EssaysFeature

The Destruction of Empathy, Part Two

On the political situation in Spain

Below is Part Two of an article originally published on the Spanish blog El Diario. It was translated to English for Public Seminar by Liz Mason-Deese.

The Mandate of Masculinity

According to Rita Segato, the first expression of the pedagogy of cruelty is sexist violence. Predatory capitalism establishes a battlefield on the body of women. Amid generalized precarity, men’s position becomes fragile: they cannot provide, they cannot possess, they cannot be. But at the same time they have to prove that they are men. We men are subjected to a “mandate of masculinity” that requires us, in order to be, to demonstrate strength and power: physically, intellectually, economically, morally, militarily, etc. The mandate of masculinity today is translated into a mandate of violence.

Sexual violence is not erotic. It is not about pleasure, but a demonstration of power. The power of the impotent, anxious to demonstrate that he is, that he continues to be, a man. The message a man sends to other men: I can, I am capable, I own lives. It is not an exceptional act, something that only monstrous or “psychopath” men do. It is founded on thousands of everyday and transversal violent acts: in public space and intimate space, on the street and at home, at work and in relationships.

A woman is not simply a body-victim of violence. What is assaulted in her is precisely her power to rebel against the mandate of masculinity, her capacity to create links, bonds, networks, complicities, empathy and community.

March 8 gave visibility to thousands of women across Spain (and around the world) saying “Enough!” in an unprecedented day of strikes and protests with massive participation. Their chants and signs could be read as a detailed record of the many of everyday acts of violence that make up “normality.” After having experienced such an exceptional day, women were not the same when they returned to that normality, but stronger and more connected. March 8 was only the crest of a deep wave that pushes to completely transform everyday life, that “breeding ground” of the most spectacular violence that we see on the news.

And it can also be taken as an occasion for men who want to disobey the mandate of masculinity and escape from that dismal loop between extreme existential poverty and the obligation to demonstrate power. Like an invitation to metamorphosis.

“Lovely Actions”

The disappearance and search for Gabriel Cruz, the “little fish” [1] became a huge media event. Mass media and social media are today — and have been for some time — the privileged vehicles for transmitting the pedagogy of cruelty. The tendencies toward spectacularization (the morbid), simplification of reality (judgment and not thought), and social polarization (the logic of confrontation, of good and bad sides) run through them in a transversal way. But it does not matter if it is instrumentalized in favor of the right or the left: in either case it contributes to the destruction of sensitivity, thought, and autonomy.

Yet, in spite of everything, for several days, the media and social networks facilitated the mobilization of many people who helped in the search for Gabriel and who wanted to make his family feel some measure of warmth and solidarity. The support turned into hatred when the identity of the murderer became known: a foreign woman of color.

In this context, the voice of Patricia Ramírez, Gabriel’s mother, resonated as an escape from this world, when in reality it came from the most common form of love that exists: a mother’s love. Her main message: not to focus on rage and the enemy, but on solidarity and “lovely actions,” to shift attention toward the gestures of support that had “brought out the best in people” during those days. So that what remains, in the absolute senselessness of Gabriel’s death, is the warm memory of the social embrace. “Because other people will need it in the future.”

Where did Patricia get the strength to resist being poisoned by desire for revenge? That is the question that journalists kept asking over and over, perplexed and impressed. And she always had the same response: “in honor of the ‘little fish,’ he wasn’t like that and neither am I.” In other words, it is not that Patricia has maintained her “good sense” and “cool head,” as if affects lead directly to hatred and rage, which can only be contained by “reason.” That is the typical masculine vision. The reality is precisely the opposite: Patricia’s voice came from love of her son, gratitude to those who had mobilized for him, and the desire that his memory not be associated with vengeful rage. In other words, it came from affects.

Precise and precious words, charged with humanity and tenderness, rich in very physical metaphors (often related to water: the open river, the sea of solidarity, the hangover of pain…), Patricia’s voice has at times managed to disarm the voracity of the mass media and social media, based on logics of spectacularization, simplification, and social polarization.

And she has left us, indirectly and as gifts, some hints from which each of us can create modes of resistance to the destruction of empathy and for the cultivation of another sensibility: to surround ourselves in relationships of care, to seek intimacy and silence, to be grateful for affection, to transform reactive affects into active affects, to avoid instrumentalization, to not let others speak in our name, to not take center stage, “to always look to the heart.”

War among the Poor

Mame Mbaye, of Senegalese origin, a resident of Madrid and a street vendor, died on March 15 in the context of police persecution in the neighborhood of Lavapies. Without a doubt, what killed Mbaye was the system of everyday abuse that constantly injects fear, prevents happiness and makes us sick, destroying the human right to not be worried, to rest, and to serenity, as Sarah Babiker explains.

That system of everyday abuse — the immigration law, economic inequality, police raids, etc. — is precisely the “pedagogy of cruelty.” Rather than pursuing concrete objectives, such as the eradication of street vendors, what it seeks is to produce insensitivity: marking and making us see the other as Other, distinguishing between the drowned and the saved, between those who are inside and outside, preventing empathy and any possible solidarity.

While this stoked a war among the poor, in reality the group of street vendors is only the most extreme point of the general tendencies from which nobody is safe today: the precaritization, lack of protection, and vulnerability of life.

A day after Mame Mbeye’s death, the speeches that were improvised in Nelson Mandela Plaza in Lavapies combined dignified rage (for an intolerable death) and words that appealed, over and over, to equality, common humanity, and empathy. They railed against the mandate of cruelty, which proposes not to feel, not to feel with others, not to be moved or to move with others.

The speakers spoke in no less than three languages (English, French, Spanish), thus showing in a fleeting snapshot the power (potencia) that exists in migrant lives: the energy, the capacities, and knowledges that inhabit those bodies that are accustomed to the most difficult journeys, the constant learning and becoming literate, the creation of networks and complicity. They are not only poor or victims deserving our compassion, but they also inhabit a great wealth, a great potential that our society does not know how to or does not want to welcome. As Malick Gueye, the spokesperson of the union of street vendors, reminded us, Mame was not only a “mantero” but also a person committed to the fight for social rights, as well as an artist, who was not allowed to exercise his profession in Spain.

Happy Tears

I confess: tears came to my eyes on March 8 in the early morning seeing a “picket” of girls under the age of sixteen (and boys in the line behind them) roaming my neighborhood, with incredible energy, expressing infinite lucidity in their slogans.

Tears came to my eyes listening to Patricia Ramírez asking people to “get the witch out of their head” and instead remember the “lovely acts” that took place during the search for Gabriel.

Tears came to my eyes listening to the speakers in the Nelson Mandela plaza in Lavapies appeal, only one day after Mame’s death (a political death), to shared humanity, to equality between all people.

The philosopher and writer George Bataille would say that there are “happy tears.” They are not exactly tears of joy, but of emotion for seeing something “miraculous” occur: something unpredictable, unexpected, unthinkable, impossible but true.

It is “miraculous” to listen to those who have suffered the greatest harm speak of fighting for more life and not for more death, for more humanity and not less, for more empathy and not more war of all against all.

Let our eyes moisten more often with these tears, to awaken and reactivate our skin hardened by the principle of cruelty.

Amador Fernández-Savater (Madrid, 1974) is an independent researcher, an editor of Acuarela Libros, and has been involved involved in different social movements since the mid 1990s, always seeking encounters between thought and political action.

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[1] An eight year old boy in southeast Spain who went missing for nearly two weeks in February – March 2018.

Thanks to Marga, Marta, Diego, Ema, Guille, Jabuti, Miriam, Juan and Leo for the conversations.

 

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Amador Fernández-Savater

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