“You can’t play the Hitler Card,” said Neil. “Godwin’s law: once you play it, you’re out. Trust me.”
“But it’s different. Hitler’s the example people use. That’s why I’m using him.”
“Don’t do it.”
“You’re missing the point. If I’m talking about people talking about absolutes, I’ve got to use him.”
He looked at me with that polite, British look he uses when he knows I’m wrong.
“If you must use a Nazi as an example, darling, you’d be better off using Mengele. He was the one who did unthinkably gruesome experiments on pregnant women and their babies.”
“Thank you for that lovely image.” I looked down at my swelling belly. “But that’s not a meme. You don’t ‘play the Mengele Card’ . . . Most younger people probably won’t know who that is.”
“He was the villain in William Goldman’s Marathon Man.”
“Don’t change the subject. This isn’t about books. This is about Hitler.”
Neil sighed. I sighed back. This conversation was going nowhere.
“Playing the Hitler Card”, otherwise known as “reductio ad Hitlerum”, is the point in a discussion “where someone compares an opponent’s view to those of Adolf Hitler or the Nazi party”. Godwin’s law states: “As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving the Nazis or Hitler approaches one.”
Both Neil and I have been engulfed in our fair share of what we refer to as “internet kerfuffles” and we now discuss online PR tactics in the way that other married couples discuss whose turn it is to drop the kids off at school.
“Honey, your blog defending this person’s honour is really noble but if it kerfuffles, do you have time to deal with the three days of Twitter and Tumblr backlash?”
“Not really, I’m insane with deadlines.”
“Oof. Then don’t post it. You don’t have the time or energy to kerfuff this week.”
Everyone’s tired of internet outrage. It has got to the point where we censor ourselves so carefully to avoid kerfuffling that we might as well get off the internet altogether and go back to plain, old talking in cafés and pubs, because those places are where people can actually be honest. Erika Moen, who draws a sex-positive web comic called Oh Joy Sex Toy, wrote a blog recently about a handful of female celebrities who had had their naked phone selfies stolen and distributed. She wrote a friendly reminder to people that if they wanted to protect their identities from hackers while taking naked selfies, they should consider not including their distinguishing tattoos, or, obviously, their faces. She then got an outraged email from a long-time fan, calling her out as a “face shamer”.
People on the web are addicted to outrage. It’s become an epidemic but nobody seems to know quite what to do about it.
I look at Monica Lewinsky’s Ted talk about the “price of shame”, the US journalist Lindy West’s befriending of her worst troll and the inexplicable harassment-vortex morass that is Gamergate and I also see a widening conversation about the reality and effects of hatred. If there’s a theme in the backlash to the backlash, it is this: to defuse the Outrage Generation, we need better empathy skills.
A few years back, I endured a relentless ten months of internet controversy and I quickly learned the red flags, symptoms and lifespan of an average kerfuffle. There are two-day kerfuffles and two-week kerfuffles. There are kerfuffles that stay contained on Twitter and those that spill on to the blogs and, worse still, into print media.
The year 2012 began with my Kickstarter Kerfuffle (when I crowdfunded an album through online donations), which evolved a few months later into the Volunteer Musician Kerfuffle. Just as those were dying down, the spring of 2013 brought the Poem Kerfuffle, which started when I sat down to reflect on the harrowing days following the Boston Marathon bombing, which happened a few blocks from my apartment.
After the lockdown, Neil and I drove from Boston to New York and back, listening to the radio news non-stop as the horrific manhunt for the Tsarnaev brothers crescendoed and exploded. We heard our friends on the radio – one of them had a son who had been friends with Dzhokhar, the younger brother. She had been at a backyard graduation party with him. Both of them had gone to high school in Cambridge, Massachusetts, near our house.
Dzhokhar was 19.
I wondered how he felt.
The poem I posted on my blog was a stream-of-consciousness sequence that connected the feeling of being trapped in “the bottom of the boat” (the location in which Dzhokhar was ultimately found, not far from the house I was raised in) and my flailing sense of helplessness in the face of overwhelming pain and tragedy. It was about my parents, my inability to
leave Boston because of a friend’s battle with cancer, my fragile marriage and my mundane indecision.
Before I uploaded it, I showed the poem to Neil, my personal kerfuffle filter. His red flags didn’t wave. He recognised the poem’s ingredients and commented on the punctuation and we set off for lunch. I called it “A Poem for Dzhokhar”, posted it and read the first few comments. The readers seemed to like it.
By the time I turned on my phone after lunch, the poem had been discovered by the right-wing news sites and the blog had 1,000 comments. One website said it was “the worst poem ever written in the English language”. Even generally lefty Boston journalists wrote op-eds condemning me for daring to write such an insensitive poem at such a sensitive time. Too soon, they said. Too far. Too much.
What frightened me about the Poem Kerfuffle weren’t the attacks on my poetry skills. It was the realisation that I was more alone than I had thought in my stance on compassion, expression and how we use art to cope with tragedy. How dare you empathise WITH A MURDERER? My Twitter feed had filled up with hate so fast that I couldn’t even read it all. A television news programme referred to me as “a loser”. Someone told me that I should have a bomb shoved up my cunt. An emailed death threat came in, credible enough for me to talk to the police. One concerned Boston journalist found himself “wondering if this trend of empathy had gone too far”.
Distinctions between empathy and jihadist leanings were quickly blurred; I was labelled a terrorist sympathiser. Some of my local friends told me that they couldn’t stand by “my support of the bombers”. But I wasn’t supporting their actions. I was imagining their feelings. I wasn’t totally alone, however. Most of my friends shook their heads in sadness about the misunderstanding. And slowly, over the next few days, I received a string of emails and voicemails from local Bostonians who wanted to tell me, in private, that they, too, had felt empathy and compassion and even concern for this 19-year-old kid. But they dared not say it aloud.
“He’s exactly my son’s age,” a friend wrote to me. “I can’t not imagine how he must be feeling. It’s heartbreaking. But you don’t blog those things, Amanda. That’s too much.”
Too soon, too far, too much.
I kept running the phrase in my head: “wondering if this trend of empathy had gone too far”. What’s too far? Is there even such a thing?
I believe that to erase the possibility of empathy is to erase the possibility of human progress. Erasing the possibility of empathy also threatens to erase the possibility of art. We watch Oedipus Rex not because we celebrate and condone the concept of motherfuckers and father killers but because it is cathartic to see our worst nightmares exposed in a safe context. We do not cheer when the blade cuts deep. We weep. We empathise. And we put the play on over, and over, and over again. These differences are crucial. Empathy is not sympathy and compassion is not condonation. Stage blood is exactly that. We spill it, on the stage and on the page, precisely because we can do it without harm.
I am, perhaps, an extremist in this regard. But I am starting to think that the only true antidote to extreme hate may be extreme love, a radical empathy. Jihads of compassion. Crusades of kindness. A movement in which we attempt to love our enemy . . . Oh, hold on. Jesus already said all that. Wait – did it work?
Let’s imagine, for a moment, that it might. In order to practise extreme empathy, you have to be able to empathise with . . . well, anybody. You have to be able to imagine loving and feeling compassion for the worst of the worst. Last year, this philosophy got me into a bit of a tangle with the various editors of my memoir-manifesto, The Art of Asking, when I drafted a section explaining that, yes, you must feel compassion even for the worst of the worst. For Hitler. There. I did it. I played the Hitler Card. But does it still count if I’m using the card not to tear down my opponent, but rather to point out that neither my debate partner nor Hitler is truly my opponent? My editors shook their heads. Frankly, nobody will care, Amanda. Please, take it out.
They won. I took him out of the book.
It is painful to imagine the ingredients – familial, cultural, environmental and mental – that can lead a person to commit actions so atrocious and so unconscionable that we cannot speak of them. But I think it is necessary. As the world grows more extreme, more violent and more polarised, as we wrap ourselves into ever tighter filter bubbles of news and opinion, as we find it easier and easier to divide the world into black, white, us and them – as these things happen, this exercise in imagination becomes increasingly essential. Not just for the artists, the poets, the musicians and the playwrights. For everyone.
On 13 May, the jury in Boston began deliberating over Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s guilt and fate. I found myself thinking not about the rights and wrongs of the death penalty but trying to imagine how it would feel to spend days, months, years in isolation, hearing the screams and wails of the guy in the next cell who mutilates himself with razor blades and swallows nail clippers. Trying to imagine how it would feel to be strapped to a gurney as a fellow human being inserts a death needle into both of my arms. I found myself imagining what it must be like to take the witness stand to explain how I looked down to see my own bloody legs lying on the sidewalk beside me. And I imagined how it would feel to be on a jury, having to drive home every night after court, my head hitting my pillow knowing that I must, along with 11 others, cast a vote for someone to live or to die. I can’t imagine I was alone in imagining these things.
The Martin Luther King biographer Taylor Branch recently shared a heart-rending piece of history: the last words uttered by one of the three civil rights activists killed by armed Klansmen during the Mississippi Freedom Summer of 1964, as they made a road trip to get folks to register to vote. In the moment before he was shot on a dark Southern highway, he said to the Klansman: “Sir, I know just how you feel.”
Then, bam. Dead. Given that his two friends were also shot and killed, you may wonder how we know. We know because the Klansmen who confessed to the murders shared that phrase in their testimonies. Those seven words apparently haunted them.
Frans de Waal, the Dutch primatologist, says: “Human morality is unthinkable without empathy.”
Here’s the thing: I did not and cannot know exactly how that teenage bomber felt. But I will dare to imagine. I must. I believe we all must. I believe it is only through the flexing of that small, frail, imaginary muscle of empathy that we will build the strength to erect a new human architecture on this fragile, fragile planet – a stronger one, one of connectedness and understanding.
Sir, I know just how you feel.
Wishful thinking. But perhaps. One day.