Civil Discourse, Twitter, and the Pain of Empathy

Photo Credit: Getty Images

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.

Daniel Lavery’s Latest Book and a New Road Ahead

A gloomy cover, but a true rainbow lies inside.
Copyright © 2020 by Daniel Mallory Ortberg

Let’s talk about Daniel Lavery.

Some of you might know him better as Daniel Mallory Ortberg, prior to a recent additional name change. He’s a brilliant writer, an author after my own heart, and a proud and open trans man. I swear, I know this sounds strange, but there’s something about following his transition journey online that’s helped me (as a cisgender man) come to better terms with my own masculinity. Seriously, pick up a copy of his book Something That May Shock and Discredit You, and you’ll find something along the lines of:

What if Masculinity, but in a Soft, Sort-of-Drapey Jacket

That’d be nice, right? Maybe in velvet; I don’t know. It’s soft now! We can all enjoy it this way.

Ortberg, pg. 9

That kind of self-labeling speaks to me on a deep level. And seeing Ortberg’s journey alongside his friend and writing partner Nicole Cliffe is equally heartwarming. It’s an inspiration to queer Catholic geeks like me who want to feel just as accepted in our own personal relationships. And, not for nothing, but both Lavery and I grew up in that soft conservative commuter town of Simi Valley, California.

In an era of #MeToo moments, debates about police brutality and toxic masculinity, and a general pushback against the kind of silent suffering that old-school machismo has kept alive, reading Lavery’s works is like coming up for air after being held underwater. His writing is raw and a shock to the system, skipping from poetic allusions to Anne of Green Gables and the Epistles of Saint Paul to sudden in-your-face jokes about going on testosterone therapy, broken relationships, and Millennial-style anxieties. It’s how we get “Dirtbag Sappho” and jokes about how awkward it is for the Biblical figure Jacob to suddenly change his name and go by Israel.

Because, in the end, to hell with genre conventions and playing things safe. To hell with trying to resign ourselves into a comfortable prefab shape that someone older and “wiser” in society has claimed would be best for us.  Let’s be wild, poetic Orpheuses (Orphei?) willing to brave the lower depths of the Underworld, win everyone over with our songs, and try so hard to bring the ones we love back home, even though we can’t help but sneak a glance over our shoulders and cock the whole thing up.

So here’s to Daniel Lavery and all the other brilliant LGBTQ writers out there pushing on the boundaries of art and culture in the Year of our Lord 2020. Give his book a read, along The Merry Spinster and Texts from Jane Eyre, and see what more we could be doing with prose.

Bibliography: Ortberg, Daniel Mallory. Something That May Shock and Discredit You. New York: Atria Books, 2020.

Broken Inside: How to Make Your Audience Sympathize

Copyright © 1998 by Madhouse

Characters are messy, sometimes. They bleed across the page in torrents of dialogue, poor decisions, tortured backstories, and over-the-top actions that drive the plot forward. If you’ve ever read a Stephen King novel or watched an episode of Game of Thrones, you know what I’m talking about. It’s the sort of thing that peak TV is built on, for better or worse.

But, for writers, there’s a question about dealing with characters: how do we make them worth following?

Here’s a hint: it’s not just cool cars and clothes. It’s about feeling.

I’d like to introduce you, then, to a little something I like to call the “Alone in the Bedroom” scene.

I can’t lay claim to being a big-time published author, but I’ve written tons of fiction over the years. Time and time again, I’ve found that there’s a recurring motif in a lot of my stories. I like gettting into my characters’ heads, sometimes to juxtapose the difference between what they’re thinking/feeling, and what they’re saying/doing. All well and good, but there are times in each of my better-written stories were a character will take a pause in the action and wrestle with their flaws or fears early on.

This is what I call “Alone in the Bedroom.” Because, in a lot of my stories, the bedroom is usually where these quiet moments take place. It’s where the College Girl comes after a long day of classes and social events, so she can drop her pollyanna mask and gripe about the pressure she’s under back home. It’s where the Friendly Vampire, who’s spent a whole night out feeding on the criminal element of their city, retreats just before dawn, sliding into their coffin and wishing they could be among normal people during the day.

Revealing trauma, and how it motivates (or frustrates) a character, is a key step in any narrative. We can’t always relate to a survivor of abuse or a criminal kingpin, but we can relate to a quiet moment where they’re mourning a loved one’s passing or debating how to proceed in life.

For an example, even though it doesn’t take place in a bedroom, let’s consider a key moment from the 2003 South Korean thriller Oldboy (spoilers to follow).

Copyright © 2003 by Show East

After the film’s bloody climax, our antagonist Lee Woo-jin (played by Yoo Ji-tae) has just reduced his longtime rival Oh Dae-su to a blubbering, ruined mess and earned his vengeance after 15 long years. Except, standing alone in the elevator, with a pistol in hand, Lee Woo-jin can’t help but picture his sister before she ended her life on a bridge, and he breaks down. He decides to end his own life, having neither joy nor purpose left with his revenge complete, and he shoots himself in the head right before the elevator reaches the ground floor. It’s a powerful scene, rendered with no dialogue, but the visual cuts between a suicide 15 years in the past and a powerful man with blood on his hands creates this beautiful, painful tension. In that moment, for all the things we might hate Woo-jin for doing to Dae-su, we end up sympathetic for the grief that his sister’s loss still brings him.

The Alone in the Bedroom scene is an unguarded moment. It’s a chance for the writer to let us peek into the character’s head (or soul) outside the main course of action. Not every story needs such a scene, but it’s still crucial to give your audience a reason to appreciate the source of a character’s pain. Hamlet is still mourning his late father and bemoaning the rotten state of things in Denmark since his uncle took the throne. Frodo Baggins is a hobbit overwhelmed with the monumental weight of carrying the One Ring into the land of Mordor. Daenerys Targaryen is a descendent of royalty fighting for idealistic causes in a cruel, savage world, wrestling with the idea that she’s entitled to a crown and throne in a land she’s never seen.

I say all this not to preach, but offer ideas to other writers. Get creative. Dig into your character’s woes, and don’t be afraid to show them to us. Sometimes you get some of your best material in those small, quiet scenes.

Is It Wrong to Like Darth Vader?

Copyright © 1980 by Lucasfilm Ltd.

Short answer: No.

Long answer: Well…

So, I’ve been reading up on a lot of Star Wars media. Obviously, the release of the ninth Star Wars film this Christmas has a lot to do with that, but I’ve always been a fanboy at heart.

And, yes, like so many fans, I’ve often admired the look, sound, and style of its iconic villain, Darth Vader. I mean, how can you not like him? Cool armor? Check. Voiced by James Earl Jones? Check. Wields a fiery red laser sword and strangles people with his mind? Check. Amazing leitmotif? Check and check.

Now, it’s easy to turn around and say, “Yeah, but isn’t he basically a space wizard Nazi general? Doesn’t he slaughter Rebel fighters and subjugate worlds for the Empire?”

Well, yes, Vader is all that, too. He is a villain, after all. “He’s more machine than man,” Obi-Wan Kenobi tells us, and we see most of that monstrous behavior in the original three movies. Vader is introduced standing among dead Rebel soldiers and then crushing the windpipe of a starship captain who won’t give up Princess Leia. In the Star Wars universe, Vader is more terrifying than inspiring. He’s not, say, a hero of the Clone Wars the way someone like Anakin Skywalker was.

But there’s the twist. Anakin is Vader. The hero fell, and the villain rose. Burned and scarred, unable to breathe on his own, smoldering in his hatred and pride, the great Jedi Knight has been rebuilt into the Emperor’s top enforcer. He sold out his family, his friends, and the galaxy as a whole for greater power and security. And he paid a price by losing the wife he loved, turning his children against him, and being kept in a brutal existence that leaves him powerless and dying outside his armor.

When I hear people talk about esteeming Vader, it’s always the iconic voice and the cool lightsaber and the ruthless power he wields. We never really talk about the dying old man inside the armor. We don’t talk about the conflict he experiences when introduced to his son Luke, or how he’s forced to confront the fear of losing his only son to his Master’s fury, which propels him to betray the Emperor as his final act in life. We might talk about Luke redeeming his father, but it’s always about the man Anakin was and not the man Vader has become.

Vader, for all his ominous aura and might, is far more interesting as a character with nuance. He can be brutal in one scene and regretful in another. He can be intimidating on the outside and weak on the inside.

I think that’s an issue we have with some of our esteemed characters, both good and bad. We revere superheroes like Superman and Batman, but we don’t want to be stuck with just Clark Kent and Bruce Wayne. But without Clark or Bruce, we wouldn’t have those costumed heroes. We want our celebrities to be shiny and captivating, but throw in a scandal or a failure, and we’ll turn on them in a heartbeat. True, some celebrities deserve to lose their status (feel free to skip your defense of Spacey or Weinstein in the comments below), but it’s also a sign of what we expect from them, too.

Imagine if you were a kid living in the Star Wars universe. Imagine that you grew up on some small backwater planet, and you heard stories about Anakin Skywalker, the Jedi Knight and Chosen One who could take down any enemy and look good doing it. Now imagine, years later, you learn that Anakin didn’t die heroically in battle, but he survived and became Darth Vader, the Emperor’s right-hand man and author of a thousand atrocities. Imagine looking outside your window and seeing stormtroopers patrolling your streets, knowing that the hero you worshipped became the villain who made all this possible. Even if you were told Vader was a hero to the Empire, would you believe it when your childhood friend, now a fleet officer, gets strangled for screwing up on the bridge of a Star Destroyer? Would you shrug and defend Vader if you knew he stood by while the planet Alderaan was annihilated? And even if you somehow heard, years later, that Vader turned on the Emperor and died as Anakin Skywalker once more, would you believe that, too? And would it be enough?

These aren’t easy questions. They’re not supposed to be easy. Even in a galaxy filled with space wizards, colorful robots and aliens, and faster-than-light travel, there are still hurdles to overcome. So, no, I don’t think it’s wrong to like Darth Vader. I don’t think it’s healthy to glorify him at the expense of his background as Anakin Skywalker, or to romanticize the Empire and erase Anakin’s final act of atonement in Return of the Jedi. That, after all, is what Vader’s successor Kylo Ren aims to do in the sequel trilogy.

Vader can be cool to dress up as, to quote, and to plaster all over Star Wars merchandise until the end of the world. So can a lot of other things that we enjoy. But when you get down to it, you have to remember that the image is being admired, but the character isn’t. Wrestling with character is key, but there’s nothing wrong with finding the image satisfying by itself.

Thoughts on the Star Wars Episode 9 Trailer (And on the Whole Sequel Saga)

Copyright @ 2019 by Lucasfilm Ltd.

It’s been literal minutes since I watched the first teaser trailer for the long-awaited ninth installment in the Star Wars saga. It’s been quite a ride.

I mean, where do I start? How much the title (The Rise of Skywalker) sends chills down my spine? How every shot featuring Rey, Leia, Lando, Finn, Poe, or Kylo Ren makes me giddy? How that final ominous laugh really raises the stakes for this movie?

But honestly, watching the film feels both familiar and groundbreaking. That’s a good way to describe this series as a whole. From handing over the torch to J.J. Abrams and Rian Johnson to letting the saga’s biggest heroes face their curtain call as a new generation takes the stage, there’s this sense of possibility and adventure that the films invoke. While other films challenge our sense of the familiar, from Rogue One‘s gritty flavor to Solo‘s indecisive comedy and crime drama, Episodes VII to IX seem to ride on a more persistent vision.

It’s the same galaxy, they tell us, but you’re going to visit some new places.

You can chase after the things you want, they tell us, but you’ll find something you never expected at the other end.

The war might look the same, they tell us, but the moves aren’t always what you thought they’d be.

And that’s something that I enjoyed about Force Awakens and Last Jedi. Rey isn’t Luke, Finn isn’t Han, and Kylo Ren isn’t Vader. The First Order looks and acts like the Empire, but it’s nowhere near the strength of the original. Rey’s parentage doesn’t have to be the same path that Luke’s heritage took. Kylo Ren really can stand between the light and dark sides of the Force, making him dangerous to just about everyone who’d see him as an ally. And, yes, the Jedi Knights can come back to life, but doing so means making our ideas about the Force and the Skywalker legacy bigger than ever.

Much like how Marvel fans felt after the end of Avengers: Infinity War, we’re stepping into uncharted waters. Things are wildly different now, but they’re also a touch familiar. Some faces changed, some unexpected alliances took place, and the threat has asserted itself in a brutal way that leaves our heroes starting over from Square One.

So, yes, I am excited about how this series ends. And I’m excited for Rian Johnson’s separate Star Wars trilogy in the works, and for seeing all kinds of new material from a galaxy far, far away. It’s different, and it’s easy to get lost in the hype or to start assuming the finished product won’t live up to our ideals, but that’s okay. So long as we’re willing to be challenged, to be given a chance for an adventure, good or bad, we can experience it together as moviegoers, as Star Wars fans, and as kids who like making lightsaber sounds whenever we swing a broom around our living rooms.