EMPATHETIC CONNECTIONS IN THE COMPUTER AGE
WHY PERSONAL RESPONSIBILITY AND INDIVIDUAL INITIATIVE JUST CAN’T HACK IT
Just ran across a scene from David Wojnarowicz’s “7 Miles a Second” his graphic cult novel about his childhood of prostitution, [ "7 MILES A SECOND" ] where a John makes him watch a couple having sex next door. When finished, the woman turns towards the peephole and David sees that she has unhealed knife wounds on her torso. “What really twisted my brain,” the young David says, “was how that guy could fuck that woman” – a hooker he recognized from outside the Port Authority terminal – “with those fresh wound staring him in the fact! Like he couldn’t conceive of pain attached to the body he was fucking.’
At whatever age David was when this horrific incident occurred, his youthful response was sympathetic to the woman’s plight irrespective of her profession or physical attributes, even though he had no prior similar experience. In shorthand, this is what’s called “empathy” the ability to feel someone else’s emotions, to vicariously live or identify with or “feel” another’s experiences
Here’s the short Merriam Webster definition:
“the feeling that you understand and share another person's experiences and emotions : the ability to share someone else's feelings”
And a fuller version:
- : the imaginative projection of a subjective state into an object so that the object appears to be infused with it.
- : the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner; also : the capacity for this
Was reading Olivia Lang’s’ “The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone” and near the end of the book she takes up the effects of the internet and social media on people living in cities. This theme – being desperately alone surrounds by millions of people - is nothing new. But she made reference to Wojnarowicz’s raw response in his art and it made me think about how “homogenized” and “conformist’ we’ve become as a society even when it comes to our feelings. No one reacts much anymore to those awful pics of kids being slaughtered in war zones. We are exposed too much, I think, too inured to the evils of the world to spark anything.
David Wojnarowicz, a gay, controversial artist of the 1980’s and early 1990’s – he died of AIDS in 1992 – was still causing controversy in 2010 when the National Portrait Gallery here in Washington exhibited his “A Fire In My Belly” film as a part of their wildly successful “Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture.” I was fortunate enough to have seen the exhibition before David’s work was removed.
Here’s how the controversy went down from a Wikipedia entry:
“In November 2010, after consultation with Gallery director Martin Sullivan and co-curator David C. Ward but not with co-curator Jonathan David Katz, G. Wayne Clough, Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, removed an edited version of footage used in Wojnarowicz's short silent film A Fire in My Belly from the exhibit "Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture" at the National Portrait Gallery after complaints from the Catholic League, Minority Leader John Boehner, Rep. Eric Cantor and the possibility of reduced federal funding for the Smithsonian. The video contains a scene with a crucifix covered in ants. William Donohue of the Catholic League claimed the work was "hate speech", against Catholics.
Gay historian Jonathan Ned Katzwrote:
In 1989 Senator Jesse Helms demonized Robert Mapplethorpe's sexuality, and by extension, his art, and with little effort pulled a cowering art world to its knees. His weapon was threatening to disrupt the already pitiful federal support for the arts, and once again, that same weapon is being brandished, and once again we cower.”
What’s most interesting to me, however, is the Catholic League’s William Donohue complaining that the work is (was) “hate speech” against Catholics. Actually, in what is probably an inadvertent yet ironic revelation, Mr. Donohue got it exactly right: Wojnarowicz made no bones about the intent of the work. It was a highly charged, controversial response to the Catholic Church’s condemnation of gay men as sinners against God and deserving of death for their sins at the height of the AIDS epidemic when nearly 6,000 men woman and children died from AIDS in 1986. In this case, context is everything and I guess in 2010 the context was lost on those folks who were critical of David’s film and bitched to the right people and had it removed from the exhibition.
Perhaps it was both the utter destructive violence – initially swift yet eventually and ironically a slow, creeping one – of the AIDS crisis and the dissociative aspects of the Catholic Church’s and other establishment voices’ condemnation of gay men, that caused some break, a heretofore hidden cleft in American society that has never been fully repaired. How else to explain the “controversy” in 2010 over “A Fire In My Belly” over 24 years after it’s creation in 1986? The loneliness, isolation and rejection AIDS victims suffered in those times was wrecked upon and felt by the victims themselves and their friends, family and loved ones. By 1986 when David Wojnarowicz exhibited “A Fire In My Belly” a total of 46,000 men, women and children had died from AIDS (today’s figure is 658,507) but no empathy was forthcoming from the general populace or the Federal Government. Yet even today – while not openly discussed – there are more than 1.2 million people living with the AIDS virus here in the U.S.
It was during the Reagan Administration that the AIDS epidemic exploded. This was also the period when a newly minted national ethic “personal responsibility and individual initiative” became the universal chorus of a newly conservative social construct. It proved helpful, I suppose, for people who simply blamed gay men for contracting the virus – personal responsibility – but also worked against the collective need of the medical community and our public health system in finding a cure and countering it’s devastating impacts. Individual initiative was simply out of the question, unworkable and unrealistic, when it came to people infected with the virus. But we’ve had three decades now of this “personal responsibility and individual initiative” as a guiding societal theme as if we live our lives without contact with others, without needing advice, assistance and companionship with our fellow human beings. Such memes give rise to identity politics and the shaming, demeaning and demonization of “others” no matter what group we self-identify with. It’s why the Black Lives Matter Movement can so readily be tagged a racist organization since we, whites, have no connection with the group or their individual members. It’s also why Donald Trump can demean Mexicans, Immigrants, Blacks, and a host of others with impunity. After all we who are not Mexican, Immigrant, Black, Mexican-American judges or LGBT have no connections with any of these groups.
But, of course, we do whether or not we acknowledge it or not. If your house catches fire maybe your first move is to grab a hose but your second will be to call the Fire Department. We live in an interconnected society and the rise of the Black Lives Matter Movement (or Occupy Wall Street and the Tea Party, for that matter) did not spring fully formed from some hot, barren dessert but arose from a complex confluence of interconnected forces (in the case of Black Lives Matter the inordinate number of arrests and deaths of Black men and women at the hands of police officers) that have come together and have been recognized by a group of people who have decided that “enough is enough” and want things to change. Sometimes the rise of these groups is spontaneous but more often they result from years of organizing at the grass roots level or a small group has snagged a bunch of money from someone else (like the Tea Party and the Koch Brothers) or when a well known individual champions a cause that catches on with the public.
One of the great changes over the past decades is the spread of this idea that “others” are not like us. Don’t share our values. Are somehow less than we are. Don’t matter as much. But when you hear some conservative, Republican, Freedom Caucus or Tea Party member, extol the virtues of personal responsibility and individual initiative, remember that it’s all basically a bunch of bullshit. This is not how we and our friends relate to one another, it’s not how a family functions and it’s not how a society works.
That’s It For Today.