“Unless you’ve lived [my exact experience], you can’t understand me, so stop talking.”
Lately I’ve run into this sentiment in a lot of different places online, running the gamut of “categories” of identity: race, gender, sexual orientation, disability, medical status, mental health status, employment status, survivor status—pretty much any of the thousand ways in which people choose to identify themselves or have been marginalized. It always goes something like this: “If you’ve never been Black/Latino/Asian/Jewish/Muslim/queer/unemployed/an immigrant/poor/clinically depressed/had a miscarriage/lost a parent/served in combat/lived with a disability, then you can’t really understand what I’m going through.” I see variations of this all over the Internet: blogs about being a “bad” ally; lists of “10 things not to say to someone who [is a woman/had a miscarriage/survived rape/just came out/lost their job/etc];” more lists of “10 things [members of specific ethnic, religious, or social group] are tired of hearing;” pedantic videos making parsing distinctions between compassion, sympathy and empathy; and hashtag wars that reduce a national conversation to snarky soundbites validated by a 10-letter slogan. Most often, the “you don’t understand” defense appears in comments sections and in bloggers reacting to other bloggers.
The American Left has moved from the assimilationist “melting pot” metaphor of the Progressive era to the hippie-utopian ideal of the Civil Rights era that “we’re all the same underneath” to a postmodern, self-affirming belief that we must “embrace and celebrate our differences.” Overall, this is a positive shift away from mere tolerance and whitewashing to a more nuanced acceptance and appreciation of the differences among people. It is a worthy and useful aim to acknowledge one’s own privilege, avoid the self-righteousness that often befalls allies and crusaders who seek to “fix” social problems from the outside, and to recognize that well-meaning but uninformed “support” is not in-itself the same as empathy, understanding, and action.
The idea of “embracing our differences” is a laudable, logical one. It goes without saying that we are all different. Of course a straight, white, upper middle class male who runs an organic juice bar in the Northwest experiences the world differently than a gay, black, working class female Iraq war vet living in the South. It seems fair and enlightened to make sure that the former doesn’t speak for the latter. It’s easy to mock the faux-pas and the ignorant (albeit well-meaning) platitudes of support from entitled, white, “hipster bros” as being out-of-touch, kumbaya, and blinded by their own privilege. Ignorant bigots should be challenged and called out for their ignorance and their bigotry. And the Internet lends itself to that.
That said, we are living in a profoundly narcissistic period in American history. Social media is notoriously inward-facing. Millennials (or Gen Y, whatever you want to call us), do a lot of exploring of our own identities, a lot of self-presentation, a lot of signaling and signifying into the ether. We are also notoriously bad at direct confrontation. This means that instead of a higher-level discussion of the social-construction of identities, and instead of making actionable plans for change, we wage a war of perceived slights and oversights via texts and tweets. And we often leap immediately from “Here’s who I am, and here’s how I’ve suffered” to “Nobody else has suffered like me.” The generation that was always given gold stars for our successes now wants gold stars for our suffering as well. The “everyone is special” generation naturally feels like our pain and our adversity is special and unique too. A kind of one-upmanship often occurs on social media and blogs where marginalized groups or individuals hold pissing contests in the comment sections, arguing over who has it the worst, who is the real victim, whose victimhood is more authentic, and who is qualified to speak up on behalf of or in support of other victims. (As just one example, see the vitriol of Gamer Gate). I understand the urge: I’ve been marginalized, and I want others to acknowledge that. I’ve been hurt, and I want you to recognize my injury. I’ve been excluded systematically, and for once, I’d like to be included.
Just as most Americans say they are middle class (even when they make much less or much more than the median income of $51,000), in America today, we all feel oppressed, even–perhaps especially–the oppressors. Just look at Men’s Rights groups. Or conservative Christians fuming about the “War of Christmas” when Christmas decorations are up before Halloween. Not all pain, suffering, and oppression are equal. Not all complaints are equally valid. There is a continuum of suffering, informed by history and social context, as the meme first world problems so cleverly brings into relief. But nor are all individuals or all marginalized groups such unique snowflakes that our experiences cannot possibly be fathomed by our fellow humans.
Saying “you can’t understand me because you’re not exactly like me” betrays a troubling failure of imagination. I’m not talking about arguing with Internet trolls, Bill O’Reilly, boot-strappers, those who deny social privilege exists, and closed-minded people who don’t give a shit about understanding marginalized groups at all. I’m talking about well-meaning people who are trying to extend an olive branch or to deepen their own understanding and who are sometimes met with displaced rage and holier-than-thou attitudes by chronically-offended folks whose unique experiences “can’t possibly be understood.” This anger and energy would be better targeted at social institutions, political leaders, and changing the mind of that one bigoted uncle who always comes to Thanksgiving.
To say that you can’t understand me at all because you’ve had different experiences (and vice versa) is a supreme failure of empathy. My knee-jerk response to this attitude is skepticism. Are we really so different? So unimaginative that we can’t empathize with each other? This notion belies the power and meaning in most of the world’s great works of art. Books would not be able to move us or open our minds without the empathy and imagination involved in both writing and reading. Artists would not be able to paint portraits that capture the inner life and emotions of their subjects without curiosity and empathy. Actors would not be able to make viewers feel an emotional connection to the characters they play without the ability to imagine what it’s like to be someone different, to live in another’s world, to survive pain that they never personally experienced.
Taking on a label as your identity and then refusing to let anyone else pick up that label, examine it, try to understand it, only serves to shrink the flood of human experiences into smaller and smaller streams of isolated bubbles. It draws so many circles in the venn diagram of humanity that we no longer see where we overlap. We become blind to our commonalities, blind to each other’s good intentions, blind to hands being offered in kindness and solidarity. We only see the labels, not the ways in which individuals cross them, bend them, and fit into more than one. We stop viewing people as individuals, in fact, in favor of viewing them– in some cases viewing ourselves— as members of distinct, immutable groups. While it might be informed by cutting-edge social theory and political correctness, the blanket application of this attitude ultimately rejects critical thinking, imagination, and empathy.
Narcissists are marked by their lack of empathy, lack of interest in others, and lack of ability to put themselves in others’ shoes. A favorite target of the “chronically offended” are hipsters. Hipsters are defined mainly by who they aren’t, by their ironic mustaches, and by their well-intentioned but usually misguided appropriation of progressive causes and marginalized cultures. The Internet is rife with examples of “authentically marginalized” individuals calling out hipsters for their obtuseness, liberal lip-service, and unintentional offensiveness. But when you think about it, what could be more hipster than calling out other hipsters for being short-sighted, inauthentic, and behind-the-times? Rather, what could be more Emo than the statement “You just don’t understand me!” hurled at someone who’s trying their damnedest to understand, like an adolescent slamming the door in her befuddled parent’s face?
Sometimes it feels like young Leftist progressives on the blogosphere are so busy pointing out the de facto racism, Euro-centrism, cis-sexism, heterosexism, ableism, and thoughtless omissions of other young Leftist bloggers, so busy pointing out all the ways in which “you can’t really understand me,” that they sound just as reactionary as hardliners on the Right. An Internet culture of narcissism and introversion tells us that we don’t “owe” anyone any explanations, we don’t have a duty to educate the ignorant, and we are justified in refusing to give others the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps that’s true, but at the same time, the Internet creates a vortex where it’s easy to seek out affirmation (look at all those “Likes” I got!) from those who belong to the same narrow bubbles we do. Meanwhile, it’s also easier to criticize, condemn, and pick apart others using fewer characters than a Netflix movie summary. By classing ourselves into smaller and smaller pigeonholes based on our inherent “specialness,” we are fracturing a potential coalition of allies/accomplices and allowing the social, political, and economic power structures that oppress us to continue to do just that.
The “you can’t understand my world, so just shut up” response is not only a political phenomenon. It also permeates other aspects of online and offline life. It happens when discussing mental health, religion, relationships , deaths in the family, and other issues wrapped up in people’s identities and personae. A friend of mine who lost a child due to a miscarriage posted an article on Facebook calling out friends who compared losing a baby to losing their siblings or parents as rude, offensive, and unfeeling. Again, there is a continuum of suffering. People agree the death of a pet, for example, is not as devastating as the death of a child. But what about grandparents? What about your specific grandmother who raised you? The Suffering Continuum is both socially-agreed-upon and subjective. Having recently lost my father, I wondered why my pain should be measured against my friend’s and found wanting? Who was to say her pain was worse than mine, or mine worse than hers? Why should it be measured at all?
The implication of her post was that I couldn’t be hurting as much, or that because I wasn’t hurting in the exact same way she was, that my empathy was worthless to her, even offensive. In reality, my sorrow both differed from and was akin to my friend’s sorrow. No, I had never lost a child. But she had never lost her dad. Parents are “supposed to” die before their children, and I see how the death of a child can feel more senseless, more cruel, more meaningless than the death of an adult. But we both experienced the loss of a loved one, a future cut short unexpectedly, the trauma of a sudden unanticipated tragedy, the longing to go back and change it all, questioning the meaning and benevolence of the universe. I’ve heard that the hardest part of losing a child is losing your dreams for the child’s future. One of the hardest parts my father’s death was giving up my daydreams of him meeting my future kids. He would have been an amazing grandpa, and there were so many things I wanted him to teach them. My friend’s “you couldn’t possibly understand me” attitude made me afraid to say anything other than “sorry for your loss,” the most loathsome and meaningless of funeral platitudes. It also made me reluctant to tell her about my father’s death, lest she think I was trying to undermine her pain.
A different friend, who had also lost a baby, was extremely supportive, open, and empathetic when my father died. We talked about her baby, my dad, and the universal yet acutely personal experience of grieving. Through her example, this friend illustrates a simple truth: Accepting compassion begets compassion. Rejecting compassion begets solitude and keeps understanding at arm’s length.
Empathy, like love, is humanity’s greatest quality. Humanity is at its best when we acknowledge our differences and still try to reach common ground. Humans are fortunate to have the abstract reasoning and emotional intelligence needed to extrapolate from our own narrow experiences and imagine what life must be like for someone else. We have created our most lasting works of art, our most just laws, our most radical changes, when we look outside ourselves, towards each other. When we look at others’ pain and see our own pain reflected in it, then we stop seeing others as strangers. Inside the Other, we see Ourselves.
No, I don’t know exactly what it’s like to be you, but I know what it’s like to feel hurt, cast aside, ignored, disappointed, frustrated, excluded, discriminated against. And if I don’t know firsthand the degree to which you’ve suffered, I can imagine life in your shoes. Let’s stop this pissing contest about whose pain is greater and get over ourselves, get over our narcissism. Let’s stop chastising bloggers and pundits for “leaving out” one marginalized group in their attempts to examine and empathize with the plight of another. Instead of huffing “Why didn’t you include people just like me, you thoughtless asshole!” we should be saying: “Thanks for making this point. Here’s how it applies to people like me, too.”
It comes down to this: I believe people are fundamentally more alike than we are different. We are not all the same, but we are all saddled by the human condition which manifests itself in myriad– but not infinite nor unfathomable– forms of privilege, oppression, suffering, opportunity, justice, and injustice. Acknowledging this and giving and receiving empathy is the only way beyond bigotry, the only path to a more just and caring world.
“I am of old and young, of the foolish as much as the wise,
Regardless of others, ever regardful of others,
Maternal as well as paternal, a child as well as a man,
Stuff’d with the stuff that is coarse and stuff’d with the stuff that is fine,”
-Walt Whitman, Song of Myself.