I spend a lot of time thinking about empathy and compassion. I believe in those things, as deep down as I believe in anything. I always thought this was relatively universal, at least outside of right-wing fringe groups, but I don’t really think that anymore. Not just because a Yale professor wrote a book literally called Against Empathy (in a video for The Atlantic he explains that empathy for victims is used to justify the Iraq War, but conveniently doesn’t mention if empathy can and does motivate anti-war activism), but mostly because of how often I find myself recoiling in horror from political discourse. I can’t cheer an elderly man getting brain cancer, no matter what he’s done. I don’t think that someone who punches a Nazi is suddenly as bad as a Nazi, but I can’t comprehend the ease with which people advocate the punching. I oppose violence in all its forms – structural or personal – and I don’t think that any person deserves to be killed, by the state or anyone else. I don’t think “deserve” comes into it. I don’t have the stomach to be a revolutionary.
With Nazis getting puff profiles in the New York Times, this sounds like a made-up problem. If anything there’s too much empathy, from avowed white supremacists and serial rapists down to Trump voters, for people who refuse to empathise with anyone else yet get so much in return. That’s probably true, and I can imagine saying that just a year or two ago, but I can’t buy into it wholeheartedly. I recently watched A Clockwork Orange again, Stanley Kubrick’s film about a young rapist and murderer who is given treatment to make him incapable of committing violence. I was struck as always by how the story only works because Alex is so, so awful: that it demands more of you, to believe in someone’s right to make moral choices when all the choices they’ve made have been monstrous. It’s easier to oppose an evil being done to someone when they didn’t deserve it, to oppose the death penalty for a wrongful conviction or torture of someone mistaken for a terrorist. I’m a leftist in part because it seemed to me that leftists were the only political tendency who didn’t demand you prove yourself morally worthy of receiving the things that everyone should have – healthcare, shelter, being alive.
I don’t think the problem is that there’s too much empathy; I think the problem is that it’s the wrong kind. Paul Bloom, the Against Empathy guy, recently wrote for the New Yorker about dehumanisation – his idea is essentially that human cruelty is not, as we often think, a result of seeing the victim as less than human. The joy taken in the cruelty can only make sense if the victim is seen as human: “The sadism of treating human beings like vermin lies precisely in the recognition that they are not.” My problem with this is mostly semantic, but I think it’s important. It is obviously true that perpetrators of violence and cruelty don’t think their victims are literally vermin. But there’s a difference between recognising intellectually that someone is a human being and comprehending them as human in the same way that I am human. This is something I, at least, have to constantly actively work on to come anywhere close, because I’m trapped in this skull prison and you are trapped in yours. Calling someone an animal is just an illustration.
The wrong kind of empathy is the bland humanisation of they also go to the supermarket or they also watch TV. It’s treating “seeing where they’re coming from” as an end in itself and a way to dismiss criticism, instead of a starting point that should often still lead to condemnation. I’m talking about something else. Seeing someone as every bit as human as you is incredibly hard, because you don’t have access to their inner monologue and personal histories. I’m terrible at it. But I think it matters, and I don’t think deserve comes into it.
An important part of this is recognising that people are not unchanging moral agents.
“As a general rule (and there are certainly exceptions) people (even the wicked) are more thoughtless, morally unheroic, weak-willed and negligent of their obligations than they are diabolically malicious,” Elizabeth Bruenig wrote about how, in light of the outpouring of sexual allegations, she does not consider men monsters to be feared, “They are accountable for what they have done. But they are, for the most part, not beyond repair.”
Vice Principals, which recently finished its second and final season, is a comedy about two vice principals at North Jackson High teaming up to take down the new principal. Despite being written and filmed in its entirety in 2015, it feels like a record of Donald Trump’s America, to watch the sincere pain and inflated entitlement of two white men manifest in incredibly ugly ways. It’s a deeply political show about masculinity and class and power. It’s also hilarious.
In any other show, Neal Gamby (Danny McBride) and Lee Russell (Walton Goggins) would be the least sympathetic of antagonists. Russell is a southern dandy who spits in people’s coffee and Gamby is an overweight divorcé who screams obscenity as his students. They do a host of horrendous things on Vice Principals, including burning down their boss’s house (she and her sons live in a hotel the remainder of the season, functionally homeless), right down to their everyday interactions, where they are needlessly cruel (Gamby is an attack dog, Russell is vindictive and petty). There are lots of shows about dislikeable protagonists, and the best ones explain without excusing, allowing us to understand why the characters behave so abhorrently. Russell having a messed up childhood, or Gamby’s desperate loneliness, make their characters fully-realised. The point is to see within terrible characters shades of yourself, to see them as every bit as human as you are, to not render them into simplistic monsters. It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia is my go-to example of this. Sometimes people assume the moral structure of It’s Always Sunny is that, because the Gang are terrible people, you laugh at their misfortune, but it’s actually much more complicated than that, with the Gang’s immoral behaviour usually related to systematic injustice. The Gang can only get worse, because they become more insular and more mutually reinforcing of bad behaviour as the world continues to reject them.
Vice Principals masters the trick of explaining but not excusing so easily that it tries to pull off something much harder: allowing an apparent irredeemably bad person to become better. There are lots of redemption stories, but they’re mostly kind of eleventh hour – I love Darth Vader’s turn back to light in Return of the Jedi, but it happens at the last possible moment. He kills the Emperor only when he tortures Luke, and then dies himself almost immediately. It’s much more about Luke’s story than Vader’s: “I’ve got to save you,” Luke says, and before he dies, Vader smiles when he says, “You already have.” Vice Principals became a show about the slow stumbling towards virtue, something gradual and hard and filled with setbacks, something that involves other people but isn’t caused by them.
The problem with the kind of bland humanisation that passes for empathy and compassion is that it, to an extent, means accepting someone as they are. One of the criticisms directed at Vice Principals in its first season was that its characters were hard to root for – as if, by virtue of being protagonists, we should want Gamby and Russell to achieve their stated aims (ruining a black woman’s life for getting a job they felt they deserved). You shouldn’t have to root for your protagonist: to paraphrase Gillian Flynn, they’re called antiheroes and it’s called fiction. But the thing is, I was rooting for Gamby. Not for him to “win”, but for him to choose to be a better man.
Neal Gamby is brash and aggressive and cringeworthy. But even at his worst moments, Danny McBride imbues him with so much humanity that it’s impossible not to feel compassion for him. Gamby takes any opportunity to quash his instincts towards goodness, especially when he’s taking cues from Russell, who is much more acclimatised to acting like a monster. But because it’s a TV show, because art allows us our best glimpse outside of our skull prison to see what it’s like to be someone else, we’re able to recognise the goodness in him even while he rejects it. Like Alex from A Clockwork Orange, Gamby is capable of moral choice but chooses wrongdoing anyway, but because we see things from his perspective, the making of the choice itself becomes significant: there wasn’t a time where Gamby did something wrong that wasn’t preceded by a moment that he might choose to do something good.
Shortly into season two, we meet Robin Shandrell, a kid who got expelled from North Jackson High for dealing drugs. He’s dirt-poor, working at a slaughterhouse and caring for his grandfather. Gamby reveals to Russell that he planted the drugs in Robin’s locker, and Russell showers him with praise. Gamby asks if he went too far, and Russell tells him, “‘Too far’? You’re an inspiration.” We’ve seen scenes like this before: Gamby will let go of the moral uneasiness that prompted the confession, he’ll pat himself on the back, aglow with Russell’s words. Gamby will look at his instincts towards goodness, and reject them.
But Gamby does something we don’t expect. He goes to see Robin Shandrell. “I don’t think it will make everything okay, but hopefully this could be a step in the right direction,” he says, and offers to readmit him to North Jackson. It’s not some morally heroic act. It’s just preventing the continuing harm, not compensating for the harm done. Gamby realises that: Robin tells him, “You think just because you say sorry that everything’s okay? ‘Cause it’s not. You still did what you did,” and he agrees. But it’s a really moving scene, not because it’s a noble act of charity, but because against the odds of everything we know about him, Gamby was presented with a moral choice and chose to do something good. Gamby isn’t a hardened sinner, no longer capable of ever discerning right from wrong. He readmits Robin to North Jackson, and proves himself capable of becoming better.
When discussions about the morality of actions hinge on what someone deserves – who deserves to have violence inflicted upon them, who deserves to be killed, who deserves a home – we are often assuming that a person is a morally stable category. But who is being evaluated to deserve something: the person they were, the person they are now, or the person they could still become? I watched Vice Principals, and long before he readmitted Robin Shandrell to school, I knew that Gamby was not irredeemable despite the monstrous things he chose to do, because I saw his instincts towards goodness even as he tried to crush them. But in real life, it can be impossible to see those things in anyone but yourself. That doesn’t mean they aren’t there.
When I was younger, I found it really hard to understand the idea of loving your neighbour as yourself, because I hated myself. If I said about other people the things I thought about myself all the time, I’d sound like a monster. Part of being the only person inside your own head is that you see all the horrible things that you can’t see in others. But the other part is that you see all the good things you can’t see in others. It is easy to be aggrieved by someone’s apparent slight to you, but it’s just as easy to do the same thing and justify it yourself in your own mind. Everything about the way the world is structured encourages us to see things only from our own narrow perspective – from the way we see out of our eyes to the way our economy works – and so to remember that everyone else is human just as you are human takes vigilance and imagination. “This is not a matter of virtue — it’s a matter of my choosing to do the work of somehow altering or getting free of my natural, hard-wired default-setting,” David Foster Wallace said, “which is to be deeply and literally self-centered, and to see and interpret everything through this lens of self.”
It’s important to do the work of seeing everyone (every single person, no matter how different from you) as just as human as you, firstly, because it’s true. Before something is political or even moral, there’s some even more basic truths. And any political or moral project that doesn’t acknowledge them isn’t anything I’m interested in.