One of my earliest exposures to the concept of empathy came in the form of Everlast’s 1998 one-hit wonder “What It’s Like,” a slow rap on a backdrop of folksy guitar with all the requisite sound effects and turntable wiggles of the era. It’s no masterpiece, but it was overplayed on the radio beyond all measure of sensibility when I was in middle school, meaning it’ll stay lodged in my head for the rest of my days. Still, with its lyrics about the pain of addiction, poverty, and loss, it was among the first times I can remember hearing and thinking about the phrase “walk a mile in [someone else’s] shoes.”
This article is not about the bizarre pop hits of the late ‘90s, though hit me up if you ever do want to have that discussion. I bring up “What It’s Like” because, musical merits notwithstanding, it has an important lesson to share: empathy isn’t possible without understanding. And understanding isn’t possible without the story, detail, and background of what someone else is going through. The word “narrative” serves as a good catch-all for story, detail, and background. In society writ large, certain narratives get more airtime, representation, and discussion than others. The system of U.S. higher education is no exception to that, nor is Olin as a particular location within that system.
Because we live in a society, the narratives of certain groups do not tend to get attention at our institution.1 But we need information in order to empathize, and because the narratives of certain groups do not get attention, information that could lead to empathy for those groups goes unheard. Without that informed empathy, people become akin to non-player characters (NPCs)—characters in games that are not controlled by a human player, like the iconic “Hello, my friend! Stay a while and listen” guy from Diablo.2 They are creatures without agency that do not exist as ends in themselves but rather as a means to an end for others, perhaps moving one narrative along while not having a narrative themselves. It’s also tempting to assume you know what’s going on with NPCs when you don’t, because it’s easy to stereotype someone or assign their motives when you don’t consider them to be fully human.
Understanding and empathizing with each other takes effort, though, and if there’s one thing we don’t have a surplus of right now, it’s energy. Earlier this semester, I had a conversation with students about the cognitive dissonance between acknowledging that people are burned out and over capacity and needing to try harder than we normally would to be patient and understanding with each other. A friend at another institution who serves as a vocal labor advocate in her faculty union suggested to me that the extra expenditure of resources—if it’s truly in the name of supporting one another—is worth it, even (if not especially) when we’re this exhausted. It’s a rare case of pushing ourselves in a way that does not have to be exploitative, but instead can lead to what labor activists and sociologists call solidarity. Quoting the Wikipedia3 entry: “Solidarity is an awareness of shared interests, objectives, standards, and sympathies creating a psychological sense of unity of groups or classes4, which rejects the class conflict.” You could think of students, staff, and faculty as separate groups or classes, and you could think of what might unite them as solidarity. To know what might unite these groups, you need some amount of understanding about what each of them is experiencing. Without that, you’re prone to start seeing members of groups other than your own as NPCs.
As I’m writing this in late November, there are abundant reasons to be annoyed, scared, and furious at larger forces in the world, at the U.S., at late-stage capitalism, at the criminal justice system, at tech giants, at the construction of pipelines on stolen land, at the COVID cases ticking back up yet again, at the effing Omicron variant. Not one of us asked to be living through history, and here we are, muddling through a watershed event with no end in sight. It’s valid to feel overwhelmed and hopeless in the face of these things. That said, if we work to build understanding, empathy, and solidarity, we might find ourselves with a way forward. This is not a solution, nor is it a new construction, but instead is a common ground we might be able to stand on if we try to find it.
There are many barriers to solidarity at Olin, as there are anywhere (again, we live in a society), but the big one I want to leave us thinking about is the compartmentalization of students, faculty, and staff. These roles have a meaningful functional difference and this is no argument for dissolving them, but true solidarity can and should overcome categorical distinction. If we can find no solidarity between students, staff, and faculty, this effectively denies the potential, and perhaps the very existence, of higher education. We also need solidarity between faculty and staff because as we try to walk the walk of incorporating ethics, inclusion, and humanities into our mission and offerings, we cannot deny the importance of expertise and lived experience of all kinds in this work. Not to mention, a lack of solidarity between different types of labor in any workplace is a liability when any one of us wants to push for better working conditions.5 Many members of our three groups want to see a better world, and many of us have quite similar visions of a better world, and that looks like a path to solidarity. This is not healing, or resilience, which asks us to impossibly return to a “before” state that can no longer be accessed and often negates our experience. This is not turning a crisis into opportunity. Instead, solidarity asks us to find a shared reason to come as we are, broken and mistrustful, from different levels of the system and with our pain validated. It’s a shift away from deficit logic, not toxic positivity6 or a denial of what we’ve been through, and therein lies its power.
The last line of the bridge in “What It’s Like” is this: “You know, where it ends, it usually depends on where you start.” We might try to start from a place where we acknowledge there are many larger and smaller intersecting systems impacting us inside and outside our Olin bubble, where all the players are seen as human, where we’re patient with each other’s mistakes, where solidarity helps us keep going as a group even when individuals feel as if they’ve got nothing left. In the uncertain times of COVID, we are all “stuck in a route of confusion, changing and waiting and seeking the truth of it all.”7 So let’s try to walk it together, if for no other reason than that the forces in the world we want to stop and reverse would like nothing more than to see us breaking off alone.
- See “Olin: An ‘Alien’ Perspective” in Frankly Speaking vol. 14, issue 3.
- Spoiler alert: Librarians actually love Wikipedia, and many of us help keep Wikipedia entries up to date.
- Note that this is an oversimplification; of course there are many subgroups of identities, class years, job types, and much more within these three, but for the purposes of this article, we’ll keep it zoomed out.
- I’m quoting a Swedish death metal band here in hopes of balancing all the Everlast. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XhohQNdSt7g