On the Matter of Empathy For Horrible People

Yesterday I was having a conversation with a friend regarding the implosion of Milo Yiannopoulos, the remarkable two-day period in which the public bigot and Breitbart editor lost a high-profile speaking engagement, a lucrative book contract, and a job, because one of his positions (regarding sexual contact between adults and young teens) finally crossed a line for the horrible clutch of bigots who were keeping him around as their One Gay Friend. The implosion was inevitable — the horrible bigots never really liked him, they just found him useful, and suddenly he wasn’t useful anymore — and moreover the implosion was karmically appropriate, because Yiannopoulos is a terrible person who became famous for being terrible to others. The dude earned it, and in a very real way it’s delightful to see the comeuppance.

While my friend agreed with me that the comeuppance was indeed delicious, he also asked me, essentially: But do you feel even in the tiniest bit sorry for Yiannopoulos? Do you have empathy for him?

And the answer is: Well, sure. In my opinion Yiannopoulos is clearly emotionally damaged in all sorts of ways and for all sorts of reasons, and it’s exhibited itself in a particularly itchy combination of personal self-loathing and a desperate need to feel special, and to have attention. He discovered that playing to a crowd of horrible bigots gave him attention, made him feel special and made him either hate himself less, or at least allowed him to ignore how much he hated himself, so he went with that as long as he could.

And things appeared to be going his way! Trump won, which gave him a more legitimate platform because the horrible bigots he played to were elevated and wanted him to speak at their gathering; he nabbed himself a pretty good book deal with a major publisher; and he got to go on national TV and had hit it off well with the host, even if the other guests told him to go fuck off, which of course played to his strengths as a media personality. It was all coming together!

Then, in roughly 36 hours, all of it was taken away. Not to mention his reputation and standing among much of the crowd that had previously stood behind him. And to top it all off, he lost his professional income. It was all in public, and it happened quick, and in humiliating fashion.

So here’s the thing: A damaged soul who thought he had found acceptance, reaching for the goals that he probably thought would finally satisfy him, only to have them (from his point of view) cruelly taken away, all at once, in public?

Again: Sure. I have some empathy there. That all sucks.

BUT

(And you knew there was a “but” coming)

Yiannopoulos’ damage explains but does not excuse his actions. Lots of people are damaged by life, one way or another. Lots of people crave acceptance and desire fame. Lots of people try to heal themselves through the attention of others. But Yiannopoulos decided to deal with all of that by spouting racist and sexist and transphobic hatred, by lying about his targets and by pointing his passel of online, bigoted followers at people in order to harass and threaten them, and then by laughing at and dismissing as unimportant other people’s pain and fear, pain and fear that he caused. It’s what he became famous for. It was all a lark to him, or so he’d have you believe. Saying so gave him attention and admiration, and if that attention and admiration was from hateful bigots, eh, that’d work for him. Until it didn’t.

I can feel empathy for a damaged human being, and understand why he does what he does. I get Yiannopoulos. He’s not exactly a puzzle. But my (or anyone’s) empathy and understanding for him has to be weighed against the damage he’s done to others and his reasons for doing so. And the fact is, the damage he’s caused others is immense, and the reasons he’s done so are self-serving, vain and ultimately wholly insufficient to excuse or mitigate his actions. Empathy and understanding are important, indeed I think critical, when considering the people who have chosen to oppose you. It reminds you they are merely human, and not actually monsters. But they are part, not the whole, of one’s consideration of such people; nor does empathy automatically convert to sympathy. Personally, considered as a whole and including his actions, I don’t judge Yiannopoulos deserving of much sympathy. He’s earned this moment of his, and in point of fact, he’s earned much worse than this. But this will do for a start.

And here’s another fact, which is that Yiannopoulos isn’t special. There are a lot of damaged people out there on the racist, sexist, bigoted side of things, who have been fucked up by the world in one way or another and who have decided the best way to dig themselves out of that hole is to try to take it out on other people. These are the very people fringe radical and reactionary organizations and would-be leaders seek out; they’re susceptible because they’re damaged and crave acceptance and attention. To get personal here, I look at the bigots who have decided to make me their special enemy and it’s not hard to understand why they do what they do, nor to feel empathy for what they have to be going through in their brain. But again, that’s weighed against the damage they do to others and try to do to me, and I proceed accordingly.

(Also, a supplementary thought I have, which is that that Yiannopoulos is well into his 30s. He’s not a child or a young man of whom it could be said that he did not know better. Yiannopoulos may be damaged in various ways, but it doesn’t appear that he is not in control of his actions, or doesn’t have enough presence of mind to understand right or wrong, even if he apparently doesn’t care about such things. Yiannopoulos understands what he’s doing and why. He owns his choices and actions, and he owns the results of those choices and actions, even when they result, as they did this week, in his downfall.)

So: Empathy and understanding for Yiannopoulos? Sure. Maybe even the smallest soupçon of pity. I think the ability to feel these things for him allows me to say, in full consideration, that he deserves his fall this week from the grace of the horrible and bigoted. And to continue in that vein, I wish for him the empathy and understanding to realize just how well he’s earned this moment, and to realize how much work he’ll have to undertake to atone for the damage he’s done to others. I don’t expect he’ll actually arrive at that empathy and understanding, mind you. I don’t think he wants that. I wish it for him nonetheless.