Neither empathy nor trauma are zero sum

As Ben noted yesterday, he and I are wrestling with our approach for our upcoming inaugural talk about empathy in gamer culture. And, as so often can happen once one starts considering a topic, the Internet delivers extra-large portions of food for thought like late-night sesame chicken.

On December 14, 2014, MIT professor Scott Aaronson posted a lengthy comment on his blog in which he candidly narrates his painful experience feeling disenfranchised and depressed as a nerdy heterosexual male in his teens and early twenties. In sharing his own experience of  “crippling, life-destroying anxiety,” Aaronson disavows any societal privilege he has been given as a heterosexual white male since his lived experience as a nerd did not support that. He puts forth an argument that his experience as one of society’s least privileged males absolves him of blame for any feminist shortcomings. While certainly not to the level of a certain type of men’s rights activist, Aaronson does assert that he has “the curse of having been born a heterosexual male,” and he understandably received some pushback on Twitter, his own blog, and others for his views.

However, focusing on pillorying Aaronson for some essentializing statements or for seeming to equate his experience with others (despite his direct disavowals of such) does not foster dialog and mutual respect for a variety of perspectives — one of the goals of this blog and the conundrum about tone and approach that Ben and I are facing as we begin to take our work more public. Not only does attacking Aaronson’s views disallow the courage and honesty he displayed by speaking up about his experience, but it also erases his own lived experience by attempting to replace it with the argument that someone else’s experience is somehow “greater,” “stronger,” or “more important.” Those who would give Aaronson a “good old fashioned blog fisking” and put words into his mouth, re-interpreting his statements through a lens of sarcasm and shame, enact the same kinds of silencing tactics that they decry when used against them.

In attacking Aaronson, and others who narrate their own experiences and perspectives in the only why they can — from their own experience and perspective — these writers and activists enact what Ben has called the Serpico Effect, whereby the one who speaks up gets harassed and threatened. We’ll have much more to say on that in later posts. For now, though, the point is that Aaronson represents a member of the audience we are trying to reach. Someone who both was born with unearned (and perhaps unwanted and unrecognized) privilege and a desire to think about it and talk about it. If we silence him or invalidate his opinions, then we can never bring him to the table to dialog about it.

Refreshingly, Laurie Penny in her New Statesman piece, “On Nerd Entitlement,” does not attack Aaronson or succumb to the  two prevalent ideas that keep dialog polarized: 1. that activists should be outraged and critical and therefore not nice; and 2. that argumentation should take the form of conquering and converting an opponent to your point of view by demonstrating its superiority. Penny recognizes that Aaronson’s experience was painful. She acknowledges what he said and validates both his own trauma and his conviction in sharing it. She takes the opportunity to empathize with him. This is key.

Because if we are going to bring others to the table to dialog about important topics like equality and social justice, we have to invite them to sit down with us. We have to listen to what they have to say and share the food for thought, passing the containers and sampling some new tastes that we may not have had the courage to try before, but out of respect for those gathered at the meal, we will at least allow them their choices and try to understand their preferences. If we want others to practice empathy, we have to display it ourselves.

In the course of empathizing with rather than deriding Aaronson, Penny also brings up her important point that Aaronson’s “very real suffering does not cancel out male privilege, or make it somehow alright. Privilege doesn’t mean you don’t suffer.” There’s a lot more to say about that idea, but a post about non-binary privilege is for another day. For now, Aaronson has responded on his blog with a clarification of his core beliefs, and he reaches out in respect to Penny, whose thoughtful and empathetic response he clearly read and took to heart. Funny how that works — when you don’t feel attacked or invalidated, you have a better opportunity to listen and reflect.

So while I can’t promise Ben and I will order Chinese, we do invite audience members to the table, both here in the blog and at our future sessions. We’ll start with empathic listening, and respect your freedom, autonomy and safety. What we ask for from others, we also give to you.



3 thoughts on “Neither empathy nor trauma are zero sum

  1. This was a wonderful post, thank you. I really appreciate what both Aaronson and Penny have to say on the subject, and even more so how they said it. I didn’t see the Twitterstorm they refer to, and I would just like to say how glad I am that I didn’t. I’ll be following this blog instead. Thank various supernatural entities that somebody is saying something constructive about this stuff.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you for reading and for your kind words. Sometimes what passes as dialogue (especially on the interwebs) feels like a battle and wears us out, even discouraging us from interacting or standing up for things we care deeply about. We hope to build up not tear down, and we’re happy to have you join us!


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