I grew up in a fairly small town; the population hovered a little under 8,000 for most of my childhood. That also meant there wasn’t very much diversity. Our school system—teachers, students, administration, everyone—was made up entirely of cis hetero white people until I was in eighth grade when a Black family finally moved into town. We had a family of Mexican descent move in three or four years later. But that was pretty much it.
In part because of that homogeneity, it wasn’t at all uncommon to bullying going on with anyone who was remotely different. We had one classmate most of us suspected was gay (he did eventually come out of the closet a few years after graduation) and he was hounded constantly for it. Shortly after that Black family moved in, some students suddenly found they could no longer pronounce the Republic of Niger properly when it came up in social studies. Even the one student we had who had been born and partially raised in England was on the receiving end of taunts because he still had a slight accent. Not to mention any number of racist jokes that were told on the playground, against people from China, Japan, Poland, Italy, Ethiopia… I heard a lot of horribly offensive things in school.
And, sadly, I can’t say I was above all that. I know other students were much worse, but I cannot claim complete innocence when it came to belittling others. In my adolescent insecurity, I would disparage others so, at least in my own mind, I wasn’t on the very bottom rung; there was at least this one other group behind me.
Two weeks ago, I was talking in this very column about webcomics that encourage understanding and empathy. And I’m writing this now, only a few days after someone who evidently had no empathy shot and killed over four dozen people in a Florida nightclub. And frighteningly, I can’t just say “the recent mass shooting” because there’ve been several (four that I’m aware of) in just the few days since then. People killing other people because they can’t empathize with them. People who can’t see past the differences that make everyone unique, and see how similar we really are to one another.
When I was 17, I left to go to a college whose enrollment was around six or seven times higher than the entire population of my hometown. I had grown conscious and sick of the close-mindedness of that small town. Of people whose “world-view” rarely made it past the confines of the county. I felt like I was a citizen of the world, not just some city or state, and that I should consider people and ideas larger than myself. That’s kind of what college is supposed to be for, isn’t it?
I have read so, so, so many comics about cis hetero white guys. I get it. I don’t need to read that story any more. I have literally decades of comics preaching to me how cis hetero white guys just like me are the heroes, and it doesn’t really matter what happens to anyone else.
Except it does matter. The people who died in the Pulse were individuals with hopes and dreams just like yours. Their friends and family loved them, just as you have friends and family that love you. And if you go around belittling them with jokes or othering them by any other means, you’re encouraging people to not empathize with them. To dehumanize them. To make them seem worth less.
They’re not worth less, though. It’s the people doing the dehumanizing, the people who aren’t empathizing that are worth less. They’re trying to elevate themselves by pushing others down. Every one of us has our own story, and every one of us has our own struggles. No one needs you kicking at them on top of whatever issues they’re already dealing with.
Look, I get that you probably don’t run in circles that give you opportunities to interact with every type of person so that you might get to know them as individuals. But that’s where webcomics can come in. All of those people who are traditionally shut out of print venues (because those are controlled by less-than-empathetic cis hetero white guys) can and do publish their experiences online. Without gatekeepers. And they usually make their work available for free. Go read about what it’s like to be Black in America. Or gay. Or transgender. Or disabled. Or clinically depressed. Or suffering from PTSD. Or any of a million other lives that aren’t yours. Take advantage of these people putting their lives out on display, whether through metaphors or as memoirs. Learn about who these people are, and why they’re really no different than you or me.
People keep getting killed here, in part because some people can’t stand the idea of someone being not like them. Which is the exact opposite of empathy. Read some webcomics by people not like you. Spread the word to others. These webcomics may not be expressly designed to teach you to be more empathetic, but that is one hell of a side benefit that we, as a society, ought to be taking more advantage of. I’m not naive enough to think that just reading webcomics is going to prevent all future mass shootings, but maybe, just maybe, it’ll help turn one of those assholes with a gun into a real, empathetic human being.