The Other Columbus: The lie of an empathetic city

Scott Woods
One of the banners painted to be displayed on a highway overpass

Watching Dave Chappelle’s recent Netflix comedy special, “Sticks and Stones,” I was compelled to generate and participate in several discussions about the offensive aspects of some of his jokes, primarily ones targeting the trans community. I won’t rehash those arguments now, but I do want to draw out one counterargument that took the wind out of my sails every time I saw it: If I wasn’t the target of his menace, why should I care?

It is a question so baldly insensitive that I could scarcely process it. As an ongoing beneficiary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, not to mention the abolition of slavery — both requiring buy-in from some portion of white people to become reality — I was disheartened by the reminder that, despite living in a time when nearly everyone possesses the sum total of human knowledge at their fingertips, we are not, by nature, an empathetic society.

Empathy has become so lost in the roux comprising the daily lives of Americans that people who deign to take up the charge of random caring do so increasingly as a result of breaking a law. A dozen people were arrested in San Diego last year for handing out apples and potato chips to homeless people in the face of legislation trumpeted as a public safety measure that boils down to erasing unwanted citizens from public spaces.

Local political organizations like Yes We Can are painted as being anti-establishment because its platform largely consists of empathetic positions on how the citizens of Columbus should be treated better by the powers that be. And they are anti-establishment, which wouldn’t be noteworthy if the establishment wasn’t already opting out of empathetic values as a starting point and not after-the-fact spin. Even the recently reported campaign of hanging signs on Columbus overpasses to remind people to love themselves is ultimately an illegal act.

To be clear, I am not making a case for anarchistic guerrilla messaging — those messages could go in a lot of directions — but the fact that someone has to break a law to counter the dearth of caring in our daily routines is almost as depressing as the conditions such signs attempt to alleviate. Empathy is so rare an experience that it becomes a headline when someone commits an act of charity.

Of course, this is America. It has never been an empathetic republic. America wouldn’t exist if empathy were an ingredient. Quite the opposite, if my black ancestors have anything to say about it. And I don’t mean the ancient ancestors of mine who toiled in scorching fields and picked at the walls of coal mines. I mean my ancestors from a generation ago, the ones my maternal grandmother commanded to go swimming in a Nelsonville public pool, not so much out of a thirst for integration, but as an expression of basic humanity. That is my mother’s story, so not so ancient. Or resolved, as it turns out.

This kind of thinking is how we end up with a city like Columbus that, on its surface, seems an universally awesome place to live, and yet consistently feigns surprise when something horrible happens that a portion of its citizens have been railing about the entire time. Such discoveries are even frequently attacked, not on the merits of their claims, but because such revelations make people who live here feel bad for a day. As if people decrying police abuse were bumping into the DJ’s table at the Hip Columbus party and making their happiness records skip.

People frequently bemoan the state of public debate, citing an inability to discuss things with some semblance of decorum. As if decorum were a salve for anything other than people’s feelings. At the end of the day, there are only outcomes, only the result of actions taken, not conversations had. We should all learn to treat empathy with the kind of pragmatism we reserve for the concrete work of the rest of our lives, seeing as it is the fastest way to building at least a more humane corner of the world.