The Absence of Empathy

This post was originally written on April 11, 2017. For the contextual speech by Sean Spicer, then White House Press Secretary, see the L.A. Times Story.

When my students speak “Hitler” with smirks in class, complain about Nazi teachers, or joke about the Holocaust, it’s not because they’re ignorant. They know what happened in Nazi Germany. They didn’t forget. In fact, being in American high school, they’re likely to have had at least one major unit of study on World War II and the Holocaust within the past year or two. They may have more paragraphs of Elie Wiesel’s Night haunting them than most adults.

When my students make these Nazi-referent moves in search of humor or hyperbole, I don’t believe they’re making earnest declarations of their own anti-Semitism. I don’t believe they’re being overtly hateful. They’re embarrassed, not defiant, when they are called out. They have a sense of social sensibilities, and they know “offensive” when they’ve created it.

So why do they still do it?

I am thinking of this question today not because of any event in my classroom, but because of White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer’s asinine and offensive remarks today. His words display the kind of ugliness that make us close our eyes and shake our heads in anger.

“You have someone as despicable as Hitler, who didn’t even sink to using chemical weapons,” he says in obvious falsehood. And then, in clarifying, well– Hitler didn’t use them “on his own people.” He didn’t go in the middle of towns and drop them “on innocent people.”

Those modifying words are most telling to me — not “his own people.” Not “innocent people” (which might be better expressed as “random people”). In covering his mistaken separation of genocide and warfare, he goes around in a circle to separate the two histories once more. The acts committed by Hitler and his followers and collaborators, to Spicer’s fast-acting brain, can be distinguished as deliberately targeted against others. And because he has already cast the “Hitler” side of things as the better side, he is now in a position of justifying racial genocide. He didn’t forget. He accessed names that have hyperbolic power, and he misused that power.

This is the problem that I see. Sean Spicer and my misguided high school students know what happened. But they don’t feel it.

It’s because they don’t see literature and stories as “exhuming bodies,” in the words of Viola Davis.  It’s because they lack an awareness of their place in history, of their role, of their privilege. It’s because they see black and white, not shades of gray — much less rain-slaked skies of gray that soak all comers with the aftermath of violence and trauma. It’s because the ugly parts of history are far from the center of their minds, dismissed as past and far and buried.

This is why part of my job is to teach empathy. I don’t shy away from difficult conversations, and I teach literature about people who are different from my students (and in many cases, different from myself.) I don’t want my students to studiously avoid offending anyone. I want them to feel the offense themselves. I want them to know that when they trivialize the Holocaust or other traumatic violent events, they are doing harm. Even if they can’t see anyone in the room who might be hurt, even if the harm isn’t done to “their own people,” their words have power, and power in the absence of empathy is corruption.