Empathy Goes a Long Way or, The One Where Matt Walsh is Wrong (Again)


DSC01434I’ve done quite a bit to avoid writing about Matt Walsh, mostly because I really don’t want to give him the time of day. His posts typically consist of the following pattern:

[Sarcastic strawman of position he’s going to argue against]

[Saying, “Yeah, but that position is just wrong, and you’re stupid if you believe it, let me show you how]

[If you believe x, and I don’t believe x, then you’re a moron. QED]

Go through most of his writings where he’s contra-anything and you’ll see that tends to be his typical pattern. Recently, he wrote about how he thinks white men can have an opinion on any issue and that one cannot be dismissed simply because one is a white man. To be fair, he’s mostly right; being a man, woman, black, white, straight, homosexual or anything does not preclude one from forming an opinion on any issue. After all, if I read that Nigerian terrorists are kidnapping women for simply going to school, I do not need to be from Nigeria nor a woman in order to form the opinion that what these terrorists are doing is wrong. Likewise, on the issue of abortion, I need not be a woman in order to make the argument that killing an innocent human being is wrong, nor do I need to be a woman to make the argument that a fetus is an innocent human being. There are far too many people who simply dismiss an argument by saying, “Well, you aren’t a man/woman/military member/pacifist/etc, therefore you cannot make a valid argument on this issue.” It’s not just liberals that do this either; argue that the war in Iraq was unjustified and someone will might argue that since you’re not a veteran, you can’t have an opinion on the matter.

Had Walsh decided to make a well-reasoned argument, showing that it’s a logical fallacy (poisoning the well, ad hominem, and so on), then good on him. Sadly, of course, you don’t get to his level of popularity without polarizing the issues (which is probably why we at The Christian Watershed will happily hover in our current readership). Thus, instead of saying, “I get where you’re coming from, but here are some good reasons as to why you’re wrong,” we get, “Man, you’re an idiot and it’s stupid and you’re a liberal and I’m right and I’m white so I’m going to mock you and never make an actual point.”

However, Walsh then explains why he’s chosen to write about this specific issue, and it’s in this moment that I realize he’s wrong. He states, 

You don’t need me to illustrate this, I know. Still, I feel compelled to give you some real life examples, if only because I’ve been fielding an inordinate number of these sorts of comments in the past week. That’s probably due to the fact that, in the last 10 days of so, I’ve written about affirmative action, Donald Sterling, abortion, and feminism.

What could Matt Walsh have possibly done? Well, for starters, he said that Donald Sterling’s racist comments really meant nothing and we shouldn’t pay attention, or care. If nothing else, he created the world’s longest response that belongs on a comment thread, somehow taking the Sterling situation and turning it into an Obama-bashing situation (Walsh is kind of masterful in that way). Likewise, Walsh makes the argument that we ought to rid ourselves of Affirmative Action because racism no longer exists (yeah, I’m not kidding on that one).

Now, can Walsh have an opinion on issues such as Sterling, Affirmative Action, abortion, and so on? Absolutely he can, being white doesn’t prevent him from having an opinion (few people actually believe such nonsense). I, as a white male, am working on an essay over the Harlem Renaissance, specifically how it responds to the white nationalism so prevalent at the time. Does the fact that the Harlem Renaissance was an exclusively black movement prevent me, a white man, from formulating an opinion about it? No, it doesn’t, but it does mean that I have to realize that I’m approaching the issue from a very limited and privileged perspective. This perspective-based opinion is what Walsh fails to take into account, and that’s where he gets it terribly wrong.

I can’t possibly know what it’s like to grow up black in America. I can empathize, but ultimately I don’t know what it feels like to be looked at while shopping, to have every cop suspicious of you, to worry about whether or not you’re too dark-skinned to get a job at the mall, or to risk getting shot while walking through a white neighborhood, simply because people think you don’t belong. I don’t know what it’s like to have the personal experience, much less a shared experience of a community that has undergone segregation and continues to undergo segregation. I don’t have the experience to be called a racial name and then see someone else do it and feel that pain all over again. I have many black friends who can tell me what it is like, I have many books available recounting experiences of black people in America, but ultimately I will always be a tourist within the black community, always having to rely on their experiences and not my own. While I can formulate an opinion on their situation, I must also understand that I haven’t been where they’ve been.

This truth reflects onto women, Latinos, homosexuals, and yes, even white men (especially poor white men). While we can make an objective argument on what is right and wrong, the objectivity of the argument doesn’t remove from its application. For instance, we can all agree (hopefully) that being a racist is wrong. Yet, due to a difference in upbringings, we’re not going to agree on what it means to be a racist. I would argue that Walsh certainly comes pretty dang close to being a racist, albeit an unwitting one. I’m pretty sure others could make the same argument about me. After all, if we argue – like Cliven Bundy – that “the Negro” (nothing good comes after that, as our President joked) may have been better off in slavery, or that they’re lazy, and so on, then we’re making some pretty racist comments. But if we apply Walsh’s arguments to Bundy, then Bundy isn’t a racist; he’s simply looking at what he believes to be an objective fact and making an objective comment. Bundy is justified by Walsh’s argument, which is partially why Walsh’s argument is wrong; it fails to take into account the human aspect, not to mention the biases, of the people involved in making arguments. Obviously, Bundy is incredibly biased and relying on stereotypes in his arguments, stereotypes which exist because he’s grown up white and removed from other cultures. Certainly, Bundy can formulate an opinion on why black Americans suffer from high unemployment rates, but he has to be totally aware that he’s not within that community or even near that community; he’s rich and cannot really understand the plight of the poor, black or white.

Think of the arguments made about “the poor” or “the illegals.” It’s easy for white people, rich people, black people, or whomever to make arguments that trickle down to calling them “freeloaders.” Objectively, one can look at the system and say that the system is wrong, that it allows for actual freeloaders, and so on. Yet, the argument of “freeloaders” is based on an incredibly limited perspective, one in which the individual has never faced actual poverty or the plight of being in a home that is not your own. When you work with the poor and are poor yourself, you come to find that many on government assistance actually work 60-70 hours a week; that’s hardly freeloading. When you work with illegal immigrants, you come to realize that they’re not here to destroy our country or way of life, they’re just here to put food on the table. While I can never understand their plight, I can empathize with them because ultimately, we’re human beings.

What Walsh ignores is empathy. For someone who is supposedly a Christian – though I believe he is a conservative first and a Christian somewhere else down the line, as it’s a very cultural Christianity he espouses – he’s apparently forgotten the text of 1 Corinthians 9:19-23. It’s the famous passage where Paul speaks about how he becomes a Jew to the Jews, under the law to those under the law, and so on. Paul is essentially referring to the act of empathizing with those who are different than us. Let’s put this in a context that Walsh can understand:

Objectively, the Gospel is that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, but Paul understood that if you went up to Greeks, Jews, and everything in between, that message simply wouldn’t convey itself appropriately. In other words, in order to teach the objective truth, Paul had to find a subjective approach and, along the way, gain the understanding and viewpoints of the cultures different from his own. Though Paul wasn’t a Greek, he had to do his best to think like a Greek in order to reach out to Greek people. His sermon in Athens when compared to his sermons to Jews proves that Paul had different ways of approaching people, based entirely upon their culture. In other words, Paul didn’t sit there and say, “I’m a Jew and I can have an opinion on your Greek pagan practices if I want to, so screw you if you think I’m wrong. You’re dumb.” Instead, he approached it as best as he could within the Greek mindset, mindful that he was a tourist to the Greek mindset, not a native.

Likewise, it’s okay for us to recognize that sometimes Affirmative Action can harm black people. It’s okay to recognize that government assistance may not help the poor as much as some think it does. It’s okay to say that illegal immigration simply isn’t beneficial to immigrants or to residents. But one must always be mindful that such opinions are formed outside of these communities, which does make them suspect unless one has opened up to what the communities themselves are saying. I can look at the rate of single parent homes within the black community and say, “Wow, that’s not good or helpful.” 70% of black American children are raised in single-parent homes (compared to 25% of white American children). As a human being I can say, “That’s not right” to both statistics. I can make the argument that, regardless of race, it’s beneficial to have both parents in the home. What I cannot do – or should not do – is go after the black community and say, “Hey guys, here’s what you need to do to fix this.” The reason is I come from a community that helped institute this epidemic; let’s be honest here, when slaves were sold the moment they fell in love, when marriage was forbidden among slaves, when black fathers were constantly traded and sold off, for hundreds of years, a pattern develops and a culture is ruined. Likewise, forced-poverty, lynching, segregation, and the like only helped to perpetuate a problem created by the community I belong to (while my ancestors were in Russia during all of this and came over well after slavery, the fact is I’m white and I’m in America and belong to the white community, one that has benefited greatly from slavery and segregation). That’s not “white guilt;” it’s an honest evaluation of the situation.

I love to go to Mexico. I love the people (I have friends there), I love the music, I love the food, I love everything about the experience of Mexico (with exception to their government). Compared to your average white American, I probably have a better understanding and experience of Mexico than most. Yet, despite my love, I’ll never know what it’s like to be a Mexican. I could move there, gain citizenship, marry a Mexican, have Mexican children, and so on; but ultimately I’ll always be a foreigner, always be a non-native, a gringo. I can objectively say that the violence in Mexico is wrong, but due to my limited perspective as a white man living in America, I have to keep my opinion of a solution in check and open to differing viewpoints, especially of those most affected by the violence. What Walsh ignores is that being a white man isn’t an indictment, it’s a situation in life that limits what he can and cannot know.

Think of it this way:

Your Russian friend says he just doesn’t get why you Americans are so upset over 9/11. After all, there have been worse tragedies (even within US history) in the world and by now, over a decade later, it’s time to just get over it. He says you need to get over it, move on, and then gives you advice on how to get over it. “After all, you don’t see us Russians moaning and groaning about the multiple Turkish invasions into our lands.” See, he can have this opinion and he can make this statement, but lacking the experience of the Americans who lived through 9/11. He didn’t experience it, he didn’t live through what we lived through, therefore while we can listen to his opinion, we tend to toss it to the garbage heap because, due to his lack of experience, it doesn’t mean much. If, however, he empathizes with us, he is more likely to earn our trust and even learn from our experiences; ultimately, we would both learn from each other, which goes a long way in helping things.

The above is kind of how it is when white people say, “Slavery happened so long ago, just get over it.” We don’t get it because we didn’t go through it. We can say, “Yeah, but no black person today went through slavery,” but we forget that slavery ended 149 years ago; for someone in their 70s or 80s, their grandparent (or even parent) could have been a slave. Or segregation, which many black Americans live(d) through. Or homosexuals facing violence today, something heterosexuals haven’t faced. Or women facing rape and objectification on a mass scale, something men (typically) don’t have to worry about. In all these instances, if you haven’t had to experience it through the view of the Other, then sometimes it’s best to withhold an opinion or to tread lightly in offering one.

I cannot know how to fix the issues in the black community, or issues facing women, or issues facing immigrants, and so on because I’ve never been a native to those communities. I can interact with them, I can befriend them, I can listen to them, but I’ll never know exactly what they’re going through. Thus, my opinions must always be mindful of the fact that my experience and knowledge is severely limited because I haven’t seen what they’ve seen. For instance, I am a philosopher by trade, but I love physics and science. Yet, I will never be “native” to the scientific community because I will never pursue a scientific degree. I can read books about it, I can talk to scientists, but ultimately I cannot grasp the nuances of that community. On an even deeper level, being a white male in America means I can never fully grasp the nuances of what it means to be in – and struggle in – another community (conversely there are those who cannot understand what it means to be a white male in America, though it’s not as though we’ve had it hard).

What I can do, however, is I can empathize. I can befriend the fatherless, feed the hungry, and love everyone. I can attempt to see the world through their perspectives and if I still think they’re wrong on an issue, I can work as best as I can within their perspective to show them why they’re wrong (or, alternatively, I can learn that I am actually wrong in my own perspective). I can objectively say that abortion is wrong, but through empathy I can listen to what women have to endure and then do all I can to help them in their plight. I can believe in an objective truth, but through empathy I can find an infinite number of ways to apply that truth. I am a white male, but through empathy, through love, I can become all things to all people, and that’s what Matt Walsh forgot. If we are to find any true progress in our society it will not be because we chose to dogmatically hold to our dogmas, but because we chose to empathize with one another and learn from one another.

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3 thoughts on “Empathy Goes a Long Way or, The One Where Matt Walsh is Wrong (Again)

  1. QUOTE: “I’m white and I’m in America and belong to the white community”

    As a ‘white’ American male, I don’t understand this… I was unaware we had a community. Hopefully it’s not the one with pointy white hats. The only community I personally belong to is ‘American’.

    QUOTE: “I come from a community that helped institute this epidemic”

    Um… no, no you didn’t. Your ancestors were in Russia. Mine were in Europe, primarily. You benefit no-one by retroactively assuming responsibility for something you weren’t even alive for, and neither you nor your ancestors ever participated in. Feel free to empathize with anyone and everyone for injustices conceived in the past. But eventually, we need to leave the past where it is, and concentrate on improving here and now, and the future.

    Using the example of 9/11. If someone told you a month after the fact to ‘get over it’, it would be horribly inappropriate. But if your grandchildren carry around the same grief, hatred, and despair that you had 50 years later… someone needs to tell them to snap out of it.

    If you live in America, then you need to become American, plain and simple. What’s special and unique about America is that we have a diverse population with no one face. Voluntarily segregating into ‘communities’, whether racial or otherwise, defeats the entire purpose of this Nation, and does more lasting damage than any so-called privilege.

  2. America is a community of communities. A melting pot doesn’t mean we morph into some faceless blob. We maintain our individual communal identities and heritage while belonging to a larger and broader community.

    So while I grew up in middle class white suburbia, and maybe my friend grew up in a gang-riddled neighborhood of minorities in poverty, we’re both still American. Yet, we have vastly different experiences and therefore view the world much differently.

    For example, no one looked at me suspiciously if I walked through my neighborhood at night. I didn’t have a neighborhood watchman trailing me because my appearance was a perceived threat. Or the area that most call “the bad part of town” is called “home” by some of my friends. I hear my grandfathers tell stories about fighting in WWII, whereas someone listened to their grandfathers talk about being put in Japanese internment camps because of their race.

    So while a Japanese-American can, as an American, be thankful for allied victory, a dark cloud is still cast over that because of how it impacted his community.

    We all grow up in different communities but share a lot of things in common. But, we all face different problems and we can’t assume that the solutions to our own community’s problem are universal.

  3. A melting pot means, by definition, that you melt. You become that which you are immersed into. In America, that means you become an American. We all have different faces, and as autonomous individuals, we will all have different experiences. But collectively, we need to identify as Americans first – not hyphenated-Americans.

    Hyphenated-Americans, whether by race, color, gender, religion, or otherwise, recruit others solely by their narrow criteria (while militantly ostracizing any who don’t support them), and attack anyone who opposes them based on their opponent’s perceived hyphenated status. You will NEVER understand the truth of any situation if this is the only way you will look at it.

    Personal aside: I spent 20 years in a town where I was the minority. I’ve been the victim of theft, threats, racial slurs, and physical violence. Some of it unavoidably came about due to my appearance (slurs), but the rest? Who knows. But if I chalk it up to a hyphenated status, then I’m taking a step backwards in life.

    Look at any time there’s an accusation of wrongdoing in the news. Sides are drawn, and people file in under their banners, hurling insults and assigning blame, long before any of the facts come out. By the time the whole truth is known, too much pride is at risk to admit either side (and often both) was wrong, so they’ll leave the fight saying, “Well, maybe it wasn’t this time, but they’re still a bunch of _____.”

    If an ‘outsider’ offers an opinion (not rooted in hate or bias), you should accept it for what it is, at face value. No individual knows the whole story of any other individual, even within the same ‘community’… but outright dismissal (devoid of any logical explanation as to why) will only make our divisions worsen.

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