Jane Fonda has had a long and storied career of acting and activism. The daughter of American screen legend Henry Fonda, Jane studied under Lee Strasberg before embarking on an acting career herself that now spans almost six decades. Along with many others, Fonda was politicised by the tempestuous sixties. She is most remembered for famously and very publicly opposing the imperial slaughter that was the Vietnam War, but she also lent her voice to the Civil Rights Movement, the Alcatraz Island occupation by American Indians in 1969, as well as the Black Panthers in the seventies. Born into a life of quite immense privilege, Jane Fonda didn’t need to do any of that. She would have had every reward coming her way if she just kept her mouth shut and did her work. But she didn’t. And that’s to be commended.
What’s to be commended less are the comments that Fonda made to Politico earlier this week. According to Politico:
[T]he actress told POLITICO in the latest episode of the Women Rule podcast, “I hate what he stands for, what he does, what he says.”
So far so good! Pretty uncontroversial.
But then. Foot, meet mouth:
But when it comes to who he is as a human being, Fonda urged Americans to express “radical kinship” for the president and his supporters.
“I feel that I understand a little bit — this is a man who was traumatized as a child by his father, who had a mother that didn’t protect him,” she said. “And the behavior is the language of the wounded.”
“You never want to criticize Trump, and you don’t want to criticize Fox [News]. You want to tell people things they don’t know,” Fonda said on the podcast. “Just like what changed and saved my life was being told things I didn’t know by American soldiers. We have to reach out and listen and then respond in a way that’s meaningful.”
“You have to have empathy for him,” she added, speaking of Trump. “And I think that that has to also transfer to the people who voted for him. Some of them, you can’t possibly persuade otherwise because they’re white supremacists. You know, or they’re so far off the spectrum, for their own traumatic reasons, probably. But there’s a whole bunch of Trump voters who we have to open our hearts to and understand why they voted the way they did.”
As is often the case I’m tempted to just quote Vincent Hanna here. ‘Empathy was yesterday’.
But okay. Okay.
Here’s the thing, Jane.
I like empathy. And I like approaching every issue with a balanced, nuanced perspective. I like considering both sides. I like trying to imagine what the other person is thinking, and what might be compelling them to behave the way that they’re behaving.
But the funny thing about empathy, balance, and consideration of both sides, is that they are fundamentally positions of privilege. I can only exercise empathy, balance, and consideration if I’m operating from a base level of comfort. So I, as a cishet white male, and you, as a wealthy white woman, can talk a whole lot about things like empathy and balance and trying to ‘convince’ the other side, because we are relatively comfortable, and unoppressed. This is not a luxury afforded to those being made to suffer day-to-day the ramifications of having a despot like Trump in power. When you have a boot on your neck, you don’t have strength to draw the breath to ask your oppressor, ‘Hey, are you feeling okay?’ Or, even, ‘Hey, could you just not?’ Shit, why would you even want to? You just wanna get that boot off your neck. By any means necessary. Never mind thinking about bloody empathy.
In a similar vein, as the founder of the Black Panthers Stokely Carmichael put it: ‘In order for nonviolence to work, your opponent must have a conscience.’
When you have an administration locking children in cages, waging economic war on the majority of its citizens, and stacking the highest court in the land with woman-hating monsters, then it really is Vincent Hanna who has a point here: ‘Empathy was yesterday.’ When it comes to Trump, you can take your empathy and you can shove it. He was ‘abused’ as a child? He’s suffering from some form of trauma? Don’t give a shit. Fuck him. Get him out of the White House and into therapy then. Preferably in a padded cell on an island in the mid-Pacific somewhere where no flowers grow and it always rains micro-plastics.
It’s unfortunate, but Fonda’s presumably-good-faith-yet-blinded-by-dazzlingly-white-privilege-argument seems to be tapping into the most bad faith one of recent times: The right’s faux-outrage at the left’s ‘lack of civility’. They cry foul because they expect the left to fall prey to its best intentions, to the standard it holds for itself: To always be nice, polite, and respectful. It is a bullshit argument employed by the powerful in an effort to stifle resistance by those they oppress, by seeking to appeal to the better nature that it itself does not possess. Women and minorities are very familiar with it, as it is a very commonly deployed weapon in the arsenal of the white supremacist patriarchy. The chronic sputtering indignation and faux-offence on display at the Brett Kavanaugh hearing being a perfect demonstration.
In short: No, Jane Fonda, we absolutely do not need to have empathy for Donald Trump. Much as respect is earned, empathy can be lost. If there ever was any empathy to be had for Donald Trump for any abuse he might’ve suffered as a child, its time is long, long past. Now when he presides over a vicious, violently racist regime, the only acceptable reactions are revulsion and resistance.
Oh, and while we’re on the subject: Persuasion has its limits too. Some people may do bad things for misguided reasons—desperate people especially—and we should make every effort to reach those people and to educate and reason with them. But it’s equally true that other people are, basically, beyond saving. And if you’ve already tried to explain something to someone one hundred times you are under absolutely no obligation to try explain it for the hundred and first time.
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