Empathy Not Found

I subscribe to a lot of Facebook groups. Some are humorous. Some are news related. Some are focused on science, technology, archeology, and history. I regularly add new groups as I discover ones that I hope will broaden my horizons. Included in that are groups from segments of our population that hold opinions highly opposed to the ones I cherish; it’s the only way to truly challenge and expand my world view.

I saw this meme earlier today. Obviously, it came from a group where highly contrasting views are commonly shared. From a purely superficial standpoint, the joke here is unambiguously straight forward and, at least superficially, funny. To be clear, I think it’s funny from a six year old’s vantage point watching Looney Toons violence “funny”. It’s also, to be clear, highly offensive as it highlights something more troublesome with memes I regularly find in these “types” of groups: a real lack of basic human empathy. Specific to this meme is the completely irrational moral comparison of people choosing their own personal pronouns and guns. Apparently strictly pro-gun folks still don’t get this so I’ll say it again: personal pronouns have never killed anyone but guns do.

I’ll be the first to admit I have my own thoughts and feelings about personal pronouns, biased by my life and experiences, that don’t necessarily align with what’s currently considered politically correct. I (strong) believe, for instance, that the term “sex” refers exclusively to our genes and genitals while “gender” is defined by culture. Long and short of that, sex is defined at birth (and in some cases isn’t as clear cut as most people believe) while gender is an arguably amorphous and every changing spectrum of ideas we as a species are always updating. This scientific view is apparently still not very PC to some (although IMHO this is more an issue promulgated by the media at large). And then there are my own experiences choosing a name with a “feminine” spelling while still living as a heterosexual man.

When I was nine years old I wanted to grow my hair out so I could look like the Gelflings in the film The Dark Crystal. I must have put off getting a hair cut for at least six months, so my hair was maybe three or four inches long by this point. That summer we were at my paternal grandmother’s house and I recall her quite clearly belittling me because I looked, “like a girl!” I was always a bit ahead of my time so it was it was immediately clear to me (especially knowing a lot of boys with hair longer than that!) that there was this thing called gender and that it could be interpreted quite differently by people of varying ages regardless of my sex. Fortunately, my sense of identity wasn’t bound to my hair length, so the repeated criticisms didn’t damage my self esteem, and eventually I was forced to get a hair cut which I shrugged off in short order.

But that’s not true for everyone and that’s one reason why, IMHO, that folks who create and share these memes just don’t get it. If how one present oneself is tied deeply to ones sense of self and others feel the need to throw spit balls at one for it, after awhile that abuse (whether acute or in the form of micro-aggressions) has a substantive negative effect on ones psyche if not ones sense of safety (and I, for one, can’t imagine being outwardly gay or trans in public without constantly looking over my shoulder for assholes ready to hole punch me). And sadly, it seems the disseminators of these memes simply don’t want to empathize; it’s more important that society conforms to their rather narrow standards for ideas of gender which–and this is crazy–can be defined anyway a culture–or individual, for that matter–wants to define it!

Yet empathy goes both ways. And it should. That’s how it works, n’est pas?

When I was in my twenties I decided, almost on whim, to change my name. The short story is I was sitting at a computer at my University and was logging into the system for the first time. It asked for a username and password. Instead of typing in my legal name I typed in “Aslynn”, the name of a character in a short story I was working on. Though I’ve never legally changed my name, from then on I started corresponding online as this Aslynn guy and not longer after started asking friends and family to refer to me as Aslynn.

I didn’t know it at the time, but I’d completely “misspelled” my name. I’d taken it from the Lion, Witch, and Wardrobe series. The “correct” spelling was Aslan (as in the lion). My chosen spelling was, well, less masculine. Doesn’t that seem weird? Yeah, so ending it with “lynn” instead of “lan” was, at least online, the equivalent of either being a woman, gay, or trans, none of which I was. As a result I’ve first hand knowledge about what it must be like for women online to regularly receive unsolicited solicitations and dick pics. Fortunately I’ve been able to just say, “Um, I’m a guy,” or ask, “Dude, have you looked at my profile?” and move on without further drama.

I digress. So I’ve been going by this moniker for over two decades both online and off. With the exception of my professional life, I nearly always introduce myself as Aslynn–but not everyone chooses to call me by this name, although one could argue this, like a personal pronoun, is my choice to make, a part of my identity I’m politely asking people to respect. But not everyone chooses to. Biological family, for example, refuses–although in-laws don’t. People who knew me growing up use my legal name. Someone I’ve met recently, by my chosen name. So there’s certainly an element relating to when someone met me that trans people can probably relate to; people find it hard to let us change too much (whatever “too much” is for them, not us!). There’s also a gender based element. My brother, for instance, can go by his full first name, the shortened version of his name, or either with or without his official title in front of it. All are acceptable by people in his circles because it doesn’t rock that Old Testament boat. Likewise, I’ve known a dozen woman who have at some point and without warning completely changed their name, say from Jennifer to Joan; people tend to go along with this quite easily. Even when a Samantha (feminine) asks to be referred to as Sam (masculine) there isn’t much in terms of push back (I assume because our society accepts the idea of “Tom” boys). Yet the moment a heterosexual man asks to be called by a potentially feminine name there’s often a moment of confusion followed by either acceptance or a lack thereof, a moment I continue to experience both online and off.

One of my personal take aways is that I cannot expect anyone to psychically know that I prefer being called Aslynn or why. I know they’re not going to know the back story or that it has absolutely nothing to do with gender (except, perhaps, that I’ve always been extremely comfortable with my feminine side). So I take personal responsibility. If I want to be called Aslynn I make the conscious effort to ask people to call me Aslynn. If people throw my legal name in my face I ask again. If I state my request three times and am ignored, I just move on. It’s not really worth it. I mean, people either respect you or they don’t, right?

More importantly, choosing this as a battle that must be won at all costs can have unintended consequences, ultimately creating more enemies than allies. People aren’t psychic. No one can be expected to know what I want to be called. The same is true for personal pronouns. So we can’t take it personally when our outward representation doesn’t match what’s currently understood culturally (because, as I’d stated, culture is amorphous and constantly changing, not to mention geological malleable). And that’s where empathy must be a two way street. When you’re on the other side of the tracks, when your idea and experience of gender is old school, well defined, and corresponds to genes and genitals–the opportunities to unintentionally offend people by using the “wrong” pronouns is an ever present thing. The new requirement of being expected to always know what someone else wants to be called–when it seemed obvious before–can be a source of constant subconscious stress.

For example, for a year or two one of the employees at the nearby grocery store was someone who was clearly of the male sex but presented as the female gender. But did “he” want to be referred to as “she”? Or “she” as “he”? Or fuck me, as “they”? I really enjoyed interacting with s/he/m, but I was anxious as hell about how I referred to s/he/m. Maybe it’s because I’m socially anxious as a general rule, but I think a lot of people can relate to this gray area where we simply want to get along with people and not make things awkward.

My point? It’s not so clear cut and empathy, regardless of ones POV, is essential. We want to be respected for our identities. We should also be considerate of other people’s limitations–especially the unsaid but obvious one that no one is omniscient.

So next time you see a meme like this, whether you’re coming from “the left” or “the right”, consider that there’s more behind it and the people sharing it–and there might be people unnecessarily being harmed by it. Laugh at the superficial joke, even if the deeper message is offensive to you. And if the meme seems like an “obvious” representation of reality, try jumping in with both feet, ask who it may have injured. There’s usually a deeper truth in there somewhere.



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