Empathy for the Truth-Tellers
Don’t dismiss righteous anger because it’s angry.
This is an article about a lot of things and a lot of people, but one person at its center — it would be disingenuous to pretend otherwise — is Shanley Kane. Shanley (who generally chooses to identify herself by first name, and who I will therefore be referring to as “Shanley” despite defaulting to last names elsewhere in this article), if you’re unfamiliar, writes about Tech Culture with a particular focus on diversity. She is known for incisiveness. She is also known for a fairly confrontational personal style, and periodically comes under fire for it.
It’s about a twitter confrontation she and some other people had with Angela Harms, and Harms’s later worried post about it. It’s about her recent article “Fuck You, I’ve Got Mine,” and Meredith Patterson’s response to it, “Okay, Feminism, It’s Time We Had a Talk About Empathy.”
This article is less about Shanley herself than it is about her as a symbol of Angry Feminism — about that archetypal ranting, off-the-rails, nasty-minded, unempathetic Bad Woman who we can safely ignore.
let’s define empathy
About the only thing people agree on when they say “empathy” is that it’s a good thing.
I find it useful to make a distinction between empathy as an external performance, empathy as an internal reminder, and empathy as an analytical tool. This is my own idiosyncratic personal framework.
- as external performance: any practice designed to make another feel empathized with. Examples include active listening techniques, use of validating language, etc. This performance, like any performance, may be “true” or not.
- as internal reminder: any practice designed to reinforce any form of empathy in oneself. For example, my obsessive use of Queer Lady Therapy Processing Talk is as much about correctly aligning my own perspective as it is about demonstrating my empathy to others.
- as analytical tool: a linked set of practices including: recognizing common humanity, active consideration of others’ agency & goals, searching for commonalities in different experiences to gain emotional understanding, etc.
I personally value each of these three things. Each of these three things is also part of our culturally constructed expectations of women. However, in practice, our culture expects performative empathy the most. This is because, like performative anything, it is easier to assess than an internal state.
I’m not trying to judge Patterson’s heart, or Harms’s. I’m not telepathic. I assume they meant well. But intent doesn’t matter. Effect does. Context matters, our context is toxic, and sometimes this toxic context takes good intentions and turns them to bad effects. My hope is that analyzing these bad effects will help neutralize them.
I’d also, similarly, like to stress that I’m talking about these two posts because they’ve bothered me lately and they fall into a pattern I’d like to analyze. I wish that needing to choose illustrative examples did not force me to call out specific individuals, and I ask my readers to — like me — focus on the pattern rather than the people embedded in it.
Harms’s post was written in response to a Twitter conversation that started with her wishing for “reconciliation and healing” for Justine Arreche and Joe O’Brien. This tweet was @ both of their handles, and as such functioned as a message to Arreche. Harms has since clarified that she meant “reconciliation” not in a sense of wishing mutually renewed friendship, but rather in a more abstract and individual sense. She has also clarified that her @ to Justine was a thoughtless mistake rather than an attempt to communicate with her.
Absent those clarifications, several people — including me — read that tweet as akin to a very nice church lady, quite invested in her own piety, sweetly telling a battered woman to not divorce her husband. The response was not positive, and Harms unfortunately reinforced this initial impression of her words by responding with further tweets — along the lines of “if a crime was committed, she can go to the police” — that also fell into common patterns of rape apologia.
It’s understandable that Harms felt dogpiled and attacked. Criticisms of her tweets ran a tonal gamut, and it’s also understandable that she found it hurtful when Shanley told her to fuck off.
Harms then posted about how hurtful this was, at some length. In this post she selectively quoted several participants in the conversation, including me. She was appalled that her words had been characterized as “violent language.” But, well: the “violent language” quote was mine, and the full tweet was “Telling a rape victim to reconcile with her attacker is violent language, cloaked though it is with a faux peace.” I stand by that — psychological research suggests that urging survivors to prematurely forgive can hinder their healing, and as such it is an emotionally violent act.
How do we define violence? What’s more violent: gaslighting? or “fuck off”?
pity, charity, and pride
I was predisposed to dislike Patterson’s article from the title, which I read as a dog-whistle to those who would silence anger. The first time I tried to read it that predisposition colored my read to the point where I couldn’t finish it.
I read it a second time, at the recommendation of a trusted friend, and on second read it was less objectionable but still troubling.
I’m very glad that Patterson has found the tech community to be a good fit for her. I think it’s wonderful that she has a thick enough skin to not notice aggressions, micro and macro, directed against her, to not be distracted by them, that she can go on and take the focus that that gives her and do something awesome with it.
But I am bothered by the implication — which I hope was not intentional — that if only all of us women could “be given” that thick skin too, everything would be better. The answer is not for me to go unbothered when, say, a higher-up tells me what color his underwear is. The answer is for that higher-up to not sexualize professional conversations.
I’m uncomfortable writing this critique because I don’t want to invalidate Patterson’s lived experience. But I can see a number of ways her piece could be used as a tool for invalidating mine, and that makes me wary. One key to how is again that word, “empathy.” Because we swim in a toxic sea, critiquing a woman for lacking empathy is inherently a gendered attack. To quote Shanley’s original essay:
Little so excites the anti-feminist movement as the opportunity to paint feminism counter to the beliefs, desires and benefit of the mainstream woman — an easier claim in light of feminist critique of the ways women collude in their own oppression.
Unfortunately, women play a particular dangerous and critical role in discrediting and gaslighting other women and their experiences and speech acts, allowing the industry to persist in a state of denial and providing a highly credible means of deflection from the issues at hand.
Ironically, in projecting herself as the imagined target of Shanley’s article, Patterson — who, by her own words, has stood in solidarity with other women on the ground at a time that it mattered — committed an action that made her better resemble the women Shanley was actually talking about.
the lady or the bitch
The patriarchy likes to play divide and conquer, to separate us into Ladies and Bitches. You are a lady if you support it. You are a bitch if you don’t.
In being conciliatory, I am supporting it. I am playing into the expectation that women carry the work of performative empathy. I am consciously choosing to do so both because I think that performative empathy is a good thing in itself, and because I hope that by playing the lady I will be listened to in venues that would not listen to a bitch.
Note: I believe that bitches should be listened to as well. I merely observe that they often are not. Similarly, ladies are often more valued when they are unchallenging.
Performative empathy is not the only kind of empathy, and a lot of bitches are perfectly good at the other sorts. They’re just rejecting the performance because they do not wish to play into the same expectation that I’m conflicted about playing into. They’re just characterized as “not having” the other sorts because the people they choose to prioritize having empathy for — survivors of violence, women, people of color, people with disabilities, etc — are not people who the patriarchy prioritizes having empathy for, and their empathy therefore emerges in ways that are not recognizable if you are looking for the patterns of patriarchy-approved empathy.
For example, when Shanley — herself a survivor of domestic violence — told Harms to “fuck off,” she was displaying empathy for Arreche. She was also displaying empathy for any other survivors who might hear Harms’s words, or words like them, and hear them as yet another pressure exerted by rape culture.
I am comfortable with Shanley’s priorities. I am disturbed by anyone who prioritizes mincing words over solace for the healing. I understand wanting both kindness and honesty but sometimes honesty is not kind.
We are embedded in a culture which upholds people’s right to harm women and if you do not believe that then just go on, go ahead, read the comments on Arreche’s post about her assault again. That is not a kind fact. That is a fact to get angry about.
Calling on “empathy” to silence this honest pain and honest anger displays a startling lack of empathy for the truth-tellers. Where do your priorities lie?
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