COMMENTARYempathyJonathanReidWEB

Commentary | Empathy, rage, and resistance

A call to arms

As I sit in the library and try to get through the week’s readings, drones hover above remote villages across the Middle East. Reading an article about the physical and psychological effects stemming from this new form of warfare, the reality of this situation hits me like a ton of bricks, and I begin to shake in disgust at my own inaction. This is because, less than 100 metres away from me, there sits a laboratory conducting drone research for the military. My shame moves from my head to my heart to my stomach, becoming a visceral nausea permeated with a violent desire to destroy – to destroy the lab, to destroy their tools, and to destroy the fruits of their labour, which will soon be used to help remote-controlled machines kill real people halfway across the world.

My motives for opposing military research often become convoluted as they drown in ideological rhetoric fired at people who disagree with me. Such is too often the nature of discussions on current affairs. But this is because ‘current affairs’ are a diluted version of what we really should be talking about: real people’s lives, their lived experiences. And people are experiencing a perpetual assault on their wellbeing through material deprivation, ecological destruction, and the pervasive threat of lethal violence manifested in the constant humming of a fucking robot in the sky.

Though we don’t have a responsibility to help anybody, we are living beings. We have the capacity to think, feel, and care for others. Still, we often don’t exercise these capacities.

Though we don’t have a responsibility to help anybody, we are living beings. We have the capacity to think, feel, and care for others. Still, we often don’t exercise these capacities.

I live in a consumer culture that distracts me from the plight of others with images of beautiful bodies wearing beautiful clothes that I am encouraged to buy. I live a life of relative comfort, and I don’t know anyone who’s been killed by a drone or starved to death. But despite having been subject to soul-destroying consumer culture for twenty years, if I saw someone drowning in a pond ten feet away from me, I would not hesitate to help them. Confronted with a fellow being facing imminent death, and having the ability to help, my instincts for empathy and care would spring into action.

There is often a disconnect between understanding the systemic processes that affect people’s lives, and having an actual conception of what people’s lives are like. More often than not, our only interaction with material experiences in the Global South are through sensationalized infomercials featuring sickly, skinny children covered in flies to the tune of sentimental violin music. These audio-visual bombardments elicit pity to solicit money for charities with questionable motives. They are sensational to the point of numbing our senses because they are just so hard to watch. What we’re lacking is real empathy for the plight of people whose lives are far removed from ours. Empathy is not sympathy, charity, or pity. Real empathy in this context means both caring and understanding – caring means putting yourself in others’ shoes to the point of discomfort, and understanding means educating yourself on how the system is responsible for so much human misery.

There is often a disconnect between understanding the systemic processes that affect people’s lives, and having an actual conception of what people’s lives are like.

For the time being, many of us live in relative comfort. This keeps us from feeling the immediacy, the urgency, of the world’s problems. The fact that people are dying every day is largely confined to the realm of statistics – numbers that fail to penetrate our consciousness and reach our conscience, where they would be much more likely to inspire resistance. Practically speaking, there are millions of people ‘drowning in a pond’ at any given moment. Not just abroad, but here too. So what are we doing? What can we do?

The traditional channels of resistance employed by allies (i.e., those fighting on behalf of a group of people of which they’re not part) have serious limitations. I feel the need to say this for fear that people will read this piece and decide to join charities, NGOs, or professional activist groups who seek to effect change by donating shitty food to mitigate the effects of global land theft and industrial exploitation (thus creating dependency and pacifying local resistance), kindly asking impersonal power structures to place people over profit (‘speaking truth to power’) – or best of all – using the ‘expertise’ they learned in a classroom to teach all the helpless backward coloured folk how to live their lives better (nourishing the exact same colonial mentality that enabled mass global wealth inequality in the first place). Don’t be an ally – be an accomplice.

The fact that people are dying every day is largely confined to the realm of statistics – numbers that fail to penetrate our consciousness and reach our conscience.

Take the time to cultivate empathy. Let your empathy turn into anger, and let your anger turn into rage. Translate this rage to into dedicated, principled, and cunningly strategic resistance. Learn how the same structures that exploit others may benefit you, and rather than feeling guilty, get more angry! Prepare yourself to be stripped of your privileges, and let that guide you to a humbler life.

See how this system destroys all of us – from perpetrators to victims – in different ways: the CEO, who sold his soul to his investors; the grandmother evicted from her ancestral land after it was ‘bought’ by a mining company; the wage-slave, who spent eight years in school so he could spend forty hours a week punching numbers into a spreadsheet; the American soldier, who will never be able to sleep without thinking of the people he killed to make some oil barons rich; the Palestinian parents, who came home one day to find their children blown to pieces while playing soccer on the beach.

And also you, who is going to have to decide whether or not to bring children into a world on the brink of total collapse; you, who by the end of your lifetime, will likely experience war, famine, or natural disaster; and we, who will spend our lives watching the dust settle as our world lapses into a post-apocalyptic nightmare.

We have a few options. We can build comfortable lives for ourselves, praying that catastrophe doesn’t reach us too soon and trying our best not to speed up the process. We can say ‘fuck it’ and scramble to the side of power, joining the ruthless and increasingly hopeless race to the top. Or we can fight.

Author’s note: If you’re a McGill student who wants to get politically engaged, QPIRG-McGill is the place to go.


The author of this piece wishes to remain anonymous.


Comments posted on The McGill Daily's website must abide by our comments policy.