I think many of us have often asked, when we saw someone being bullied as a child, what would make that person decide whether to lash out and become a bully themselves, or instead decide to oppose bullying in all of its forms.
The answer, of course, is that at present we don’t know for sure, not in the individual and not in the collective, because there’s just too many factors. Culture’s part of it: some stories out there identify with the winners and the strong and powerful, and some don’t. But even that analysis is too simplistic: when I watched He-Man or Power Rangers as a kid, I never got the idea that morality is only defined by beating up the bad guy; instead, I learned the lesson that you do the right thing. If a child is abused by a parent, whether or not he or she identifies with the abusive parent or the other parent is going to be an important factor; but what decides that, exactly? A big factor is hope: do you expect that it’s possible to live life in a different way at all, or do you expect that this is what the world is like and your only choice is to either screw others or let them screw you?
In my interactions on this issue, I have a theory of my own. I think that how we choose to remember our emotional states, and identify with those states, is a big part of what chooses how it happens as well.
And this, of course, ties into any discussion of social justice. Will someone with power and privilege identify with others with that power and privilege, or with those without? Will someone who has seen the system harm them decide that it’s okay to harm others back, or instead to reject all injustice? Unfortunately, we’ve seen all these trajectories: those who rise up against injustice range from Dr. King to Lenin and Trotsky. The history of revolutions across the world does not tend to inspire confidence that merely replacing one bad regime or one bad set of institutions is enough for justice.
In a discussion on Quora, the topic turned to the reality of how empathy with those who are in a position of oppression or disadvantage or loss comes into play.
One of my key arguments, which will eventually be a full-fledged book, is that, while we can’t ever fully empathize with those from different backgrounds, there’s always something in our experience that we can use as a basis for comparison and therefore sympathy and even empathy.
I can’t know what it’s like to be a woman. But I can know what it’s like to have my ideas marginalized or ignored.
I can’t know what it’s like to be gay. But I can know what it’s like to be ashamed of something I have no control over and that I know isn’t wrong (but still fear might be just because so many other people disagreeing always makes us question).
I can’t know what it’s like to be black. But I can know what it’s like to have someone seem to dislike me or hate me for no apparent reason.
We’ve all felt these human emotions. We’ve all had people treat us poorly, wittingly or unwittingly.
So what makes us more or less able to empathize?
In my mind, those of us who are privileged get just that many fewer times where we have to feel that way. We are demeaned, or ignored, or patronized, or made to feel guilty, that much less often.
The social identity of those with power is that they don’t have to have that imposition upon them. They are supposed to be in charge, the cool one, the tough one.
The fact that this sets people up for a fall when they encounter real struggle has commonly been discussed in the kind of psychology that focuses on privilege issues.
But there’s another aspect to this: it means that we get, all too often, to choose to pretend as if those events had happened less often, and not to identify with them.
If you are a woman in this culture, it is much more likely (though obviously still not guaranteed) that you will have gotten used to the idea that your opinion may not be heard or may be viewed as less important.
If you are black in this culture, it is much more likely (though obviously still not guaranteed) that you have had enough times where you’ve experienced people fearing you or even hating you for who you are that you’ve had to accept that that’s a part of the world.
But if you’re a white male, your interactions with people are less often defined in that fashion, and are more likely to be defined by you being in charge, or authoritative, or “in the club”, or belonging.
Remembering those moments when you’re not stings. Remembering those moments when you weren’t listened to, where you couldn’t seem to speak loudly or clearly or forcefully enough for people to care, can hurt.
So when we’re faced with that choice between honestly remembering that and seeking to not have it happen again to others, or forgetting it and thereby being able to pretend that the other person is just being sensitive, we in privileged groups have that much more of a reason to do the latter rather than the former. Our memories give us less pushback: we have to forget less and can remember more to create the narrative of ourselves as the cool, unflappable kid who everyone liked and listened to.
As an immigrant, even a white one who speaks fluent English, my suspicion is that I had just enough of a distance from the dominant culture to have that avenue unavailable to me. I couldn’t meaningfully pretend to have always been part of the club: the very fact of my last name, Bourgault-Christie, and the struggle that so many had with pronouncing and spelling it, would deny that option. I was that indelible bit of French, and if I tried to pretend I wasn’t or that it had never made me different, I would have to edit out every single time a friend met my mother for the first time, or every single time a teacher garbled my last name and the class rolled their eyes.
If I had been just that little bit more white, if I hadn’t been in the kind of household that would make me choose to hyphenate my last name… who knows if I would have had that kind of empathy?
And that brings us back to the broader culture.
Our culture in America has many positive aspects. But the fact that it is very often competitive, about winners and losers, about genius businessmen and welfare cheats, about those who strove to pursue their dreams (and implicitly those who didn’t), is one of those that makes it very hard for us to empathize with the moments where we weren’t the winners. Even when one looks at the venerable Pixar, one sees this Randian contamination: in The Incredibles, the idea is that those few truly special people are out there and if we all were special we all somehow wouldn’t be. That idea, that we let people pursue their dreams, sounds egalitarian, but it’s very often couched in a kind of idea that that’s really only true for the gifted people: after all, clearly the janitor or the person pumping gas has no dreams.
Which sets up the vicious cycle. The culture makes us less likely to want to identify as the losers in struggles, even if only momentarily so we can recapture that in a rhetoric of liberation and everyone being a winner (because the culture so often insists that someone has to be the loser and that that’s somehow a good thing); then we are less likely to emphasize those parts of ourselves that struggled and failed, and thus less likely to empathize with those who are the existing subordinate groups; and then we will replicate a culture that lionizes winners and views losers as somehow deficient.
Luckily, there is a way out.
White guilt is a very real problem. But in my mind, white guilt, at least in part, stems from this reality: even the guilt comes from the idea that one was the person in charge, rather than the much scarier reality that most white people were just as screwed, were just as done-over, as the black folks that they were torn apart from by a racist structure.
Liberation approaches, that emphasize that all of us can be free and indeed that the only way for all of us to be free is if none of us are in chains, can help to end that guilt. It can deemphasize that need to identify with winners and losers at all, showing that it need not be a zero-sum game. It can help us recognize that we all need to be liberated and therefore fight, as we really instinctively should, to be free from our chains.
Win or lose, that struggle humanizes us even in the fighting of it. And that is one of those good lessons of American history: better to die a free man than live a slave.
This article was written by Frederic Christie, a writer for dusk magazine.