I did manage to stick with my general retreat from social media as intended. I found my days to be fuller, my head to be clearer. And then the inauguration happened.
Like most, I was captivated by the news, the constant, jaw dropping, mind-boggling, nonsensical bullshit. My attention was arrested for a full week as I tried, in my usual bumbling fashion, to comprehend the incomprehensible. Then I started to catch on and while what the new American government is doing is deplorable, I began to be more irritated by the shock expressed by friends, the desire by many to soften the blows against humanity with sentimental hashtags. I was irritated for two reasons: that sort of emotional response dies quickly and is rarely effective and I also wanted to return to posting plum blossoms and blue skies. Thus, as is usually the case, most of my frustration was with myself.
I am frustrated because I am privileged. I may not have financial privilege but I do have the option of turning off the news and living in safety and comfort. In an exploited world like ours, this is a true privilege that must be undermined if we are to actually effect positive change. In Susan Sontag’s Regarding the Pain of Others, she writes “Our failure is one of imagination, of empathy: we have failed to hold this reality in mind”. When I came across this line, some of the pieces fell into place for me. I have spent a lot of time trying to understand empathy, or more accurately, trying to understand what I perceived to be the lack of empathy coming from ‘others’. I am, if you need reminding, on a small island in the middle of the East China Sea. To see beyond my close friends’ perceptions, I sometimes read through comments even though the process is repulsive most of the time and makes my mind spin. In regards to the refugee ban, I saw other immigrants dismissing this atrocity as nothing compared to their own experience and thereby discounting the pain of thousands and the global implications of such a discriminatory ban. How, I wondered, could someone fail to relate to this, especially after having been on the receiving end of discrimination themselves? Of course, my mistake was in assuming that the formula for empathy is 1 to 1. I discounted the factor of pain, of fear in the equation. That victims are often cruel to other victims because they resent the reminder of their pain, which is most likely unexamined.
As I pushed further into the question of empathy, particularly in regards to how people could still support the new government even though it is intent to do harm against the working class and (what is left of the) middle class, I realised another aspect of my own privilege. I am someone who has had a very eclectic history that resulted in a broader understanding of the world, rich with experiences that have expanded my imagination and thus my empathy. Often we think of imagination and empathy as being innate whereas sympathy is a state constructed from shared experiences. Yet imagination and empathy are also constructed and capable of being deconstructed. Fear is amazingly capable of disabling empathy. And it is the blatant manipulation of fear that has enabled Trump and his cronies to compose those vile executive orders with confidence.
This is very important in trying to bridge the gap of understanding that is dividing my home country. We are extremely polarised at the moment and that is not serving anyone but the powers-that-be. I am positioned on the side that some call the liberal elite but that I usually call progressive. I don’t understand ultra-conservatives and have not made any true attempts to. I have righteously unfriended people who were openly racist and misogynistic instead of trying to learn from them. So I am culpable and this bothers me because I would rather it just be that the ‘others’ who are at fault.
We are all culpable in this decay of empathy. Social media features have made it easier for us to do what we have obviously been longing to do: to separate ourselves from those who disagree with our worldview. And if we are to right the wrongs that are currently being inflicted, we need to be willing to have our sense of moral authority compromised. We will have to collectively decide “not to live in an echo chamber. To press pause on the siren song of polarization” (from this insightful article).
Right now we are in danger of the abnormal becoming normal. We must find a way of reconciling on the ground level because that is where the true war is raging, an ideological battle that will eventually give way to worse if left unchecked. War is never leader against leader, nation against nation until the end. In the beginning it is always this: neighbour against neighbour, sister against brother. We cannot simply share memes and “react” to our friends’ cunning posts that confirm our own ideas of the world. James Baldwin wrote, “People who shut their eyes to reality simply invite their own destruction, and anyone who insists on remaining in a state of innocence long after that innocence is dead turns himself into a monster.” The reality is that none of us are innocent, that we are all part of this destruction. We must overcome our fear of being challenged, of being corrected. We need to “hold this reality in mind” or we will cease to be Americans, our hope disfigured, our shared values mutilated. We will be monsters.
Let’s meet in the street*. Let’s remember who we are before we lose ourselves altogether.
*The title of this post is from the song Get Off The Internet, which is timely though I don’t think much of the idea of destroying the “right wing” as they suggest. It is impossible for anything to fly with just one wing.