Radical Empathy and the Myth of Forgiveness

Getty images

Getty images

This year, Amanda Palmer wrote about radical empathy. Empathy without bounds. The internet ripped her to shreds when she publicly imagined how Dzhokhar Tsarnaevmay, the man who bombed the Boston Marathon in 2013, may have felt to have done something so horrifying. Commenters barraged her with fury and disbelief: "How could you empathize with a murderer?" People threatened to kill her. She describes how one journalist wondered "if this trend of empathy had gone too far." People weren’t just conflating empathy with sympathy or amnesty, but laying out a timeline for appropriate emotional response. She invoked the gesture too soon, they said. 

This brought up a lot of questions for me. Why do we punish people for having an empathy reflex? Conversely, why does trying to force empathy, like pushing a flower to bloom, damage everyone involved? Does a cosmology of wholeness eventually bend us toward empathy, even as hate-fueled mass murder summons our wretched depths? Are creative people with active imaginations more likely to empathize? And why is encouraging a victim to forgive, particularly regarding racist hate crimes, such a terrible thing to ask? 

Play the Ball Where It Lands

photographer unknown

photographer unknown

Of course, we can only feel how we feel. It's the only place to start. The body we bear informs and limits our experiences. We can only inhabit the shape of our own empathy, but the gesture of empathy is infinite. I don't know what it's like to be a murderer or a man, but I have a good imagination, and I know suffering. Empathizing with Dzhokhar Tsarnaevmay is just what happens when this awful hate-crime interacts with me. I can't explain my response. I can only engage it and move forward. I do not empathize with him to the exclusion of the people he maimed and killed, but there is it--the empathy reflex. If someone told me I shouldn't feel this way, it wouldn't change a thing. That said, if he'd killed my loved one, empathy would be on a distant shore.

For my whole life, part of me has felt that I could easily turn into a "tragedy." Recently, I told a friend how badly I wanted to die. I'd thought out my suicide plan, step-by-step. I told him the calm I felt afterward, which quickly gave way to sobbing. His response wasn't, "you are so selfish for thinking this" or "don't do it" or "get help." It was, "Yeah, life can be really terrible, and suicide is a viable option. Sometimes I let my thoughts go there, too." My whole body relaxed into a smile because he wasn't punishing me for my thoughts or trying to fix them. 

Those who have helped me most during my hardest times were the ones who listened without agenda. We are all capable of deep listening at different times. So, why not let those who are capable of listening listen? Sometimes we can't listen, and that's fine, too. Punishing honesty seems counterintuitive. 

Some people require more than listening. Dylann Roof, who murdered nine African American people during a church service, told people of his plan before he executed it. Had someone reported him to police or to a mental health practitioner, maybe the story would have taken a different turn. We don't know how frequently people intercede on behalf of potential victims, because these murders don't take place. We can't ignore the sickest voices. They tell us what needs tending. 

Every gesture of empathy is an act of self-preservation, because we are reaching not only for understanding, but for our own wholeness. Healing requires deep listening to people with no voices and people with atrocious voices, which are our own abandoned echoes. Remembering empathy, even if it has not yet stirred to life within us, gives it water and sun, should we choose to tend it amid the dross of our endless garden.

Wholeness and the Energetics of Oppression

a Celtic representation of wholeness / good candidate for a tramp stamp

a Celtic representation of wholeness / good candidate for a tramp stamp

What does wholeness even mean? It means we are integral to all life, barring nothing. Therefore, banishing is a logical fallacy. We are everything we reject. Radical empathy includes the full spectrum of human experience. Acknowledging the breadth of our humanity de-emphasizes darkness, laughs in its face, rips up its roots, fallows its fields. Yet, if someone killed my loved one, I would banish that person, at least for a time. 

We are steeped in self-schism from our society's foundational assumption of good versus evil, which plays out in the glorification of war. Young men especially encounter constant propaganda that says “killing makes you a hero, if you kill the right people.” What do we get when you conflate war propaganda with systemic racism? We get Dylann Roof: self-schism wreaking havoc in an imaginary war.

Disowned qualities orbit us like little moons. When we deny darkness, we stabilize its orbit, and keep it circling us closely. We cannot disown anyone, much less those who bring our deepest sickness to the surface. We cannot disown Dylann Roof any more than the liver can disown the kidneys. Large-scale dysfunction, systemic suffering, and death result.  

Finger-pointing arises through schism. Wholeness requires the same wretched discomfort with none of the blame. Anglo-American elder and Earth guardian Joanna Macy uses a role-play exercise in which we identify with and assume the role of our oppressors. The effect swallows polarity, allowing us to participate beyond "us" and "them." Our opinions may not change, but our framework for them does. The way we engage people of opposing viewpoints reflects our shared nature. 

Sometimes when we refuse to recognize ourselves in others, we mirror the motions of our "oppressor." We respond with a firm “this is not acceptable” from a place of complicity, we act from full-blown integrity rather than fragmentation. From the outside, the differences appear subtle. Does wholeness preclude righteous anger, resistance, or firmly speaking truth? No.

from Chief Tuira Kayapo: A Bold Matriarchal Warrior Who Refuses Colonist Fuckery into Her World by The Feminist Rag

from Chief Tuira Kayapo: A Bold Matriarchal Warrior Who Refuses Colonist Fuckery into Her World by The Feminist Rag

I love this picture of Chief Tuira Kayapo laying down the law to a group of financiers, who want to profit from building a dam that would destroy the culture and biology of the Xingu River peoples. In my work with elders from indigenous traditions, and in my own decolonization and indigenous mind recovery, I have not yet encountered a native worldview that is not whole.

My Celtic people embedded this worldview in complex knot work. Chinese cosmology calls it the Dao. Buddhism calls it dependent origination, or interdependence. Physicists call it Systems Theory, which is really an observation more than a theory. Something I love about wholeness is that it does not require a leap of faith. It only requires patient observation. We are not investing in some strange theology. We are whole.

Cue gratuitous poetry: Wholeness readies us like the moon readies herbs. We need only allow ourselves to be gathered and brought home as medicine, knowing that medicine can be bitter. Trying to imagine ourselves in the role of the oppressor does not mean we condone the oppressor. We have all done the tyrannical dance. Oppression is not just Hitler or Dzhokhar Tsarnevmay or Dylann Roof. Oppression occurs in line at the grocery store. The magnitude of oppression varies vastly, but the gesture does not. Try it and see. Try reading any comments section. Recognizing the energetics of oppression releases us from its grip. 

The Power of Polarity

by Patrick Semansky

by Patrick Semansky

At the same time, people from the African American community have explained how polarity plays a crucial role for survival. The white community requires violence to even notice that the black community is speaking. And, as many people of color have pointed out, our society also requires white voices to legitimize what strong, articulate black voices have been saying for decades. Yes, I realize the irony of running off at the mouth right now. Let me turn over the mic to at least curb the douchery:

In the Facebook group Whites Against Racial Inequality, Mojat Ma'at writes, “As a black man I recoil when a white person, progressive and liberal, tells me that they are against violence of all kinds. That is a privilege to be able to take that position. To be able to step back and live a life free of struggle. Fighting is the only tool African Americans have to fight against oppression. So it is a little insulting for someone to say that to me. It shows a real lack of understanding of the position in which blacks find themselves.

"We have always been peaceful and got the dogs set on us and the water cannons. Praying and singing ‘we shall overcome’ is another trap in which blacks remain static, and believing in a god created by our oppressor which is the height of irony. MLK was considered to be a terrorist. Nelson Mandela was as well and these were men of ‘peace’. I know my truth creates discomfort for others but the time for me to place my life on the back burner in order to maintain the 'peace' is over. I am not lying anymore.”

Poet and author Anna Lea Jancewicz offers this: "If you are rebuking others for violence without acknowledging that you essentially live under armed guard, enjoying the benefits of the best military in the world and a police force, both of which use violence to secure your privilege so you don't have to dirty your own hands doing it, you are shamefully ignorant."

I get incredibly pissed (not empathetic) when I hear the mainstream media bias against people of color: "criminals", "suspects", "rioters." It shows no awareness of the crushing, systemic dehumanization that millions of people have to deal with every day. I want to puke (and not empathize) when I hear people say, "You create your own reality." We're creating our reality to some extent, but if you're black and working within the framework of white supremacy, results may vary. 

The Myth of Forgiveness



Try being thrown under the gears of a system that creates, enforces, and criminalizes black poverty to ensure its own prosperity. Try being denied jobs because your name doesn't sound white enough. Try living in an area without access to real food or medical care. Try being murdered by the police for trying to sell a cigarette on the street, or having a faulty turn signal, or being a child with a toy gun. Try watching as our white police state condones their own murderers over and over. Then try being pushed to forgive.

In a conversation with Mallory Ortberg, Carvell Wallace says: “I think a lot of people forget that forgiveness of racists among black people is something that WE DO IN ORDER TO KEEP OUR SOULS INTACT.” […] It’s nothing to do with the offender and it’s not about granting a pass to anyone. […] It’s more about clearing your heart of hate SPECIFICALLY SO YOU CAN CONTINUE TO FIGHT. […] I don’t know what white people actually think. But it seems like there is not nearly enough urgency about getting this racist shit under control and it doesn’t seem like the ‘endlessly forgiving Negro’ story is helping that at all.

He continues, "This is why I cringe when I hear white people sharing stories of black folks who were royally fucked over six ways till Sunday saying ‘I forgive you,’ like ‘isn’t this beautiful.’ America has a long history of raping, robbing, enslaving and killing people and then urging those same people to find and express forgiveness and peace. So when I hear ‘pray for peace’ from a white person in the hours after Charleston, it lands very, very wrong.”

Mallory Ortberg replies, “I think sometimes that because on some level white Americans know that we are complicit in racism, we are especially eager to talk about forgiveness. It wouldn’t interest us so much if we didn’t on some level feel culpable.” 

We the privileged are blind, unwitting tyrants. Most of us don't know we're the oppressors. We don't see how the million tiny strands of privilege make the fabric of hate and racism. Acknowledging our racism is the first step, along with listening deeply to people who experience daily oppression. Unraveling this fabric requires constant attention, self-reflection, personal discomfort, and community action. Most of the time, racism isn't overt hatred of black people. Racism is an insidious mold that rots the whole fabric of society.

Let's light a match and burn that fucking fabric. I suggest that we of European descent living on Turtle Island tolerate our own discomfort for as long as it takes to grieve our personal, ancestral, and societal shadows. I suggest that we consider how many of our thoughts and actions, which white supremacy deems benign or even benevolent, actually propel racism in America. We can only ask forgiveness of ourselves, and let it not come too easily. 



Ortberg, Mallory and Wallace, Carvell. Not off the Hook: The White Myth of Black Forgiveness, 2015.

Palmer, Amanda. Playing the Hitler Card, 2015.

"Chief Tuira Kayapo: A Bold Matriarchal Warrior Who Refuses Colonist Fuckery into Her World." The Feminist Rag: Decolonizing Myself Towards Indigenous Matriarchy, 2014.