Civil Discourse, Twitter, and the Pain of Empathy

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Empathy isn’t easy.

Sympathy is. It’s literally feeling with or alongside someone else’s experience. But empathy is putting ourselves directly into their shoes. Sympathy says, “I care for you.” But empathy says, “I can feel your pain.”

There is a lot of controversy, backlash, and debate surrounding a recent open letter published by Harper’s Magazine. I won’t go into what it says, except to say that it is written in such a way as to defend free speech and open debate without actually naming its grievances. The signatories of that letter include such notables as Margaret Atwood, J.K. Rowling, Salman Rushdie, and Matt Yglesias. There is an argument in which the letter calls out the “intolerance of opposing views,” and it’s that point that I wish to discuss.

What is intolerance? Where is the line between criticism and assault, or between dismissing someone’s opinion and prohibiting their ability to speak at all?

If I give a speech in the US, where I deny or cast doubt on the Holocaust and its devastating effect on the Jewish people, I am technically protected under the limits of freedom of speech. But if I were to give that same speech in Western Europe—let alone in Germany—I would be charged with hate speech. Hate speech is itself a hotly disputed legal definition. Some critics, such as the Heritage Foundation, argue that speech by itself does not constitute racist or hostile intentions, and that declaring a statement to be “hateful” under the law is denying a person’s ethical responsibility without further testimony or discussion.

Karl Popper wrestled with this. He called it the “paradox of tolerance.” At what point should a tolerant society allow even the intolerant the same platform of discourse as everyone else? At what point should a civil society give way to fascism, totalitarianism, theocracy, or oppression, simply because it is a popular expression of political will? If free speech means, as Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. postulated, you can’t falsely yell “Fire!” in a crowded theater, then at what point can we allow people to shout (or rationally discuss) things that put other citizens at harm?

For the record, I don’t think J.K. Rowling is a terrible person. She’s a successful author with a large online following, and in a series of recent statements via Twitter, she’s questioned some of the motives behind the transgender rights movement. Even when she claimed to be acting from her past as a domestic abuse survivor, Rowling’s words triggered a firestorm of controversy. To date, she remains on Twitter and no one has begun burning her books.

But her remarks and her support for “gender critical” feminists has been hurtful to trans people. Many trans women do not, in fact, feel as if they are men trying to force their way into women’s spaces, but that they are women themselves. Some of them have even experienced domestic or sexual abuse, as well, and I would imagine they’d have plenty to share with Rowling’s own experiences if she would be willing to listen.

I also know that Matt Yglesias is a co-founder of Vox, a major online news and commentary publication, and that he was another signatory to the Harper’s Magazine letter. Vox contributor Emily VanDerWerff published a letter to Vox Media, as well as shared it online, highlighting her concerns as a trans woman about Yglesias adding his name to a letter that, in her perspective, would make her job more difficult. While the letter doesn’t say so outright, she and other trans people have found its language to be a reactionary backlash to online criticism about transphobia and cissexism.

At no point, by the way, did VanDerWerff advocate for Yglesias to be fired or in any way punished. She merely highlighted her concerns as someone employed by Vox Media. However, Emily VanDerWerff now finds herself under attack by defenders of both Yglesias and fellow signatory Jesse Singal, up to and including receiving threats of murder and rape online.

None of this is to say that I blame Yglesias or Singal for having signed the letter. None of this is to say that I blame them for the threats against Emily VanDerWerff. But I think this episode highlights the real difference between empathy and sympathy, and between criticism and assault.

As a blogger, I can’t bring down Matt Yglesias or Jesse Singal or J.K. Rowling. I don’t have the power to do that, nor do I wish to do so. Employers, publishers, editors, and work colleagues can do so, if they choose, whether because they agree with the public criticism against these figures or they simply want to avoid further scandal and cut ties for their own safety. But Matt Yglesias has real power over Emily VanDerWerff at Vox, which is what she was trying to highlight in her response to him. In a similar way, Emily VanDerWerff can’t mobilize her followers to attack Jesse Singal. Nor is there a conspiracy against J.K. Rowling and other “gender critical” figures. But when people, out of empathy, react negatively toward a public statement, it’s easy to mistake that for an attack on oneself.

On this same blog, I’ve written reviews I’m not proud of. I’ve gone so negatively against authors and creators for their work, sometimes in the name of being witty, that I’ve all but made personal slams on them. For that, I apologize. I recognize now that I was a bit of an emotional adolescent when I wrote those pieces, and I take full responsibility for them. And there were times, too, when I laughed at transphobic jokes. I apologize for those instances as well.

Trans women are women. Trans men are men. Non-binary people and gender non-conforming people are valid. If I want to taken seriously as a bisexual Latino Catholic, I must acknowledge other identities as well as my own. And if someone like J.K. Rowling wants to speak out about her experiences as a woman and an abuse survivor, then I don’t see why she can’t share the stage with trans people, with people of color, or with other marginalized groups who faced the same.

That’s the key. Empathy is about taking a risk to listen and feel someone else’s pain. Sympathy is easy and fleeting. Empathy requires speaking up for others as well as you’d speak for yourself. And if, sometimes, our statements are taken out of context or treated as an attack, then we can’t simply respond with further antagonism, but we have to bolster our empathy.

I will never vote for Donald Trump or share a meal with someone who espouses racism, but I can understand where a Trump supporter or white supremacist is coming from in terms of their humanity and their suffering. I can advocate against their beliefs without dehumanizing them. And if I can do that, then so can J.K. Rowling. If I can do that, then so can anyone who attacks Emily VanDerWerff.

Empathy is hard, but invaluable. Public discourse is free, so long as it does not deal out damage. These are not contradictory statements. These are essential concepts, enshrined in law and ethics.

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