Imperial Virtue & Performative Empathy

some examples, featuring my lovely fiance and a crime drama

Imperial Virtue as a concept introduced by Dr. Marguerite Waller in Addicted to Virtue is the idea that even something like charity in the purest sense, that doing something good for others can take on colonial and self-serving applications where an unbalanced binary is set up by those who wish to “help” and those who have “need”. The emphasis on charities like going to a so-called Third World country to volunteer, voluntourism, that sort of voyeuristic engagement that you come home from with great pictures, having done a questionable amount of harm in the process of trying to do good. Where the experience and ability to flaunt it is part of the appeal in the first place.

Unfortunately for me, I was a musical theater nerd and since our class discussion on Tuesday, I’ve had a line from a song from Avenue Q stuck in my head. For those of you who don’t know the show, content warning for the link below for potentially raunchy and definitely racist content. (Christmas Eve is one of the most highly educated characters in the show, and while yes, some Japanese immigrants do have an accent, having the actress regularly flip her r/ls is not a good look. She deserved better.) Anyway, I did have a point. The song contains the line:

Every time you do good deeds, you’re also serving your own needs/ when you help others, you can’t help helping yourself

Every year, April through June, the Facebook filters flip past me. Autism Awareness Month! Mental Illness Awareness Month! PRIDE!! One after the other, a monotony I will take over racist, classist, ableist libertarian attacks on humanity in a heartbeat. As with everything, you have to start somewhere, and it’s easier to wade into the muck of praxis in familiar territory. In April, I watch my feed Light It Up Blue as if the reason more boys are diagnosed with autism isn’t because until very recently, diagnosticians didn’t realize it presented differently in girls, and used the way young boys behaved as the metric by which to measure the girls (including me). I look at all the Autism Speaks filters and think about Autism Speaks Doesn’t Speak for Me, and the Autistic Self Advocacy Network’s “nothing about us without us” movements within the autistic community. I know in many places, Autism Speaks is the charity with name recognition, that maybe this is the only charity my Appalachian relatives are familiar with, but that doesn’t make the idea of my cousin surrounded by cure rhetoric an easier pill to swallow. After the election, my husband-to-be decided that the only way he would make it through this presidency and the culture it exposed was to make human connections. He started attending his local ASAN support group. It is easy to show solidarity by slapping a few pixels on your profile image. It’s harder to take the time and listen to the conversations that the people your filter is supposed to be helping saying they don’t want the kind of help that the corporation backing your pixels is offering up.

The images that spring up during mental health awareness month are in some ways harder. I am a woman of many initialisms, and while it is nice to see the pixels claiming support, the friends who reach out, the friends who haul me out of the house, the ones who keep me company on video chat while we do schoolwork so that I don’t get as easily distracted, their pixels I believe. It’s the people who throw them on their pictures but from whom I never see any mention of mental illness at all the whole rest of the year that are particularly troubling. It is much like the disconnect that can happen between theory and praxis. It is well and good to show solidarity by saying with your profile picture “yes, I support these people” but if your words and actions beyond that one act do not back that up, then it begins to ring hollow.

There’s no time I feel that hollow ring more than during Pride. Maybe it was growing up nice and fully closeted and only coming out last November, but there’s been increasingly a hesitancy to trust pixel frames on this front. I know personally more people than I can count on one hand who support LGBTQIA+ community members in a very theoretical way. They acknowledge the existence of community members but so help them if they find out that someone directly in their life actually is one. It’s very much an “I see your theoretical support but how far does that support extend” type of deal.

This came up for me on a different facet during the Black Lives Matter protests. This sort of slacktivism where the only engagement was online was understandably harshly criticized. However, I was not in a place where I was physically able, let only physically safe to risk coming up against riot police. So where to strike that balance? What could I do in light of that, where bodily direct action wasn’t an option? I found my answer in talking to my parents, educating them to help them engage with their students and colleagues.

When the safety pin debacle came up, after white nationalists caught on and were wearing them to lull people into a false sense of security but that had only spread online not to sources my dad used, my dad asked if putting one on his tie or lanyard would be enough. He teaches at a minority-majority school. I told him no. He could wear the safety pin, but he needed to explicitly tell his students his classroom was safe, that they could come to him; but even that needed backed up and he needed to diligently check desks and walls for slurs, because it made no sense to claim a safe space only to have them surrounded by the language they were trying to escape in the first place.

And I guess that’s my main issue with profile image actions. Like the safety pin on my dad’s lanyard, that signifier means nothing without concrete specific actions to make that image redundant. It should be abundantly clear that you are in solidarity, I should know you are with a cause without the change of frame, otherwise that frame is just a signal to others projecting a good image, serving no purpose except in theory; and as we know, theory without praxis won’t get you far.