Seeking change without the commodification of pain and suffering

Frances Lee seeks change that doesn’t rely on empathy, which can turn pain and suffering into a commodity. (Photo by Marcela Gara)

I am completely entrenched in progressive and activist spaces in the U.S., and while I’m still here (and still queer), I harbor a great deal of ambivalence about how things continue to operate around here. Our movements’ communication strategies are largely dependent on stirring up emotion to drive people to action. Empathy is the feeling we demand most from our allies; without its evidence, we despair that our efforts are ineffective. However, I am convinced that empathy is an incomplete theory of change that we must be willing to set aside. It is dangerous to try to strong arm it into every outreach strategy without examining its limits.

When people are exhausted out of the capacity to physically feel the pain of others, empathy offers a dead-end. Empathy relies on the audience being able to relate to the particular pains of the sufferer, so this forecloses the possibility of caring about people and groups outside of their communities with whom you may never come into contact. When the ability to feel the pain of marginalized people becomes an experiential checkbox, it can create the comforting sense of having done something to help, when you have actually done nothing. I also want to be careful to not conflate empathy with caring, as this wrongful conflation leads to unnecessary internalized shame — you might care deeply about a problem without being emotionally distraught by it. I want to puncture the affective environment we are building that demands the relentless public expression of empathy from ourselves and our allies and accomplices.

I know in my heart that this model of affective politics cannot lead to liberation, because our political (and dare I say, secular) versions of love and goodness are terribly inadequate. I am most concerned about the prerequisites of relatability and deservedness for social movements to be compelling. Let me explain: If you don’t care about someone or a group of people until the media has made it abundantly clear that they are suffering, then your concern and engagement is not laudable, but ordinary, expected, and unremarkable. Similarly, if you only care about someone or their group of people because you can’t escape their existence — they are intertwined with your daily life, family, community, network — then your care and engagement is not laudable, but ordinary, expected, and unremarkable. While we still need this model to continue functioning to provide a baseline for maintaining survival, it is neither radical nor revolutionary nor transformative.

Why am I writing this, and why now? The latest attack from the current administration emerged earlier this year through the form of a leaked memo scheming on how to define transgender people out of existence. (Read Dean Spade’s piece at Truthout for a comprehensive take on this and tips on how to respond.) As a trans person, I’m reeling from the collective terror that has exploded due to the surge of reposts in my social networks, more so than the news piece itself. However, there’s something I’m feeling that’s much, much worse, and has nothing to do with the administration. I find myself left with a profound sense of isolation and disorientation as I observe cis folks posting memes and links about all the ways to support trans folks, yet not a single person has reached out personally to check in. It’s only us trans folks who are reaching out to each other to see how we are doing, if we are OK or if there’s anything we need to get through the next moment.

I know there are many possible reasons why nobody has reached out: you’re traumatized, you’re triggered, you’re depleted, you’re surviving, you’re busy, it’s awkward to reach out to an acquaintance, you’re unsure of how I’ll respond. But I can’t help feeling like an object on the latest display, rather than a living person who is supposedly part of a community who cares about its members.

Let me be clear here: This is a not a veiled cry for personal apologies — it disturbs me that when someone expresses frustration over internal dynamics, people feel obligated to apologize first. (Why are we always apologizing? How can apologies further obscure, or even disappear the issue?) What I’m saying is that this way of relating to our communities’ pain is broken and must not be honored. This is not a call out; rather, it is a mournful acceptance of how our leftist politics are structured — like any other political stance on the spectrum, they operate based on ideas rather than people, on reputation rather than relationships.

In this neoliberal age (read this non-academic, accessible primer on neoliberalism), other people’s pain is a precious commodity. For example, writing or reposting think pieces with clever titles drive up the value of that commodity, and the profits of this exchange go to the authors in social influence. Reposting media about Black folks being brutalized by the police, personal stories of survivors, immigrants being captured by ICE, LGBTQ youth being bullied, tribes still not being federally recognized, inmates dying from lack of medical care, neighborhoods being swept away by rising floods etc. fall into the same formula.

As marginalized people, we have also been trained to offer up our private, sacred, communal pain as currency to enter this market. I wrote another piece about narratives of suffering for the CBC. At the time I wrote it, I thought it was an important intervention in the discourse of social justice to ask marginalized people to identify less with our own suffering, and more with the other parts of ourselves that are worth celebrating, and even the complex parts that don’t fall into the pain-and-praise binary. But now, I see that we all have to lead with stories of our pain because it is the preferred way of those with power to hear.

I am least of all exempt from any of the pitfalls listed above. I choose to accept the isolation and disappointment I’ve felt this week from my cis allies as a teacher. My new teacher shows me all the ways I’ve done this exact damage to my friends, community members, and those faraway, convinced I was acting from “the right side of history” — where I’ve valued an intellectual approach over one of the heart, where I’ve reposted media about other people’s suffering to feel belonging, when I obediently hop from crisis to crisis, when I’ve prioritized understanding when understanding is still centered on the self. I’m so sorry for what I’ve done. And I will let this change me.

I wish I could provide some easy answers. Still, I write against the impulse of presenting a tidy, consumable and repost-able essay. Like a “7 Ways to Discipline Yourself Into Being A Better Neoliberal Subject Right Now” type listicle. But you shouldn’t believe me or anyone else who does this. Every time I put out a new essay, there are folks who respond by pledging to “do better”. But “do better” is based on a capitalist premise of production that presumes an able body, and the fact is that many bodies are struggling to get by, especially in times of political emergency (h/t Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha). If we accept the story that life is a constant striving to improve ourselves to be better disciplined subjects, what happens to those of us who can’t “do” anymore?

I believe we need to treat each other, our areas of capacity, our suffering, and their accompanying questions with much more care. And I believe that the bulk of the work we must do to support each other is impossible through social media. Reflecting on and sharing this preliminary piece is a way that I want to keep these conversations and questions going, even amidst the political crises of our day. Yes, call your senators and donate to organizations and vote and protest, yes to all that. And, I know that ultimately, freedom isn’t bound up in any set of political outcomes, and that we must rely on other ways of being to allow us to be human and humanize others.

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