Another entry for the annual award for “most difficult-to-write post”. When really it could be so simple. A man writes an essay. He puts it out for the world to see, and by doing so, he knows – and expects, if not invites – that there will be reaction to it. Why then, I have to ask myself, is it so difficult for me to write a response? Especially when it started so well.
Upon first reading Richard Armitage’s piece entitled “Forgiveness and Intention” for Cybersmile on Friday, my gut reaction is positive. Armitage expands on his mantra of ‘empathy empathy empathy’ in a smooth text, nicely composed, and written with an obvious effort to encourage positivity and discourage negativity. I particularly like that he anchored his text in his own, tangible experiences as an actor, for whom empathy is a tool for understanding – and inhabiting – the characters he plays. There is a good reason why role-playing is often used in school, in therapy, or in conflict-resolution: By literally forcing ourselves into someone else’s shoes, we learn to see the world or an issue through their eyes. Actors do this every day – and may understand the benefits of empathy better than others. As an actor and a professional practitioner of an empathetic approach, Armitage has a certain authority then, to promote empathy as a tool for harmonious communication, and he uses this authority very effectively in his text.
He raises a number of interesting points in the piece, e.g. the notion of consciously disregarding one’s prejudices – or “leaving oneself alone”, as he calls it – in order to approach other opinions without preconceived ideas. Again, possibly a tool he uses on a daily basis when tasked with portraying controversial characters such as a serial killer, a fascist assassin, or a ruthless mercenary. And in the same vein, he addresses the related issue of “intent”, again, (in my reading) the applying of an already consolidated belief that one’s own opinion is the only acceptable/valid one, which effectively prevents empathy and/or debate.
In all this he cleverly includes himself in the implied criticism of common behavioural patterns. He uses the first person plural when he makes general statements (‘we’) and thus does not place himself judge-like or divinely above the “sinners”. He implies he is one of us – and that gives his arguments more clout. He speaks from experience. Yet he does not shy away from prescriptive demands – “we must consider other persons’ feelings before we express our own, [we must] consider how our words wound”, which is an attempt at being explicit about the behaviour he himself expects. And he ends on a clear appeal – “never underestimate your words” – cleverly connecting it to universally accepted values that characterise a democratic society, like harmony, tolerance, balance (I suppose he means something like “moderation”?) and forgiveness.
What is not to like? This is a textbook plea for values that we all strive for and can easily support, and it is written passionately, committedly, competently, coherently and cleverly, addressing problems, offering approaches, and including personal observations. It aims to be constructive, rather than destructive, appealing to the power of the individual to make a change, and I like that approach. Personally speaking, he really pushes all the buttons for me. I believe in empathy, in tolerance, in in dubio pro reo, in free speech, in mutual respect, considerate behaviour and in democracy. And interestingly, some of Armitage’s arguments actually proved themselves true for me, in the practice of reading the piece. I found Armitage’s reference to the notion of “leaving oneself alone” validated by the fact that I had come to the piece expecting the worst. (The voice in my head was nagging me with the expectation that the text might be based on his own reading of the reactions to his tweet/delete behaviour – and I dreaded a preachy sermon that would make me feel bad about being critical of his tweet/delete pattern on Twitter.) Despite this preconceived notion, I was positively surprised by the text. Good outcome.
I had a few more critical words written. Well, 2000 in total, in fact, fine-tuned over 9 drafts to a final version, including words like “failures”, “fault”, “not far-reaching enough”, yet littered with phrases that would indicate my own failings and shortcomings and ending on a massive, defensive explanation that my criticism was not to be seen as an attack but an attempt at honouring the thought-process and essay of the author with a critical analysis. Call it #EmpathyInAction. And yet it did not feel right to press “publish” last night and I decided to sleep over it before I put my opinion out there. In the half-hour between going to bed and falling asleep, it came to me. My expectations were wrong and my criticism unfair.
I think he is on to something with his “leaving yourself alone” theory.
I had to remind myself that Armitage’s essay is not a text by a linguist or a therapist who are professionals in identifying the pitfalls of human communication. It is written by a non-professional whose job as an actor has given him insights into the usefulness of certain tools. With his text, he wants to share what he finds helpful when it comes to negotiating electronic communication. As such, the text stays safe and general – I read it more as a general manifesto on human interaction, than a specific directive on cyberbullying prevention. And that is fine. I don’t think it is fair to expect him to do any more than that – Cybersmile Ambassador or not – and the piece works well enough as a contribution to the issue.
But fwiw, my difficulty with formulating a response is mainly down to two things (and I’ll try and write this as considerately as I can). I am confused as to the exact target group of the text. Is this aimed at victims of cyberbullying, i.e. the supposed readership of a blog/website such as Cybersmile; or is it aimed at everybody who is interested in electronic communication? Secondly, and more or less following from my problems with identifying the target group, I am not entirely clear on the purpose of the text. Is its goal to help victims of cyberbullying, or is it a general plea for a more considered way of communicating? To me, readership and objective of the text are important in order to understand the nuances of the intended message – and whether I am directly addressed.
When it comes to the much invoked tool “empathy”, I am onboard with that. Words are indeed powerful weapons, and cyberbullying is a problem that needs individual reflection and action in order to be eradicated. Like Armitage, I believe in positive re-enforcement, in leading by example, in championing positive values. But it has to be made clear that there is a distinction between wilful verbal warfare (as in cyberbullying) and healthy debate. And that empathy is not synonymous with blanket agreement. I believe in the diversity of opinion and the benefit of open dialogue, as those are the most effective weapons against the radicalism and scaremongering cited by Armitage.
But as a former victim of bullying myself (not in the online world, but in the workplace), I wish some details had been clarified a bit more. For instance, I feel that empathy is only a tool to prevent potential bullying, but not a defence against already existing bullying. In my experience, victims of bullying need to take other action (e.g. address the issue, identify the bullying behaviour, call out bullies on their behaviour, look for allies, and first and foremost stop blaming themselves and ask for help), and empathy may lead to a spiral of self-doubt and loss of self, with grave implications for mental and physical health.
I don’t think empathy is an all-round magic weapon. It has its limits because I can never *fully* grasp where another person’s point of view is coming from. All of this is extremely complex – that is the crux and the beauty of interpersonal communication. It is impossible to fully anticipate the reactions, or to understand the intentions, of others. We can only *try* to imagine how our words *could* be received by others, and then take precautions to prevent misunderstandings. And equally, we can *try* to understand the intent of a text with the in dubio pro reo principle in mind. But in that sense, empathy is a first step.
It is to Richard’s credit that he has chosen this difficult topic to champion. He seems conscious of the problems that are inherent to electronic communication, and feels strongly enough about the topic to make his voice heard. This sense of mission is exactly what I appreciate in others, even if I may not always agree with their solutions. It can never be wrong to create awareness, and I appreciate that he is putting himself out there to do just that. I hope we can have empathetic discussions about his choices and opinions without stifling debate or resorting to cyberbullying.