At a Washington, DC, organizing conference on
Palestine, a group of dedicated activists and academics gathered
to take stock of the failure of the Oslo accords and think creatively
about new directions to guarantee democracy and human rights for
everyone in Israel and Palestine. Along with analysis of Israel's
continuing illegal occupation of the Palestinian territories,
the participants talked about missteps in the Palestinian resistance
movements as well. Such critical self-reflection is crucial if
past mistakes are to be avoided in the future struggle for justice.
At the end of a tiring but productive day, a
white male student from a nearby college rose during the discussion
period to ask a question. He said that in his class they were
being encouraged to be critical of mainstream media and the conventional
wisdom, and that he wanted to practice such critical thinking
skills in this context, too. He challenged the panel to come up
with concrete solutions, saying smugly that it seemed the conference
so far had been nothing more than a "Palestinian pity party."
Responding to the not-so-subtle racism and nationalism
in such comments is always tricky, but as the only white, U.S.-born
person on the panel I thought I shouldn't leave it to others to
call the student on his ugly display of privilege.
The problem with privilege, I said, is that it so often leads
to incredible arrogance, the belief that one has a right to blurt
out in public anything on one's mind, no matter how uninformed
or thoughtless. I pointed out to the young man that he seemed
to have missed how much of the day had been devoted to careful
analysis without a hint of self-pity. Perhaps his question had
something to do with seeing the issue from the comfortable position
of someone safe in the United States with no direct experience
of the struggle and suffering of people in Palestine.
At that point, Diana Buttu, a Palestinian-Canadian
lawyer now living in the West Bank, stepped in and explained what
life is like in the territories. Switching gears from the legal/political
analysis she had offered earlier, Buttu described the daily reality
of negotiating checkpoints and Jewish-only roads just to be able
to travel a few miles for work or to see friends and relatives.
She described the grinding poverty of the territories, where at
least half of the population is below the official poverty line.
Her comments made it clear that this wasn't about self-pity but
about a deeply felt concern about injustices being perpetrated
and the real effects on real people. Buttu, who pointed out that
she didn't suffer as much as others in the territories because
she travels with a Canadian passport, modeled -- rather than preached
-- empathy, and the effect was powerful. She was able to recognize
that the student was young and ignorant, and that the moment called
for a correction of that ignorance but with some compassion for
In a presentation on the feminist critique of
pornography at a college, I described some of the routine body-punishing
types of sex that are common, especially in the genre known as
"gonzo," the most harsh and overtly cruel type of sexually
explicit material. A young man from the audience waited until
the rest of the folks who had questions were gone and then approached
me cautiously, saying he wanted to challenge some claims I had
The student said that he watched gonzo pornography
regularly and thought I had distorted the reality of such material.
None of what he watched, he said, sounded like what I had described.
"The stuff I like - it's just movies of people who liked
to party," he told me.
I asked him to tell me more about what he watched.
As he talked, it became clear he was describing exactly the kind
of material I had discussed, and I could see the realization emerge
in him: My assessment of the rough and degrading nature of that
pornography was accurate, and he had simply never recognized it.
When he mentioned a type of sex he liked to watch in pornography
called a DP - double penetration, in which a woman is penetrated
vaginally and anally at the same time -- it really started to
dawn on him: In these scenes, the sex was defined by men's sense
of control over, and domination of, women.
I pressed a bit more. What kind of things did
the men call the woman during this sex? I asked. As he started
to reproduce some of the terms -- all names meant to demean and
insult women - it became impossible for him to avoid the conclusion
that the pornography he had been consuming is not just sex, but
sex in which men act out contempt for women.
At that point, he stammered, "But I don't
hate women. I love women. I wouldn't use pornography like that."
That contradiction wasn't going to be worked
out in the moment. Instead, I told the student that I wasn't arguing
that he hated women but was simply pointing out he had been getting
sexual pleasure from pornography that expressed hatred for women.
Why had that misogyny been invisible to him? Why had he been unable
to see what was happening on the screen and imagine how women
might feel about such degrading treatment?
The answer is simple enough: The privileges
that come with being a man in patriarchy had undermined his capacity
to empathize, allowing the sexual pleasure he felt to override
his humanity and making it difficult for him to put himself in
the place of a woman experiencing overtly cruel and degrading
Privilege and the empathy deficit
The student at the Palestine conference lives
in a country in which he has never had to pass through a checkpoint
or justify himself to authorities simply because of the color
of his skin, ethnicity, or citizenship. The student at my pornography
presentation lives in a society in which he has never had to fear
he would be the target of degrading and potentially violent sexual
behavior simply because of his gender. Both had learned to think
of themselves and their experience as the norm, against which
the behavior of others should be judged.
How can I be so sure of that claim? Because
it's the way I was raised as a white man of European heritage
with U.S. citizenship. Comfortable in my privilege, I spent much
of my life wondering why so many other people who didn't look
like me complained so much. I understood there was inequality
and injustice in the world, but life seemed reasonably fair to
me. After all, my hard work seemed to be rewarded, which suggested
to me that those not so well off should just work a little harder
and stop whining.
Looking back, I can see that even though I don't
come from the wealthy sector of society, the unearned privileges
that I enjoyed had diminished my capacity for empathy. I had access
to lots of information, but I was emotionally underdeveloped.
I could know things, but at the same time not feel the consequences
of that knowledge. That meant I could avoid the difficult conclusion
that would have come from a deeper knowing and feeling -- that
the inequality and injustice in the world was benefiting me at
some level, and therefore I had a heightened obligation to confront
As I became politicized later in my life, I
realized I not only had to learn more about the world but also
had to fight to reclaim an ability to empathize. For me, that
process started at the intimate level, by recognizing the misogyny
and racism in the pornography I had grown up with. From there,
it moved to the global, by recognizing the poverty and violence
suffered by the targets of U.S. power.
The struggle to know and to feel is never-ending,
because my privilege continues. The way in which privilege insulates
us can't simply be renounced and then easily transcended. For
me, it takes continual effort, marked by moments of real connection
with others that deepen my sense of life, as well as continued
failures to empathize deeply enough that remind me of the need
for humility. It is part of the endless struggle to be human in
a world saturated with so much suffering.
There are two lessons in this for left/progressive
The first involves outreach. Everyone is aware that accurate facts
and a compelling logical argument are not enough to carry the
day politically. But that doesn't mean quick-hitting emotional
appeals based on fear or pity are the answer. We need not simply
to use emotion, but to develop collectively a deeper capacity
for empathy. That alone doesn't guarantee political victory, but
it's hard to imagine much progress without it.
Second, for those of us with unearned privilege,
as we focus on outreach we have to remember to reach in as well.
Privilege is insidious, and it works on us even when we think
we have moved past it. When we see the ugliest expressions of
that privilege in others, it's tempting to want to distance ourselves
from them, to label them as the problem and see ourselves as part
of the solution. But to be effective organizers, we have to be
able to practice empathy in all directions.
Looking back at the two examples, I can see
that with the young man struggling with his pornography use, I
had been able to connect. He was taking his first steps out of
his own isolation and illusions about what kind of "party"
goes on in pornography, and as my conversation with him ended
I told him that I understood how difficult it can be. I gave him
my card and encouraged him to contact me if I could help.
I was less successful with the student at the
Palestine conference. It was appropriate to be blunt in my comments,
not only to try to change him but to mark to the others in the
room just how inappropriate his "pity party" remark
had been. But I wanted to follow up with him after the event,
to tell him that while I strongly disagreed with his comments,
there was a way in which I felt he and I were part of the same
Unfortunately, the young man slipped out during
the last panel and didn't return. Maybe he had another engagement
to get to, or perhaps he wanted to avoid the possibility of another
confrontation. Maybe he rejected what he heard, or perhaps he
went off to be alone and ponder.
Whatever his choice, I continue to ponder, to
struggle, to be frustrated with the limits of others and with
my own failures. And I continue to plod forward.
It is in our plodding, I believe, that we can find hope for the
future. We don't have to be perfect. We just have to keep trying
to connect in a world that gives us many ways to disconnect if
Each day we struggle to empathize, we hold onto
Each day we stay connected -- to ourselves and each other -- is
another plodding step forward.
Robert Jensen is a journalism professor at the University of Texas
at Austin and board member of the Third Coast Activist Resource
He is the author of The Heart of Whiteness: Race, Racism, and
White Privilege and Citizens of the Empire: The Struggle to Claim
Our Humanity (both from City Lights Books). He can be reached