Some Notes On What She May Know As ‘Empathy’: Reflections for R U OK? Day 2020
(1) R U OK? DAY, 2019
I have this memory. The sun burns, a golden glow clambering slantwise through the room. We all stand, waiting to hear her words. It was September 11th, 2019. There were little trays of relatively edible hors d’oeuvres decaying on round, high tables. Compassionate black and gold posters hung just above these. She takes a breath. Her vulnerability is palpable. OK, she says. As you can see by all these lovely posters, today is R U OK? Day. Which means we’re gonna talk about mental health.
I’d been working as her graduate assistant for three weeks. A wave of relief came over me. Great, I thought. I’m so glad that the organisation would support me when I need it. Because I would need it. I grabbed a handful of crispy, savoury things from a bowl next to me. Some were a beautiful shade of 20mg Brintellix red.¹ Carmine, incarnadine, almond-shaped like my mother’s eyes. I put them in my mouth and swallowed. A motion I’d rehearsed by lamplight each night for three years.
An exception to my generalised disdain for corporate initiatives, R U OK? Day is kind of important to me. I suffer from recurrent anxiety and depression. Again and again, it comes back, so I was sure I would eventually be forced to tell them about my health. To say I was NOT OK. So I was happy — yes, happy, for those who can’t believe it — that my boss had taken the time to show us she cared. I had moved cities for the job, and it made me feel a little less alone.
That’s where my recollection ends. With a hope that I wouldn’t feel isolated there. That I could speak if necessary.
I think I have this memory. I really feel the aureate flood of the sun, the rush of comfort. It’s all there in pieces, in glittering fragments. But in truth, I might be confusing things. It’s hard to say. My memory of my time at the organisation isn’t fantastic. A common symptom of depression, stress and anxiety is mnemonic decline, after all. An inability to piece together the impressions of your past into a coherent whole. To make sense, in a word. For the depressed, the yellow burst of our days, the heat of our words, they blur together, making a mad slag of molten gold that casts our eyes askance in all directions.
(2) NOT OK, 2019–20 EDITION
Despite the support I felt last year on R U OK? Day, only six months passed before I left my role. Once again, I spiralled into mental illness. (One more time with feeling, we say.)
Throughout my life, my depression has usually arrived without cause. At least as far as I could tell, my sadness was no counterpoint to any particular thing. Nor was it some harmonic moment of an emotional melody. It just was. Pure biology, neurochemistry gone awry. Serotonergic deprivation. Nobody’s fault. We know the deal. Yet this time, it was different. Really, it took me too long to realise, but my symptoms sprung neither from my body nor spirit. No: this time, I was pushed to despair by my boss’s behaviour.
She was charming and supportive at first if a little saccharine. In retrospect, it’s clear that these foreshadowed her vicious underside. An early theme of our interactions was her little lapses. Tactless moments of dismissal and unkindness,² a violent flicker in her eyes. These flashes of otherness would emerge and recede, like a light that rises from the deeps of a lake, and is then drawn backwards, vanishing, while its traces glimmer upon the water’s veneer. I would see a fleeting impression of disturbing significance, only just hidden, and then it was gone, retreating beyond the limits of articulation. Like everything we try to hide, this seemingly minor element of her personality eventually proved decisive. Soon, it dominated our interactions. Her sweet public persona, it seems, was symbiotic with a refined sadism.
My boss excused her behaviour in all kinds of ways. Her medical treatments made her feel unwell. People didn’t listen to her because she was a woman. Oh, I said. I’m so sorry. I hope you’re OK. At the same time, she was creative in her condemnations of my mine. Where I failed to understand her, I revealed my inability to take instructions. If she didn’t comprehend something, I had poor communication skills. Oh, I said. I’m so sorry. I’ll do better next time. OK. I’m really trying. Every week, she would request new work. Far below my skill level, but that was temporary. I was new, you see. I needed training they would provide later. They never offered it.
Possibly because of this, whatever I completed was said to be wrong. Not good enough, my boss would say. Do it again. OK. I would do it again. By the time I had revised my work, the goals, never entirely clear to me, had changed. Different things were needed. She would ignore the previous work. Send me off with new instructions even more baffling than the last. And then the cycle would repeat. I would start my work only for it to be dismissed a few days later. Tension rose with each round, intensifying these problems. My anxiety became ferocious. I went to see the organisation’s psychology department. They rated my symptoms as ‘severe’. Severe, huh? Is that right? This must be serious. I must be NOT OK.
Quickly, things worsened, and my suffering became visible. In the final days before I left, I discovered I wasn’t alone. Others were also NOT OK. Commiseration was the unspoken word. For a senior employee, her destructive and undermining behaviours were even more apparent. From him, she would request work. He would do it. Always, it was all wrong. She would castigate him, tear him apart. He would do it again. Furious, she would shred the results in front of him. Keep up! None of this is good enough. But it didn’t matter. The goals had changed, and his work was irrelevant. This, of course, made him irrelevant. Bereft and confused, he spiralled into depression and misery. He performed badly. Eventually, she called him to her office. Told him he wasn’t fit for his role and demoted him. The demotion brought him joy. He would no longer work with her.
Last I heard he was learning a new language to widen his job prospects. His debts and responsibilities ensured he couldn’t quit without an alternative, but he couldn’t secure a new job. He was desperate to leave, I guess.
From my colleague, I learned that stories like this were abundant at the organisation. Furtive whispers everywhere. There had been a 150% turnover in the administrative staff in the last eighteen months. We were haemorrhaging senior staff because of my boss’s cruelty and blindness. The quality of work had nosedived. She wouldn’t make eye contact with certain people in meetings. Quite expertly, she had cultivated an atmosphere of dread. Diffused through the building and mingling with our thoughts, a bitter miasma hovered on the edge of our speech. Sadness in the air that none of us could articulate.
To sum all this up, there was A Serious Leadership Problem. The place had become a petty tyranny: a bully was in charge.
At law, definitions of bullying tend to cast a pretty wide net. This is a good thing because bullies can be cruel in all sorts of subtle ways. Moreover, they can be creative, finding vast, untapped reservoirs for their sadism. It is crucial, then, that the law is flexible and widely applicable. Otherwise, it can fall behind the bleeding edge of bullying innovations.
As such, a wide variety of behaviours can be classed as bullying in our country, provided the actions are a) repeated, b) unreasonable, and c) create a risk to health and safety.³ According to the Fair Work Commission, all sorts of belittling, undermining and abusive behaviour can therefore qualify. Intimidating your employees, for instance, or giving them work below their level of competence are typical examples of bullying behaviour. Berating them for failing to understand your own incomprehensible emails — maybe, that’s another one. Ignoring or destroying their work that you demanded can also feel pretty bad. Really, we could go on forever. So long as there is a pattern of behaviour that a reasonable person would disavow, it can count as bullying. Equally important, however, is point c), the proof that the behaviour could cause harm. The critical word is ‘could’: fortunately for the subjects of bullying, actual harm is unnecessary, and things like anxiety, depression, sleep disturbances, nausea and even musculoskeletal complaints are recognised as health risks.⁴ The inclusion of mental health problems is vital. Bullying at its most insidious, after all, drives you to take up the bully’s sabotage of your psyche. The bully can teach their victims to loathe themselves and to doubt their self-worth, making them hollow and psychologically destitute. At their worst, they can lead their victims to suicide — all without lifting a finger. It’s a coward’s way to commit violence against others.
After a few months of this bully’s aggression, my work life became unbearable. I started throwing up before work. Taking diazepam⁵ to sleep. In a strange mélange of denial, pertinacity, masculinity, I started lifting weights six times a week, running five kilometres daily on my rake-thin legs. As though my problems were existential or physical instead of social. I’m someone who lives closer to the atrophic end of musculature, a kind of malnourished mesomorph, so it was obvious. I was deeply NOT OK.
At work, I began to notice a dramatic irony stalking me through the building. I became excruciatingly aware of the fact that my project at the organisation was funded by a charitable organisation whose endowment came from money made in private mental health care. Funny, ha ha. And even months after the occasion, I noticed that R U OK? Day posters were still everywhere. In the coffee room, the toilet, the lift: the crassly cheerful yellow and black signs were all around, xanthic, lambent, and beaming from the walls. (Yellow, incidentally, was the colour of madness, sickness and fear for Frida Kahlo. Black for her was the colour of nothing — literally, nothing).⁶ In their strange mix of care and authority, they asked me, R U OK? They compassionately demanded that I should BE OK. In response, I could only quote Pulp Fiction’s Marsellus Wallace. Nah, man. I’m pretty fucking far from OK.
Once, as I rode the building’s elevator to the ground, imagining this Tarantino scene for the hundredth time, a woman joined me in the lift. I had never seen her before. We said hello. She told me she was a senior staff member in the department. And then, without any prompt, she asked me if I actually liked working there. Her eyes quivered slightly, brimming with what seemed like understanding. It’s strange to say it, but her empathy was shocking. I had no idea what to say, and I didn’t want to lie. Told her I loved it. So much for honesty. I said goodbye and got out of the lift. It was the day I decided to quit. How had she known?
I imagine it was the way I carried myself: tense, lockjawed, defensive. Perditionistic.⁷ Though I was deathly quiet, I still sent out vital messages. Despite the mind, the body communicates. To be clear, I realise that my silence here looks like hypocrisy. I failed to abide by the tenets of R U OK? Day. Where I could’ve spoken, I was silent. At this point, I was conscious of my suffering and its source. This was irrelevant, however. I had no desire whatsoever to voice my concerns. Even though the organisation relentlessly insisted that it was OK to talk about our degree of OK-ness, I was hesitant to do so. I just couldn’t. And the reason, of course, was simple: I was afraid.
To me, the organisation had become a contradiction. On the one hand, it tried to support those who suffered from mental health issues; au l’autre, it was directed by a woman who took pains to produce the same problems. They purported to care about my OKness, while they tolerated and enabled behaviour that ensured I was NOT OK. Their messaging was totally dissonant. But on this inharmoniousness at the heart of the corporation, nobody had anything to say. Criticisms and misgivings were rife, yet these were smothered by an unspoken commitment to quietude. People tolerated her behaviour until they soundlessly left, replaced without noise by another person dying to work at the business. At my workplace, a sepulchral silence prevailed. It was the norm, and being afraid, I obeyed the norms. And nobody asked if I was OK.
My boss had made a mockery of R U OK? Day. The walls’ insistence that I should be OK quickly became inert. I didn’t trust the organisation to respect the dignity of anyone, in rude or ill health. I suspected that if I told them how I felt, if I exposed my vulnerability, my situation would only worsen. I couldn’t trust in communication. Silence, in my eyes, was the safest option. To stray from the accepted codes of behaviour when you are already vulnerable requires a near quixotic sense of bravery or a total disregard for the consequences of your actions. You have to be mad, more or less. But if we suffer for too long, our deviation becomes more and more likely. A sane person can only be quiet for so long. At some point, they must release those yellow flames scorching black the insides of their heart.
As you’ve guessed, I cracked. When you’re afraid for too long, eventually you lose the ability to care. We won’t dwell on the gory details. Suffice it to say that I left the job in a moment of despair, when my hope that I WOULD BE OK disappeared. Emptied of this hope, I split the silence, filing complaints with all the relevant departments and governmental bodies. But all I got was bureaucratic silence, evasion, and an excoriating meeting with HR (the department responsible for the proliferation of said posters). Sound and fury, signifying everything except my intentions. All of this left me dismayed. Accepting my despair, I handed in my resignation.
And so my fate was sealed. On my last day, and in an obscure form of symbolic exchange, some sardonic god gave me a send-off. The doors of the lift opened, and an R U OK? Day poster tacked to the steel slipped down into the shaft, plummeting into the bowels of the building. A good one, I think. Sometimes, morality is the best symbol of its own hypocrisy.
Just before this portentous moment, I had received my a parting present. My boss — the bully — gave me a gift card for an electronics store. It was the standard send-off for the organisation. In it, she wrote something like ‘All the best for your future.’ I can’t remember. I would have preferred a voucher for therapy, especially since my future now involved going to therapy because of her. But who am I to judge? I wasn’t expecting anything at all. (And that’s the meaning of hopelessness, isn’t it?)
Today, my boss retains her position at the place I worked. My letters to her superiors, HR, and the governmental bodies responsible for reprimanding people like her remain unanswered. And with the gift card, I bought the hard drive where I store my writing. Because that’s now what I do now: I write about my life. I capture the suffering of the world with words. And I do this so I can understand what it’s like to be an other.
(4) NARCISSUS & ECHO
Despite what you think, I’m grateful for her actions.
During therapy, I’ve learned about Narcissistic Personality Disorder & Its Discontents — me being a Discontent. I’m not a psychologist, but I believe my former boss behaved in a way that matched the diagnostic criteria for NPD. I can’t speak for the terrain of her inner world, of course. But on the outside, her sense of entitlement was painfully clear. She expected others to comply with her protean, anarchic plans. We had to immediately understand directions given in her idiosyncratic, rambling and disjointed jargon. And it was our fault if we failed. In meetings, it was clear that she was possessed by grandiose fantasies of success. We were to be ‘the best’, yet she had no discernible plan for achieving this, nor did she ever define what she meant by it. She had ambitions, but no expectations; she had visions, but she was blind. Opaque.
Taking after the best creations of Shakespeare and Sophocles, my boss was a woman of tragic paradoxes. Like those characters, the Lady Macbeths of literature, this was most visible in her relationships with others. There, her ability to empathise would fall short, again and again. Where she could choose kindness, she selected cruelty. She preferred indifference or malice when compassion was possible. Somehow, she wouldn’t — or perhaps, couldn’t — fully recognise the subjectivity of others around her, a fact that broke and continues to break my heart. After all, if she couldn’t see us as emotionally vulnerable human beings, how did she see herself? Did she see herself at all? I can’t say anything for sure. Yet, that she didn’t respect the dignity of others suggests that her empathy was inhibited. For me and many others, it looked like the very ground of human relationships was barren in her. It was razed. Salted. Curiously infertile. And this makes me wonder: perhaps she too was the victim of a great indignity.
Although it is a painful and antisocial orientation to the world, narcissistic personality disorder is surprisingly common. The DSM-V tells us that up to 6.2% of the adult population are diagnosed with NPD.⁸ But the real prevalence of narcissism may be greater still. After all, people can exhibit damaging, narcissistic behaviours while they fall short of the diagnostic criteria. This shouldn’t surprise us: in the Narcissus myth, the Greek story after which narcissism and NPD are named, the protagonist dies by his pond. I can’t see him, or those who mimic his behaviour, going to a clinic for evaluation. The narcissist can’t bear the thought of self-development because this implies a deficiency on their behalf. Generally, they prefer to remain alone, hurting those around them. They aren’t interested in change.
Given this, it’s likely that many of us have been hurt by narcissistic behaviours at some point. Given that there’s a clear structure to these behaviours, it should be no surprise that their victims are affected in the same ways. Those who suffer narcissists tend to become depressed, anxious and non-communicative; they dissociate from themselves, their surroundings, and their emotions; their memories become obscure and diffuse, as though hidden behind a fog. In a real way, the narcissist’s victim kind of disappears. They live a spectre’s half-life.
In recent years, there has been increasing recognition of this fact. Psychologists have written extensively about ‘Narcissistic Victim Syndrome’, a constellation of symptoms that typifies the suffering of those abused by narcissists. Ironically, this syndrome’s name contains a microcosmic repetition of the problems we encounter in narcissistic relationships. Even while they try to heal, the person is defined as the narcissist’s victim. The name they give to their suffering, to their battered mind, retains the signature of their abuser. Once again, the narcissist comes first. The ghost of violence haunts them even after they escape.
For this reason, I prefer the more poetical name for this form of pain: echoism.⁹ For those who don’t know, Echo is the often-overlooked secondary character in the Narcissus myth, whose role is arguably more interesting than her more famous counterpart. In the tale, the gods strip Echo of her voice and condemn her to mimic the speech of others. Echo is reduced to an acoustic reflection, and in this state, she falls in love with the irresistible Narcissus. In a moment of fear — ‘I will die first, before thou shalt have the enjoyment of me,’ Narcissus cries at her in one retelling — she is violently rebuffed by the beautiful youth. In despair, she fades into nothingness, leaving only her voice, endlessly repeating his words. Echo is forever bound to Narcissus; thus, alongside the narcissist, we find the echoist.
In this story,¹⁰ Echo is deprived of the ability to creatively use language. She is trapped in her mind, unable to communicate her own experiences to others. This is a particularly cruel, dehumanising fate for poor Echo. As we learn from Noam Chomsky’s Cartesian Linguistics, philosophers across the Enlightenment period saw our linguistic creativity as fundamental to being human. For René Descartes and those who followed him, it was the essential mark of our humanity. It was the decisive factor that separated us from animals. In an important sense, this is absolutely true. Every one of us can speak an infinite number of unique, context-appropriate sentences. Amazingly, all humans are fundamentally creative, a point that Chomsky has emphasised for decades. By reducing her to an eternal mimic, then, Echo is stripped of her humanity. She is denied her human creativity: she becomes a reflection of everything around her. In a word, she loses her subjectivity.
The Echo of Greek mythology is a repetition of others who speak more powerfully than she could. She can only resonate or thrum with their words. The echoists of today, then, are the people whose subjectivity is denied by the narcissists in their lives. On this view, the narcissist is much like the master who denies his slave’s humanity. There is a homology between the echoist and the servant. When she is whipped by her oppressor, when he refuses her humanity, we share the slave’s outrage. The situation’s indignity is undeniable. So, if we care for the slave, we must extend our understanding to the Echoes in our lives. Their suffering is real. They are made hollow at the hands of their narcissistic master, who believes that subjectivity is an exceptional status to which only rulers are entitled.
By depriving their victims of their humanity and their spontaneous creativity, the narcissist causes them great emotional suffering. The greatest tragedy of narcissistic abuse, though, is its self-perpetuating nature. When we are treated callously by another, our instinct is to run. Sometimes this is impossible, however. Occasionally, we have to seal ourselves shut and find a way to hear their words without feeling their bite. To tolerate these abusive situations, we have to disconnect from ourselves. We dissociate from the harm, rationalise it away, or produce elaborate excuses for the other’s behaviour. While this might reduce some of the damage they inflict, it comes at a price: their cruelty encourages you to be cruel to yourself, to exile your emotions in a bid for survival. If you do this, your ability to relate to yourself falls, and your ability to relate to others disintegrates. You can no longer feel for anyone, which causes your descent into a solipsistic twilight zone. At this crepuscular extreme, communication is impossible. Silence will prevail. Or worse, you will only say what they have approved. You will echo the words of their abuse. It is the only safe option, especially if we can’t leave the abuser, or if we rely on them for our livelihood, income, or employment.
As anyone can see, these defensive strategies hold a contradiction within them. They are a suboptimal response. Dissociation and emotional disconnection don’t resolve anything. They make you indifferent, robbing you of your desire to escape. They trap you in your situation and expose you to an increasing amount of abuse. They dull the pain, but they ensure you won’t recognise the abuse for what it is. Instead of painful knowledge, these strategies give you a flat, grey ignorance, a numbness wherein you can only fail to understand your abuser and situation. Accordingly, a victim who dissociates from their suffering no longer knows themselves. In this state of self-denial, it is impossible to express yourself or connect to others in your life. You will become speechless, like Echo, unable to know the suffering of yourself or others.
When we sever ourselves from our own emotions, then, the narcissist’s lack of empathy has finally robbed us of our empathy. They have remade us in their image. Another Narcissus is born. They have won.
For this reason, not all Echoes remain ghosts all their life. As Daniel Shaw emphasises throughout his phenomenal Traumatic Narcissism: Relational Systems of Subjugation, the victims of narcissistic abuse frequently mimic the actions of their oppressors. In your bid to avoid being harmed again the way you once were, you can be possessed by the narcissistic spirit. To protect yourself, you can deny the subjectivity of others. Against your best intentions, you can become the very thing you disavow. You can become an abuser yourself. To paraphrase Edward St. Aubyn, author of the astounding Patrick Melrose novels, narcissistic abuse can drip like poison from generation to generation. In the centre of every Echo, there lie Narcissus’ eternal sighs: though we may escape the grip of a narcissistic oppressor, their spirit can linger within us forever.
If this is true, then we must suppose that some narcissists were originally echoes of their abusers. Accordingly, we see a way that the narcissist can become a more sympathetic character to us. While we deplore their violence today, in truth, they are like animals cornered by predators for too long. Their aggression is defensive, and they are terribly afraid. They have learned to be protective, so they remain this way, even after the threat is gone. Again, we can say nothing definitive here. But perhaps the abuser’s inability to accept the humanity of others was, at some point, a natural response to their environment. They might have needed to cut themselves off from the world, and burrow into themselves. Maybe it was the only way they could survive. In this light, the narcissist’s victim can perhaps understand the motivation behind Edward St. Aubyn’s compassion for his sexually abusive father: ‘I was in the downstream of my father’s unhappiness, but it must have been hell to be him.’¹¹ Victims of abuse, with their unique knowledge of its mechanisms, can see the truth of the situation. They feel the pressure to avoid harm and to tragically repeat the past. Unfortunately, some people succumb to these pressures. Sometimes, the biggest victim is the abuser herself.
(5) A LEADER’S TRAUMA
‘Drone bomb me,’ Anohni sings over a shattering, glassy beat. ‘Blow my head off / Explode my crystal guts.’ In 2016,¹² I learned of so-called ‘radical empathy’¹³ through Anohni’s nauseatingly beautiful single, ‘Drone Bomb Me’, the lead track from her excellent record Hopelessness. Ostensibly sung from the ‘perspective of a girl seeking death after her family was killed in a drone attack’,¹⁴ this track finds Anohni looking death in the eyes. Doing so, she finds herself in the emotional warscape of a child orphaned by brutally indifferent and uncaring US foreign policy. Torn from her loved ones, the young girl seeks the same death as her mother and father. She hopes for death by drone strike, by a machine operated by somebody hundreds, thousands of miles away to whom she is nothing more than a monochrome blur, a slur of pixels on a digital screen.
No doubt, this is a shocking move to make for a pop singer. Yet it goes beyond simple provocation. By taking this girl’s terrible and terribly real perspective, Anohni forces us to understand the plights of those subject to US imperialism around the globe. In this way, our empathy for a girl’s horror-fantasy of exploding ‘crystal guts’ becomes a jumping-off point for withering criticism of the Obama administration.
As Anohni is undoubtedly aware, under Obama’s rule, 26,171 bombs were dropped on foreign countries in 2016 alone.¹⁵ Some of these were fired from drones in the kind of attacks that killed at least 300 civilians during his presidency.¹⁶ These are atrocious acts: by way of her surprising empathy for this young girl, ‘Drone Bomb Me’ depicts Obama’s violence in all its staggering height. Anohni makes us feel dwarfed by his savagery, giving her the authority necessary to sing a hex-like condemnation of her leader later on her album. ‘Like children we believed,’ she sings on the mid-album cut, ‘Obama’, ‘All the hope drained from your face / Obama’. Hopelessness, indeed.
I am staggered by her artistic act on this record. Whenever I listen to it, my nerve endings feel electric, exposed, properly scintillated. It makes me yearn for abstract things. Hearing it, I want to unfold and weep.
In a hopelessly inadequate but nonetheless substantial way, Anohni leads us to understand the emotions of these victims we neglect or ignore. Empathy is her brave artistic achievement on this record. With Anohni, we see how empathy can produce knowledge of the world’s atrocities. Anohni also demonstrates that merely witnessing an act of radical understanding, even when we are neither the subject nor object of compassion, can make us cry for change. This sight can crack open our entombed hearts. And in the moment of breach, when emotion floods out into our blood, where the spray of feeling hits our mind, we come to a realisation. Anohni shows us that all our own desperation for a world less impoverished of connection, less lonely, and more compassionate, is brought into the light when we reach for another. When Anohni calls for mutual understanding, we find a reflection of ourselves; we see our depths, the things that we lack. And we see that this lack is also an image of the other. All this, we learn from Anohni: it’s what we mean by ‘radical empathy’. Her album is a search for knowledge of the suffering that lives in forgotten hearts; it’s an unveiling of the darkest corners of ourselves.
When I first heard the song, I wondered how Obama would respond to Anohni’s lyrics. Her entire project, after all, is a critique of Obama’s America. Even its title, Hopelessness, is an inversion of his 2008 campaign message: Hope. Her despair is primarily for him, and for the most part, it’s justified. For Anohni and many others — perhaps even for the man himself — Obama underwent a hideous metamorphosis after he won the election. Moving from failure to failure, the hollowness of his optimistic vision became painfully apparent. As we recall, Obama began his presidency by bailing out Wall Street in 2009. He closed it by bombing a Syrian children’s hospital in 2016.¹⁷ Obama slumped from hope to hopelessness with every move. He regularly fell short of his own rhetoric, his own ethical standards. In this way, he turned himself into a figure of cruel irony. By campaigning on such an optimistic platform, he effectively set the stage for his own tragic decline.
In despair, Anohni could respond only by becoming a negative dialectician. She adopts a militant, critical attitude, seeking to uncover the bleak undertone of his lucent words. Accordingly, the tracklist of Hopelessness reads like a dot-point rebuttal of Obama’s campaign promises. For his government’s weak action on climate change, we get ‘4 Degrees’, a doomy cut replete with burning ‘lemurs’ and ‘tiny creatures’. For his retention of the death penalty, we get ‘Execution’, which includes the crushingly judgemental, fist-of-god lyrics, ‘Execution / It’s an American Dream.’¹⁸ Within pop music, it’s rare to the political lyric that captures the ferocious sadness of a commitment to justice. Still more uncommon are statements so unhappily justified by the acts of our leaders.
As listeners, we are struck by the weight of Anohni’s lyrics. The burden of truth gives them heft and impact. Nonetheless, I believe she falls short politically. Though she takes great pains to tear off the shackles of indifference and look her leader’s brutality in the face, she fails to extend her empathy to a final character: Obama himself. In my eyes, her act of empathy is incomplete, as she fails to account for the suffering of the leader who makes these decisions. To me, it seems that Obama was neither callous nor sociopathic: he was compromised. At times, his reluctance is palpable. Speaking to Yanis Varoufakis in 2015, he said concerning the GFC, ‘you must know that I was forced to do things that were very hard for me. Things that I did not want to do. Things that amounted to political poison… I had to collaborate with people that had created the problem.’¹⁹ Here, we find Obama effectively asking for Varoufakis’ empathy. Statements like this are typically are read as cynical, heartless excuses for failing to follow our own principles. Obama was the most powerful man in the world at the time. He had a choice and an ethical duty, we say, and he failed. However, they can also be seen in a more sympathetic light. While Obama was never wholly deprived of his ability to choose, his freedom to follow his principles must have been severely constrained by his political circumstances. To put it another way, the cost of his liberty was beyond our comprehension. But Anohni doesn’t see the pain of those pressed to work against their judgement, their ethics, against every neuron in their brain, and choose cruelty in their actions.
Seen like this, we can see the trauma at the heart of real leadership. In a sense, these people are victims. As Dave Chappelle once said of apartheid South Africa, ‘if a system is corrupt, then the people who adhere to the system, and are incentivised by that system, are not criminals.²⁰ They are victims. The system itself must be tried. But… the only way we can figure out what the system is, is if everyone says what they did. Tell them how you participated.’²¹ Like Anohni, like the little girl who lost her parents to a drone bomb, Obama is a victim of a particular system of authority. Yes, Obama committed atrocities. However, if we consider the pressures upon him during his presidency, I believe we can see that sometimes, people in power have to kill part of themselves to survive. Obama did not ask for hopelessness. But every day, leaders are faced with an imperative to deny their own wishes. To repress themselves. They are beset by stressors that compel them to close down, shut off, and abandon their own beliefs, to resolve the disjunction between desire and action by smothering their hearts. Political and economic rationality is frequently opposed to their emotional world. They crush and silence their emotional self in their attempt to live in a world of brutal political and economic rationality. In a word, leadership is traumatic. And given this, we must suppose that its tensions can encourage us to become narcissistic: to cease empathising with ourselves and others as a means of self-protection. The pain would be too much otherwise.²²
Our literary sensibilities immediately take to this claim. But it is also supported by recent neuroscientific research, which shows that these kinds of empathy deficits are common for those in positions of power. In a fascinating article for the Atlantic,²³ Jerry Useem tells us that personal empowerment leads to neurological changes in people akin to brain damage. They become ‘more impulsive, less risk-aware, and, crucially, less adept at seeing things from other people’s point of view.’ Moreover, power anaesthetises a neural process called ‘mirroring’ that scientists believe ‘may be a cornerstone of empathy.’ This leads them to ‘stop simulating the experience of others’, creating an empathy deficit that can’t be deliberately reversed by the subject. In some ways, this is an adaptive response. Powerful people do not have the time or cognitive capacity to consider the nuanced subjectivity of every person who works for them. This would be impossible. Despite this, leaders are nonetheless at risk of becoming empathically impaired by their position of authority. They lose the abilities that made them a desirable leader in the first place. But maybe this is the only way they can survive. Perhaps this ethic of self-repression is part of the reason.
Anohni’s work remains vital and essential. It demands our empathy for the lives destroyed by Obama’s actions, and its challenge cannot be ignored. Despite this, I believe it doesn’t go far enough. With Anohni, we see that it takes an enormous effort to understand a victim’s humanity when it has been denied. But perhaps it is harder still to comprehend the humanity of the violent perpetrator. To do so, we have to understand how inhumanity sits at the centre of another person’s soul. How living, breathing others can commit atrocities, and nonetheless remain a human being capable of ethics and reflection. This is incredibly hard, but only if we do this can we complete the most challenging task of all: the acceptance of all these things at once. We must empathise with the victim, whose humanity is denied, and the oppressor, who denies their own humanity, and conclude that the chance to be humane, inhumane or both at once is a basic condition and a perennial possibility of being human.
Until we try to understand those who commit atrocities or abuse, the process of empathy is incomplete. We will remain purblind until we ask our leaders what traumas and sufferings were symbiotic with their actions. This is not an apologist’s exercise in pardoning atrocities, however. It is merely a recognition that, without scrupulous accounting that contains all available information, justice cannot be done. We want bespoke solutions, in a word. Justice that is not made to fit will always hold space where injustice can grow.
(6) R U (& UR CORPORATIONS) OK? 2020
Following the gargantuan efforts of mental health activists, medical professionals, political and corporate leaders, and HR departments everywhere, mental health awareness initiatives are something of a global phenomenon these days. I mean this literally: the World Health Organisation, after all, observes their transnational Mental Health Day on October 10th each year. In the USA, Mental Health America designated May as Mental Health Month. The UK and Canada both observe their Mental Health Week in the same month. And since 2009 in Australia, the second Thursday of September is our rather more poetically named²⁴ R U OK? Day.
In my home country, this last day has become a national institution. Organisations all over the country participate. They put up posters, they send out emails, they have nice little talks with snacks. Their brand, with its mad yellow and black logo, which incorporates a smiley face inexplicably scrubbed of its eyes, an interesting choice given that the day is all about empathy, has become ubiquitous. At last, we’re all aware that we need to be aware of mental health problems.
For at least a moment every year, then, corporations try to foster a compassionate atmosphere among their employees. They take a moment to recognise the real, beating human hearts that throb beneath the thin veneer of our corporate personalities. For some, this can be a moment of genuine relief. The façade is stifling after a while, and frequently, it’s built up in moments of defensiveness: in moments where we, in fear of losing our livelihoods or committing some cosmic solecism that would condemn us to the dead-ends of hellaciously obscure corporate offices for the rest of our days, flesh sagging into synthetic leather under halogen lights, or worse, to the abyss of unemployment, choose to hide whatever comes spontaneously to us.
Perhaps for this reason, people seem to like the day. They really value what it represents. And among my friends, the ones who still work in these kinds of offices, positive anecdotes about it are common. At its glittering best, we see coworkers get up and confess their own struggles, and we feel our humanity expand. It gives us a chance to know that we aren’t alone. That the odd person from the statistics department with outlandish opinions and obsessive hobbies, or the pugnacious septuagenarian who should’ve retired years ago and whom people are worried might keel over and just die at his desk, or the oleaginous, ascendant maverick whose life seems suspiciously frictionless, or that tragically obsequious intern who looks exceptionally prim but is nonetheless paronychiatic,²⁵ chewing her nails down to the hyponychium,²⁶ feel the same way we do about the world. It’s very reassuring. That even in the invisible part of others, their elusive minds, we find something like ourselves. These moments of discovery make us all feel less twisted and weird and deeply estranged from the people around us who, contrary to their fleshy, lugubrious appearances, could be phantoms, automatons, or an entirely different form of life to us with a totally alien inner life. ‘What is it like to be a bat?’, said Thomas Nagel. I don’t know; ask one. Maybe what they say will surprise us. Perhaps in their specific struggles, we’ll find something universal about being human.²⁷
In many respects, the compassionate conversation of R U OK? Day can be a tremendous good. It reduces our sense of alienation while raising awareness about terribly common medical ailments. And it could prevent a lot of suffering, in theory. Most importantly, though, it represents a chance to maintain and nurture a culture of empathy wherever you are in life.
In my opinion, such a culture is a vital public good, and it’s one that we all must respect, love and nurture. Its benefits are relational, communal and essential. When we ask R U OK?, after all, the compassionate listener discovers something about the other and about themselves. By answering it, the courageous speaker gains the chance to complete their own image for the listener, and they can see how they are received. Each party catches a glimpse of themselves through the other’s eyes, leading to an improved knowledge of self and relationships for all involved. By trying to know them, we come to know ourselves; and by knowing ourselves, we also come to know them. And we thereby come to learn more about what it is to be human. We leave the conversation better able to connect with everyone else in our lives. So, when we ask and respond to the question, R U OK?, we thereby gain something vital. We discover whether I AM OK; whether U R OK; whether WE ARE OK.
If this all sounds a little self-referential and paradoxical, well, it is. The critical thing to take away, though, is that empathy is good for both the speaker and the listener — the empathee and empather if you will. It’s a social phenomenon at which humans excel. It’s why we’re able to work communally. Why we’re able to love. It’s a risky business, though, this empathy thing. If one party approaches it in bad faith or is deficient as either reflector or reflection, the other person can lose their trust in communication. Where someone is punished for their vulnerability, they might choose to close themselves up. To remain silent where they could speak. To become afraid of sharing their emotions, leading them to fester and decay and mutate in the dark, transforming from possibly minor, transient impressions to pervasive anxieties and depressions. Mental health, it seems, needs communication.
The psychologically astute have known this for a long time. It’s the basic premise of Freudian talk therapy, one of the most significant innovations of the 20th century. And in the Gospel of Thomas, a Gnostic text from the 1st or 2nd century, we find the brilliant line: ‘That which you have will save you if you bring it forth from yourselves.’ In communication, we find salvation. It’s necessary to find a way to trust it. To be vulnerable. To speak our emotions to others. And it’s the lack of trust in communication, I think, that R U OK? Day really tries to remedy. Its message, at heart, isn’t really anything more complicated than this: we should communicate, really communicate our inner lives to those around us. Otherwise, the atrocities of unnecessary mental suffering will propagate, thrive and swallow us.
When a corporation asks this question of its workers, then, should we expect it to improve its self-understanding?²⁸ Should we hold hope that its directors want to improve their empathy? Can we rely on our leaders, whose role involves traumas and stressors, and who are more likely to be drawn from empathic communication and into narcissistic self-enclosure, to step outside their lonely place at the peak of the hierarchy and really speak? One would hope so.
Yet in my experience, my organisation’s promotion of R U OK? Day felt like a deeply ironic joke. Despite her legal, moral and social responsibilities to behave otherwise, my former boss decided to use her powers to terrorise and abuse her subordinates. Though her organisation voluntarily chose to observe R U OK? Day, she acted against its purpose. She destroyed the possibility of empathy at her workplace, and she did so with impunity. Indeed, she has been rewarded for her behaviour. Today, she remains in her position, despite her catastrophic effects on the organisation and her colleagues.
I don’t want to overstate my case here. However, my boss’s abuse of authority has basically shattered the possibility of collective understanding and care at her workplace. She views her employees as objects to be abused; her employees see her as a monster. Humanity has been banished from the building. And by observing R U OK? Day while behaving this way, the meaning of the day has become hollow: a bitter joke.
This contradictory experience is a disappointing outcome for R U OK? Day. Yet I wonder if it isn’t unique to my last workplace. In fact, I suspect my ordeal might be a simple exaggeration of the norm — an archetype of the everyday experience.
As we learned from Obama, a peril of leadership is that empowerment inhibits our empathy. When we become powerful, our minds are less able to understand the subjectivity of others. Accordingly, so long as we have hierarchies and power differentials at work, we’ll find leaders whose empathy is diminished by their responsibilities.
Providing that this research is right, this implies that there is an issue with the structure of workplaces in general. If power promotes a decline in empathy, and this increases the likelihood of abusive, narcissistic behaviours among leaders, causing withdrawn, echoistic behaviour in employees, then a culture of bullying is the logical consequence of our structures of authority. To put this another way, an empathy-deficient ecosystem is a predictable outcome of leadership itself. Where some hold power over others, everybody is pressed to diminish their psychological barriers that prevent abusive behaviour. Their empathy.
If we dig further into the workplace, we find this pattern of authority repeated ad nauseum. Indeed, it is seared into the labour contract itself. Everybody’s favourite anarcho-syndicalist, Noam Chomsky,²⁹ often refers to corporations as ‘private tyrannies’. And he is right, of course. It’s fundamental to our institutions under contemporary capitalism that leaders and subordinates are unequal in knowledge, influence and authority. That they occupy different positions vis-a-vis one another is endemic and essential to the labour relation in its current form. As such, the labour contract is an embodiment of pure, undemocratic authority. When we sign the dotted line and give our leaders a virtually absolute, final say on our actions, we willingly agree to a form of tyranny.
Things need not be this way. Though they are rare, it’s possible to create democratic workplaces where conversations are reciprocal. If we desired, we could give everybody an equal voice that is both influential and respected. We could let workers autonomously and democratically decide on the direction of their work. We could create an environment where people do not feel the need to hide and repress themselves. But we choose not to do so. We tend to prefer workplaces where we can be dismissed for contradicting our leaders. Where we have to smother our dissenting impulses to preserve the source of our income. Where we allow ourselves and others to suffer in silence for fear of reprimand, delivered by an authority over whom we hold no influence. For whatever reason, we prefer relationships of command.
I believe that power, the structure of the workplace, and labour relations themselves encourage us to dampen our empathy. When people are not equal in their authority, they have no reason to treat others as fully autonomous subjects. As complex human beings. Today, we build enterprises premised on these inequalities that compromise our ability to understand one another while we work together. According to economists like Joseph Stiglitz, we work today in a ‘knowledge economy’. Ironically, its workplaces are epistemic dead-zones. They stifle self-understanding. They inhibit our empathy for others. They make it impossible to properly ask, to know and to care whether others R OK. They reduce our own ability to BE OK.
If we ask R U OK? of our leaders and corporations, then, I believe that they can only answer in the negative. The trauma of leadership, coupled with the inegalitarian nature of the labour relationship suggests that genuine empathy is impossible within the workplace. This is a problem. Yet it can be fixed if we democratise the workplace.
(7) THE ONLY SOLUTION: DEMOCRACY!
When I resigned from my role at this business, an emotional conflagration burned in my heart. Violent anger and an acid resentment boiled inside me. While my memory of conversations and events at the organisation were hopelessly obscured, the pain is unforgettable. Indignity hurts, bad. And as rational animals, severe pain teaches us a lesson. It makes us vow to avoid a repetition of events. We promise to defend ourselves against like threats.
It would be easy for me to let my disappointment rule this defensive movement. It would take no effort at all to slam the doors of my psyche shut, sealing me in forever, protecting myself against the chance that I would suffer a relationship with a person like my boss ever again. Perhaps this would work for a while. But in the long run, this would do me the worst harm of all possible solutions. It could turn me into her. I too could then have a tragic destiny, repeating the failures that caused me so much pain, doing to others what I would never tolerate for myself.
I don’t want this. So, in the wake of agony, I cannot deny myself knowledge of what happened. I can’t obscure the pain. Doing so will leave me ignorant, blind and unable to avoid repetition. For this reason, I find myself compelled to acknowledge my most difficult emotions. So now, I’ll speak: instead of hatred, rather than fury, I feel sorrow. In truth, my heart breaks when I think she didn’t have it within herself to treat me or anybody else as a human being. The rapacious loneliness of such a position, the boundless fear of others it entails — this, this must be truly intolerable. I find it terrifying that anybody could bear such a weight entirely by herself. That she staggers around hurting person after person is no surprise to me. How could anyone have a balanced relationship to the world or to themselves while crushed beneath such a mass? She has an impossible burden. I hope that she can find relief someday.
From my empathy and understanding for her, I turn towards a desire for justice. The system that produces victims in this manner, that first wounded her and then turned her against me, must be fixed. In the name of compassion and knowledge, the production of narcissists and their woeful Echoes must be stopped. Asking R U OK? is a movement towards solving abuse in the workplace, a scourge responsible for much of the psychological suffering of contemporary society. But it’s not yet enough. While it is a bid for a communal, relational experience, it usually occurs in an environment bereft of real community and relationships, where inequality prevails, where people are defined by differences in their power, and where communication is constrained.
Unless we remove the barriers to empathy between leaders and their followers, our empathic gestures will always be limited in their effectiveness. So, when we ask R U OK?, the question must extend outwards and downwards to our friends, colleagues and subordinates. At the same time, it must reach upwards and backwards to the organisation and its leaders, who must then recognise the voices of their workers and change their behaviours. This is especially true for companies where the traumatic truth of its employment relationships is suppressed; where silence prevails over issues of abuse; where people suffer quietly; and where its leader, alone and invulnerable at the precipice of the operation, is never called into account.
Moreover, if we care about the mental health problems that are sweeping our society, we ought to go even further. We must extend our questioning to the nature of authority itself. Currently, our working arrangements give certain people the ability to inflict harm with apparent impunity. We protect people who cast aside their empathy, and who, through their subsequent abuses, force others to do so. Perhaps it even rewards them for their cruelty. It isn’t clear that the authority endemic to the labour contract is compatible with empathy at all. Thus, we should ask: IS AUTHORITY OK? Until we can say ‘yes’ without reservation, then R U OK? Day will be mired in contradiction. It will be a band-aid solution to the fissure that lies at the heart of our society.
In my view, until this political — yes, political — issue that defangs empathy is resolved, our society will always have room for unnecessary inhumanity. We need a properly emotional dialogue between all levels of our organisations, all levels of our own psyches. We need the right to speak openly. We need democracy. Without it, our organisations, our relationships and our subjectivity will remain divided, spinning between yellow and vengeful, sun-like burning, and the quiet and black depths of despair, split by the unjust inequality of our mad world.
1 Vortioxetine tablets manufactured by H. Lundbeck A/S. An SSRI used to treat MDD, GAD and other mood disorders. It comes in three doses and colours: pink for 5mg; yellow for those on a 10mg dose; and red if you take 20mg. Also known as Trintellix in some foreign markets, namely the USA, where the name was changed to avoid confusion with the tricalegor tablet, Brilinta® of AstraZeneca PLC, the pharmaceutical and biopharmaceutical company responsible for making a promising COVID-19 vaccine.
2 In hindsight, these could’ve been deeply strategic, though.
3 See section 789FD of the Fair Work Act 2009 (Cth).
4 See page 14 of the Fair Work Commission’s Anti-Bullying Benchbook, available at https://www.fwc.gov.au/documents/documents/benchbookresources/anti-bullying/anti-bullying-benchbook.pdf
5 More commonly known as valium, due to the wildly successful patent-protected variant that hit the market first. I take a generic brand, APO-Diazepam, 5mg, manufactured by Apotex Pty Ltd.
6 I.e. like every modernist artist who believes God is Dead, i.e. who is nihilistic in the 20th-century sense. See https://www.brainpickings.org/2017/07/06/frida-kahlo-diary-color/
7 Neologism. I.e. of or relating to perdition.
8 See The Diagnostic & Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders: 5th Edition, p. 671.
9 I was introduced to the term in Donna Christina Savery’s 2017 book, Echoism: The Silenced Response to Narcissism.
10 An underemphasised aspect of the Narcissus myth, in my view, is Echo’s emotional experience of her condition. I’m unsure whether this is ironic or tragic, or whether it’s both. The myth, at least in Ovid’s version, tells us nothing about how Echo feels about her entrapment in the language of others. Unable to express herself, to show the world her invisible heart by speaking, her despair was probably incomparable. I imagine that she suffered more than Narcissus himself, that accidious boy with his suicidal passivity. We can’t say for sure.
In another layer of irony, this neglect of Echo’s emotions is homologous with the Cartesian mind/body divide through which we conceived of her suffering. Descartes’ cogito is separate from the body and its feelings, after all. For him, being ensnared in language would not cause pain. I am glad that modern psychology goes beyond Descartes, then, and sees the emotional, bodily hell that deprivation of subjectivity entails. Being stripped of the full powers of our linguistic faculty language is not just a problem of the mind: it’s a heart issue, too.
11 From his interview in the New York Times, ‘After Five Books, A Measure of Peace’, quoted in Shaw’s book. See https://www.nytimes.com/2012/03/15/books/edward-st-aubyn-author-of-at-last-at-peace.html
12 ART & EMPATHY — In 2016, Anohni was only one of three of my favourite artists that irrevocably shifted my view of empathy. First, I encountered Brian Eno explaining that the critical function of art is to make us imagine new worlds, he said, which ‘helps us experience empathy’.(a) Then, in Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself, I read David Foster Wallace taking pains to explain that good writing is premised upon empathy, a respect for the complexity of others. For him, ‘the writer should ‘remind the reader of how smart the reader is… I just think to look across the room and automatically assume that somebody else is less aware than me, or that somehow their interior life is less rich, and complicated, and acutely perceived than mine, makes me not as good a writer. Because that means I’m going to be performing for a faceless audience, instead of trying to have a conversation with a person… I’ve started to think it’s my biggest asset as a writer. Is that I’m pretty much just like everybody else.’
Both of them make excellent points, but personally, I think we can be more radical. Art doesn’t merely rely on empathy or help us experience it. The imaginative experience of art, for both creator and observer, literally is empathy because it is always a communicative act. Much like when speech exits our mouths, the moment art leaves the creator’s studio, art enters the social realm. Its creation and its release is a communicative act that, if it is any good, inspires more creative, communicative acts. And communication doesn’t occur without the understanding of the participants — without the empathy of all involved.
13 The New York Times’ Ben Ratliff described Anohni’s work as an example of ‘radical’ empathy. To me, radical empathy seems to mean nothing more than ‘really strong and deliberate empathy w/ people you don’t usually care about’. It also tells us basically everything we need to know about our society that this is conceived as a radical political act.
14 The quote is from Pitchfork’s review of the single. See https://pitchfork.com/reviews/tracks/18084-anohni-drone-bomb-me/
18 Maybe ‘ham-fist-of-god’ would be more appropriate — the lyrics on Hopelessness can, at times, be a little too blunt. Frankly, I prefer the nuance of James Murphy’s ‘American Dream’ on LCD Soundsystem’s fourth record.
19 Adults in the Room, p. 375.
20 Though this is practically a tautology — i.e. those who uphold the system are basically, by definition, not criminals.
21 From his Netflix special, quoted in https://time.com/5022229/metoo-dave-chappelle-truth-reconciliation/
22 Varoufakis himself seems to understand as much. He has described Adults In The Room, his account of his time as Greece’s finance minister, as the most painful book he has ever written.
24 From an aesthetic standpoint, the duplication of the ‘th’ in ‘Health Month’ is particularly unattractive. And R U OK? Day has the advantage of containing an ethical directive for its observers, i.e. asking its titular question.
25 A neologism. There was no adjective form, so far as I could tell, for the word ‘paronychia’, that disgusting condition of red, swollen, fingers that is common for nail-biters.
26 This character, admittedly, is a description of myself.
27 This is a basic broad Maoist-Marxist-Hegelgian point: in specificity, we find instances of the universal.
28 Keeping in mind, of course, that today corporations are said to have a personality at law.
29 Yanis Varoufakis being a close second, of course.