Garbled

Social Justice Is Made of Empathy

I was listening to episode 101 of The Ruby Rogues with Ashe Dryden as the guest. The episode includes some of what social justice folks call “101 work”, which is the sort of entry-level explanatory teaching that it takes to get someone from something like “Isn’t a code event specifically for girls, sexist?” to, “That’s not cool”.

Anyway, I really liked the episode, and I recommend you go give it a listen, especially if you’re new or entirely unintroduced to the topic of social justice. They talk a lot about feminism specifically, since there’s been several high profile events related to it this year so far, but they talk about intersectionality, too (like what is is, if you don’t already know).

In this post, I want to address one specific topic they talked about. One sentence, in a way. As part of a discussion about calling people out on comments that are exclusionary or otherwise inappropriate, Ashe was saying that simply saying, “That’s not cool” can have a powerful effect, sending the message that that kind of thing isn’t socially acceptable within the context it was said and that most people will modify their future behavior accordingly.

As a follow-up to that, Avdi Grimm asked if there was ever a time that you’d say something, someone would point out that it made them uncomfortable (or whatever) and you apologized, but decided that whatever the statement was, it was so much a part of who you are, that you knew you’d say it again in the future. I’m paraphrasing, here, hence the lack of quotes. In answer, they talked about a few things, but someone said something else and the conversation kind of got distracted. However, I’d like to address it somewhat.

The flippant answer to the question is, “Of course.” I mean–if I say something like, “I really, really like wearing argyle socks,” and you’re like, “That comment offends me,” there’s not a whole lot I can do for you. Assuming I don’t just think you’re trolling me, I would probably apologize because I don’t like to make people feel bad, but… I seriously wear argyle socks every day. I love that shit. I am likely to express that idea in the future.

But if we’re talking more seriously, thinking of a comment that actually addresses people in some way (instead of socks), I think the idea becomes really interesting (I’ll leave it as an exercise to the reader to come up with an appropriately offensive remark). If you say something offensive or exclusionary, I’m going to give you (and me) the benefit of the doubt an assume it’s because you didn’t realize it would be so. You’re a good person; you don’t enjoy ruining other people’s days.

After making your comment, someone in the group (or near the group over-hearing) says something to you about it being inappropriate and you apologize. Great. How, though, do you get from, “I didn’t realize that was racist,” to “but that thought it so intrinsic to my being that I don’t care and I’ll say it again later”? The only method I can see to get there is if “I am an empathetic human being who cares about others” isn’t a part of how you view yourself.

Personally, I am bad at empathy. I have a hard time reading people sometimes, but I still like to think of myself that I’m empathic. If I manage to figure out that someone was hurt by me, I feel bad. I want to make it better. And in the scenario laid out above, we’re removing that, anyway. Above, I’ve said something and someone flat out told me what was going on, in case I didn’t pick it up.

So if some aspect of that remark is intrinsic to my self image and empathy is intrinsic to my self image, then they’re in competition now. And, I guess, you have to be real with yourself about which one is actually more important to you. Possibly with observation, not introspection. Personally, I’d like my personal narrative to be more about being empathetic to other people than about protecting my ego or whatever.

So, I guess what I’m saying is: If someone near you points out that something you said is out of bounds, and you find yourself saying, “No, my gay friend always jokes around with me that way and he’s not offended,” then you are failing at empathy. At least from the standpoint of someone who is basically sitting on a mountain of privilege (me), social justice isn’t about gay couples wanting to “ruin marriage” or women wanting to invade and displace all our special boys club professions and hobbies or anything like that: It’s about giving a shit about other human beings.