I had not been in Vietnam long when the first morning after row of dead Viet Cong sappers were lined up in a row for local village officials to come identify. A grotesque sight of shattered bodies. Broken bones snapped by machinegun fire poking through skin and intestines in plain view. AND THEY WERE YOUNG. Child soldiers. Empathy came to me. "Their mothers are waiting for them." So was mine. It wasn't just a matter of them having come to kill me. It was empathy I could not have as a Marine. Most disturbing, over fifty years later empathy vanishes at times when inappropriate. My excuse for "fuck him/her/them anyway" when I lack the empathy that I think should accompany human goodness. I have no control over when it decides to visit or abandon me. Or so I like to think. Perhaps an excuse, perhaps an unhealed wound.

That was one of those life events burned into my memory, but how different is it from the empathy fatigue affecting us all in this time of tribal hatred. I see it in comments on the internet. An implicit "fuck them" that shouldn't be. The slow creep of empathy fatigue. I never hated my enemy, and we were truly trying to kill each other. Hate is an emotion like empathy. I turned that off too. At times. But I think I see it too often in matters as absurd as partisan politics. The internet can be a curse. It magnifies things beyond proportion and sometimes brings out the worst in us.

Sometimes it also manifests in a live and let live tolerance that is inappropriate or an inappropriate intolerance when emotion sets off our fight reflex. A mess of contradictions. Is the internet making all that worse? It is a tool, like a gun. It can be used for good or bad purpose. You are better at that than me (using the internet as a useful and constructive tool), and I commend you for it. Excuse my "French" in this comment, but those words belonged there because of their honesty.

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You make a really important point here. As you say it's in that warlike mindset where empathy is hardest to find. And we truly treat those with different perspectives to us as if we're at war lately. I think we've all noticed how the same people preaching kindness can justify the most incredible cruelty and abuse when it's directed at "the other side."

Sadly, at leats online, some people haven't learned, as you have, to turn off the hate.

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Someone sent the link I'll put at the bottom to me, and it was a wakeup call about being able to turn off hate. The vile woman with hate on her face spitting in her political opposite's face flashed me back to the warm welcome home Vietnam veterans received from activists like her.

At this point in my life, I can understand their protest, but I have never really gotten past the emotional response I have toward people like her. I'm wildly in favor of abortion if she will abort her every pregnancy and remove herself from the gene pool. I don't say that proudly, I'm ashamed that I haven't gotten past it after all these years. But it illustrates how hate filled activists make things worse. My thoughts on this have nothing to do with my thoughts on the causes of the two groups, that is irrelevant.

Today in Phoenix. https://twitter.com/StudentsForKari/status/1522041997653012480

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Apr 30, 2022·edited Apr 30, 2022

Whatever hope is yours,

Was my life also; I went hunting wild

After the wildest beauty in the world

. . .

I am the enemy you killed, my friend.

I knew you in this dark: for so you frowned

Yesterday through me as you jabbed and killed.

I parried; but my hands were loath and cold.

Let us sleep now. . . .

—Wilfred Owen, “Strange Meeting”


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Apr 30, 2022·edited Apr 30, 2022Liked by Steve QJ

Well, this is a tough one. On one hand, just as you say, this idea of a “counter-boycott” only contributes to the “cancelation” problem (only one “l” where I live) instead of countering it. We who oppose cancel culture should practice what we preach.

On the other hand, if the corporations are only feeling pressure from one direction, they will continue yielding to it. The idea is to create pushback in the other direction, to make them pay a price for that choice as well. Sometimes you have to fight back instead of turning the other cheek. The Ukrainians may deplore war, but they’re sure as hell going to fire back at the Russian guns. Without some kind of resistance, the “woke” cancel culture wins by default.

I honestly do not know what is the right answer here, but it’s not just an open-and-shut case either way.

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"Sometimes you have to fight back instead of turning the other cheek. "

Oh yeah, absolutely. I'm not advocating turning the other cheek. But the hypocrisy of these companies can be highlighted without making it a "do as we want or we'll boycott you" thing.

Maybe I'm being too idealistic, but I actually think making it explicit that that *wasn't* the message would strengthen our argument. It makes it clear who the bullies are.

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May 4, 2022·edited May 4, 2022

With respect, I do think this is—not “too” idealistic, perhaps, but naïvely so. These corporations only understand one thing, $$$. It’s not so much “do as we want” as “don‘t do as *they* want or we’ll boycott you.” Not to bully or coerce but to counterbalance the bullying and coercion on the other side. Understand, I feel pulled toward your position, too; as I said, I’m truly ambivalent about it.

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I have a different feeling about empathy -- I believe it's a renewable resource that is always within our power to rekindle. It gets ground down by the exhausting online gladiator arena that rewards the most inflammatory and hostile posts. But we can resist the erosion of a very foundational impulse that holds society together. I wrote an article about this recently, curious what you make of it, Steve. https://wagingnonviolence.org/2022/04/transcend-trumpism-we-must-tend-to-suffering-not-celebrate-it/

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"I have a different feeling about empathy -- I believe it's a renewable resource that is always within our power to rekindle."

Hmm, yeah interesting! I read your piece, and think maybe you're conflating empathy with compassion, whereas I'm conflating it with sympathy. I'm not sure if one or both or neither of us is right to do that.😄

But either way, I agree with you that empathy can be rekindled. It's just that there are times where it will be at a low ebb, let's say. Especially towards people who we feel are out to get us. It's those times when holding to our principles can keep us on the right path.

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Ah yes, the perennial empathy/sympthay/compassion dilemma -- I've given up trying to distinguish them LOL!

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I'm not Steve, but I read and enjoyed your article, at least the Nhat Hanh compassion part. Disclosure: I am a marginal flawed Buddhist. I am not a fan of partisan "them bad, us good", but I'll let that slide except to say that I found it distracting.

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Was it the part of the article about the Christian Right that you didn't like?

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There was no specific dislike. I tend to react negatively to things strongly partisan. It makes no difference which party it is aimed at. You were not totally without balance, I liked your article, and I agreed with much of what you wrote. Generally, when the word Democrat or Republican appears, broad brush demonization of a whole political party and its people will follow. I don't view people in a monolithic way. I know good people associated with [both] who don't deserve lump demonization. A knee-jerk response. I should not have mentioned it.

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Apr 30, 2022Liked by Steve QJ

It's a fascinating problem, isn't it? Kind of a soft sort of double bind - damned if you do, damned if you don't, and doubly damned if you talk about it.

For myself, I take some care to spend my hard-earned dosh with companies whose ethics I like, so that means not the big A and mostly local shops where I can. And I don't mind talking about it, in general & in particular - I really don't mind suggesting that people use Amazon as a catalogue service but spend their money elsewhere.

In the UK, the whole cancel culture thing is a bit different to the one in the US. Most of the people complaining they've been "cancelled" seem to be able to make sure we all hear about it, loud & clear, which is sort of odd, when you think about it. People like Nigel Farage & Piers Morgan, for example.

I'm just waiting for our wretched prime minister to complain that he's being cancelled because his popularity ratings are in the mid 20s... He really is getting more like Trump every week.

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May 3, 2022·edited May 3, 2022Author

"I'm just waiting for our wretched prime minister to complain that he's being cancelled because his popularity ratings are in the mid 20s."

Ugh, Boris...😅

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I think we need to distinguish "exhaustion of empathy as a finite resource" ("I would like to empathize but I'm used up") from affective polarization ("I despise the other side because their disagreement makes them immoral").

Is the well temporarily dry from overuse (which can be renewed with time), or has the well been poisoned (much harder to fix)?

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First thought. We need to distinguish between, for example, asking corporations to stop jumping into culture war issues, versus asking them to jump in but only on our side.

I think we can choose "I will not be using your services if you are turning into a propaganda machine for either side of a divisive issue (versus say, a news organization or entertainment company or school or widget factory)", versus "I will boycott you unless you turn into a propaganda machine for my side".


The harder part is doing the same if the institution is biased towards our own side.

But while that would be good, even being silent about a company taking our side, and withdrawing support from one taking the other side, could be net helpfu - IF both sides were doing that. That is, in this case, the optimal course would be for the company to be neutral as an acceptable non-punished option for both sides, while taking a side was punished by the one side and ignored by the other.

I think of Disney World. I doubt that their jumping into politics will provide a sustained and substantial number of additional visits from the favored side, while it will result in sustained alienation from customers on the other side. Business is better if both sides feel welcome to visit (neutrality).

However, today's reality is that there are many who are trying to coerce institutions to take their side and threatening to punish neutrality as immoral or betrayal.

Often this is coming from employees rather than customers.

This is where I feel a lot of ambivalence. At one level, I think that employees trying to get their employer to manifest their own values is a very legitimate bottom-up democratic force. On the other side, I see where that approach leads and don't like it (no matter which side said employees are on). I may not resolve this internal conflict soon.

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