What does the picture to the left make you feel? You might think it’s beautiful, and it might make you long for the beach, but does it make you feel anything? Maybe you have a memory that you attach to a sunset, and maybe the picture brings back those feelings. For me, the picture makes me feel sad and exhausted and relieved. It was one of my last days in East Africa after a very long two weeks, and I felt alone, and I was nervous about taking the ferry again the next day, and it had been raining all day, and I was sick, and then after days of it being too cloudy to see anything I finally saw one of Zanzibar’s famous sunsets.
And how does my description of the moment captured in this picture make you feel? You work it through the matrix of your own experience, and you relate to the extent that you can, but having an experience described to you can’t substitute for having shared the experience. Unless you’ve spent an hour standing wedged between running cars in the 40C heat on a boat with all your possessions, it’s hard to convey the feeling beyond saying that it was unpleasant.
The first time that this distinction really hit me was when I was being taught by Chris Hedges, author of American Fascists, and he instructed us to do an investigative reporting assignment. I had made contact with a motorcycle club that counter-protested the Westboro Baptist Church at soldier’s funerals, but itself had some extreme religious beliefs. My plan was to report on my interview with one of the leaders, but Prof Hedges said no; he wanted me to experience the New Christian Movement, not just read about it. I told him that I didn’t think that was necessary. I had been studying this movement and these people for 4 years, and I assured him that I understood. But he insisted, and he recommended that I attend the Megachurch at Jane / Finch in Toronto. I and a friend of mine who also had no better ideas for the assignment decided to go together on a Friday evening. Turns out that a guest speaker was visiting from the States and the church was at capacity; maybe 5000 people. My friend was Jewish, and she immediately attracted attention. I had read that the New Christian Movement was vigilant to ensure that their sermons weren’t documented, but I was shocked when the first thing the pastor said from the pulpit to this enormous congregation was that he “could feel jews in our midst”. Terror rushed through me, but we decided to stick it out, knowing that we wouldn’t even be able to take discreet notes on our phones anymore now that so many eyes were fixed suspiciously on us. The visiting preacher went on to talk about how succubi were the cause of wet dreams, how “coexist” bumper stickers and “tolerance” generally were an illuminati conspiracy for moral relativism to conquer Christianity, how epilepsy was actually demon possession, and how aliens were real and were in fact demons. It was easily one of the most surreal experiences of my life. No amount of reading could have ever made me feel the way I did in that church that day, and I shudder to think that I would have graduated without ever having experienced what I’d spent so long studying.
Think of it this way: watching porn feels different than watching people have sex in person, which feels different from having sex. Similarly, I expect that watching porn feels different for someone who’s never had sex, and different still for a person who’s participated in making porn.
It’s about empathy: to what extent can we relate to an experience without having any comparable experiences?
It’s why, when a man tells me that women have equal opportunity, and challenge me to give an example of why that’s not true, language fails. Because it’s impossible to convey the way it feels to walk into a room full of men who don’t take you seriously by virtue of your anatomy or to quantify the effect of that dynamic. The psychological impact of hearing again and again “I actually wanted to speak to a lawyer” in reply to my picking up the phone and saying “Jasmine speaking”. How it feels to be in a conversation with a group of guys, and then have a man stand directly in front of you as though you don’t exist much less matter. The death by a thousand cuts effect of sexual harassment.
Can I understand poverty by witnessing poverty? Perhaps more than I could without having witnessed it, but certainly not as much as I could having truly felt it.
Can I understand the persecution of gay people and racialized minorities by analogy? Perhaps as a white woman I can relate more than could a white man, but I should certainly still be deferential to the testimony of persecuted people about their own experiences.
Even with the most sincerely good intent, what are the limits of our capacity to empathize? And how should that inform our behaviour as activists and allies? To me, it means in part that I should spend more time listening than talking on certain issues, that I should make space for people with lived experiences relevant to those issues, and that I should believe people when they tell me about their struggles without being dismissive of how those struggles impact their lives and decisions.
Because I haven’t been there.
Posted in: Progress