Dear Twitter: FWIW, this is how you spell “democracy”: EMPATHY


(Image totally stolen from here. Thanks?)

When I caught the story of the mass shooting yesterday (and yes, I know, in my country, we need to specify which mass shooting yesterday, so I mean the mass shooting of Republican congressmen in Virginia, not the one in San Francisco, or any of the other 154 that have happened so far this year), I immediately feared what turned out to be true — that some crazy had targeted a group of politicians because of their politics. And so saddened by all that meant, I tweeted an expression of condolence:

For me, the phrase “we are all _____ today” ties forever to 9/11. Of all the reactions to the horror of that day, the one that moved me the most were rallies around the world — especially by people who otherwise don’t like us at all—standing with us, in empathy. That empathy didn’t say “we agree with you.” It said, “this is not how humans treat humans.”

That is precisely the empathy that I felt yesterday. Though I was once a Republican when I was a kid, I am now as fierce a critic of the leadership of the Republican Party as any. Beginning with the man who broke Congress, Newt Gingrich, I believe the GOP leadership is responsible for every terrible innovation that has crippled Congress (though, in fairness, the Democrats have quickly followed their lead). Gingrich transformed the job of a Congressman into the job of a fundraiser, sucking up to great power and wealth. His party turned the idea of “impeachment” into partisan war by other means. What that party did during the Obama administration was outrageous. What they did to Merrick Garland was constitutionally criminal. And the refusal (of almost all of them) to stand up to the disaster that is Trump will be remembered as one of the greatest acts of moral cowardice and political weakness in the history of democracy anywhere.

But what happened yesterday is not how humans treat humans. Whatever their views, it is barbarically wrong to answer difference with death. And when a crazy person does as that crazy person did on a baseball field in Virginia, we should all stand as one and condemn that barbaric act. Not because we agree with the victims of the crime, but because we so emphatically disagree with violence as speech.

Those words strike me as so true as to be banal. Who could possibly disagree with that?

Well, it turns out, the ever-amazing Twitter can.

As I went to bed last night, I was cued by an email from a friend to the tweet-storm my banality had triggered. Here’s just a sample. This search will give you the full pull.

In the almost decade since I joined Twitter, nothing I have ever tweeted has ever triggered a reaction as extreme as these 46 characters did. But every other time that something I tweeted did evoke such anger, in the end, I came to agree with the anger, and believe I had made a mistake.

Not this time, Twitter. No, this time, Twitter, the mistake is yours.

This reaction is not just “party over country.” It is “party over humanity.” And somehow, the technology has helped to bring us to this place. For all the incredible sophistication that our advanced culture has given us, it has somehow become too difficult for people to express the idea — hey, your views are backwards and wrong, and they will cause great harm to millions as well as the planet, but I am sorry that your kind was slaughtered by a madman (165 characters!). Or more precisely, what the technology has done is prime us to tribalism first—the need to scream with every passing event, “hey, I’m still with us and I still hate them.” Understanding or empathy is too complicated for this medium. What if someone thinks by expressing sorrow for slaughter, I actually don’t believe #BlackLivesMatter? What if my empathy gets confused with my being soft on global warming deniers?

Democracy is the technology we have for living with people with whom we disagree. That technology needs norms. One of those norms is treating others decently. Decency includes the capacity to understand and to empathize. Without that capacity, we cannot be democrats. Not “democrats” as in “versus Republicans.” But “democrats” as in people who believe and practice the project of democracy.

Maybe this is why the brilliant Ev Williams, who helped give us Twitter, has now taken up the project of Medium. I so hope he is successful. But I fear that the 77,747 impressions (and reactions) my hashtag has evoked so far (and yes, there’s a utility for calculating that) will overwhelm the few thousand who would ever read this far into a post.

That saddens me. Too. We are #AllRepublicansToday, because we must #AllBecomeSmallDdemocrats again.

It may not be possible. But we have to try. Schadenfreude should never be an American word. It should especially not be a Twitter word — and not just because it is 9.3% of the length of a tweet (and yes, there’s a utility for calculating that too). It is only a word of the weak and cowardly.

Weakness is not what we need now. We need strength — not just to defeat Republicans at the ballot box, but more importantly, to rebuild the possibility of a democracy again.

Leave a Reply