What If Readers Are Learning the Wrong Lessons From My Writing?
Nafissa Thompson-Spires on Race, Empathy, and the Ethics of Satire
Ten years ago, when I was writing my doctoral dissertation about US and Canadian television aesthetics, I found a surprising conversation about an episode of 7th Heaven on a TV.com message board. In the episode, “Who Nose,” a kid gets hooked on huffing, sniffing spray paint fumes, and convinces good-boy Simon Camden to do the same. Of course, Eric, the minister father intervenes. The forum—which, sadly, no longer exists—was called something like “I learned how to huff from 7th Heaven,” and in it, viewers claimed they had never heard of huffing; some of them even took the episode as an opportunity to potentially experiment with getting high this way. Around the same time, US teen network, the N (now called Teen Nick) censored several episodes of Degrassi: The Next Generation after Canadian middle-school kids copied the behaviors of troubled teen, Ellie, a cutter.
Let’s—at least for the sake of argumentation by way of example—take these people’s justifications for their decisions seriously. What I gleaned from each of these incidents is the idea that all narrative, didactic or not, has the potential to “teach the wrong lessons.” If a series as sanctimonious as 7th Heaven or as intentionally “teachable” as Degrassi could inadvertently encourage huffing or cutting, then what of texts that use humor to do so? Might literature run similar risks? And what about satirical literature in particular?
I’ve been thinking a lot—as the publication date for my forthcoming collection approaches—about the ethics of writing and the empathy gap. Several of my stories are irreverent and darkly funny. They tackle suicide attempts, police brutality, fat-shaming, fetishes, and a host of other potentially problematic issues, and they do so often from a satirical lens.
During the revision process and now that the book is out of my hands, I have worried about whether people will inadvertently learn “the wrong lessons” from my attempts at problematizing social and identity constructs. Will I teach someone to huff or murder his mother, or in this case reify racist, sexist, ableist, or fetishistic gazes instead of challenging them? Will my closeup lens on microagressions demonstrate how to get away with them rather than why we must recognize and avoid them? Will readers empathize with the villains instead of the survivors?
The latter question received a resounding “yes, sometimes” during the Q&A after a reading I recently gave of my story “Belles Lettres.” In this epistolary story, two black mothers exchange nasty letters about their respective daughters, the only two black girls in their class at a predominantly white private school. An Asian-American man in the audience said he had read all the stories in my collection that feature the two girls (Fatima and Christinia) and knew he was supposed to identify with the seemingly more victimized character, Fatima, but that he was most empathetic to her bully, Christinia. “Christinia had been the only one for so long that it makes sense that she would treat Fatima that way,” he said. “I actually felt sorrier for her than for Fatima.” I wanted the story to show how internalized white supremacy can eek out into the way black people treat each other, but he instead found a justification for bullying.
“Satire is difficult to write because literalists exist, and it’s especially difficult when one of its goals is social commentary, the work of creating or encouraging empathy.”
More striking was the question of a white man in the same audience, who said. “Your story showed me that there’s prejudice and bigotry on both sides.” By both sides, he clearly meant that the black women in the story were being “bigots.” He then asked me to explain my position on what amounted to reverse racism. I responded by making it clear that reverse racism doesn’t exist and that racism and prejudice are two entirely different concepts. Prejudice can be universal, but racism involves institutions and structures as well as casual, everyday behaviors, and it can only be enacted from a position of power (basic Sociology 101 stuff). He seemed disappointed by my answer. Somehow he had taken the humor and satire in my story as an opportunity to engage me in his problematic thinking. He—and to a lesser degree the questioner before him—had taken the wrong “lesson” away from my work.
I’m especially attuned to the potential for demonstrating the wrong ideas in the advanced undergraduate fiction workshop I’m teaching. Called “It’s Kind of a Funny Story,” the class explores the ethics of comedy, particularly satire. We work through several philosophies of humor, from superiority theory to incongruity theory, and settle on the idea of the benign violation—that humor always comes from violating some expected norm, but that the violation must be perceived as benign, or the joke veers into offensiveness.
We’ve talked a lot about what’s off limits (Hitler, sexual assault) and the importance of aiming upwards with our satire. A white cis-het able man should not be making fun of a black trans woman living with disabilities, but should instead focus on his fellow white men; conversely, the black woman with disabilities may fairly take aim at everyone perceived as “above” her in our problematic social stratification. Several of my white students have chosen to write stories that satirize the beliefs of their own communities, white “well-meaning” liberals, Confederacy apologists, and rightly so, often successfully. But when one of their stories fails, it’s because the satire might be easily mistaken for realism. That’s when the guy trying to think through sexism accidentally reinforces it. Satire is difficult to write because literalists exist, and it’s especially difficult when one of its goals is social commentary, the work of creating or encouraging empathy.
Researchers have found that comedy can create empathy by disarming people and drawing them closer together. But the comedic form also runs the risk of being “funny but socially irresponsible,” as Dave Chappelle says of his own work and his 2005 decision to walk away from a $50 million deal with Comedy Central (Chappelle still, it is worth noting, has a way to go with creating socially responsible comedy instead of rehashing the transphobia evident in his latest Netflix special). But he raises an important point.
In his 2006 interview with Oprah, he talks about his good intentions in using satire to address racism but bumping up against people who were laughing “in such a way. . . that I was uncomfortable.” During the rehearsal of a proposed sketch on a blackface pixie, the “visual personification of the N-word,” Chappelle saw a person on set laughing at him instead of with him: “There was a good spirit or intention behind [the sketch]. . . There’s a lot of people who understand exactly what I’m doing. Then there’s another group. . . [who] will get something completely different. . . ”
Oprah concurs, explaining her initial decision to film an episode about KKK members—“My idea,” she says, “was that I was exposing some of their atrocities”—and her subsequent regrets over her choice: During a commercial break, a man off set raised a fist in solidarity to another white supremacist in the audience. “What I was trying to do was being interpreted by some people the wrong way, and I realized in that moment that I was doing more to empower them than to expose them,” Oprah recounts. She concludes that by “giving these people a voice,” she was potentially doing more harm than good, and she chose then not to ever do another episode like that.
“I write instead, like a growing number of my contemporaries, from the philosophy that the more we see black suffering, the less some of us feel its reality.”
Chappelle notes that as a comedian there isn’t necessarily an expectation that he should be socially responsible, yet, he says, “I’m not absolving myself of being socially responsible.” I’m not a comedian—though I sort of wish I were—and I’m not sure that all art must intervene in ethical questions. But I do feel that my own art, my fiction, must carry that imperative. Whether it’s a holdover from respectability politics or the condition of being black in this world, I feel compelled to write stories that disrupt, problematize, and reimagine, and that do so ethically. Both Chappelle and Winfrey rearticulate the problem I have proposed at the outset of this essay: Neither the intentionally didactic realism of the 7th Heaven or Oprah talkshow variety, or the satire of Chappelle’s variety exists without the risk of reestablishing the very thing it attempts to challenge.
In my own fiction, just as in my classroom, I have made certain topics and approaches off limits. I wanted to write about racism in ways that didn’t bolster it. I wanted to address, for example, police brutality without also creating more black-suffering porn. So I work from the idea that the sight of dead black bodies—on the news, in my newsfeed, across the street surrounded by yellow tape and lit by police sirens—does not create empathy. It may evoke empathy in those who are inclined to feel it, but it cannot create empathy. If the images could move all of us, then why are there so many of them? If recognition of black suffering were the key to empathy and thereby a key to antiracism, anti-hegemony, anti-capitalism, would we need so many films about slavery?
I write instead, like a growing number of my contemporaries, from the philosophy that the more we see black suffering, the less some of us feel its reality (and by us, I don’t mean myself or other black people; I mean them, those people who are not inclined towards looking at black lives empathetically). Susan Sontag says that overexposure to images anesthetizes us to their effects. We, they, you turn away from those Feed the Children commercials or the sound of Sarah McLachlan’s “Arms of an Angel” playing over images of three-legged dogs, because we’ve/you’ve seen enough those images for a lifetime. I’ve seen enough black suffering for a lifetime, too.
So how does one tell stories that expose black suffering without dwelling on it? How can one, at that, use slippery, undependable satire to explore the depths of persistent inequality without contributing to anesthetization?
I’m still figuring this out, but for now, I take two approaches: self-conscious (often meta) narration and avoiding any graphic details. In my fiction, the violence of police brutality occurs “off screen” without lingering descriptions or superfluous close-up shots, telling but not showing, because showing hasn’t historically worked. My meta-narrator directly addresses audiences and their expectations, their potential critiques, concluding in my story “Heads. . . ”: “I couldn’t draw the bodies,” for what is black storytelling but “sketching the same pain over and over, wading through so much flesh trying to draw new conclusions?” The narrator even asks readers to draw those images for themselves: “And you should fill in for yourself the details of that shooting as long as the constants (unarmed men, excessive force, another dead body, another dead body) are included in those details.” I address the absurdity of the expectation of suffering in the first place, reveal my narrator’s unwillingness to do it, and thereby attempt to intervene in the production of more violence porn.
And I’m thinking, always, about the limits of my own responsibility. I want my fiction to help bridge the clear empathy gap that exists in this world, but I recognize that that’s too much for me to take on. It’s helpful to recognize that readers like the two I encountered during my Q&A will always exist, and I can’t teach everyone “the right lessons.” It’s both disconcerting and comforting to know that so many skilled writers and artists before me have tried and failed; it wasn’t their fault either. The bar—the expectation that black art must be both revelatory and transformative, responsible, empathy-inducing—has always been to high; perhaps that’s why we keep walking into it.