Thoughts On Radical Empathy

Okay so, I stayed up way too late ruminating about something and I decided to just pour it all out of me in one big burst of semi-creative essay writing. Apologies if this kind of meanders about, I didn't have any plan or structure built for this, it just sort of gushed forth.

Radical Empathy is Fucking Dope

Who doesn't love a good kung-fu movie? Or maybe the odd Marvel movie? I know it's kind of mainstream right now to shit all over Marvel movies for being junk-food media and yeah, a lot of them are, but that's okay. Sometimes, it's okay to have a fun, silly, enjoyable movie that may or may not have much substance to it... of course, what you consider to have little or no substance depends entirely on your point of view, and I've been trying very hard to show more respect for that--the perspectives of others--at least when it comes to media, politics is a whole other can of worms I don't want to open with this... essay? Rant?


I'm trying to learn to be more empathetic about a variety of things. It just so happens that in the process of coming to this conclusion, I realized that a fair bit of the media I've been consuming over the last several years--especially the films and shows that I genuinely, deeply love with my whole self, unironically, unashamedly, and unabashedly--share this trait as well. They put empathy front and center. Empathy is the greatest weapon the heroes in these shows have.

Steven Universe

A show that starts off basically as a rote, by the numbers, magical boy adventure series becomes this enormous commentary on the power of empathy and using kindness and understanding to make someone not just stop fighting, but make them not WANT to fight, because they see a different path to take--or at least, they no longer see fighting as worth the effort.

Sure there's a whole discussion to be had about reforming the Diamonds (as in... reforming their characters, not the actual act of reforming after a gem's physical form is destroyed via poofing). I mean... White Diamond is a LITERAL white supremacist and they reform her, and she's just... not a fascist anymore. That sure would be nice to see it go down that easy in the real world, but it takes a lot longer and a lot more effort for us Hoo-Mons.

Spider-Man: No Way Home

Tom Holland's Peter Parker is more interested in healing the bad guys and sending them back--hoping that they won't end up dying when they return--than either killing them or sending them back as is. He wants to help them. Of course, there's the whole commentary between him and Aunt May about "it's not my problem" and she claps back at him with "you have the ability to help, you have the responsibility to help"... and then later with that classic Spider-Man line--with great power comes great responsibility.

For so long it's been intended to mean 'if you have super powers, you should use them to be a super hero and beat up the bad guys'. Now, it takes on an entirely new dimension. You don't have to have super powers. If you can help someone, help them. Simply saying "it's not my problem" isn't good enough anymore. We're all in this together. And look what happens when Peter throws it aside and seeks to kill and avenge. It's a deeply upsetting moment where you can see him about to go down a road he can't come back from--only to be stopped by someone who failed to save that same person. Toby Maquire's Peter jumps in the way to stop Tom Holland from killing, basically giving Toby's Peter the redemption he felt he needed because he couldn't save Norman. He gets stabbed for the trouble, but he's justified because how that fight ended for him originally has haunted him ever since, and it cost him his best friend.

Toby's Peter showed empathy for a murderer he couldn't save so that Tom's Peter could cure him.

Everything Everywhere All At Once

This is a film about so many things: generational trauma, the road less traveled, toxic nihilism, Chekov's buttplug. In it, we get a woman who is living a mundane life suddenly thrown into an action adventure spanning the multiverse where she can connect to different version of herself, access the memories and skills of that life, and use them. As she progresses, her mind starts to fracture while trying to take in more and more of the multiverse until the nihilism kind of breaks her. And then... her husband, Waymond--played by the outstanding Ke Huy Quan--makes an impassioned plea to just be kind. He has no idea what the hell is going on but feels like somehow, he's at the center of it, the cause of it. This isn't him being narcissistic. He had literally just served Evelyn divorce papers. Of course he's going to think she's going completely out of her mind because of that.

Evelyn connects back to a version of herself where they never married and she went on to become a martial arts movie star, reconnects with him at the opening of her latest film, and they're out in an alley behind the theater chatting. He tells her that his way of looking at the world, his kindness, isn't a weakness, it's a strength, it's how he's survived, it's how he learned how to fight in his own way. She jumps back to her prime self and begins to achieve the same enlightenment as her Waymond. She takes a bullet she has caught, turns it into a googly eye, and puts it on her forehead--symbolizing the opening of her third eye chakra--and then she turns to look at him when he asks what she's doing.

"I'm learning how to fight like you."

From there, rather than beating up all the goons in her way, she uses her knowledge of the multiverse to find what makes each one of them happy, gives it to them, and leaves them slumped in a contented, sprawled, seat, no longer wanting to fight because they've been given peace and serenity. When she goes on to stop Jobu Tupaki, after going through the usual fighting stance in preparation for battle, Evelyn just opens her arms in a gesture for a hug. Her empathy has allowed her to reach this far, and it goes further to convince an alternate universe version of her father to help anchor her so she doesn't get sucked into... a bagel... yes... a bagel. Watch the movie, it's so good.

Thor: Love and Thunder

(SPOILERS HERE FOLLOW since this is still a pretty recent film)

Thor is faced with finding and defeating Gorr the God Butcher--a man who was driven to murder all of the gods because the one he devoted his life to didn't save his daughter and then attempted to kill him just out of his capricious nature. Thor doesn't kill him. Thor doesn't even really beat him. Jane--with the power of Thor coursing through her--manages to destroy the sword that has corrupted Gorr. When he finally reaches that which he seeks, ready to make a wish--to kill all the gods--Thor just... kind of gives up. Rather than try to fight him or kill him, he would rather spend his last moments with the woman he loves, to spend HER last moments with her. This reaches Gorr, and he sees that the pain he was put through isn't unique. He's given the idea to wish for his daughter back instead. Thor has learned empathy, to be present in the moment, to appreciate what is truly precious, to be mindful and caring, and it stops Gorr from wishing for the deaths of all of the gods. Thor could just as easily have thrown his axe and killed Gorr before he could make his wish, but he likely would have lost the last precious moment he had with Jane, and that was more important to him, even if it meant he would die as well.

Radical Empathy

All of these examples--and countless others not named here--share this trait in common. They all demonstrate a character (or multiple characters) actively trying to better understand and share the feelings of those they are in direct opposition to. It is not to manipulate and take advantage of them. The point is to take the fight out of both sides so they will do--as The Doctor put it--what they were always going to have to do, sit down and talk.

I will be the first to admit that there are some people who simply refuse to talk. They cannot be reasoned with. They cannot be empathized with. They are too set in their toxic views to be reached. Thankfully, those people are growing exceedingly rare. Unfortunately, many of them have their hands on the levers of power and a great deal of influence--frequently for personal financial gain. But this does not mean everyone is beyond hope. There are those who can still find a way out of their violent course back to a more peaceful path.

I've been finding my taste for violence in media is shifting. I still enjoy a good fight in a movie or TV show, if it's well done and actually means something in the story. The original Karate Kid is--in my opinion--still a remarkable film with an outstanding emotional climax. But I'm finding that reaching the antagonist and convincing them to back down through not strength, violence, or threats, but with empathy is far more satisfying. To look your greatest foe in the eye and tell them you understand, that they don't have to fight, that they can be forgiven, that whatever was driving them doesn't have to control them, that is an even greater victory. There won't be any "I'll get you next time, Gadget" moment. Hell, Love and Thunder showed exactly that. Two people who could not empathize with one another, even when one of them tried as hard as he could, resulted in a fight. That fight angered the one who lost, and he now seeks revenge for his defeat. It's great for keeping a comic book series--or a media empire ruled over by the almighty mouse--going on in perpetuity. Empathy can actually bring a true end to the fighting.

Star Trek has strived to embody these ideals. It hasn't always lived up to that standard, but by god it tries and it wears it right there on its sleeves. This is why I love the franchise so much. Strange New Worlds has done a remarkable job putting radical empathy on display in several key moments--not the least of which is the absolute masterpiece that is the series premier. Discovery did it with two entire seasons, choosing to reach out and connect with others to solve crises rather than fall back into the comfortable and easy to understand war-like stance. Picard--though much maligned--has been all about that from the word go. I will defend that show up and down. Is it perfect? No. Not by a pretty good stretch. Here's the thing though; it doesn't have to be. Just like with the flaws of Steven Universe--like the reforming of a literal white supremacist--getting too bogged down in some of the details can make you miss the bigger picture. Picard shines bright in several key spots, like how it makes you empathize with the Borg, then it turns the Borg into an agent of empathy itself. Q demonstrates extraordinary kindness that forces Picard himself to recontextualize the entirety of their interactions going all the way back to Encounter at Farpoint, and it does it so fast that it surprises even Q himself.

"Mon Capitaine, It's time to go."
"But not alone... that's what this was all about, wasn't it?"

Star Wars even has its own profound moments of radical empathy.

Luke desperate to turn his father back to the light of the force "I'm not going to leave you here, I've got to save you! I won't leave you!"

Queen Amidala begged Boss Nass to join the Nubian army to fight against the trade federation. She demonstrated great empathy, recognizing that the Gungans saw the Nubians as arrogant, believing that the Nubians saw themselves as superior. As soon as she prostrated herself before Nass, he immediately changed his tune.

"You don't think you're any better than the Gungans? I like this. Maybe we can be friends."

(Yes, I did rewrite the dialog so you wouldn't have to deal with their dialect, I know many of you don't like it, you're welcome)

Rey--having successfully stabbed Kylo through the abdomen--realizes she has dealt him a fatal blow. Rather than stand back and let him die, she heals him. This confuses the crap out of Kylo, but it reaches him on a level he had not yet been reached on. That combined with the death of his mother and going through the exercise of getting a do-over with what he felt he should have said to his father, the act of genuine kindness, of empathy, reaches him, and he turns back to the light of the force.

And lest we forget from The Last Jedi

"That's how we win. Not fighting what we hate, saving what we love."

Rose Tico got done dirty in Rise of Skywalker, and I blame all the hateful punks who bullied Kelly Marie Tran. They successfully scared a multinational, multi-billion-dollar company into shunting a wonderful actress into a tiny little minor role. Granted, Rise had a great many other problems--again, not a perfect film by far, but certainly possessing its own merits.

The act of demonstrating radical empathy is an act of faith. It's not faith in a deity or religion or faith in one's own powers or strengths. It's faith in the other person, that they will see you reaching for them and take the chance to reach for you as well. Yes, it's an enormous risk. It leaves you vulnerable. If the other person chooses to, they could strike and do serious, even fatal harm. That's the power of the act of demonstrating radical empathy. When given a proper chance, it short circuits hate. It confuses the fight or flight part of the brain.

"Why are they doing that? Don't they know I could just stab or shoot them?"

The instant that first step is taken by both sides, the battle is over. It might only be a short-lived peace, but it is peace nonetheless and that peace can buy precious time for those in danger to seek safety. With a little luck, a lot of patience (certainly a great deal more than I posses admittedly), it can begin to build the foundation of a lasting harmony.

For so long, so many have been going on and on about how we're more divided today than ever before. I don't think we're really that far gone. We haven't broken out into civil war, no matter how badly some truly dangerous and toxic elements might wish for it. I think there's a way back for us, but it's going to be hard. It's going to take a lot of work and a lot of patience, and more deprogrammers than we have, but I think it's still possible.

The trick with being on the receiving end of radical empathy is being able to admit you were wrong. That can be scary, and it can be difficult because we have this obsession with 'saving face'. Pride can be a good thing, but too much pride can get in the way and make you stubborn.

I for one am proud of who I am, of the person I have discovered myself to be. I can't go back to what I was before, nor do I want to. There are people in this world that want me erased because of who I am. I won't back down and I won't stop being me. But I'm not so proud that I think I'm invincible. I recognize that if things go a certain way in my country, I may end up dying for what I believe. I hope it doesn't come to that, but that is still a very real possibility I see on the horizon. There are people in my city who have already openly called for the deaths of people like me. This isn't hypothetical--and all because I don't conform to their idea of "normal love".

I'm not the one to reach out to these people to short circuit their hatred. I don't know how to empathize with someone who has said that gay people should be dragged out into the street and shot in the head. I hope there's someone out there who knows how to reach them. Otherwise, a lot of innocent people are going to get hurt, or even die.

I would like to see more radical empathy in the world, and portraying in the media we consume is absolutely an excellent way to start exposing us to it.

All I can hope to do is live up to the way Julius Heartstriker, the nice dragon, saved the world. He did it not by battling a terrible foe and beating them in single combat. He didn't formulate a brilliant plan and lead an army. He changed one person's mind and took a leap of faith. He showed her he was willing to die to save her, and in her shock and confusion, she sent the nameless end she had summoned back from wince it came.

Maybe that's all I have to do. Maybe I just need to change one person's mind, and that will be enough.

One genuine act of kindness can spark another.

I just want to spark as many as I can.

The world needs it.