We’re experiencing a serious empathy deficit

A response to anti-vax protestors interrupting Remembrance Day events & wearing yellow stars, teachers insisting on using the n-word, comedians making tasteless jokes against the trans community and more.

Video footage of anti-vax protesters in Kelowna, B.C. hijacking a Remembrance Day memorial recently went viral. I watched mortified as they interrupted a solemn ceremony meant to honour the memories of those who died at war to make it about themselves. With no shame, they grabbed the mic from senior veterans, claiming their “right” to fight the “tyranny of the majority” that discriminates against those who remain unvaccinated. Not only did a bunch of unmasked yahoos get right up in the faces of senior citizens who remain the most vulnerable from this virus, but they had the temerity to claim that risking your life to fight fascism is precisely the same as throwing a temper tantrum because you can’t watch Dune in a movie theatre. 

The very same week, in Kansas, American anti-vaxxers showed up at municipal meetings sporting yellow stars, equating their “struggle” to Jewish victims of the Holocaust. Jews were ordered to wear these badges. Anyone found without one faced a fine, prison or death. They didn’t sew them and put them on themselves in a tragicomic attempt to portray themselves as victims! How ignorant of history and completely coddled in their First World problems does one have to be to exploit and use a symbol that was instrumental in marking Jews out for segregation and discrimination, a symbol that isolated them in ghettoes and identified them for the concentration camps. How painful it must be for families who lost loved ones during the Holocaust to watch these antics now. 

I’m not sure if the pandemic has exacerbated it, but I’ve noticed an unfortunate tendency lately for some to simply choose to override all sense of decency and compassion in their “fight” and quest for their freedom — the freedom to protest, the freedom to tell a joke, the freedom to do as they like with no regard for others’ feelings, the freedom to say the words they want to say. 

The n-word, again

A teacher at College Maisonneuve was recently exposed by students as having uttered the n-word in class because the educator insisted it was their right to do so. Despite a Black student imploring them not to use the racist slur because they found it dehumanizing, the teacher repeated it NINE TIMES IN A ROW in class. An adult entrusted with teaching teenagers somehow felt comfortable with abusing a completely unequal power dynamic to show a Black student who was asking them to simply respect their dignity and humanity who’s boss. In the teachers’ mind, their “right” to utter the word and their “academic freedom” trumped being a decent human being — or even a good teacher, for that matter. Because no one can convince me this educator created an environment where any real teaching or any substantial dialogue was taking place. 

The debate surrounding the n-word in academic settings has been going on for over a year now since the Ottawa University debacle, with predominantly white academia, white media, white politicians and white pundits pretending they’re neutral, when what they really mean is unaffected. And while people are defending their right to use them, the normalization and defence of racist slurs has only emboldened racists to use them indiscriminately, knowing they can be protected under the guise of “academic freedom.” 

So, go ahead and continue to have academic conversations in the safety of majority-white newsrooms and university offices, but don’t fool yourselves into thinking you can divorce these privileged conversations from the unfortunate result: a racist teacher yelling out n…. nine times at a young kid because they have been told loud and clear by the establishment around them that they can.

Just because it’s legal doesn’t mean it’s right 

A deficit of empathy is when, as a society, we spend far too much time debating whether we can legally say something and then forget to devote even a smidgen of attention to whether we should. Basic run-of-the-mill human kindness somehow gets sidelined and seems unimportant when we’re fighting for our legal right to shame a disabled young boy or make a joke at the expense of the trans community or fight tooth and nail to keep saying a racist slur just because it’s included in the title of a book equating class struggle with slavery. 

The louder and more determined social movements are to “even” the playing field and give a voice to the marginalized, the angrier, more resentful and unkind those resisting the trend are, as if their own lives and their own humanity were somehow at stake here. 

I see the ridicule and disdain some people reserve for the trans community, unable to understand why they would be transitioning or why they identify (or don’t identify) a certain way. What does it cost us to acknowledge that someone is living a different experience? Sure, there may be some discomfort when trying to navigate new worlds, new terms, new definitions, but what’s so difficult about educating ourselves and treating people as they want to be treated? 

When someone says they want to be addressed as “they,” you address them as “they.” When someone tells you that they’re transitioning and they now go by another pronoun and another name, just oblige. When someone says, “Please don’t say the n-word, it hurts and dehumanizes me,” don’t say the n-word. It shouldn’t be that tricky to treat the person asking as deserving of respect and kindness. And their need not to hear a word they find traumatizing should supersede your bizarre need to say it. 

Why fight for the right to be mean?

Mike Ward

When someone says your comedy act is deeply hurtful, and it’s affecting their life, it’s okay to apologize and stop saying the joke. A punch line doesn’t have to literally punch someone in the face, maim them, affect their mental health. Sure, you can fight it in court, and sure you can even win and legally be validated as having the “right” to make fun of a kid who’s already had the odds stacked against him, and sure, some will cheer on the victory as creative freedom, but I don’t know… were the jokes worth it? There’s a world of difference between legality and morality, and what is legal isn’t necessarily moral. I get that comedy isn’t meant to be safe, and I still enjoy Mike Ward’s and Dave Chappelle’s edgy humour, and legally they have the right to say whatever they want to say that isn’t libelous or considered hate speech, but comedy’s goal should be to punch up and mock those who have power, not those who have none. Comedy writing should be an art form, not as easy as a schoolyard bully tripping someone whose glasses they’ve already knocked off their face. What skill did that require? 

Insist on being shocked 

The more people fight to make room for the marginalized, allowing everyone to be seen, and the more people call out privilege and this callous indifference to others’ feelings, the more some respond with accusations of “wokeness” and “oversensitivity” as if being alert to other people’s suffering or pain is such a bad thing. 

In a 1998 interview with journalist Jana Wendt, the incandescent and oh-so-wise Toni Morrison discusses the fury of white mothers who were attacking buses with Black children on them when school segregation came to an end. Morrison is unable to understand how mothers, with children of their own, could lack such basic empathy and had no shame in attacking children. When the interviewer calls their behaviour “shocking barbarism,” Morrison responds, “It’s always shocking. And I insist on being shocked.” 

The moral clarity in Morrison’s voice is profound, because it’s a reminder that we should never ignore, downplay or normalize lack of empathy, no matter the reasons or justification. Insist on being shocked. 

It shouldn’t be so difficult to be a decent human being. It requires so little of us most days. Yet even that little bit seems like such an impossible ask for some. ■

Read more editorials by Toula Drimonis here.