Feeling For You

Just about every day, my social media feeds surge at some point with anger at judgmental comments, sometimes specific comments by a public figure, sometimes collections or assemblies of common forms of implied or ‘polite’ judgmental remarks directed at entire groups of people, aka microaggressions.

If you have a wide enough range of social groups and people represented in your feeds, you will sooner or later hear one group of people saying some of the things in an untroubled or unselfconscious manner that fuel anger over in another group. Very rarely will the two groups actually be talking to each other, however, unless you choose to identify yourself as the Venn overlap and expose them to one another. Most of us know that little good can come of that: more typically, if you’re in basic agreement with the angry people, the simultaneity of conversations may spark you to unfriend or unsubscribe.

You have to have a really wide-ranging network of social media contacts or a really expansive taste for political and social variety to encounter certain overlaps. Almost everyone in my Facebook network is careful about any comments on race or expresses strongly within one major discourse that is critical of racial supremacy and racial injustice, for example, which I’m sure says something about my own professional and personal identity. Generally, I only see some of that overlap when one of my few friends who has a sizeable following to the right says something that seems too liberal in racial terms for the rest of his or her followers.

One place where I do see circles like this in my feeds are two rivalrous groups that are deliberately working to avoid any kind of intimate or insider understanding (and thus possible sympathy) for one another. The obvious case is Palestinians (and their sympathizers) and Israelis (and their sympathizers), but in a more quotidian vein I see it between faculty and administrators (though the latter group tend to be much more circumspect about expressing anything in social media, which I think is a pity).

Where I’m more likely to see this kind of overlap is in comments about body size/body image, mental health, parenting and family, age and youth, and in certain discourses about gender but not others. If I had to sum it up, in conversations about other people that concern attributes and experiences that are historically associated with the private, domestic and personal.

One example. What I see in this instance is one cluster of people for whom the existence of judgmental comments about body size and shape are powerfully explained by their views about social justice and discrimination. And then another group of people who unselfconsciously talk about weight and body size and exercise in terms of public health and private happiness. The second group is barely aware that the first group exists, and if they were aware, would regard them as risible or extreme. The second group is also often politically progressive and regard their views on body size and health as an outgrowth of other commitments they have to avoiding mass-produced food, to self-care and autonomy, to environmental justice and much else.

As an overweight person, I’m sympathetic to the first group. I’m often a bit stunned at how colleagues and acquaintances I know who would absolutely flip out if anyone “microaggressed” in their presence about race, gender or sexuality have zero problem asking me about my diet, commenting on my weight, wondering whether I’m healthy, or in one case, poking my in my belly several times during a conversation and saying, “How about that, eh?”

On the other hand, for all sorts of reasons, I don’t really feel like signing on with the conventional set of moves made within identity politics on this issue. Much of that is that I’m not really the kind of person who suffers serious consequences of body-image, body-shape discrimination: as always, white men get away with stuff that other people can’t. But it’s also that I just am not prepared to identify with or claim anything that’s based on the fact that other people feel it’s ok to be stunningly rude and actually touch my body, even though I find that always annoying and sometimes emotionally distressing.

I am more interested in figuring out what’s going on in this and many other cases, and the assumption that this is part of a coherent structure for the maintenance of discriminatory power seems premature, to interfere with that investigation.

It’s relevant today with the undercurrent here and there of a few people expressing anger with Robin Williams for committing suicide rather than sadness. We hear that kind of expression about public figures, more or less depending on how what they did relates to conventional wisdom. Why didn’t this person do that? Why is that person doing that thing? What’s wrong with them? Sometimes the discourse is fairly unanimous that it’s ok to pass judgment (say, on Justin Bieber); sometimes the discourse is fairly unanimous that only an asshole would say something like that (say, on Robin Williams). The most interesting cases for me are when it’s not only evenly divided, but the two groups are not really talking to one another.

There are days where I feel a sort of generic libertarianism is the right answer to all of this discourse, to all those circles in my feeds where someone is concerning themselves with another person’s body, behavior, looks. Just tend to your own knitting, judge not lest ye be judged, beam in your eye, all that.

But not only is that an impossible prescription to live up to, it’s too incurious. Why do circles form where it’s not only permitted but almost mandatory to pass judgment on some group or behavior? The conventional answer in most identity politics is that the judgments are produced by an infrastructure of stereotypes that is a functional part of structures of discrimination. E.g., that dominant groups use such judgments (and communicate them through microaggressions) in order to buttress their own power and status.

I think that’s part of the story, but when you wander away from the histories and structures whose connections to power and injustice blaze in neon, when you wander into that more personal, domestic, private space, I think some other dimensions crop up as well.

When the streams do cross and someone in a group or a discussion suddenly says, “Actually, I feel pretty hurt or offended by the way you folks are talking about this issue, because I’m actually the thing you’re talking about”, what happens? Sometimes people make non-apology apologies (“sorry that you’re offended”), sometimes people double-down and say, “You’re crazy, there’s nothing offensive about talking about X or Y”. A turn or two in the conversation, though, and what you’ll often hear is this: “Look, I just care about you and people like you. So I want to help.” (Or its close sibling: “Look, not to insult you personally, but people like you/behavior like that costs our society a lot of money and/or inflicts a lot of pain on other people. Don’t you think it would be better if…”)

I’d actually like to concede the sincerity of that response: that we get drawn into these discussions and the judgments they create out of concern for other people, out of concern for moral and social progress. That we feel passionately about people who let their children go to the park by themselves, about people who train their children to go hunting, about people who are overweight, about people who drive big SUVs, about people play their radios too loudly in their cars, about people who buy overly expensive salsa, about people who play video games, about people who raise backyard chickens, about people who demand accommodations for complex learning disabilities, about people who follow the fashion industry, about people who post to Instagram, about people who feed their kids fast food twice a week to save time, and so on.

I’d like to concede the sincerity but the problem is that most of these little waves of moral condemnation or judgmental concern don’t seem to be particularly compassionate or particularly committed. The folks who say, “I just want to help, because I care about you” show no signs of that compassion otherwise. They usually aren’t close friends to the person they’re commenting on, they usually have little empathy or curiosity overall. The folks who say, “Because I care about progress, about solving the bigger problem” don’t show much interest in that alleged bigger problem. The person who hates the big SUVs because they’re damaging the environment is often environmentally profligate in other ways. If the SUV-judger is consistently environmentally sensitive, some other aspect of their concern for the world, their vision of a better society, may be woefully out of synch or weakly developed.

The people I know who really care about others generally aren’t the people going on Facebook to say, “Man, I’m sick of people hiding behind claims of depression” or “If I meet another mother who thinks it’s ok to bring cupcakes to my child’s class, I’m going to go berserk”. The people I know who are really think about incremental moves to improve the world don’t get hung up on passing judgments on someone they’ve witnessed fleetingly in public.

I’m in strong agreement with the idea that there is no such thing as “reverse racism”, if by that we mean the capacity for a white person to suffer systematic consequences for being white. Even if a white person works in a specific context where the professional consequences of felt animus towards whites might have an impact on them, that’s still a very limited and constrained kind of consequence.

But any single individual can deliver emotional suffering to any other individual, sometimes consciously and directly, other times without any awareness of doing so. My feeds are lighting up right now with very well-meaning people reminding everyone that middle-aged men, including white and wealthy men, are both prone to depression and prone to keeping their feelings private. The categorical part of that point is sociological. It’s the same way that we rightfully identify the problems that our society suffers from and ought to confront. But the compassionate part of that point might be to think about specific individuals with whom we’re in specific social connection. To be aware that we can always hurt someone else, that we have hurt someone else. Sometimes that’s not our fault, and sometimes what we said was needful or important or defined own freedom to express and imagine and explore. In a world full of familiar strangers and strange friends, there’s no way to anticipate all the minds and hearts that might be touched by what we say and do. There are ways, though, to be mindful of the possibilities.

This is something that many of us found out in the first wave of going online. The classic sequence was that first we all self-disclosed and felt a sense of intimacy, but not because we knew the other people in the conversation as people. We did it because a sense of anonymity: talking with a million other strangers was like shouting across a cliff in a wilderness. Who was there to remember? And then we discovered that the familiar strangers could actually reply and engage in dialogue. Some of them said things that we hated or disagreed with, so we unloaded on them with greater and greater intensity. Many of us still do that in various online hang-outs. Sooner or later, most of us discovered the hard way that a person on the other end was real. Sometimes we found, painfully, that their reality was radically other than their online persona. That the person who engaged everyone with their tales of being victimized by a family member or otherwise was the victimizer, the person dying of cancer wasn’t, the person who spoke with authority knew nothing. Sometimes we found, equally painfully, that the person we’d attacked or disparaged or belittled was writhing in emotional pain about it. Or that someone we’d never thought we were attacking had felt that way.

Social problems, oppression, injustice: we shouldn’t apologize ever for trying to engage them and change our world. When we justify what we say because we claim to have a sense of compassion: I just want people to be well, I just want children to be raised in a way that makes them happy and strong, I just want people to be more considerate of others, I just want people to know that actions have consequences? Then I think we have to be sure that it’s compassion we’re speaking from, rather than an insecure attempt to assure ourselves of our own superiority to others. Compassion, it seems to me, grows not from judgment but curiosity. Not from certainty, but humility. I’d love to see social media feeds where the Venn overlap on “curiosity” and “humility” in my various circles was one hundred percent.

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4 Responses to Feeling For You

  1. Luke says:

    I think that at least part of these kinds of incidental judgements that people have and the weird fierceness of them in contrast to their weak post-hoc justifications (false compassion) comes from not having a good way to talk about non-instrumental aesthetic concerns.

    We (I mean Westerners I guess) cannot really appeal to aesthetics as a justification. Think about grammar. People always justify things like lay/lie or “12 items or fewer” in terms of clarity, as though it were actually likely to confuse someone about meaning. Of course, no one is ever confused about meaning in those cases. However, for someone who has a strong aesthetic sense of which is correct, there is a moment of annoyance, a kind of disgust-related aversion to hearing the wrong one. This is actual source of the grammar pedant’s complaint, but it can’t be expressed as a valid justification because it’s not instrumental to some commonsensical social goal. So they invent concerns about clarity of language. Ditto the driver who is momentarily annoyed by a bicyclist and then concocts arguments about how not sharing in licensing fees makes riders freeloaders. The presence of an element that doesn’t fit smoothly into a mental model of how a system should work (for people like themselves) is the real problem. People do have some interest in keeping their mental model of the world well-defined, if only to lighten cognitive load. What’s problematic is the prioritization of one group’s aesthetic concerns over another’s very lives (e.g. drivers who bully cyclists on the road).

    I’m a fat person, or I have been on and off, and I more or less share your take on the situation there. I’m quite sure that people aren’t expressing their real concerns when they talk about health or medical costs. (After all, runners have an extremely high rate of injury and no one thinks that they are anti-social; much to the contrary.) Although I don’t really want to sign up for some kind of identity politics of fatness either, I think it is ultimately rooted in the disgust response, much like the kinds of aesthetic judgements that go along with racism.

    I think that not being racist and not being homophobic etc. are special cases of suppressing these extraneous aesthetic requirements with the understanding that some specific dimension of variation needs to be tolerated and integrated into the mental model of how things work — but that tolerance is the result of hard-fought gains specific to each case.

  2. CarlD says:

    Luke, I think you’re right. To me the platonisms of ethics and aesthetics end up much the same way, in attempting to legislate a narrow and largely arbitrary sense of the ideal. I like a more anthropological understanding of right, truth, and beauty, but that puts a lot more pressure on our bandwidth.

    Re: fat and identity, and perhaps a different approach to the microaggression standoff, I strongly recommend this work of art: http://www.obeasts.org/

  3. Realestate Acct says:

    To sum up “Do onto others as you would have done onto you” and “Let him who is without sin cast the first stone.” are excellent rules to be consulted before posting as well as generally in life. Also “Don’t do or say anything you wouldn’t want to read about in the newspaper or have discussed on Twitter.”

  4. mch says:

    To curiosity and humility, I’d add pain and the intense sense of isolation it imposes. I think maybe curiosity and pain (with its isolation) are the priors, humility the result (when all goes well). I want most of all, though, to celebrate with you curiosity, terribly overlooked and undervalued in most current discourses about anything and everything.

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