My friend who started #500WordsAbout asked folks to write a post on empathy, kindness, and respect to go along with her t-shirt release (proceeds go to local Seattle charities, and there’s kids sizes!). At the same time, another friend asked an interesting question with his 500 words, and I’ve had a third issue on my mind lately, which I think are all going to neatly tie together so here we go!
I’ve already talked at length about kindness (and tacos!), and how important it is to my core identity to be kind to the people around me. The other two Tenants of Awesomeness - at title I’ve just made up that has some epic music associated with it in my head - are a bit more complex. It’s relatively easy to see someone express a need, fill it, and feel good about doing a kindness. Being empathetic requires effort, though. It requires you to stretch your imagination and place yourself in others shoes. It requires you to draw parallels to experiences that you’ve had, and extrapolate to how others may feel in similar circumstances. Most of all, it requires you to accept that you might not be the most important person in a situation, that other peoples feelings and experiences may be relevant. This seems shockingly difficult for some people to perform.
Last week a story went around twitter, the crux of which was that a man who managed a woman at his job accidentally appeared as her during online correspondence, and when he corrected the mistake the person he was communicating with became much more willing to work with him than he was with his woman co-worker. They then purposely switched identities for a week, which increased her performance and slowed his, significantly. This experience gained him some sense of what her job must be like and gave him a perspective he hadn’t experienced before - that of someone having to prove they’re competent to each person they interact with before even being able to attempt their job.
On one hand, I’m overjoyed that this perspective was gained, and that the man from the story was willing to understand why her performance appeared to be less than his, because of all the extra effort required to deal with people who assumed she was less competent than him. I’m even pretty happy to see the story go through my social circles. The thing that frustrates me is that these things don’t seem to be believed until a man points them out. Nothing in his story was anything new, or anything that women haven’t been saying for years and years. I’ve read these stories in blog posts all over the place, the stories are out there. However, just like in the story itself, it wasn’t until a man said it that it became believable.
The other thing that got my feathers in a ruffle was that upon reading this story, at least one gentleman I follow decided to repeat the “experiment” by changing his name and avatar on twitter. Seeing that made me feel particularly discounted. It make me feel that my experiences, and the experiences of the women around me in the world, aren’t relevant unless they’re witnessed or experienced first-hand by a man. Nothing about this feels respectful to me, even though I’m pretty sure that it’s intended to be a way to build empathy. There’s an old saw about not judging a person until you walk a mile in their shoes, but I think it might be better worded not to judge until you’ve listened to their stories. It’s possible to be empathetic towards someone without having directly lived their experiences, if you’ll just listen to and believe what they have to say. Have respect for them and the lives they’ve lived, and faith that they aren’t lying to you.
Which brings me back around to Dan and his questions about writing female protagonists as a straight white man. I certainly feel like there’s no rule that says that he shouldn’t have female characters, gay characters, characters of color in his stories, as main or supporting characters. I think that what the situation calls on is for him to exercise respect and empathy, by going out of his way to ask the people whose experiences he would like to portray about those experiences and then listening to the answers. I would suggest avoiding “token characters” where there’s just one who has to do the heavy lifting of representing a whole demographic. There’s no one perfect black woman, or asian man, or transgender kid. Having a variety means that they can be real characters with flaws, bad decisions, and story arcs, without portraying a whole demographic badly.
Empathy, kindness, and respect are all important pieces of being a good person. They’re the foundation that caring is built on, what allows us to build a community and be more together than we could ever be apart. One of my co-workers saw my t-shirt today, he’s a bit of a snarky gentleman, and said to me, “Wow, that’s a controversial stance there!” I knew he was teasing but in a way he’s right, because I’m espousing the idea that these are more important than profits, or personal gain, or self-centeredness.
Every time I see someone do something cruel in the news, lately, it’s been because of being fundamentally self-centered. A lack of empathy. They can’t imagine being scared about being seen as so different it’s okay to be attacked. They can’t imagine a life where they have to choose between eating and hospital bills. They can’t understand that paying into a common good benefits everyone. Because they can’t see past themselves. They can’t manage to listen to our stories and believe us. They can’t manage to honestly tell stories of their own. They can’t find the respect in others to accept that they may have valid points of view, even though they’re different.
Friends, please don’t be that person. Be kind to yourself and others. Respect their identities and their perspectives. Listen to them. Empathize with their lives, without turning them into a tourist destination. Love one another.
A twitter buddy of mine is committing to writing 500 words a day on some topic, and invited others to join her. Feel free to write alongside us, exercise those grammar muscles, and do a little wordsmithing. The hashtag on twitter is #500wordsAbout.