I have no stomach for the Empathy Wars. Dismissal of grief as counter-revolutionary — how dare you show solidarity with Paris as Beirut burns — seems a monstrous response to injustice. When people invite the pain of others into themselves, why condemn that summons? Empathy is rare enough. Let’s not make it a hammer to pound our righteousness home.
But it is because of empathy’s tremendous power that we must question it.
News of the Paris attacks jarred me. The shock I felt was immediate, instinctive, urgent. That’s not how I respond to news of every distant tragedy. How could I? And then: Why don’t I? Headlines and live feeds and Facebook updates don’t proliferate, as they did for Paris, for every mass murder. How could they? Why don’t they?
Asking these questions is not a betrayal of the people of Paris or the mourning we offer them. As someone who stands outside the first circles of grief, I have the space to consider these questions. As someone who values empathy, I’m forced to consider how selective mourning dehumanizes the unwept others.
Moments like this unveil the secret that is no secret: We have broken the world in half. There is a world of perpetual peace and one of perpetual conflict, and both make tragedy impossible. Impossible in the first world because safety is taken so for granted that when tragedy strikes, it shatters something inviolable and brings all of us, not just the victims, to our knees. Impossible in the other because lives there seem to hold less weight. Violence is mundane and we can’t separate the everyday from the horrific. Where all is tragedy, nothing is. We won’t blink.
We’ve made empathy impossible.
The New York Times, in an article today about the silence surrounding the Beirut attacks, refers to this as the “compassion gap.” Anne Barnard reports: “The implication, numerous Lebanese commentators complained, was that Arab lives mattered less. Either that, or that their country — relatively calm despite the war next door — was perceived a place where carnage is the norm, an undifferentiated corner of a basket-case region.”
This is the wall against compassion that movements like Black Lives Matter seek to bring down. The wall that protects the chosen and blocks view of the cursed. It is not morally bankrupt to grieve for Paris. But do we grieve behind a wall? It’s the wall that distorts our vision of human life. Razing it lets us grieve over bodies once considered expendable.
It’s easy to understand why we erect these barriers. Life is hard and the world is violent and to bleed for every wounded being would drain us dry.
But the current solution — to value, consciously or not, certain lives and zones of safety over others — confesses the very brokenness that makes terrorism inevitable. Terrorism, as a political strategy distinct from official military attacks, is violence and intimidation leveraged by the stateless against the secure. (This is why a “war on terror” is a fool’s crusade. Fighting unofficial violence with official violence doesn’t make anyone safer. Look back 14 years ago. Look back two days ago.) If we continue to build and uphold the mythical walls between real places, terrorists will continue to scale those walls with Kalashnikovs. In an empathy-starved society, one in which certain bodies may be destroyed, it will remain a logical tactic.
I use the word “we,” though this isn’t as simple as a matter of individual conscience and bias. We each have to take responsibility for those, but feeling horror in your gut for the Paris attacks doesn’t mark you as a racist. The “we” is bigger. It includes our history, our institutions, our stories. Stories about nations that we tell ourselves to feel immortal. Stories about good and evil that we tell ourselves to feel hope. Stories about ourselves that we tell each other to feel less alone.
On Facebook you’ll see posts about “the magical city” of Paris, even from people who’ve never been there. People will talk about their honeymoons and study abroad trips. They’ll talk about the friends they know traveling in Paris, the beautiful French language they studied. We have French friends. Our friends have French friends. Even if we don’t, Paris means something to us. France, and its magical capital, Paris, are part of our story. And when it’s hurt, we feel it too.
This is proof that stories build the world. I know there are entrenched political and economic factors that make Paris a safer place than Baghdad, but it’s the story — the enfolding of Paris into our shared narrative — that commands our sympathy. Stories quicken your heartbeat, stiffen the hairs on your neck, riddle you with goosebumps, weigh you down with aching. Empathy is physical. The urgency in your chest is not the work of the IMF or NATO. It’s all story.
Art, then, is one way to deal with the pain of the world without being crushed by it. Artists talk about this when they want to assure themselves (and a disaffected audience) of their vital role in the world. I write plays, I believe in this. But to profess their importance is to admit their risk. What stories will we tell? How many will we hear? Because some stories will strangle our empathy, deepening the divide between the world that matters and the one that goes to waste.
ISIS has a story. Graeme Wood lays it out in his thoughtful analysis “What ISIS Really Wants” (published by The Atlantic last year.) He tracks the group’s Quranic foundation and ideological aims. “The Islamic State is committed to purifying the world,” Wood writes, “by killing a lot of people.”
For ISIS also looks at humanity and divides it into two: the damned and the holy, the wicked and good. Wood explains that the Islamic State considers its war efforts “policies of mercy rather than of brutality. …[The] state has an obligation to terrorize its enemies — a holy order to scare the shit out of them with beheadings and crucifixions and enslavement of women and children, because doing so hastens victory and avoids prolonged conflict.” ISIS does not condemn compassion. They apply it selectively. Their vision of a restored caliphate is part of a utopian narrative in which good triumphs over evil — glory to the armies of god.
ISIS is a weaponized story. It’s choked, one-eyed empathy with bombs strapped to its chest. Those who suggest a redoubled “war on terror” fear the bomb more than the story.
But violence is not the seed, it is the harvest.
Beneath the story ISIS tells is a faith in purity. A story so old and seductive most of us have bought into it at one point or another. This is the story that dooms half the world. It says: There is one good, one god, one truth, one peace. It says: You are the holy and the saved. It says: Our lives are real. It says: Fight evil. And with every breath it draws it also says: All the rest must die; they are condemned; those bodies are dust, bones without flesh.
This is the story that layers high the bricks on our citadels. It puts our empathy under siege. This is why stories are dangerous. This is why they are necessary.
We need stories — we need a lot of them. Not just the fun escapist ones with monsters and champions. We need artists who will reimagine pain and contaminate purity. Visionaries who will take us to different worlds and remind us that, lo! it’s the same world and we’re part of it and it’s part of us. Magicians who will remind us that the wall is made of sand. Artists can tell us stories we haven’t learned, from people we rarely hear. They complicate everything. They disarrange our pieties. They fucking fuck everything up, actually, and it’s terrible, and we feel unsafe, and we don’t know where good and evil go, and then we wonder if maybe we have to start rethinking everything.
I find in this a saving doubt.
When we see monsters as people and ourselves as monsters, when we witness the humanity that everyone owns, it changes us. It staves violence. Curbs righteousness. Loosens the chokehold on our empathy.
Maybe peace is the sum of the ceasefires demanded by each doubt. Everyone puts down their weapons for a sec while they work out who the hell they even are. (That’s a metaphor, guys, not Abbey’s Five-Year Roadmap for Peace.) Exploration postpones killing. A whole human history could flourish in that perpetual postponement. Our lives are like that: stolen adventures during the postponement of death. And the work of recognizing and realizing and reimagining one another demands a lifetime of doubt.
Forget good v. evil, us v. them. Our battle is doubt v. certainty, empathy v. annihilation. (Complexity v. binary “X v. Y” statements.)
It’s many messy stories.
France, Kenya, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Nigeria, Ukraine, and on, and on. If we segregate compassion we’re only promising ourselves further pain. If we try to feel it all we’ll dissolve, martyrs to our own secondhand pain. Instead, we have the possibility of rebuilding empathy. It doesn't mean we ration our feelings. And I shall allow every act of violence, every disease outbreak, every famine, the equal and appropriate [portion of my heart. The “heart” isn’t your physical organ to be cut up, a finite beating fact. It is your own intangible humanity, and it has a right to its sensitivities and longings. But when our empathy hits a wall, we should beat back at the brick. We should doubt.
Empathy is no excuse to wallow in borrowed grief. It’s a costly strength, bought through acknowledgement of how vulnerable we are. How light our lives and how heavy each loss. We can temper the pain with art and choose stories that put flesh on all our bones. We can believe in everyone’s humanity. We can start living through the demands of that belief, and let it change how we listen, how we speak, how we label the unknown, how we make monsters, how we express fear and solidarity.
Yes, tangible, political solutions are needed to save lives. But “stories” aren’t just the fantasies played out in tiny theaters and private pages. They’re your Facebook feed, the nightly news, the New York Times, Congressional hearings, presidential debates. They too build and break the world.
The story of Paris made its way inside us. To everyone feeling raw and exposed today — that pain is proof that we’re not walled off. Other stories can enter. Let them. Let crumble the wall that protects my city and blocks all view of yours. Goodbye to the half-seen world. And lay down your arms, Empathy Soldiers. There’s work to do.
Doubt, good monsters.