Withholding Empathy

Generally, I try to be an open-minded person. But I’m also finding that the older and more experienced I get, the less patience I have for people in positions of power and influence who are unwilling to examine their own privilege and extend empathy to those who are in different circumstances.

Because we’ve come to a point in our society where you cannot plead ignorance. You can embrace ignorance, and try to stay within a small framework of ideas. But the information is out there. There is so much powerful work being done by people of color, LGBTQ people, immigrants, and others, in all mediums. There are so many resources to help you engage with new ideas, examine your own privilege, and make choices that embrace empathy and compassion for marginalized people.

And of course you can choose not to engage. But it is a choice. There are millions of people sharing their stories. It’s purely up to you if you’re not listening.

"What is this "Google" of which you speak?"

I was originally planning to not really get into the presidential race on this blog, because 1) I think it’s pretty clear where I stand politically, and 2) there’s so much coverage everywhere else, I don’t want to contribute to the fatigue.

But I gotta talk about this. Because we have someone in a very important position who keeps saying things so forehead-slappingly stupid, I can’t ignore it. Now this actual quote happened back in January of 2018, but I only saw it recently. It’s recirculating, for good reason.

Presidential hopeful Joe Biden said the following while promoting his book last year, “The younger generation now tells me how tough things are. Give me a break. No, no, I have no empathy for it. Give me a break. Because here’s the deal guys, we decided we were gonna change the world. And we did. We did. We finished the civil rights movement in the first stage. The women’s movement came to be. So my message is, get involved. There’s no place to hide.”

Ok, first, to the defenders – yes, we all get that he’s talking about civic engagement being a positive thing. That people shouldn’t just talk about problems, but should get involved. And yes, we all agree with that.

And if he had just said, “Wow, things are hard, but we’ve been fighting for rights for decades, and we need to keep fighting now”, there would be no issue.

But that’s not what he said.

"You can't make rent this month? Clearly you're not trying hard enough to save."

Privilege is a concept that is often misunderstood. So often people see privilege as being lucky or having special benefits. But that’s just part of it. At its very core, privilege is the idea that something is not a problem, because it’s not a problem for you personally.

I was lucky enough to get out of college debt free. If I then turned around and told students struggling with debt that it’s their own fault and they should have made different choices – that’s privilege.

I’m a white woman. If a black co-worker came to me and told me she was experiencing harassing behavior from our colleagues, and I shrugged and said, “I haven’t seen anything like that.” – that’s privilege.

I’m a cis woman. If a trans woman talked about being discriminated against by her physician, and I told her, “Just find a new doctor.” – that’s privilege.

Biden saying the “younger generation” shouldn’t have any complaint over things being tough? So much privilege. (I’m not going to even touch on the “finished the civil rights movement” claptrap, because that’s way too big for this post, but needless to say – privilege to the nth degree).

Words matter. Words matter a lot. And yes, we can all say the wrong thing from time to time. But just listen to Biden speak. Listen to him say “give me a break” repeatedly. He is sending a very clear message. His derision is visible. He doesn’t care to hear their voices. He doesn’t care to examine his privilege. He doesn’t care to do the work.

And that is an absolute failure of leadership.

"Oh, wow. I had no idea everything you'd been through. I'm so sorry."

Out of all the things that bother me with this particular statement, the very worst is Biden’s claim that, “I have no empathy for it”.

Withholding empathy is a powerful tool. And I’m not going to say it should never be utilized. It’s a choice all of us have to make for ourselves, in who we believe deserves our empathy and who doesn’t. But it’s a hammer, not a scalpel. And it needs to be wielded responsibly.

Using it against an entire generation? Is downright bigoted.

Biden looked at his audience, primarily made up of people like him. People with many kinds of privilege. And he decided to go with the narrative of the lazy, useless young person. That these kids today just don’t understand. That someone speaking to things being tough is clearly just not trying hard enough.

Nevermind that earnings have not kept up with the cost of living. Nevermind that predatory debt has skyrocketed. Nevermind that one health problem can clean out your savings. Nevermind that you can do everything right and still be discriminated against for your color, or your sexuality, or your gender identity, or your size, or health status.

No, no, it must be that everything is the fault of the people who are struggling.

This kind of attitude is everywhere. But it doesn’t belong in our leaders.

Imagine what it could have been if Biden had made the choice to lead with empathy. If he had made the choice to talk about what life could look like if we stood up for each other, instead of encouraging older generations to feel superior. If he had acknowledged his own privilege, and talked about how much he’s learning. If he had validated the pain of those who are just so very tired of fighting systems they didn’t create, and then being told that everything they’re experiencing is their own fault.

Imagine if he had said, “I’ve talked to young people telling me how tough things are. And you know what? They’re right! Things are tough! They may be different struggles than what some of us are familiar with, but we know what it’s like to go through tough times. We can stand up for what’s right, and help them. We’ve made change happen before, and we can do it again.”

Just imagine.

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