Israeli prison where some 400 Palestinians are held under so-called “administrative detention.” The Palestinians had been rounded up and, without trial, put into prison for months and even years. A month in the stockade may not be as much of a sacrifice as some who have laid down their lives for others but very often it’s the “little deaths” and the daily dyings that add up to a lifetime of real sacrifice in which a man like Lotem is shunned and disowned by “his own.” Nonetheless, Lotem says: “It’s important for Palestinians to know that there are people on the other side who care about them, who wish them well, who believe that they deserve freedom and want to live with them in peace. … If they won’t think that there is such a chance that the two peoples can live in peace, we’re all lost.”
Perhaps we can go even a bit further. In order to empathize with the other person or group, nobody in these examples had to change his or her position on an issue. But some hypothetical revision of the terms of a particular issue might allow people who disagree on the issue to identify a bit more with even what it’s like to hold that other position. Suppose, for example, pro-life people considered how they would feel if the Supreme Court ruled that all contraception, including the rhythm method, was illegal. Might they then better empathize with the taking of a pro-choice position? Their assumption that contraception—at least by rhythm—does not kill a person would be like the pro-choice assumption that abortion does not kill a person. And suppose pro-choice people considered how they would feel if the Supreme Court ruled that all infanticide was a private matter to be decided by a mother in consultation with her doctor. Might they then better empathize with the taking of a pro-life position? Their assumption that infanticide kills a person would be like the pro-life assumption that abortion kills a person. People would not have to change their positions on abortion to see that people on the other side of that issue are as “pro-choice” or “pro-life” as they when assumptions about what life means are changed.
THE RADICAL EMPATHWAY
We’ve seen that there are empathways into each other by way of a larger perspective or sense of proportion, by fairness, and over the common ground of everyone’s complexity and confusion, everyone’s blood ties, and by way of everyone’s being bloodied and bloody together.
These empathways into each other can be rough and narrow and up-hill. They may go in the right way but they never do go all the way. Here though, in what Lewis called “The Shadowlands,” don’t these pathways into others hint of a Highway into others that we trust does go beyond all estrangement and leads all the way Home?
The truth is: us-against-themness goes deeper and farther back than racial, ethnic, class, religious, gender, or sexual orientation conflicts indicate. Terrible as these conflicts are, they are but symptoms of a core spiritual pathology. Writing about Hitler and anti-Semitism, for instance, social philosopher George Steiner concludes that “No adequate secular explanation has been offered … Nor can we explain [it] in socio-historical terms.” Steiner says that “The final roots of such phenomena are of a metaphysical order.” But does the evidence of such spiritual pathology have to be as extreme as Hitler’s before we see it in ourselves? Do we not know ourselves any better than that? “ ‘Who are you?’ said the Caterpillar. … Alice replied, rather shyly, ‘I—I hardly know, Sir, just at present’ … ‘Explain yourself!’ ‘I can’t explain myself, I’m afraid, Sir,’ said Alice, ‘because I’m not myself, you see.’ ‘I don’t see,’ said the Caterpillar.”
Alice knew she wasn’t herself. But at present, she didn’t know quite who she was. We, too, hardly know ourselves. And we, too, can’t really explain ourselves. Said Chesterton: “Whoever I am, I am not myself.” He meant his true self. And neither was Alice. And neither are we. And neither are they. What we know and say about us and them leaves much to be known and said. C. S. Lewis once remarked that if we could but only see others as they truly are, as they truly will be some day, we’d fall right down and worship them on the spot! But we’re not there yet. ‘
- S. Eliot describes maturity as “the rending pain of reenactment of all that you have done, and been; the shame of motives late revealed, and the awareness of things ill done and done to others’ harm which once you took for exercise of virtue.” That’s a necessary, sobering maturity. D. H. Lawrence speaks of that “barbed wire enclosure of Know Thyself.” It may be escaped, he says, in “knowing we can never know.” There can indeed be an ignorance that’s bliss; there’s a merciful “forgetfulness of self’ that Robert Louis Stevenson prayerfully called “the only way to heaven.”
Longing for an end to isolation in self, and for some real connection, here’s the late Alfred Kazin: “I pray to get beyond myself, to indicate to this believing unbeliever that there is a territory beyond this bundle tied up so angrily in the night. I pray to be relieved of so much ‘self.’ I ask to be extended.”
As Christians, we faithe that such prayers are answered in the gospel of Jesus Christ which saves us from ourselves. No more Me! Me! Me! ending in me—me—and merely more of me.
Do we, with Kazin, ask “to be extended?” Do we wish to be enlarged beyond self rather than be merely self-writ-a-bit-larger? Don’t we want to get beyond our own tedious versions of ourselves, beyond our self-excuse and our defensive condemnation of others?
These are the answered prayers of the gospel. In Christ, all us-against-them divisiveness is destroyed. In his letters to the faithers in Galatia, Corinth, Colossae, Rome and no doubt elsewhere in letters now lost, Paul repeatedly wrote that there was no fundamental difference between Jew and Gentile, even though that very difference had been fundamental to Judaism’s nationalistic disdain for “the dogs” to whom they’d been called by the One God to be an instrument of blessing. Paul argued that all the divisiveness of class, ethnicity and sexual situation that had so divided the old world order was over in Christ. The division between “the righteous” and “the sinners” was over in Christ. In Christ, it’s not our race or class or ethnicity or cultic membership or sexual orientation or marital status or gender that sets the agenda. For us, as Paul said, to live is Christ.
Paul preached that all are bound together in the same sin and therefore we’re equally estranged from our true selves, from each other, and from God. We’re also bound together by God’s grace, reconciled to God and therefore reconciled to each other and to our true self. Out of all our brokenness we’ve been brought together as the one Body of Christ. That’s true only because of the broken body of Christ Jesus, who died for the sins of the world so loved by God. He taught his disciples to pray in the plural: to “ Our Father. … for daily bread for all, forgiveness for all as we forgive all others who sin against us … help for us all in the time of testing and deliverance for all from evil.”
To what end? That this prayer be answered: that God’s reign come, that the Father’s will be done, that we live the prayer, living Christ’s law of love: loving others as we love ourselves. Don’t you think it would be easier to love others if we prayed for them? Don’t you think it would be easier to pray for them if we saw ourselves in them? Don’t you think it would be easier to love them as ourselves if we saw them as ourselves? Following the example of Jesus, who partied with revelers and wept with grieving sisters, Paul urges Christians to “rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep.” That’s empathy.
There’s no litmus test of agreement or approval here—just rejoicing with the rejoicing and weeping with the weeping. So why is it that so many evangelical Christians refuse to celebrate with lesbians and gay men celebrating their loving unions? Instead, they try to make life as hard as possible for those who have needs and abilities for sexual intimacy and love that are as deep as those felt by heterosexuals. Why do so many evangelical Christians fail to be sad and outraged over the firing of a gay man or lesbian over that person’s unasked-for sexual orientation? Instead, they endorse the firing of people who need their jobs and careers as much as heterosexuals need their own. How is it that those who call themselves followers of Jesus Christ, indeed in the name of Jesus Christ, rail against both those who are rejoicing and those who are weeping?
Paul himself could empathize with others out of his own wide experience of having known “the common human lot with all its ups and downs—fullness and hunger, plenty and want.” Maybe out of our own ups and downs we could learn to do the same. The Apostle urges Christians to empathize with those who are in trouble as though in trouble with them. Instead of taking the trouble to make trouble for others, maybe we could use whatever trouble we have in order to empathize with them in their trouble. What a good use for our trouble!
Paul, the vigorous champion of Christian liberty, so empathized with the weaker, conservative sisters and brothers that he could practice a self-denial and plead their case in the very terms they’d use—even without agreeing with them. He identified with the onlookers among the unbelievers, empathizing with their sometimes bad experiences with his fellow Christians—and without agreeing with their paganism. But he did, in some way, become “all things to all” people so that, “by all means” he might be Christ’s means to them.
From our Christian viewpoint, we can go even further than merely weeping with those who weep and merely rejoicing with those who rejoice. Theologian Jurgen Moltmann gives full expression to Paul’s approach when he writes that Christians, in “Easter freedom, [are] liberated men and women. [And as such] They are not only laughing with those who laugh and weeping with those who weep, … but they are also laughing with the weeping and weeping with the laughing as the Beatitudes of Jesus recommended.”
Well, in the end, empathy is costly. Of course. Frederick Buechner speaks of “the sometimes fatal capacity for feeling what it is like inside somebody else’s skin.” But isn’t that the Incarnation? God put Himself inside our human skin, becoming one with us all in every way, living to death His empathy for us. “He becomes an infant small; / He becomes a man of woe; / He doth feel the sorrow too. / Think not thou canst sigh a sigh / And thy maker is not by; / Think not thou canst weep a tear / And thy maker is not near.” [Blake]
Emmanuel is God’s Empathy with us and with all those we call “them.” Now though, they are no longer “them” but Thou, and I’m now not merely “me” but Thee. In Christ, we can exchange the practice of us-against-them for the practice of thempathy. In Christ, may we be thempathizers!