Talking about empathy is great, but doing it can change lives.
Sparked by Tom Matlack’s Why Our Boys Need The Good Men Project
Attempts to understand what happened at Sandy Hook Elementary School have reignited typical gun and mental health discussions but, perhaps to the largest extent in recent memory, it’s made an examination of “male violence” a top priority. In a criminology class the discussion can be had because it’s understood by all that other variables have been scaled back in order to take a more focused view on this variable. In online forums and the broader public media however, the discussion can quickly fizzle out and become not the discussion on crime and criminology that it was meant to be but about stereotyping gender and the dangers embedded within phrases like “male violence.” Both are necessary, but equally necessary is to keep them separate at times. No, not all males are violent and anyone who assumes such is absurd. Once that is out of the way, some commentators have been able to develop a dialogue about male violence. Great. Unfortunately, the discussion seems to most often be missing one key element: men are scared of “male violence” too. Truth is, many become violent to defend themselves from this and other fears. We think of needing armor to defend ourselves against violence, but so too must we begin to see how the violence is in itself a kind of armor.
The main thing for us to remember is that, the same crime element that white people are scared of, black people are scared of. The same crime element that white people fear, black people fear. So we defend our self from the same crime element that they are scared of…”
- Tupac Shakur, 1994 interview with Ed Gordon
When I taught poetry in the boy’s ward of a juvenile detention center in Arizona one thing became abundantly clear: though many had admittedly committed violent crimes they most often did so out of fear. What do I mean by this? I mean they were scared their weakness would be capitalized on, mostly by men or by other boys their age. They were scared they’d be the ones getting stabbed or shot up. Our politicians can call it a “preemptive strike” and then go ride a horse on their farm in Texas but these boys call it life and many end up locked up or dead.
The fear didn’t stop there. They were scared that if they started working a typical job or started going to school that they’d be completely ostracized by their clique. Some said they were scared that if they participated in class that the other boys in class would think they were “soft” and that being soft could get them seriously hurt. Some stuttered and were scared to express themselves. Others were angry that their sexuality wasn’t “what it’s supposed to be.” Many, I’d actually say most, didn’t have a dad at home and turned at tender ages to the wrong men for role models. Some were scared to leave or disobey their gang because this gang had become their family. Many of the minorities said they were scared they couldn’t make it in a society where success was determined mostly on how white people defined it. Even the white boys said they were scared they couldn’t live up to such expectations. On more than one occasion boys would told me that their father (usually drunk) would beat the shit out them but would only yell at their sister. One boy said this taught him never to hit girls or women. Buried in each backhand of his brutal abuse he found a good lesson but, my god, not nearly lesson enough, to say nothing of the manner in which it was presented…
My high levels of “feeling” for them, even to the point where I was crying after each class, wasn’t what enabled their truths to come out. It wasn’t until I got real, until I broke down and told my own stories of abuse, until I dropped the Whitman and busted DMX or something from 2Pac’s Changes that they opened up. It made me realize that even the greatest, deepest caring in the world can still be closed. It’s when this caring comes with the willingness to be vulnerable and open up that empathy goes from a great abstract idea to, well, The Rose that Grew from Concrete.
I knew the importance of empathy and even talked about it. But it wasn’t until I used it that change happened. What is it within you that allows you to empathize with those who need empathy most? This is what needs to be drawn out. These young boys didn’t give two shits when I told them what empathy was or why there were lessons to be learned from Whitman, but they came to understand everything when I showed them.
And only time we chill is when we kill each other /
It takes skill to be real, time to heal each other.
- Tupac Shakur, Changes