The article starts out as many do in the wake of publicly-felt grief: by asking how we can show so much grief after the death of a celebrity or an animal, but when presented with evidence of mass killings, genocides or systematic oppression, we don’t speak up at all? A fair enough question and I myself have asked it. Why did Kurt Cobain’s suicide destroy me, while I barely acknowledge 16,000 children who die of starvation every day? What makes us hone in on specific deaths while we ignore millions more? Are we just heartless? Do we lack compassion? Is it racially fuelled? Privilege-based bias? What makes the single death of someone or some being we never knew so much more gutting than the knowledge that hundreds of thousands die in worse conditions every day?
Salon’s article, titled, The limits of white compassion: Imagine if Black lives mattered as much as one gorilla’s, suggests white people have trouble feeling compassion for those of another colour skin. While the article itself doesn’t really expand on that, the headline is pretty clear: there are limits to white people’s compassion because we seem to care more about the death of a gorilla than we do the lives of humans with darker skin. There are limits to our compassion because we feel these highly publicized deaths of animals and celebrities so much more than we do the plight of millions.
When I was 16, I sat in my art class, shading the bead necklace on the Chief of some great, lost nation, and the radio stopped mid-Green Day’s Basket Case, to tell us Kurt Cobain had shot and killed himself. I stumbled home from art class, heartbroken, forgetting to stop at my locker; just lugging home my sketchbook and pencils. I trudged into my kitchen, flicked on MuchMusic news and sat, perched on a stool taking in the reports while tears streamed down my cheeks. I began to scribble in my artbook, and without even realizing I had, I’d drawn him. I spent the weekend in bed, utterly miserable.
I spent years after that, trying to figure out why his death had affected me this way. Why had it been so painful for me, while the news reports every night spoke of genocide, war, and gang violence? Why Kurt? Why not the millions of kids who had died since Kurt had? I spent countless hours deep in thought over this. Long after I’d stopped wearing my Nirvana shirts; far beyond the days I’d watch Unplugged on repeat; well past those nights I used to fall asleep to Something In The Way. It bothered me why my psyche would latch onto this one man and feel the loss of him more deeply than the loss of anyone else I’d never met.
It took a long time to figure it out. It took a long time to understand why my mind seemed to betray common sense. Eventually, I did though. Eventually, I began to understand.
The drawing I did in a daze…
Kurt was one man. He was a face, with specific features that I could recognize. He expressed emotion that made me feel; I related to his face as it contorted in pain shrieking the lyrics to Where Did You Sleep Last Night. I connected to his striking blue eyes, and my chest would twist with uncontrollable empathy watching him spew Aneurysm like he was confessing to a murder. He was one person. I was one person. The two of us were built to connect to individuals. We were built to recognize emotion in another person’s face, we were built to feel empathy. I felt the loss of Kurt because he’d made me feel something. I felt the loss of Kurt because I’d felt his presence when he was alive. He’d given me something. Maybe it wasn’t tangible, and maybe it wasn’t as important as the things my family and friends gave me, but he’d still given me something and occupied a space in my life and now that space was empty.
I wrote about this when Robin Williams died: It’s not the same sort of grief you feel over the loss of a loved one. It’s more about the passing of time, the process of getting older. When we mourn people like Robin Williams or Prince or Kurt Cobain, it’s about mourning an era more than it is about mourning the actual person. It’s about feeling the loss of our childhood or of our adolescence. We are reminded that you can’t go back. You’ll never be sitting on your Mom’s lap watching Mork & Mindy again; and you’ll never discover that first artist who truly made you feel again; you’ll never be six years old dancing with your Dad to Little Red Corvette again. When these individual faces that we recognize as well as the back of our hands, who’ve expressed themselves such that we truly and deeply feel what they’re saying, when they disappear, you feel all those memories rush back. You feel the loss of that era they represented. You feel the effect of time passing, and not being able to go back.
When animals, like Cecil the lion and Harambe the gorilla are killed by humans, it’s an entirely different story. We mourn the animals, not because they represent our childhood or because they are symbolic of time passing, but rather because they don’t understand what’s going on. Like a child, they’re driven by their instinctual impulses rather than by weighing the consequences. They’re operating on biology rather than empathy or compassion or reason or logic, and they don’t have much choice in the matter. They’re built to behave in certain ways, and as hard as we’ve tried, we can’t eliminate those instincts from the vast majority of wild animals.
When the state considers whether or not to allow the death penalty to be carried out in each case, one of the most important factors they take into consideration is the defendant’s ability to understand what’s going on. There’s something about us humans that makes the idea of someone or something being killed without understanding why simply devastating. It’s cruel. It’s beyond cruel in our minds and when we see someone or something put to death without grasping, at all, why this is happening to them, it’s so much more difficult for us to accept. A gorilla or a lion doesn’t have the ability to understand right from wrong as humans define each. They don’t have the opportunity to correct their behaviour. They have no ability to make a better choice and choose to live. They’re utterly helpless, completely innocent creatures that we’ve decided to lock up in a cell and just slaughter when we make a mistake.
It’s not that we feel the gorilla’s life is more important than anyone else’s, it’s simply that killing something that had no chance at understanding what he’d done wrong, feels awful. It feels extra cruel. It’s a feeling that’s hard to get past. Especially when we set the animal up to fail in the first place.
Yes, millions of people die every day. Lots of people die at the hands of authorities we feel we should be able to trust. Many people die in cruel and unusual circumstances, but “lots of people” is not a face we can connect with, nor is it an unknowing creature just operating by instinct with no chance of understanding the situation. As I said in my piece about Robin Williams, we do not connect with crowds, we connect with individuals. We mourn the deaths of individual humans or animals out of empathy. When it comes to crowds, though, we must use reason, because empathy is a one-on-one phenomenon. Its very definition is the ability to recognize feelings and emotions in another individual. Not crowds.
This is a limitation of human compassion. It’s not a limitation of caucasian compassion, but Salon would have you believe otherwise. Their headline cannot be misconstrued: my compassion is limited because I am white. In the comments of that post, someone said,
…telling people who believe they are the good guys that they too fall short of what it means to be a compassionate empathetic human being will outrage them as much if not more so than confronting conservative racist.
There is a reason for that outrage. The title of the post clearly says “The limits of white compassion” as though lower levels of compassion is a condition that afflicts all white people.
As a white person who isn’t even a citizen of the USA, I’ve fought against the mass incarceration there that affects mostly minorities and the wrongful convictions that affect almost entirely minorities. I’ve befriended and watched the deaths be carried out of minority men on death row who may not actually be guilty, but who just couldn’t afford a decent lawyer. I’ve fought and fought and fought, through the anguish of watching good people die and watching families have to relive horrific crimes because insensitive cops got it wrong the first time around. I’ve written to my vast audience and changed minds about this epidemic. I’ve fought on campaigns to free specific men such as Troy Davis and Tookie Williams, despite the fact that each ended with me sobbing uncontrollably in the arms of my white, Canadian husband. In my life and with my efforts, I’ve raised funds and awareness that have resulted in eliminating the death penalty in several states. I’ve raised a loud enough uproar to free one man in particular, while I helped on the campaigns that successfully freed many others.
This is not a choice. This is a condition. I can’t stop. I think about it every day, and it brings me to tears nearly as much.
The funny thing is, in all my time obsessed with the issues related to incarceration in the U.S., all the other activists I’ve met and gotten to know were white, save for about two. Only a handful of them were even Americans. I met white germans, white Swedes, white Danes, white Aussies and New Zealanders, white fellow Canadians and white Americans. I don’t think white compassion is any different from black compassion. There is human compassion and that’s all.
You’ve asserted, Salon, that my whiteness limits my compassion. Considering all that I’ve done in my life, including working with addicts in recovery and volunteering at many other worthy nonprofits that deal with social issues, on top of my work with prison issues, I want to know how much more Chelsey Shannon, the author of the piece in question, thinks non-white people care about and act upon than I do. What, on top of what I’ve already done, would I have to do so Chelsey thinks my compassion is not limited? Further, I’d love to know what Chelsey herself has done in her life to better the lives of others because I think to be perched so comfortably way up there on her high horse, she must have done some seriously amazing stuff.
It’s clear Salon is not here to improve the human condition. It’s clear Salon has no interest in informing us, nor in bringing us together, nor cultivating more compassion in more people about the many issues that deserve our attention. It’s clear, rather, that Salon is here to divide. They’re throwing raw meat on a dog fight and catching a stiffy when we bare our teeth at each other. They don’t care about black lives; they don’t care about white lives; they don’t care about animal lives; they don’t care about any lives at all. What they want is to watch us rip each other’s throats open while they cash in on your baited clicks.
The limits of white compassion are the very same limits of black compassion, of Asian compassion, of Hispanic compassion and every other sort of human compassion. Those limits though, those limits of human compassion don’t even come close to comparing to the deficit in Salon’s compassion, because Salon just doesn’t seem to have any compassion at all.