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.



Ready To Start

So.  Right now, amongst many other things, Maury and I are working on our presentation at Intercon OGaming With Empathy, and we’re in discussion regarding what information to present and how.  We’d tried out some roleplay where she’s slowly making a case for empathy to a strawman played by me, which we thought was fun and would be very entertaining, but I’m having second thoughts on using it because of the potential to lose some opportunities to communicate earnestly for the sake of entertainment.

Our basic goal with the presentation is to invite folks to consider an empathetic approach to their larp gameplay.  For those that practice that already, I’d hope the presentation would be validating and encouraging, not only for their gameplay, but also for conversations with others about empathetic play.  For those that don’t make empathy a focus of their gameplay, I’d hope it’d be at least food for thought, and maybe something that they might try experimenting with in the games that they’ll enjoy that weekend.

One of the items that I’m struggling to convey convincingly is the motivation to try it.  We can lay out some incentives to do it, and plan to do so in our presentation.  Though there’s one in particular that’s a big deal and a little thorny to express.  For me, empathetic play itself actually feels really good.  But why?  Is this merely a case that I’m fortunately empathetic on a neurological level, and so I experience pleasure during empathetic play?  And if so, can I effectively make a case to someone who is a little less empathetically inclined that this is worth trying?

I’m struggling with it.  So far the best analogy that I have so far is related to food.  As a dude who lives by himself with a cat, the joy of cooking is precisely “not”.  The only time I’m really motivated to put time in with my meager kitchen (M: No one needs to know exactly how meager my kitchen is.) is when I have an opportunity to also make some food for someone else.  The work to prepare food for just me feels like a waste of time, and the work to prepare food for me and one other person feels like a great investment of time and energy.

I don’t think that this is unique.  I believe that there’s some level of pleasure in sharing an experience with someone.  Favorite ice cream shop?  Dude, you have to try this.  This game is fun to play?  Dude, you’ve got to experience this.  I think this sense of desiring to share an experience might make the case for empathetic larp gameplay being a genuinely pleasurable experience.

More later.