I have been trying to sit with it, empathy.
And I’m gonna level with you, I have not been tremendously successful.
Instead I feel mostly discomfort. And I think of the scene in Catch-22 where Snowden’s guts spill from his body and I feel my stomach churning, still inside my body, and I hang onto the fact that we are all human.
I think of coal workers in West Virginia and jobs that have been lost to automation, globalization, and advances in technology, and something stirs in me.
I am trying to find empathy. The world is not what it was fifty years ago. In some ways this is miraculous and important, and in other ways, not. Capitalism may be the best system we have, but it may not be enough. We bang on an on about morality, but it’s rarely rewarded in the workplace. Numbers and figures and quarter-end projections can be unrelenting in their pursuit of more, ignoring the fact that we live in a world of finite resources where more is not always possible.
I understand that there are people in this country who have been left behind. I am sympathetic to that. We need to do better by these people. And yet, promising them jobs that do not exist is not only wrong, it is cruel. Coal is not coming back. And to suggest that it is...is dangerous, damaging, and cravenly self-serving.
I also understand that there are those who don’t know someone who prays to Allah, who have never ridden the subway with a person who looks a little bit different. Those for whom the concept of love between two people of the same sex is alien simply because it is unknown--represented only on screens. And I am sympathetic to the reality of that. And yet, I can’t help but wonder who is in the bubble.
So there is some sympathy. But then I think of dinner tables across the country--in affluent cities where people of all colors and creeds exist--and I imagine conversations between people who prioritized money and race and bathroom-politics above human lives--before the rights of all of us to pursue happiness with the full weight of the government behind us, and a small rage ignites like an ember in my belly.
I have been told to be less emotional, to climb off of my soap-box, to calm down. And I have internalized these words, have sat with myself and the gnawing discomfort, have sat with the empty space where I’m meant to hold empathy, and I have grown quiet.
Do not take him literally, I was told. He will not do the things he said he would. When I pointed out this was said about Hitler in 1930’s Germany, printed in newspapers--in fact--everyone dismissed it with a wave of the hand. Not the same, they said.
For the rest of my life I will not forget the night a group of educated individuals said that he was a fool, but she was a criminal. This was after the election had passed. I pointed out that touching a woman without her consent is illegal. Half-standing, voices raised, two women looked me square in the eye and said, What Hillary did protecting Bill was just as bad. I went to bed that night shaking. Furious. Because no, not just as bad, not the same, at all, actually. And to equate the two is to buy into systemic misogyny--two equate the two is how, systematically, we ensure that women are not afforded the same opportunities as men. I’ll not forget what those women said, but I’ll also not forget that not one man sitting in that room spoke against the false-equivalence.
I am so angry. And I will own that. Right now, I am so very, very angry. I won’t always be. But for the forseeable future, I will be furious. The world is not perfect. And women and men are not equal. I know that--I knew that. To pretend that we are is to turn a blind eye to daily grievances. To turn a blind eye to every job I’ve ever had where I’ve caught men in positions of power staring at a part of my body, or been told by the head of Human Resources to wear my hair down because the CEO would prefer it that way. To turn a blind eye to the men I pass on the street who click their tongues in approval, or even to the man I adored who tried to convince me as we lay in bed that women have always had the power because men want sex and women have the power to take it away. I was breathless as he said it, shocked and a little bewildered. The failure of feminism is men’s misunderstanding of it, and unfortunately that matters because men do still have more power. But it's not about men, not really--and it never has been. Women don’t want power over men, we just want a seat at the table.
I trusted--believed--that despite our current lack of equality, we, as a society, would continue to push the line forward for all women. Women of color, women of different sexual orientations, women of different belief systems, and different values. Trans women and cis women, too.
And yet. Here we are. With a President of the United States who boasted about grabbing a woman by the pussy. And with a large swath of the population who doesn't see that as a dealbreaker. A man who has many times over rated women on a scale of 1 to 10, picking apart their bodies in the process.
There’s a story about Paul Newman that I love. That when he and Joanne Woodward took over the Westport Country Playhouse in Westport, Connecticut, he became obsessed with painting the building the perfect barn red. For days the painters came, bringing every red at their disposal, painting small swatches on the wall, and Newman studied them and then asked for more options. He had an idea of what the red should be, and he was unyielding in his pursuit of it. Finally, he found the perfect color and the painters set to work. Days later his daughter visited, and as the painters went about their work, they told her the story of the swatches and she laughed and laughed. My father’s color blind! she said. He’s been staring at varying shades of gray this whole time.
I’ve loved that story since the day I heard it. But in the wake of the election I have found myself thinking about it with ever greater frequency. Here’s the thing, privilege has a way of making grays of red. I will never know what is is to not be white in this country. I was born with the tremendous privilege of my skin-tone. Sheer fate and luck. Which means when a friend tells me what it is like to be black in America, my only job in that moment, is to believe her. Not to defend myself, or my race, or say, but I don’t behave that way--or I didn’t vote like that, but to say, I believe you, I believe you, I believe you. And then it is my job to use that privilege to have difficult conversations with friends and family members and then fight like hell that others might have the same opportunities and advancements. It cannot simply be the job of the marginalized to fight for equality--people in positions of power must bear the responsibility of meeting them there.
And so for the forseeable future not one man is allowed to say to me that I am too emotional or too much of any damn thing because while I imagine they too are disgusted by the behavior, both past and present of our President, they simply cannot know what it is to feel that disgust and fear coded into one’s nerve endings. They do not know what it is to be a woman bearing witness to the tidal wave of populism brought on by this man.
Just as I cannot imagine what it is to be a Muslim. And yet, when I think of them, empathy rises unbidden, a silent, guttural scream, stuck somewhere between my throat and chest.
Arkansas just passed a law that allows parents and family members (and even rapists) to sue clinics that offer abortions in the second trimester. There is a push to defund Planned Parenthood. It is now easier for those with mental illness to gain access to guns, just not healthcare. A bill has been introduced to do away with the EPA. Sanctions imposed on banks after the 2008 financial crisis have been rolled back and the global gag rule has been reinstated, guaranteeing that thousands of women across the world will die. Politicians excuse sexual assault by claiming that the women aren’t pretty enough. And a whole group of people has been targeted because of their religion. Legal immigrants, barred from entering a country founded on the very premise--and promise--of separation of church and state. And so I must ask, what is our threshold for shame? For guilt? For disgust? For rage? For empathy?
If the idea that racism or misogyny had anything to do with the election makes you uncomfortable--if it twists your stomach in a way so as to cause you to think, no, of course not, or not me, then it is your job to sit with that feeling. I will sit with my anger, and I will try to find empathy for those who reveled in, or were wooed by, a demagogue’s bluster and bigotry, but you have to at least ask yourself this question: Have I been staring at one color, so sure of my eyes, and still so totally wrong? Because we all have biases and prejudices that we keep hidden from ourselves, and right now, there is moral imperative that we turn and face them--our democracy might just depend on it.