I don’t actually know what day it was. Not the date, the day of the week or the time. Shit, I honestly couldn’t tell you what year it was, but I was on the phone with the telecom company. Again.
I’m not even sure why I had called them. I just remember that feeling I had, the feeling that the person on the other end of the line had no idea what I was going through. I had been on the phone with them before. My problem wasn’t being solved. I was getting conflicting information. Were they even listening to me? No one seemed to know anything. No one seemed to care.
So I let loose, as I had done many times before. I let that person have it, the brunt of my anger, frustration and self-righteousness. I ripped her a new one. I was loud and indignant, landing punch after verbal punch, tearing any feeble rebuttals she attempted to shreds, talking over her and around her in a masterful rhetorical dance, until my torrent of abuse finally ended in an exhaustive list of reasons why her company was unfit to serve me, unworthy of my patronage.
Indignant self-righteous me felt a great sense of satisfaction, energized even, powerful, ready to take on the world. That part of me felt heard.
The rest of me just felt spent, utterly depleted in the face of the knowledge that I had changed nothing. My problem was no closer to being fixed. My little tirade would have no impact on that company or their policies or the incompetency of their employees. All it did was make that woman hate her job a little more than she probably already did, and make me feel like an asshole.
I remembered all the other times I had had similar, unfruitful, interactions with people over the years.
I realized in that moment that I was an asshole.
According to Aaron James, author of Assholes: A Theory, I am probably not really an asshole, but was just acting like one in that instance. In fact, his definition implies that the customer support person, refusing to listen to my legitimate complaints, was quite possibly the asshole, causing me an, “otherwise coolheaded [person to] fall into a fit of rage or lash out.” That I was merely, “fighting to be recognized.”
Two assholes don’t make a right
You may have noticed that this year has been full of devastating headlines. Between the killings by religious extremists, racists and homophobes, not to mention the passing of many of our most beloved artists, the recent death toll would have us believe that 2016 is cursed. Although a statistical analysis would likely prove this to be a more or less average year, it doesn’t feel like it. It feels like a year that’s asking too much of us. Add that to the current political climate, especially with regard to the upcoming American presidential election, and one might rightfully ask if the world is going crazy.
Shortly after a deranged individual drove his truck through a crowd of people otherwise enjoying the Bastille Day festivities in Nice, my social media feeds were full of alternating messages of outrage, solidarity and grief. Along with the usual avatar pledges and hashtag declarations, came a question I hadn’t seen before. From multiple users and on multiple platforms people started asking, “What can we do?”
Amidst a sea of cliché tweets, Facebook posts and Instagrams, including the empty promises and This Will Not Stand’s from political figures, this was the only thing that made sense to me.
Because relooking our avatars isn’t more than a quiet form of righteous indignation, another empty promise, another way of reassuring others of our outrage, to feel a sense of collective normalcy. It’s a freedom flag in our fight to be recognized in a world that doesn’t always seem to hear us despite our mass of tweets and posts and votes (and phone calls).
What we can do
Despite living nowhere near Nice, I had a couple of people write to me asking if I was safe. So I posted a brief message to my Facebook page to reassure anyone else who might have been concerned.
Nowhere near Nice, but yes, safe. Sad, but safe.
A friend replied, “I’m just hearing about what happened in Nice. I have no words. No more. Why is there so much hate in our world? Glad you are safe.”
To which someone else posted, “Listen to our Presidential candidate spew hatred – that’s why!”
This stopped me in my tracks. I read it a dozen times over, trying to understand it, trying to fathom what logic or intelligent thought went into the statement. Now, I am no fan of the presidential candidates, but blame either one of them for the hate in the world?
“What an asshole”, I thought.
But I know that person isn’t an asshole. They were just lashing out. Because we feel powerless. Because we want to be heard, to feel a part of some collective normalcy.
I do my best to steer clear of political debates on social media, but I felt I had an opportunity here. After a moment of hesitation I replied, “Reducing the problems to one man’s hatred takes us far from the truth IMO.”
“No, but it contributes.”
“So do reductive statements and laying blame. They reflect anger and frustration, which, where understandable, also contribute to the cycle of hate.”
At this point I wondered if I had gone too far. Maybe I hadn’t been gentle enough. Accusing someone of perpetuating a cycle of hate is risky. Although the accusation wasn’t direct, it was implied. I was trying not to be an asshole. I started to worry that I had offended this friend (I’ve been unfriended for less*).
To my surprise, I got a hopeful and thoughtful reply the next day. “Just searching for a reason.”
YES. It felt like a win.
“I totally get that. Asking ‘why?’ is the most normal reaction we can have. I’ve also been seeing a lot of people ask, ‘What can we do?’ And I feel like 1) asking “why?” doesn’t bring us closer to any truth, doesn’t bring any real value to the discussion, because the only answer to “why?” is a perpetual cycle of “hate/anger/fear”; 2) I started thinking about “what can we do?” and have concluded that we can only really change ourselves, ridding our own hearts of anger/hate/fear, as hard as that may be, and as hard as it is to recognize that even hating/being angry with/fearing a political candidate is still hate/anger/fear (no matter how incompetent we believe him/her to be wink ). And maybe through kind, honest, gentle acts and conversations, by talking about love and discouraging the hate/anger/fear cycles that can be subtle and creep into our lives right under our very noses, maybe then, little by little, we can foster that change around us…”
It felt like doing something, no matter how small.
James says that while, “A person of good conscience might be aware of his own inner asshole,” the crucial feature of the true asshole is their, “entrenched sense of entitlement,” failing “to recognize others in a fundamental, morally important way.”
Of course to separate ourselves from the assholes, we have to adhere to the notion that we are all moral equals.
Even if the other person is an asshole? Even if they are something worse?
A couple days later, another friend posted this stirring piece by Morwari Zafar on Aljazeera, discussing the importance of cultivating empathy, and not falling into the trap of dehumanization if we hope to make sense of and, possibly, change the world.
“In the impetus to classify and label people, it is worth a pause to think about what happens when we suspend bias and judgment: we begin to understand the other. We begin to perceive similarities that define human universals. We begin to see a reflection of ourselves.”
The post on Facebook immediately got trolled, “Having empathy for someone that deliberately runs down and kills at least 84 people is impossible. As is reading Al-Jazerra.”
What ensued was a scramble on the part of the poster and another participant to deny any empathy for the murderer, further condemnations on the part of the troller, and several rounds of, “that’s not what the article was saying,” “hate breeds extremism,” and, “the only way to fight hate is empathy,” but, “the goal is to find empathy BEFORE.”
Because having empathy for murderers is of course a very unpopular view. And it’s easier to promote empathy while still trying to maintain a sense of collective normalcy.
Of course what Zafar actually says is that, “It is not the act of extremism or the medium of radicalization, but the individual that begs understanding.”
In talking about Omar Mateen, the man who killed 49 people and injured many more at the gay nightclub in Florida in June, Zafar says, “his cold-blooded mass murdering is a reminder of what people are capable when they lack understanding, support, and a sense of community.”
If we are to promote empathy and to recognize one another as moral equals, than we cannot do it conditionally. We mustn’t confuse empathy with approval or acceptance, or even forgiveness, but neither should we allow ourselves to believe that the person who commits a heinous act deserves empathy before and not after.
Is there a fundamental difference between Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel, the truck driver in Nice, and, say, Patrick Sherrill, the US Postal worker who in 1986 murdered 14 of his colleagues before taking his own life, inspiring the expression, “going postal”? Or Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, who meticulously planned an assault on their high school in Columbine, Colorado in 1999, killing a dozen of their fellow classmates and a teacher, and injuring many more, a rampage that ended in their own suicides and likely inspired more killing sprees in US schools over the years?
Where the lives, experiences and motivations of these individuals were vastly different, the outcome was the same: premeditated mass murder and their own deaths. Was what lead each of them to those heinous acts so different? And was each fundamentally different after their crime?
The unpopular view
It’s hard to have the unpopular view because it’s a spur in the side of the collective normalcy. It’s easier and more reassuring to draw lines such as “us” and “them”, creating a barrier that protects us from the idea that we might be capable of such things if our circumstances were different. The more lines we draw, the more conditional our empathy becomes, the less we accept others as our moral equals, the more we look outward to lay blame, the less we look inward and possibly have a chance to see a reflection of ourselves everywhere we look.
“…society should focus on cultivating understanding and empathy – not peace. Peace is elusive because peace is unlikely,” posits Zafar.
I still act like an asshole sometimes, probably as recently as yesterday. And you will never catch me saying that we should all be friends and sing fucking Kumbaya around a campfire. A friend recently shared a quote with me from French actor and comedian Guy Bedos, which I find pretty fantastic. “Ce n’est pas parce que l’on est prêt à mourir pour le peuple, qu’on est prêt à vivre avec”. (It’s not because we are ready to die for the people that we are ready to live with them.)
Letting go of things I can’t control and of anger that goes nowhere are two concrete things that I can do in the face of a world that doesn’t always seem to listen or to care. A world that doesn’t recognize me at the same time that it tells me how I should feel. The more I practice conscious actions, no matter how small or seemingly insignificant, the less impuissante I feel. Nothing makes me feel more powerful and more in control then deciding how I feel and how I react to the events around me (no matter how small or seemingly insignificant).
*I once complained about my experience with hairdressers on Facebook and was immediately reamed out and then unfriended by a former classmate who apparently was a hair dresser and took offense. It’s not like I called all hairdressers assholes or something, but that’s what I was thinking afterward.
This text is originally from my newsletter, Making Connections, and may have been modified for publication here.