There’s an argument about whether Melania Trump’s faux-combat jacket emblazoned with “I REALLY DON’T CARE DO U” is a distraction or a revelation or whether it’s about anything other than the immigrant kids she was there to visit. Without bothering to decide who—her, her team, her husband’s Ministry of Truth—decided to clad her in the statement and how it applies to that one situation, you can take it as the fundamental policy statement of the current Republican Party of the United States. Not caring is the center of their ideology, and it’s what’s at work in the alt right, where you can see the adolescent-boy glee of people who no longer have to be “politically correct” by refraining from hate and violence and lies. There’s a disinhibition in not caring, because the emotion of caring is inextricable from the act of caring for someone or something; the former compels the latter.
That caring can also be called love, and it often brings love in return; it has its rewards but also its terrors: of loss of being loved, of loss of the things you love. What inhibits us can better be described as what obliges us, and a Filipino climate activist friend reminded me that many people who claim they are not free to do things are really complaining that what they do has consequences; that we are connected and responsible for our acts. No one is stopping you from saying racist things; it’s just that if you choose to say them, others may choose to disagree or disassociate with you (including by firing you or withdrawing their advertising). They do that because they believe you are harming others in so doing. Americans too often imagine freedom as “freedom from”—that is, as disconnection—when it can also be “freedom to”—freedom to do, act, connect, the freedom that comes with responsibility.
Empathy enlarges us by connecting us to the lives of others, and in that is a terrible vulnerability, one that parents know intimately, terrifyingly. If something happens to someone or something you love, it hurts you too, potentially devastates you forever. The prevention of feeling is an old strategy with many tactics. There are so many ways to really not care, and we’ve seen most of them exercised energetically these last couple of years and really throughout American history. They are narrative strategies and most of them are also fundamentally dishonest.
You can come up with stories to explain why you have nothing in common with the people who suffer, even why they are not people—in this country Asian-Americans, Irish Catholics, Jews, Native Americans, African-Americans have all been demonized as nonhuman over the past 150 years. In the Third Reich, Jews were often compared to insects and exterminated in the gas chambers with the insecticide Zyklon B to make the metaphor a reality; the president’s use of the term “infest” to describe immigrants has reminded us of that metaphor.“You can come up with stories to explain why you have nothing in common with the people who suffer, even why they are not people.”
Harvard geology professor Louis Agassiz came up with the idea of separate evolution: black people and white people were not the same species, and so we owed the former nothing. This has its modern equivalents in medical myths that, for example, black people do not feel pain the same way and do not deserve the same relief from pain. It slips into the mainstream with, for example, the 2008 Vanity Fair cover that cast LeBron James as King Kong. (And Roseanne Barr was cast out of the mainstream when her show was cancelled after she compared a black woman to an ape this spring.)
The president has worked hard for years to demonize Latinos and immigrants, and though you can parse his rambling tirades and say he did not exactly say that Mexicans are rapists and immigrants are animals, his repeated juxtapositions lead that way.
CNN reported late last month:
“They’re not human beings. They’re not human beings. And this is why we call the blood-thirsty MS-13 gang members exactly the name I used last week,” Trump said.
“What was the name?” he asked.
“Animals,” the crowd responded.
MS-13 is indeed a very violent gang, but the president is constantly implying that all immigrants are gang members, and pretty soon immigrants = gang members = animals can be shortened to immigrants are animals, as in not human and thus not entitled to human rights.
If they’re not human, you don’t have to care about them, and you can justify them as threats and dangers and ignore their suffering.
You can come up with theories of why these bad people (or “bad hombres”) deserve what is happening to them, whether it’s the woman who was “asking for it” by being attractive or sexually active or out of the confines of her home, or pretty much every unarmed black person killed by the police, or all the cowboy movies I grew up on in which, though white people were the ones invading Native homelands, the choreography made the Indians the invaders who galloped in from the edge of the frame, with white people forever at the center of those frames.
You can claim that what is happening to them is not real. Think of the many people who insisted that one and then several and then dozens of women were lying about Bill Cosby, because that was more fun and easy than imagining the celebrity they liked was a serial rapist, or of the decades of pretending that women often lied about rape as a way to avoid facing that men often rape.
There’re the widespread conspiracy theories of the right that the school massacres at Sandy Hook and Parkland did not happen and the victims and survivors are “crisis actors,” which led to death threats and other attacks against Parkland student David Hogg. This kind of thinking has even led to claims that the immigrant children being separated from their parents are actors, which Ann Coulter made recently. You can enlarge on that to holocaust denial or the whitewashed history of North America that left out all the genocide.
A fourth strategy for not caring is to pretend that the victims are in fact the victimizers. Thus refugees become gang members, Jews become part of a sinister conspiracy, all black people are imagined as criminals and menaces, trans kids who want to go to the bathroom are imagined as sinister men menacing women, rape victims just make stuff up to get men into trouble, homeless people are not merely threatening your sense of humanity and security but are menacing you literally, and so forth. Arkansas senator Tom Cotton tweeted: “Dems’ Keep Families Together Act is better called the Child Trafficking Encouragement Act. Show up at border with a minor & call him your child, then you get released into the US! Children will be abducted & sold to drug cartels & slave-traders as a free ticket into US.” That makes the kidnapping of children and their imprisonment in our infant gulags a liberation, which is as Orwellian as it gets.“To frame the kidnapping of children and their imprisonment in our infant gulags a liberation, which is as Orwellian as it gets.”
And a fifth is to simply ignore the suffering, as we have so often done. This is done for us by news media that have done almost nothing to inform us about the horrific violence in El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala from which refugees are pouring in with their children as an alternative to being killed. And they have done almost nothing to make us understand how much of that violence issues from our own country, whether it’s our policies that created the political situation in Honduras, our boundless appetite for illicit drugs that funds and fuels Mexico’s cartels and many of the gangs, or the fact that a lot of the gangs are the result of deporting immigrants who came over as children and were corrupted by gangs that arose in the USA.
Daniel Denvir, writing in the Washington Post to criticize Jeff Sessions’ preaching of the gospel of deportation, noted:
In reality, it is U.S. foreign policy and the very sort of deportation policies Sessions embraces that have created the “horrific violence” and “lawlessness” he expresses concern about, and there’s no reason to believe that continuing these policies will do anything other than cause more harm. The gang Sessions pinpointed, Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13), was founded in Los Angeles, as was its rival, Barrio 18. Many of the youths who formed MS-13, and who joined its rival Barrio 18 (initially formed by Mexicans) had fled El Salvador as refugees as civil war ragedbetween 1980 and 1992.
…In El Salvador, the U.S.-backed government and allied death squads routinely committed human rights violations, including massacres and torture, causing a mass exodus. The Reagan administration refused to recognize that people fleeing its Cold War-era wars were refugees, however, and deported many.
The president of the United States lives in a bubble carefully tended by his handlers and reportedly gets most of his information from Fox, which practices every form of I Really Don’t Care factual distortion listed above. “The heart has its reasons,” said Blaise Pascal, and it has its own border patrols that keep out feelings and even awarenesses of others’ humanity.
I wrote in my book The Mother of All Questions:
Empathy is a narrative we tell ourselves to make other people real to us, to feel for and with them, and thereby to extend and enlarge and open ourselves. To be without empathy is to have shut down or killed off some part of yourself and your humanity, to have protected yourself from some kind of vulnerability. Silencing, or refusing to hear, breaks this social contract of recognizing another’s humanity and our connectedness.
Contemplating a book of lynching photographs published a few decades ago, I imagined the white people who brought their children and picnics to the torture scenes were celebrating their numbness, their separation. The people making or consuming rape videos and misogynist porn must be doing the same. Our humanity is made out of stories or, in the absence of words and narratives, out of imagination: that which I did not literally feel, because it happened to you and not to me, I can imagine as though it were me, or care about it though it was not me.
Thus we are connected, thus we are not separate. Those stories can be killed into silence, and the voices that might breed empathy silenced, discredited, censored, rendered unspeakable, unhearable. Discrimination is training in not identifying or empathizing with someone because they are different in some way, to believe the differences mean everything and the common humanity nothing.
Or that you have nothing in common with them. Or that they are not real. Or that they are evil. That you owe nothing to them. The right has a terrible fear of obligation they address by denying it and celebrating its opposite, the laissez-faire social-darwinist every-man-for-himself and devil-take-the-hindmost scramble.* This ideology denies how we are connected, ecologically, economically, socially, emotionally. This is an art of disassociation—literally, in the psychological sense of disconnecting from one’s own feelings. A therapist I know talks about how hollow the young men of the alt right sound, how they’re trying out a fun way to not have to care, not have to connect, not have to be responsible (you can see Incels trying out another version in their screeds in which women are in essence not human and not possessed of genuine rights or feelings.). On August 12 of last year, a man drove a car straight into a crowd of people because he disagrees with their politics and Heather Heyer dies of blunt-force injury to the chest. Another young man shoots up a school; many young men shoot up schools; an old man shoots down 51 and injures nearly 900. These bloodbaths, in which strangers are killed, are also exercises in not feeling and not connecting; they arise from disconnection and they celebrate it as a power to do whatever the hell you want, including killing people at random. The fact that guns and bullets are critical to shooting people is widely denied, and porn or “too many exits and entryways” or any other thing is blamed in the disconnection of cause and effect so that guns can continue to express the great disconnection.
But it’s also political disassociation: I owe you nothing; I have no connection to you or much of anything; my heart is a gated community; my ideology is a border patrol. It’s even a philosophical disassociation: my acts should have no consequences; cause is unhitched from effect; we will not look at how what we did impacts how they live, whether it’s emissions and the climate or foreign policy and refugees or wealth distribution via federal policy and poverty. It’s what I called the ideology of isolation a couple of years ago.
Sometimes it seems to me a better way to organize the political spectrum than along a continuum of right and left would be the ideology of disconnection versus the ideology of connection. In the short term we are working to protect the rights of immigrants and to prevent families from being torn apart at the border—and to address the relationship between our greenhouse gas emissions and the global climate, between our economic systems and poverty, between what we do and what happens beyond us, because the ideology of isolation is in part a denial of cause and effect relations, and a demand to be unburdened even from scientific fact and the historical and linguistic structures governing truth. In the long term our work must be to connect and to bring a vision of connection as better than disconnection, for oneself and for the world, to those whose ideology is “I really don’t care”—whether or not it’s emblazoned on their jackets. Somewhere in there is the reality that what we do we do for love, if it’s worth doing.
*Though the most popular strategy of the left for doing nothing, so far as I can tell, is perfectionism: “I would support it but it’s flawed, I would work with them but they are impure, I would join but they’re not good enough (so I’ve written myself a ticket to the sidelines).” It’s another form of border patrol that in pretending to keep out everything imperfect keeps out every obligation to act or even justifies tearing down those who do.