ID Politics and Empathy

by Park

Jonathan Zhou pointed out to me on Twitter, re: my last blog post, that despite the excessive hay that sometimes gets made of microaggressions, they are real and can be pretty wounding. I actually agree with this, although I admit I can be pretty flippant about the whole microaggression fad as it manifests on campus or certain parts of the Internet. I’m a white dude and so have never been made fun of or made to feel different for my skin color (or I have, because I’m extraterrestrially pale, but it’s not really the same thing), but I can remember circumstances in which someone’s comment (maybe innocent) about some or other aspect of myself has made me feel terrible. On the one hand, that’s part of life; on the other, I imagine this is a lot worse if what’s being made fun of isn’t, say, your shitty personality but the fact that your skin color is different or your parents have accents or the country you’re living in isn’t the one you are from.

My own little social bubble means that I’m exposed to more social justice activism than I have a taste for, which may, of course, also lead me to overrate its importance. But putting that question aside, I’ve been reading a lot of V.S. Naipaul recently and have found him appealing precisely because he’s such a contrast to a lot of the saccharine multiculti stuff you’re exposed to in a university these days. Naipaul writes a lot about what used to be called the Third World. He can be flippant, certainly, and even openly mocking and cruel, but one thing I appreciate about him is that even when he’s a complete asshole, he doesn’t attempt to force different sorts of people—their cultures, their beliefs, their struggles, etc.—into the terms of his own ideological spats, of which he had many. He lets them talk for themselves, and tries as best he can to report what he sees without prettying it up. As a result, I actually get an idea of who the people he is talking to are, instead of just reading about the author’s projections. He actually wrote a book about where I’m from, A Turn in the South, in which I see a more convincing portrait of the place I grew up than in almost any book written by an American. Unsurprisingly, this kind of approach leads to a lot more space for empathy, even if I find the beliefs or customs of the people I’m reading about a bit strange or disorienting.

The contrast comes, I think, from the way that a lot of official “multiculturalism” seems to work these days, which is by translating the world’s different cultures into proxy combatants in an ongoing American culture war. “The white race is the cancer of human history,” Susan Sontag wrote in 1967, and the terms haven’t changed much since then. Of course, “cancer of human history” is a bit silly—it’s the intellectual equivalent of fuck you, Dad, and is basically a sentiment of boomer revolt. Unfortunately, its also often the animating philosophy behind a lot of undergraduate humanities education. It’s telling, in my view at least, that people like Jared Diamond, who study comparative civilizations outside of the humanities, are generally ambivalent about the West’s (/”white people’s”) historical record. Yes, there are lots of atrocities (slavery, genocide), as well as lots of good things (penicillin, democracy). You can argue around the margins, or about where we need to go next, but the history of the United States or Europe or whatever is not a Manichean morality play; it’s ambiguous—a mix of civilization and barbarism—as are most human societies in most places.

To go back to Jonathan’s comment—one of the reasons why I think a lot of official multiculturalism (or “political correctness” or “identity politics” or whatever) is flawed is because it tends not to take the real lives of, say, immigrants seriously on their own terms, but instead is mostly interested in using them as a cudgel to bash the dominant cis-white-hetero-partrio-whatever, which of course is just an academic neologism for “Western culture before the 1960s”–the same apparently un-killable enemy that the American left has been fighting for 50+ years. This reaches the height of its absurdity in what I tried to describe in my last post, which was bringing some well-off kid from abroad, who presumably has their own universe of cultural experiences that don’t fit neatly into American terms, and drilling them in the catechism that their experience in America was best understood as a daily dehumanizing struggle against the slights of white men. I mean, maybe it was, and I’m the one projecting—I don’t know. But that is such a culturally- and historically-specific understanding of how the world or human experience works that I really doubt it was arrived at independently.

Now, I think the dynamic I described above is silly, but it’s not silly to ask white people to think about whether what they think is an innocent comment might not be hurtful or alienating. And this is something people of all types will increasingly have to think about and learn to navigate as the United States deals with the actual fact of diversity.

The problem is more that the framing of the question in terms of basic empathy tends to get overwhelmed by the wider logic of the raging and increasingly tribal culture war. This cuts both ways, and I don’t mean to let the right off the hook—I simply have more direct experience with the progressive end of this. But what I see in a lot of elite progressive institutions is a dynamic whereby one side insists that these problems of civility or acculturation or whatever, instead of relatively minor problems of cultural adjustment that can be worked out by reasonable people, are actually just further evidence of the irredeemable evil of America/the West/capitalism, which all get collapsed into the racialized shorthand “white people,” which is then rhetorically flogged to no end. This tends to, among other things, abolish the space for empathy from people who would be empathic on an individual level, encourage zero-sum us-vs.-them thinking, and to encourage an increasing subset of whites who aren’t here for the revolution toward a more tribal response.

This, in turn, is where the alt-right comes in, whose pitch to white people basically amounts to Gene Wilder’s from Young Frankenstein:

Hello handsome, you’re a good-looking fellow, do you know that? People laugh at you, people hate you, but why do they hate you? Because… they are jealous. Look at that boyish face. Look at that sweet smile. Do you wanna talk about physical strength? Do you want to talk about sheer muscle? Do you want to talk about the Olympian ideal? You are a God. And listen to me, you are not evil. You… are… good.

 This is only seductive once the conversation is already pretty dysfunctional.

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