Radical Empathy

1.

Radical Empathy

One night it was raining. and we were coming down maybe Seventh Street and this drunken woman comes out of this Polish tavern a few steps down. She comes up and she’s reeling and yelling about the Jews on the street. And Jack just took her arm, and- he had a broken umbrella or something like that- he began asking her on the street why she was raving. You know, just moving with her, holding her arm, and circling around, and she began taking part in it, like dancing with him, still raving about the Jews- who you know, should have all been burned and everything- and it was perfect.

(Ken Jacobs, 2011 p. 52)

Jack Smith’s gesture and its dance across fascism is so seamless, so matter-of-fact. In Ken Jacob’s film Star Spangled to Death (2004), watching Jack Smith dance across his and Jacob’s New York neighbourhood with an entourage of locals in mesmerized tow further displayed this gift of slicing through boundaries. I found a trace of this ability in one of Glenn D’Cruz’s students Rachael who I witnessed performing mime and moving across Federation Square with similar assurance for his teaching unit, Out of the Box: Theatre in Alternative Contexts. It was also evident in Lucas Haynes’ physical performance in Local Melbourne filmmaker, Paddy Hay’s short film Cuckoo Roller (2019), encountered at Oberhausen. There the final silent frozen face-off with an indigenous outlier in the urban bush did not break the boundaries between them but offered a moment of outsider recognition. Was this the same aboriginal ghost lurking in the bush in Tom Cowan’s under-rated The Office Picnic (1972)? Do these non-verbal boundary transgressions perform a radical empathy?

In the spoken word I recently encountered an ABC interview with Ginger Gorman about her book Troll Hunting (2019), late at night somewhere between lock-down sleep and wakefulness. Gorman had been systematically trolled. As a journalist she had penned a positive story about new parents who were later convicted as paedophiles in New Zealand. She became a cyber hate target with co-ordinated twitter attacks on her and her family.

Eventually Gorman turned this onslaught in on itself. Who were these people?  Over five years of research she turned and faced her perpetrators, found them, and engaged in dialogue. A handful became friends. These were not losers living in basements. These women hating articulate and marginalised angry white supremacist young men wanted to talk, wanted to be heard. Gorman learnt about the organised troll armies rioting in Charlottesville. Psychopathology, sadism and narcissism were the traits, of these socially and economically disadvantaged Trump supporters. Their childhoods had been framed by drugs, violence and neglect and the internet provided a rabbit hole of escape in their developing years.

Is Gorman’s a classic case of contemporary radical empathy or just a forgotten strategy of listening to a dangerous enemy. Alex Lee Moyer’s documentary TFW No GF (2019) maps a similar subculture of alienated young men. TFW NO GF is shorthand for “that feeling [I get] when [I have] no girlfriend” a phrase developed in online discussions to describe one’s fragile emotional state. Though not as toxic as a ‘troll army’ these young men have moved through alt.right and 4chan websites to search for a place in the world.

I always have found Errol Morris’s slippery dialogic documentaries enticing. These documentaries explore unstable and ambiguous truths and demonstrate an interest- nee empathy- for mapping difficult or challenging situations and disparaged characters like Robert S. McNamara in The Fog of War (2003), Fred A. Leuchter in Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter Jr. (1999), or the peeling away of the vacillating layers of CIA secrecy-truth in Wormwood (2017). His recent  documentary/dialogue with Steve Bannon, the architect of Trump’s 2016 triumph, in American Dharma (2019) extends this trajectory into an immediate present. It is illuminating to have Bannon’s world-view laid out before you beyond the flack of populist media incendiaries. I share Bannon’s disgust about the Vietnam War and its traumatic impact on the working class. I share his dismissal of the technocrats, the power elites in Washington, that drove the war in the service of globalisation. Like Morris I part company with Bannon’s solution to this situation and I am indebted to Morris for sharing his listening across what has become a great American divide.

2.

Soul Sickness

I am the daughter of immigrants. I am a Muslim. I am a feminist. I am a lefty liberal. And what I want to ask you is: am I your enemy?

Deeyah Khan (2017)

Participating in an open discussion about future research directions in performance studies (PS) at the University of Calgary in 2019, I suggested that we, as a community of PS scholars and artists, might benefit from investigating the performative dimensions of political polarisation, a timely topic given the current state of the world. More specifically, I proposed that we engage with angry men: right-wing groups such as ‘incels’ (involuntary celibate men) white supremacists and Jihadists. This was not an especially original idea. It was inspired by my fascination with two documentaries made by Deeyah Khan: White Right: Meeting the Enemy (2017) and Jihad: A Story of the Others (2015). Khan, a Muslim woman, bravely meets her adversaries and engages them in conversation. In Meeting the Enemy, Khan confronts Jared Taylor, a prominent neo-Nazi, with the following speech: ‘I am the daughter of immigrants. I am a Muslim. I am a feminist. I am a lefty liberal. And what I want to ask you is: am I your enemy?’. Taylor struggles to conceal his obvious contempt for Khan, but some of his ideological allies develop various degrees of empathy towards the journalist. While none of Khan’s interviewees wholly renounce their views, they do demonstrate a capacity for change. Both of Khan’s films identify similarities between neo-Nazis and Jihadists: both groups feel they have little to lose by engaging in extremist politics. They feel marginalised and rejected by mainstream society. They display a sense of hopelessness, a hopelessness born of rejection. While there are always exceptions to the rule, most angry men, feel invisible, or at least that’s the impression conveyed by Khan’s films.

So, what became of my proposal? I wasn’t exactly shouted down, but I felt a significant number of the people in the room were less than impressed. Was I illegitimately paranoid? Perhaps. Anyway, after a long, awkward pause, a young man cleared his throat and responded: ‘you do know, they are trying to kill us, don’t you? Why should we give them the time of day?’

I don’t recall what I said in reply. I must have become somewhat combative because the moderator shut me up pretty quickly. I don’t know how others felt, but I sensed palpable discomfort and disquiet amongst the assembly. For me, this was not the first time one of the conference events generated such a response. We were, despite being superficially bound by common academic interests, a divided community. Perhaps we more divided by generation, religion, gender identity, sexual orientation, and political affiliation than I’d supposed at the start of the event. At various times, members of the audience admonished and chastised presenters for their sexism, ableism, racism and so on. There is of course nothing wrong with pointing out ignorance and prejudice, but I wonder whether combative debate actually changes the way people think, or moves them to question their beliefs. There is a sense in which contemporary politics is primarily about identity and the friend/enemy distinction that Nazi jurist, Carl Schmitt identified as being at the heart of the concept of the political (1932). My interlocuter certainly identified neo-Nazis as an existential threat to his existence because of his open homosexuality. I’ve been on the receiving end of racial abuse enough times to know that he certainly has a point, but, where does this leave us if we are unable to empathise with our adversaries?

Today, most people appear to be angry about something. We’ve all heard about the way social media apparently amplifies feelings of offense and outrage, its algorithms depositing us into echo chambers that ensures that our newsfeeds don’t bring us into contact with anything that might make us uncomfortable our challenge us to think differently. Francis Fukuyama, whose name will forever be associated with the ‘end of history’ thesis, reminds us in his book, Identity (2018) that the term ‘Thymos’ helps us unpack the current political malaise. Plato used the word in The Republic to describe that part of the soul that craves recognition and acknowledgement. Perhaps the figures in Khan’s documentaries are best understood if we see them as suffering from a form of ‘soul sickness’? I’m weary of ascribing any essential feature to human Being, but I do know what it’s like, as a visibly different brown man, to go unrecognised and unheard. It’s frustrating. It makes you mad. It makes you hate. Whither radical empathy?

Both of Khan’s films are streaming on Netflix.

3.

The hegemony of finance and the banks has produced the indebted. Control over information and communication networks has created the mediatized. The security regime and the generalized state of exception have constructed a figure prey to fear and yearning for protection—the securitized. And the corruption of democracy has forged a strange, depoliticized figure, the represented. These subjective figures constitute the social terrain on which—and against which—movements of resistance and rebellion must act.

                                            (Hardt and Negri,  2012 p.14)

Although less pointed, I had felt and observed a similar reaction a decade earlier after a presentation by Michael Hardt at one of the first conferences I had ever attended, the 2005 Out of Time Conference in Minneapolis, Minnesota. In his keynote speech Hardt spoke of a politicized notion of “love” which led to its own resistances as being too hippy, too soft for a brutal political climate and delusional.

To renovate democracy Hardt identified a gap between spontaneity and dictatorship that he sought to bridge with “love”. Hardt’s political shaping of love reclaims notions previously colonised and lost. This love is socially expansive beyond the boundaries of the nuclear family, it is both personal and political, it is a love of difference, it extends a love of the poor beyond charity and understands love as an ontologically productive power rather than an event that captures you. Inside this Hardt finds a place for Bataille’s confronting openness to difference, Walt Whitman’s love of the stranger, Zizek’s call for a new people, Eve Sedgwick’s intimacy, Bell Hooks’ notion of a communal love that sustains political action and Lacan’s resistance to any destruction of difference.

Is such an assembled belief system capable of performing a radical empathy with contemporary alt.righters, racists, Nazis and jihadists or is it just another belief system in denial of any religious roots? Perhaps Hardt’s shaping of evil as a case of ‘love gone wrong’ offers a possibility.

In contemporary short film I identify Mike Hoolboom and Cauleen Smith’s short films as performative examples of Hardt’s tentative theorising. Hoolboom’s Colour My World (2017), re-shapes the writings of Frederick Douglass, Angela Davis and Bell Hooks into a ‘lost love’ song. In Solar Flare Arkestral Marching Band (2011) Cauleen Smith flash-mobs a Sun Ra march in a local shopping centre and in H-E-L-L-O (2014) she folds the alien riff in Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) in on itself, inviting local New Orleans musicians to perform it on its streets in an ironic and defiant act of community. Such works do not reach a mainstream audience. The reputation of its creators may, but not the film’s reflexive content.

There are also Ken Jacob’s digital shorts Capitalism: Slavery (2007) and Capitalism: Child Labor (2006) where he re-animates stereoscopic images of slaves picking cotton and children working in a cotton mill. These interventions effectively and radically re-read the original documents against their grain. These interventions perform like Jack Smith’s dance in a New York street, but migrated to act inside a different technology.

On his invitation in 1983 I traversed the gutters of New York as a cultural tourist following Ken Jacobs, a derive of the neighbourhood that was his community of shopkeepers and locals. He had made the point that the gutter offered the clearest and most accessible view, avoiding the crowds’ bustle. He was my guide, turning to make some comment, I followed him. There was a special kind of body-oriented relationship at play here which I later recognised in Circling Zero: Part One, We See Absence (2002), an experimental documentary about the twin towers collapse. There was no ranting and raving here, just a sense of loss as Ken and Flo Jacobs circled their neighbourhood, at times looking up where the towers used to be, now absent but etched as a bruised memory on their bodies. Can such a contemplation on loss contain within it an attitude that retains a sense of political action and empowerment?

More recently I taught an animation project online to a group of locked down students. I made a decision to talk to each one individually by phone as well as online as some were often absent from class. One student was lagging way behind because his computer could not cope with the applications available. Finally, I offered him an alternative strategy to create an animated diary of his difficult lock-down, away from his family, stuck at home with slow computer access. This proved a telling document that expressed his situation productively in which he could take creative ownership of his disempowering situation.

 

4.

Imagine

Imagine there’s no countries
It isn’t hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion, too

John Lennon

Yeah, Nah.

Glenn D’Cruz

The primary factors of production and exchange—money, technology, people and goods—move with increasing ease across national boundaries; hence the nation-state has less and less power to regulate these flows and impose its authority over the economy. Even the most dominant nation-states should no longer be thought of as supreme and sovereign authorities, either outside or even within their own borders.

(Hardt and Negri,  2000 p.xi)

Yeah, right.

Glenn D’Cruz

***

It’s 9.21 am, Friday 30 October in Melbourne. My mobile phone pings. I’m still in bed and mildly annoyed with myself for not turning off my message notifications. I’m tired, grumpy and lethargic. I’ve had a restless night. I’ve been mulling over the pros and cons of taking on a managerial role at work. I need more sleep, yet I can’t resist the impulse to pick up my phone and read Facebook messenger.

It’s my old friend, Helen. She lives in London, so she sent the message at 10.31pm, Thursday 29 October:

Another gruesome day in France. Not a word has anyone said on my social media.

Imagine if it had been the other way around.

I take a deep breath, roll over and close my eyes tightly. The right-hand side of my jaw aches. I’ve been grinding my teeth again. Who am I kidding? I’m not going back to sleep. I scan the BBC news app on my phone. The lead story is about a terrorist attack in Nice, France. An Islamic terrorist has just stabbed 3 people to death, days after a French school teacher was beheaded for showing cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad as part of a class on free speech.

Imagine if it had been the other way around.

I don’t feel like responding to my friend’s invitation to ‘imagine’, so I get out of bed and begin my day.

It’s 12.30pm and I’m fully awake. I’m reading the news on my computer. I have to scroll down to the ‘World’ section of The Age to find a report about the terrorist attack in Nice. Do I really want to get into a conversation about this incident with someone who lives on the other side of the world? Do I really want to tap out argumentative messages to someone who holds very different political views to my own? What is my friend thinking about when she writes about the paucity of commentary about this latest terrorist incident in her Facebook news feed? I deliberate for a few moments and decide that I do want to engage with Helen. After all, if you can’t engage with your friends about controversial topics then who can you speak to? The right index finger limbers up and starts hitting the glass screen of my phone.

Do we have to imagine?

I also post a link to a story about the 2019 Christchurch mosque shootings, thereby illustrating Muslims are the victims of terrorist attacks, too. She responds:

Yes, and that went for days and days. 24 hours. Shortly after that the Sri Lankan church killings happened. Disappeared within days….

V worried we will have big marches like the Rushdie Affair … Well, it’s tricky because now various governments like Turkey, Malaysia, Saudi are getting into it.

I come back with a pat leftist response that, in retrospect makes me cringe:

I totally abhor all forms of terrorism, but we shouldn’t forget the historical injustices related to French colonialism.

At best this is a formulaic response to a depraved and inexcusable act, but I’m too caught up in the exchange with Helen to really think about what I’m saying (and implicitly defending). She writes:

This young man they have got came over from Tunisia. A place that has a lot of v serious terror before. The museum. The beaches. And what about the Former Malaysian PM who Tweeted that ‘Muslims have the right to kill millions of French people’ 

I reply: And What about the victims?

And so, it goes. Tit for tat. Back and forth we go. We cover a wide range of topics: COVID-19, Brexit, BLM, Sexism, Racism, Trump and so on. We agree to disagree about where we stand in relation some of these issues, but we both, at various points in the exchange go off topic and talk about our everyday lives: we exchange information about the books we’re reading, the projects we are working on (we are old friends, after all). We don’t exchange insults or get angry (as far as I can tell from the words that appear on my phone’s smudgy screen). We exchange links to stories that support our respective views before the difference in our respective time zones bring proceedings to a conclusion and we say our goodbyes.

I’m writing this account of my messenger conversation with Helen a few hours after the fact and I start to reflect on the questions raised by our exchange: Do all terrorist activities receive equal media coverage, or does the media pay less attention to Islamic terrorism? What do we mean by media coverage today, anyway? Perhaps left-leaning, social media echo chambers are more likely to pay scant regard to incidents like the one in Nice? Should the price of free speech be death? To what extent do governments and media institutions censor reports about violence perpetrated by Muslims in order to reduce the risk of social disorder and chaos? I have stock answers to some of these questions, but they’re not, I ashamed to say, really based on facts. I just tap out my responses instinctively before searching for links that support my views. To be frank, I haven’t been paying enough attention to these matters. My mind is too occupied by all those everyday worries and anxieties that make me grind my teeth during the night. Helen and I agree, that the world is fucked up. I can no longer put my faith in the words of long-dead rock stars or academic utopians like Hardt and Negri, either. And what about the victims? Where is my empathy for them? All I know at the moment is that my jaw really hurts. I’m scared. I’m ashamed. I’m horrified.

References

Fukuyama, Francis (2018) Identity: The Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Hardt, Michael and Negri, Antonio (2000) Empire Cambridge: Harvard University Press

Hardt, Michael and Negri, Antonio (2012) Declaration New York: Argo-Navis

Jacobs, Ken (2011) Optic Antics: The Cinema of Ken Jacobs. Michele Pierson, David E. James, Paul Arthur (eds.), Oxford & New York: Oxford University Press.

Khan, Deeyah (2017), White Right: Meeting the Enemy, Moving Image. Fuuse Films

Dirk de Bruyn (1,3)

Glenn D’Cruz (2,4)

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