Empathy

“You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view… Until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.”
             ― Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird

I have empathy for Steve Whitmire.  Let me tell you why:

During my brief, undistinguished teaching career, there were two separate occasions in which students misrepresented things that I said, took well-intentioned statements that I’d made and blew them all out of proportion.  I wrote about it last week, but because it was lengthy and not strictly Muppet related, I put it on a separate page.

One thing that I didn’t put in that story is that during the first year of my teaching assistantship in grad school, I had a student who was clearly guilty of plagiarism.  It was a dead giveaway when the paper used the wrong documentation style, because we only taught MLA in Comp 101, and this paper used APA documentation.  When I had to confront the student about it, the director of writing backed me up all the way.  Because of that, I felt that he was on my side, that we were all on the same team, that I could count on him to support me.  I don’t know exactly what changed over that summer between the first and second years of my teaching assistantship.  I hadn’t changed in my approach to school or to life; I was still working to juggle the demands of being a teacher and a student at the same time, but always trying to conduct myself with integrity and stay true to my own personal ethos.  In the past, that had always been enough…but apparently it wasn’t anymore.

Because of that experience, I know what it’s like to feel betrayed and abandoned by someone whose support you believed you could count on no matter what.  I know how frightening and lonely it can be to have to stand alone in the face of baseless accusations and (for lack of a better word) trumped-up charges.  

It feels exactly like this:

I can only imagine how disheartening it must be to have many, many people–who had previously claimed to love you–either turn against you outright, or else just turn away, stand back and watch while others are ganging up against you.

Two different students, on two separate occasions, bore false witness against me, dragging my name through the mud.  But I think it’s important to think about their motivations.  I think that the college student, in her panic at the prospect of potentially failing a required class, in her heightened state of emotion, exaggerated the event in her mind.  I think that she believed that she was being honest, that she told the events exactly as she remembered them, even though her version was grossly inaccurate.  I bear her no ill will.  

Perhaps the high school student believed that she was being honest too, but she had nothing to gain by rehashing the story over and over again except for the satisfaction of provoking my righteous indignation.  It wasn’t that she cared about the substitute teacher, either.  She was motivated purely by the thrill of causing a sensation, by the pleasure of inflicting pain.  

Basically, she was trolling me.  She was a real-life, flesh-and-blood, in-your-face troll.  And now that I think about it, in a way I have to admire that, albeit grudgingly.  At least she had the courage to stand up and say those things right to my face, instead of hiding behind the anonymity of the Internet and harassing me from behind an assumed name and a bunch of virtual sockpuppets, like a coward.

Therefore, I know how it feels to have people saying things about me that are exaggerated at best and, at worst, are outright lies.  I know how frustrating it is to feel powerless to defend yourself from people (a) bearing false witness against you, and/or (b) outright verbally attacking you.  

“A lie will go round the world while truth is pulling its boots on.”
–A quotation that has been falsely attributed to Mark Twain, ironically enough.  (Still relevant, however)

That’s why I empathize with Steve.  And why I stand with him.

 

 

4 thoughts on “Empathy

  1. In addition to basic goodwill, empathy requires imagination, especially when one has fewer parallel experiences to draw from. Probably another reason why there’s so little of it going around.

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      • And yet – judging by the forums and blog comments, your average Muppet diehard has a passion for the characters and the history, strongly-held views on what the present and future should look like, a firm belief that they know what’s best, and a habit of stating their views in terms of absolutes that sometimes come across as insensitive or accidentally cause offence and conflict. Why more of them can’t understand Steve’s words and actions is a tremendous mystery to me.

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        • The ironic thing is that they criticize Steve for exhibiting some of those exact same qualities, when he also has the first-hand experience of working with Jim to back them up.

          Here’s the thing I don’t get: If I had been running one of the big-name Muppet fan sites, I would have done everything that I could to try to find out the whole story, starting with trying to contact Steve to set up an interview to get his side of the story. It’s frustrating to me that they have so many resources, that aren’t available to most of us, to try to get at the truth, and they’d rather just try to sweep the whole thing under the rug.

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