Classical drama at its best traces the motives of vile or stupid deeds. Sometimes it’s stated straight out, as with Lear’s Edmund. Often it’s indirect or even self-contradictory, as with Iago. But it only works if you can believe that the writer has deep empathy with the character.
I have no political experience except often voting for losers, but I can’t help feeling that what’s needed today is the same degree of empathy. Right now I don’t mean empathy for the victims: we’ve got that by the ton, at least the rhetoric of it, and countless people are working like hell to deal with poverty, guns, war, brutality—name your poison.
No, right now I mean empathy for the perpetrators. Shooting unarmed blacks is the flavor-of-the-day, but I’m not convinced that every cop is just itching to get on the carnival ride and finds it a peak experience. Sure, there are psychopaths, power-mad assholes and racists in every profession, and those with guns in their hands make the headlines. But have we really grokked the complexity of the neural response that makes an adult male jump out of a squad car, put eight bullets in a kid holding a plastic gun, because instead of instantly dropping the toy when screamed at, the kid turned toward the direction of the scream? Can we ascribe that to a rational thought process?
We can speculate, we can orate, but nobody knows, and the cop’s lawyer won’t help us toward enlightenment. If I were a cop—well, not likely, but if I were playing a cop, I’d be scared shitless at the array of guns on the street and the possibility that 12-yr-old kid really did have an assault rifle and that five seconds’ hesitation could kill me. Can we get to the root causes of that guy’s terror, or terror masquerading as action hero?
To me and my fellow liberals, that guy is the enemy. It would serve my sense of justice if he were convicted of manslaughter at the very least. But will that actually prevent it happening again tomorrow? I have my doubts. Do longer sentences prevent crime? No. Will threatening police with retaliation prevent brutality or lethal stupidity? Only when those minds are rational. Under stress, they’re not.
Why did people vote for Trump? Why do guys compete to set new records for killings? Why do people bright enough to rise to the status of CEO make decisions that may doom the human race? I don’t think we can be effective politically against these insanities by simply labeling them. insanities. We have to look at them as an actor would—an actor playing Chekhov, not playing cheap melodrama.
It’s not empathy for the sake of empathy. It’s empathy for the sake of strategy. It’s giving that nutcase the respect you’d give a friend, to walk a mile in his shoes, however deformed you think his feet must be, to see what it feels like. Then maybe you’ll win him over or maybe you’ll devise a strategy to crush him, but unless you have a spy in his psyche you’re dead.