On the Commodification of Suffering: Anti-Trans Memos and the Fallacy of Empathy

Abstract photo of marbled red texture by Cassi Josh on Unsplash

I am completely entrenched in progressive and activist spaces in the US, 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 you may never come into contact with. 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/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/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/their people group 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, this 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 week through the form of a leaked memo scheming on how to define transgender people out of existence. (Read Dean Spade’s piece in 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, 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 thinkpieces with clever titles drive up the value of that commodity, and the profits of this exchange go to the author(s) 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 that has been waiting for months to be published by the CBC. At the time, 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/praise binary. But now, I see that we all have to do this because it is the preferred way of those with power to hear.

And, 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’m nearing the end of the essay, and 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. Some folks in response to an earlier version of this piece have pledged 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.

Side discussion: I’m also here to problematize the common complaint in activist spaces about the presence of “ally theater” or “performative activism” or “virtue signalling”. I understand that these phrases mean to draw attention to the sneaky ways that people of influence and politicians get credit for doing either very little work towards ending oppression, or even working in opposition to just futures by co-opting our language. It has become increasingly challenging to discern who is an accomplice in mutual liberation and who has merely consumed enough leftist media to regurgitate the current reigning analysis on the social issues of the day. However, if I’ve learned anything from Performance Studies, all we do is performance, we don’t live in a world by ourselves; we are always observing one another and shifting our behaviors in response to each other. To quote my academic mentor Dr. Jade Power-Sotomayor, performance is a key way that our relations, identity, and politics are shaped and sustained.

Demanding that we just strip off our performances of wokeness or allyship presumes that there is a “pure” self hidden underneath all our public actions, and that just as inaccurate as saying that gender is a scientifically observable biological marker, rather than a beautifully mysterious confluence of biology, psychology, upbringing, culture, and all the other factors scientists may never determine. Furthermore, performance is an act that brings something into being. If conjuring alternative futures with our bodies isn’t considered magic, then we’ve gotten too jaded. Performance is a practice I’ve employed in my own journey to bring me here. Have I always understood or embodied everything about every issue I’m drawing attention to in my realm of influence? No. Yet it’s through this repetition that I am drawn into a deeper engagement and devotion to them. Performance is a powerful tool, and we can (and should) creatively use it to the benefit of our movements.