Solidarity, Empathy and Compassion

I was reading through this thread at the Silence of Our Friends the other day, skimming the comments and thinking about what I might want to add, and came to this quote by Fire Fly:

The point of intersectionality is that we have a stake in each others’ liberation, the point is solidarity. And solidarity can’t be about who’s better at being a martyr. Sometimes it needs to go both ways.

And along with what Donna said in the OP there, I honestly felt like there was nothing I could add after that. That statement sums it up more concisely than I ever could.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately – even more than is my usual wont – about compassion and solidarity. The ridiculous backlash at Obama for daring to suggest that ’empathy’ might be a valuable trait to seek out in a Supreme Court Justice fits right in. It’s telling, to me, that the context of that thread is all about trying to communicate just how frustrating, ineffective and damaging it is to hear one’s own supposed friends and allies pass judgments without context and understanding, while the latest manufactured scandal of the US news media connects directly to someone whose job it is to pass judgments on people’s lives.

I realize that everyone recognizes that since Obama said absolutely nothing that reveals anything of substance about his potential Supreme Court pick, the procedures manual says that the pundits will have to find something that they can dissect and devour, and the word they happen to have chosen is ’empathy’. We can all mock that particular extreme manifestation of adventures in missing the point, but we’re also so prone to these every day failures of empathy and inclinations towards judgment, pressure and decontextualized categorization. Solidarity would obviously be a terrible choice of words to use with respect to the selection of a justice, but at the core, what we’re talking about here is how we can come to operate based on the connections rather than the divisions between us. I’m not even talking about connections emerging out of categories of oppression and means of marginalization (though I’m certainly not saying that those things don’t matter), but about the simple basics of mutual interdependence over isolation. I mean, again, that recognition of the fact that ‘we have a stake in each other’s liberation’.

While doing my best not to downplay the indisputable facts of unacceptable levels of violence, systemic oppression, poverty and exploitation that exist and that I fully believe in working to change, I’m finding I can’t use the language of ‘fighting’ and ‘battling’ to talk about it anymore. I can see the relevance of the metaphor, and plenty of the people on ‘my side’ who use it are doing damn good work, but I just can’t help but also see a kind of destructiveness and division that comes along with those images. The people who are freaked out about the idea of ’empathy’ guiding life or death decisions for millions of others are coming from a place that sees the world in terms of winners and losers, whether that’s in the ‘culture wars’ or in the economic competitions inherent to the achievement of the “American Dream”. And as I said a few days ago, I’m starting to think of this model of the world, in which we all exist on a massive playing field and life consists of a series of battles in some kind of perpetual steel cage championship death match, as lying at the heart of far too many problems. And I think that the pervasiveness of the metaphor means that it becomes really easy, even when the fight one is fighting is the one for social justice and increased rights and equality and non-violence and all of those beautiful things, to lose sight of the soldiers for the war. It becomes a question of victories and losses and allies and enemies, and it stops being about people.

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2 thoughts on “Solidarity, Empathy and Compassion

  1. kisekileia says:

    This reminds me of an issue related to intersectionality of oppressions that I have mentioned a lot online lately, which is: Uncompassionately done anti-oppression discourse is frequently oppressive to people on the autism spectrum. Anti-oppression discourse often involves obscure and non-obvious social rules that people are unwilling to explain. Autistic people cannot cope in environments like that, because we have difficulty understanding and following social rules at the best of times, and failing to follow social rules gets one reviled as much in anti-oppression environments as anywhere else. Thus, truly not oppressing anyone requires compassion and empathy even in reprimanding others within anti-oppression discourse.

  2. purtek says:

    You make some good specific points about the autism spectrum context that I hadn’t thought of, thanks. I don’t even think it has to be about a concern for a particular kind of oppression that necessitates this kind of empathy, though I think it definitely offers a useful way to think about it.

    (also, good to see you’re still around, I always enjoy your comments 🙂 )

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