Empathy, Explanation, and Tagging

After the horrifying string of murders around Atlanta, we’ve seen demonstrations and statements against “Asian hate.” With reported hate crimes, large and small, against people of Asian appearance, on the rise in the last year and a half, no decent person can fail to join the “Stop Asian hate” campaign. I hope I may be excused for taking a closer interest in it.

“Stop Asian Hate.” Of course. (However, I don’t like the phrase “Asian Hate” because it is syntactically ambiguous and inert.) If taken as meaning “oppose the violence done to people just because they are Asian,” the slogan is compelling but it undercounts a lot of factors. It’s a tempting explanation in some ways, because it says to the pharmacist, the hedge-fund manager, the architect, the cowgirl, the life coach, the florist, who are of Asian descent, that whoever they are, recent immigrant or sixth-generation American, white-collar professional or minimum-wage laborer, they are liable to be attacked in public on grounds of appearance alone, that they are all equal in the face of this violence and that they must band together. That’s a powerful adhesive. But in its admirable universality it disregards a lot of things that I think are more significant actuators of the violence and so blocks us from figuring out what is going on (and thus, what to do about it).

Statisticians, start counting: when and where are incidents of aggression against Asian people committed? Who perpetrates them? If state databases don’t recognize the category of anti-Asian hate crime, then reconstruct it on whatever basis you can. And then, analysts of narratives and concepts, it’s your turn to examine each case and figure out what are the stakes and the apparent motives.

The Atlanta spa murders crystallized a pre-existing unease. Whatever had been reported as scattered, nonspecific anecdote now had gripping narrative and visual form. Nobody could deny that there was such a thing as “Asian hate.” Movements and statements now organized themselves around the murders, which became, rather than aberrant, typical. The White House condemned the acts and the bias that led to them (what a relief, after four years of infamy). But just how the repetition of slogans and arguments invokes those deaths — that calls for a closer diagnostic. I fear that, as usual in America, we use “race” and sometimes gender to forestall discussion of class.*

What led up to those eight deaths, it seems to me, is a perfect cocktail of the things that make life in this country painful–for immigrants and visible minorities, first of all, but for everybody else too. Punitive religion, racial hierarchy, sexism, inequality of life chances, the helplessness of people in economically or legally subordinated positions, and easy access to firearms: these combined to give a young man reason to drive around the suburbs shooting people in Asian-labeled massage parlors. He was arrested, not soon enough but at least before he could do more damage, and the speculation started up instantly about his motives. I’ll come back to the visibility of that speculation below.

A lot of people are impatient to have those murders designated a hate crime.

My standard hunch is that things never have just one cause. It’s an overlay of causes that makes a thing happen at the time, place, and in the way that it does. Let’s go over the list of enabling factors. The explanation by “Asian hate” offers racism as the cause. But does anybody get up in the morning (or step away from the bar after too many beers) and say “I’m going to go hate on some Asians today”? I don’t think it’s so simple. People who are full of anger and resentment look for some target of their rage, and it’s always a narrative that they hear which channels their antipathy toward some target. “The Chinese took manufacturing jobs away” or “Japan destroyed the US car industry” or “The Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor” or “Our boys died in Vietnam” or simply “Those people don’t belong here” will do. The important thing is to accept a story that will assign blame for one’s troubles to someone else, and thus legitimate harming or insulting those considered “at fault.” And we’ve heard a lot of such stories in the past few years. A major American industry consists in the fabrication of such narratives. It siphons off a big piece of the national product that might otherwise be used for fighting disease, exploring space, or making cities habitable.

So a racist narrative that designates a group (encompassing about one-third of humanity) as the deserving target of violence is in place. Add a further narrative arc that informs the confused man that lust is sinful and that the women who are the objects of one’s lust are responsible for it. If those women, or others like them, ever assuaged the guy’s desire, the metaphorical framing of sex obsession as an “addiction” makes their activity not a service, or a therapy, but something akin to drug-pushing: if he’s hooked, it’s their fault. And if they are working in a role that only people at the bottom of the social ladder are willing to take on, a role that gives them little voice, respect, or means of self-defense, the conditions are in place for, at the very least, abuse and bullying. And let’s not forget about the guns, for sale in every one-horse town in Georgia. TV and movies are always telling us that if you have troubles, you can just shoot your way out of them.

Somebody with all this fantasy life going on inside his head, if not restrained by care for others or concern for his conscience (the narratives I’ve enumerated above conveniently exempt one from both), is a time bomb ready to go off. Now how are we going to unwire the time bomb?

We might make placards and chants, in hopes of convincing others that treating Asians badly is wrong. (Obviously, it is, and recent statistical trends give a reason for emphasizing this group of potential victims.) We might add hate-crime riders to the existing statutes. (How effective have such riders been?) Better, in my view, would be to take on the blame-narratives and the situation of inequality, both of which emboldened the murderer, and the punitive view of sexual relations, which seems to have bestowed on ordinary horniness the specious dignity of a struggle between good and evil. So there’s some work for those of us who write, speak, preach, and legislate: rather than inveigh against “Asian hate,” take on the lies and distortions that enable it. And most of all, make it harder for susceptible people to get guns.

Having spent this time imagining what was in that guy’s head, I now feel I need a double whiskey or a long walk. Yeck. And it occurs to me that my effort may be considered by some people “part of the problem.” For, as those who’ve been following the story will remember, there was an inequality of attention given to perpetrator and victims. A sheriff at the press conference said that the murderer had had a “bad day,” and people pounced on that as evidence that the killer was considered worthy of empathy and those killed were not. Perhaps. It was definitely a stupid thing for the sheriff to say, although, other things being equal, we would probably all be in favor of criminal suspects being treated with empathy**. And the sheriff, having just taken down his confession, had a lot of information whereby to represent the guy’s mental state; in contrast, nothing much was yet known about the victims, not even all their names. Their stories ought to be told, how they got to be where they were on that day and what options they had had in life, if progress is to be made in the creation of empathy for people too often treated as instruments or conveniences.

* Not being a Marxist, I take “class” loosely to designate the system of constraints, opportunities, and positions that define our social and economic life. And while I’m at it, let me insist on seeing class as a process that unrolls in time, not a category.

** Georgia practices the death penalty. I have no liking for the murderer, but I like executions even less.