Wednesday, September 12, 2018

The Cons of Empathy

Hello again, folks.
I'm back to let you know that I can really shake 'em down.

Last week I'd gotten to the point where I was taunting the CEO of Twitter in the hope that he would ban me, so I could achieve a sort of digital hermitage and go cold turkey from the drug of social media. Seeing new and old friends at Bouchercon was a welcome respite from the news, though I did take a peek at the cover of USA Today for my daily dose of dread. (You can't quit dread cold turkey, the withdrawal symptoms can be fatal).

I have a love-hate relationship with conventions or any social gathering, as meeting people makes me nervous. My writing came from being a quiet observer in social situations, the kid hiding under the dining room table at family events, drawing bizarre tapestries akin to the caverns at Lascaux with my crayons on the underside of the furniture, emerging only to sneak abandoned pony bottles of Rolling Rock and to stuff a meatball in the heel of a loaf of bread and dunk it in the pot of tomato sauce. I have always felt like an anthropologist from another planet, the reverse of Oliver Sacks's "An Anthropologist on Mars." I'm the Martian, observing the strange species of soft, hairless, and physically and emotionally violent apes we call humans.

And they still puzzle me. Conventions are an interesting place to people-watch because like a Carnivale of sorts, people feel free to be themselves, or put forth the personae they want so desperately to be. Either allows for brief glimpses of the person behind the mask, as they take a breath when they think no one is looking. To quote Gerald Kersh, one of the most criminally under-read writers of the 20th century, whose collection Clock Without Hands I was honored to write an introduction to:

"...there are men whom one hates until a certain moment when one sees, through a chink in their armour, the writhing of something nailed down and in torment."

That is from his story of a crabby old landlord who breaks down when his beloved dog is struck by a lorry, "Busto is a Ghost, Too Mean to Give us a Fright," and can be found in the collection Nightshades and Damnations, edited by Harlan Ellison and reprinted by Valancourt Books. I have carried it with me since reading it, first quoted by Ellison in an essay, then later when I tracked down the story (after contacting Ellison, which I've written all too much about). And I try to recite it whenever I find myself loathing somebody, whether for their narcissistic behavior, their virulent clinginess and stalking, snarky insults, or just plain cruelty. I first used it as a mantra for my father, who before we elected a President who "tells it like it is," used that excuse to insult whomever he liked, and yet somehow be affronted when the mildest criticism was aimed his way. "I'm just telling it like it is." But like Doctor Lecter, as Clarice Starling said, he never aimed that intellect at himself.

At first I sympathized with those "somethings nailed down and in torment," because that is what empathy does, it puts you in another's shoes. I was younger then, and unfamiliar with accountability and responsibility, two of the cornerstones of maturity and adulthood. You can make mistakes, but if you choose not to atone, if you expect to be forgiven with no redemptive actions on your part, you are the one driving the nails into your inner self, and the torment you endure is punishment inflicted upon yourself. It is not up to your victims to forgive you. Threatening legal action, telling people it's okay to be friends with you "because your lawyer cleared you" don't make you sound like you have redeemed yourself, they make you sound like someone I don't need in my life.

I have let my empathy be used against me. As a country, we have as well. We want to give seats at the table to people who want to kill the other people at the table. We tell ourselves that we're being civil, when we are being cowards. No more. People who stalk, abuse, and threaten violence to other people do not get to sit at our tables and abuse our kindness. If we can't agree on that, I'm not sure what else there is to agree upon.

Then there are people like Louis CK, who want to set the terms for their own redemption. That's not how it works. I don't recall him apologizing to anyone. And how is his life "destroyed?" I don't see him eating out of a dumpster, he'll be fine. He can touch himself in the privacy of his own home. Here's another strike against empathy. I bet Louis CK feels sorry. Not only for the consequences, even. But that's not enough. His ickiness was predictable to me when I first saw his act eight years ago in Red Bank, at the Count Basie theater. He had that self-deprecating "men are all horrible people" shtick which is so often used as misdirection to distract people from looking too closely at the speaker's own behavior. And no, I'm not saying "not all men." We live in polluted water; we are all affected by it. We can try our damnedest to "be better" (or best?) but until we stop crapping in the pool or rolling our eyes when another man does--instead of kicking him out of the pool, as was done with Louis CK--we are going to be wallowing in a feces-clogged patriarchal swamp.

Which brings me to Jay Stringer's blog post about his recent resignation from the board of Bouchercon. Give it a read. It's vague at points, but what it's about is how difficult it is to change things when you feel sorry for people who are adults and should know how to behave. I believe in second chances, but you don't get those while you are still on your first chance, like Louis CK. Or the sex offender than Shane Black keeps casting in his movies, a friend of his who was caught trying to set up a meet for sex with a 14 year old girl. I actually have more sympathy for that guy, because he served jail time so his first chance thus ended. I respect Olivia Munn for speaking up--at minimum, there should have been protocols in place to keep him away from any minors on the set of The Predator. (You can't make this up.) Hollywood sucks at this: Victor Salva raped a boy on set, whose family was then sued by Francis Ford Coppola's production company. Salva then was allowed to make creepy teen-obsessed movies like the Jeepers Creepers flicks.

And this isn't "virtuous reading" or whatever the status quo ding-dongs want to call it. You want to read a book by a stalker creep, go right ahead! But don't ignore the victims who say they were harassed by men who are then allowed to attend your convention because you have a "policy." I'm not sure how this policy is enforced. I saw one drunken writer dragged out of Noir at the Bar by hotel security after he nearly got the event shut down. At Thrillerfest, they have convention staff who wear shirts labeled SECURITY and that made me think twice about trying to enter the signing line for George R.R. Martin a second time. It probably keeps the thigh massaging stalker creepos from behaving badly. Women attendees of Thrillerfest haven't spoken out. I'll ask friends who attended and see what they thought. Anyway, Bouchercon was a good time this year. There were some problematic issues with a panel, but I will leave the telling to those who were there.

Kellye Garrett made a great speech when accepting her Anthony Award for best debut novel, for Hollywood Homicide. She read Frankie Bailey's statistics for how many nonwhite, non-straight writers have been published in the mystery/crime field in the U.S. That number is 177, and it is mindnumbing. 177, all time. She won the debut Anthony, Attica Locke won for best novel (Bluebird, Bluebird is great and deserved it), Gary Phillips won best anthology for The Obama Inheritance. And what she said afterward stands--"we need to stop looking at diversity as a trend, and make it the status quo." And she's right. Color, creed, gender and orientation, and as I'm known to pipe about, class, as most crime fiction comes from a very bourgeois middle-class perspective where we sneer at the lower class or revel in their squalor. The Anthonys last week were a good start.

I'm looking forward to Left Coast Crime this year. I am told they mixed panels last year, with seasoned pros, rookies, midlisters, noir, thriller, cozy, traditional writers all together like we're a community. It viewed askance, but the feedback from writers and readers has been positive. So I am going to LCC next year, to give them a shot. I have been going to Bouchercon for 8 years, and while I am grateful for the work of all the people involved, I keep seeing the same panels with the same people. I was miffed that I wasn't on the criminals in fiction panel with my buddy Josh Stallings, but that's the only panel I've seen him on. I've moderated cozy vs noir, sex & violence... but I see the same people, except at the bar. Bouchercon is much bigger and there are many panels, but sometimes it feels like the titles are what change most. Here's a great interview with Octavia Butler where she complains about being on "the race panel" for 20 years at SF conventions (most of which have since learned to mix up panels so readers are introduced to new writers).

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