Sympathizing with yourself, or with those exactly like you, is not the laudable exercise of virtue that some seem to imagine it being, but ordinary selfishness disguised as morality. The trick is to have compassion for those different from yourself.
That’s much harder.
None of this was in mind last week when an old pal showed up at the newspaper shepherding two dozen Canadian college students: bright, attentive multi-cultural kids bristling with enthusiasm.
Then I spoke.
In my defense, I had asked my friend: What should I talk about?
“Just be you,” he replied. Bad advice.
This being Chicago, I figured, start with corruption. Start with Ed Burke, the lion of the City Council, accused by the feds of trying to jam his hand too far up the goose to clutch at yet another golden egg.
“The scandal is what’s legal,” I said. They nodded. Condemnation is good.
But finding fault in others, like lavishing sympathy on yourself, is too easy. The media is also part of a compromised system, I continued, influenced by proximity and the need for access.
Everything was swimming along. Maybe a bit dull, because my pal offered an idea:
“Tell them about Barack Obama calling you from Africa,” he said.
Sure! He had called to complain about something I wrote. I eagerly told the story, blundering into the briar patch of race, gender, and class. I could see them souring, one by one. The more I tried to twist free, to extricate myself, the deeper I sank.
Afterward, a few wouldn’t pose with me for a group photo. As if I were radioactive.
Later, I asked my friend what had bothered the students most.
I had, he replied, described women who stood on Cicero Avenue and exchanged sex for money as “hookers.” And newborns scourged by cocaine as “crack babies.” Instead of, I assume, ”sex workers” and, geez, I don’t know, “babies with special needs due to in utero narcotic use” or some such thing.
The famous “cancel culture” we’ve heard so much about. One strike and you’re out. Big among college youth, trying to fight bigotry by unconsciously imitating its methods.
A bigot dismisses all qualities of a person based on one quality he finds damning. Thus Obama, a conscientious leader and laudable person who rescued our cratering economy and provided access to health care for millions is condemned utterly because ... well, they never come out and say it, do they?
Meanwhile, liberals leap to articulate every specific perceived sin: a speaker, say me, has crossed some line, whether using the word “hooker” or admitting that he himself, like every other human being alive, has biases he struggles to overcome. Rather than being welcomed as refreshing candor, this zeroes out his value as a person and negates anything he might say.
After they left, I felt bad. Like I had done something wrong. By being me. That night I was staring into the dark.
“I’ll be right back,” I told my wife, hopping up.
I sent an email to my student contact.
“I wanted to tell you that I am sorry for how badly my talk went today,” it began. “I apologize for dropping the ball.”
The next morning I hoped for some palliative word back. Nothing. Of course not. I was beyond the pale of humanity. I struggled to find an upside. At least the students hadn’t taken to Twitter to denounce me as a bigot. No demands that my boss “de-platform” me—deny the evil old white guy the megaphone he’s had since before they were born. At least I didn’t return their scorn. Frankly, I sympathize. “For last year’s words belong to last year’s language,” T.S. Eliot writes. “And next year’s words await another voice.” I get that.
The thing is, this is the only voice I have. I’m stuck with it. 59. Old enough to remember a song from the rock musical “Hair” called “Easy to Be Hard.” The first two stanzas wonder how people can be so cold. The third begins:
“Especially people who care about strangers/Who care about evil and social injustice.”
So nothing new. People across the spectrum try to make themselves feel better by pouring contempt on those they consider beneath them. That doesn’t strike me as a recipe for improving the world.