Update 2020: this post was written long ago, before I understood how Julie Burchill’s views really fed into the toxic debate on trans rights. I would not write the same thing today.
What causes hate? Loads of situational things, of course. You might hate someone because they slept with your partner, because they blew up your car or used up the last bit of milk in the fridge and failed to replace it.
On a more significant and terrifying level you might hate someone because they’re different: blacker, gayer, differently-gendered, or because there’s some other quality about them that you just can’t get your head around. They’re different, and they do things differently to you and they’re swanning around this world just refusing to even make an effort to be a little bit the same as you, to fit in. How dare they.
At the root of it I think the vast majority of this hatred is caused by a failure to understand – to actually try and put yourself in someone else’s shoes and empathise with their situation. We’re suffering a massive fuckoff crisis of empathy, and it’s causing us to rip each other to shreds.
Let’s talk about privilege
I’m pretty bloody privileged: I’m a white, middle-class British girl with a job and a flat and shoes and a fridge full of Cadbury’s Twirl bites and at least four real-life friends. I’ve grown up with a family who are fucking spectacular and supportive and I’m more than aware that the shelter of my background and upbringing means I’ll never fully understand the troubles that other people, who haven’t been born with all the breaks I have, go through.
But I can try, yeah? I can give it a fucking go. I can listen to people’s stories and experiences and I can frown at the people who shout them down and I can try – try – to empathise. I may not be able to fully comprehend, because of my privilege. But I can listen, and I can try.
Let’s talk about words
I once wrote a blog post about female urinals that included the line ‘women don’t have penises’. As soon as I tweeted it someone tweeted back saying ‘hey, how about you cut out the nasty transphobia in your second paragraph, yeah?’
My reaction was a stunned, gobsmacked, horrified ‘what the fuck?!’ I re-read the blog and I couldn’t see anything that would lead people to think that I was phobic or hateful towards transgendered people. So you know what I did? Rather than call her a prick, or tell her to fuck off and leave me alone, I asked what she meant.
She explained: ‘some women, you know, do have penises. Gender vs sex.’ That made sense, so I asked her what I should change it to and she suggested ‘most women don’t have penises.’ The change wasn’t exactly a fucking revolution, but it made this person, and potentially others, a bit more comfortable with what I was writing, and also made me a bit more careful about the language I used from then on. I’m not asking for a medal, by the way – this is quite literally the least I can do to not be a dick.
In return, though, when I’d changed the piece, the lady in question apologised. Not for asking me to change it, but for her initial comment that had made it sound like I did it deliberately. Saying (and I’m paraphrasing, because I don’t have the tweet to hand) ‘sorry, I just see this stuff all the time, appreciate you changing it and realise you didn’t do it on purpose.’
And, pathetic though I sound, that made my sodding day. Her recognition that I’m not deliberately a bastard, just a clumsy arse, meant a lot.
Let’s talk about Julie Burchill
Earlier this week Suzanne Moore wrote an article that included an insensitive comment about ‘Brazilian transsexuals.’ Then some people picked her up on it. Then some more people hounded her for it. She defended her comments. They asked her to apologise. She left Twitter. Then professional controversialist Julie Burchill waded in with something so hateful that it made me wonder why the fuck any of us even bothers getting out of bed in the morning.
There are failures of empathy going on all over the place here – Moore’s initial lack of empathy and understanding for trans women who, you know, have enough shit to deal with without being casually mocked in the New Statesman. When she was picked up on her comments by people who tried to engage, and explain exactly what was wrong with the original comment, she failed to understand why they might be justifiably angry. Later on, some more vocal tweeters joined in, then seemed surprised that Moore might be upset at having had quite terrifying abuse hurled at her. Finally, Julie Burchill rounded the whole episode off neatly by demonstrating where a complete lack of empathy ultimately leads: to hatred.
Let’s just fucking talk, OK?
Privileged or not, we all have the capacity to understand and to try and empathise. But we cannot do that if we cannot talk to each other, and listen to what others have to say.
Sometimes I’ll say things you disagree with. Sometimes I’ll use words you don’t like. Sometimes (and this may be one of those times) you’ll want to hurl your laptop out of the window in frustration at the way I have callously dismissed or ignored something that’s precious to you.
But I promise you this: I will never deliberately say hateful, horrible things that ignore my privilege and make life harder for you. I will always try to empathise and – if you correct me – I’ll try to clarify what I’m saying, or apologise if I’m wrong. If you tell me about my mistakes I can correct and clarify. If you call me a hateful psycho bitch-whore, I’ll never fucking learn.
I’m just a girl, standing in front of an angry internet, asking you all to be a bit more understanding. That goes for the writers as well as the commenters and all of the people who retweet us and keep us afloat. Because as soon as we lose that capacity to understand, to try and empathise with other people’s feelings and troubles and mistakes, we’ll all turn into Julie fucking Burchill.