Sympathy with the Other

DEXTER-BATISTADuring the final season (ongoing!) of the Showtime series Dexter, former police lieutenant Deb Morgan goes to work for a private eye and former cop named Jacob Elway. Elway’s dad, a rich oilman, did not support his choice to become a police detective; he waited until his dad died and invested the inheritance to start a private investigations firm.

Now, right off the bat you might assume I sympathize with this character because he’s a PI, but No.

Okay, Yes. But that’s not the primary reason.

The primary reason I sympathize with Jacob Elway is perhaps the most ironic reason of all: because I grew up in poverty. How can a poor kid from the Appalachians, who knows what it means to live in household that makes below the national mean income, sympathize with a One Percenter who rebels against Daddy Moneybags?

Because trying to live beyond your background is a universal theme.

Here’s one of the many ways that we sad lumps of flesh can lump our way out of the the demographic lumps we get lumped into: by looking at things in their most basic form. Forget the external trappings, the window dressing, the paint job, and all the other metaphors for cosmetic difference. Look for the kernel of common truth inside the variegated husk of difference. See the world in a grain of sand, instead of seeing that sand as evidence of desertification, or an ideal location for beach volleyball, or a place for the cat to go potty. Look beyond purpose to principle.

So many universal experiences—injustice and prejudice, romance and loss, growing beyond one’s origins—become obscured when we insert a filter of race, sex, orientation, or class between ourselves and other human beings. Usually at the urging of some self-serving political activist who has promised (hypocritically) to liberate us from those filters.

I could easily have scoffed, from my position of relative poverty, at poor little rich kid Jacob Elway’s predicament. Oh how awful that Papá did not grant his Royal Seal of Approval for your proletarian whims! It must be awful to have to wait out an unearned, million-dollar estate! First-class problems!

But, that wouldn’t have made me clever or progressive. It would have made me an asshole and a hypocrite.

It also would make me a bad audience of art, erecting silly barriers between myself and any story that didn’t adhere to my own demographic experience. This is dumb no matter which demographic barrier the experience of art crosses, and no matter which direction. I don’t get a pass on the economic barrier because I grew up poor, and nobody else gets a pass at barriers because they fall on the (presumed) non-privileged side of the fence. Treating the lack of social privilege as a de facto moral privilege is one of the most insidiously delusional tricks of the mind, turning the impulse for social good into a tool for social evil.

And, beyond making my appreciation for art suffer, idolizing my demographic enclave would corrupt my own creativity. “Write what you know” only goes so far before you slip into the absurdity (in my opinion) of the roman á clef or the various protected class, sub-genre ghettos with their own identity-labeled bookshelves at your local brick-and-mortar.

Finding evocatively universal themes in people you observe whose lives are different from yours helps you apply evocatively universal themes to people you make up whose lives are different from yours.

It doesn’t excuse you from doing the research that helps you express those themes authentically in an unfamiliar context, but it does open your mind to the essence of life behind the veil of appearances.

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  1. I would think perhaps you’d empathised with feeling neglected, Leith. It is a great lesson to learn (one I have seen many times, personally, though it takes a while to fully appreciate) that what’s ‘bad’ about poverty can occur in any ‘class’. It almost deconstructs societal bounds to the point of comfort, for those who feel the metaphorical breeze on the outer.. but not quite.
    If the breeze were winds of suffering, they blow in all directions I suppose.

    Meet enough people, talk to them, hear their stories, and they tell you.

    i think Dexter’s gone really downhill the last couple seasons.

  2. .. oh, and interestingly, though I personally would find neither duty nor gift in art without a certain degree of audience/art appreciation (another topic in itself though really), it seems artists, of many genres, can sometimes be hugely successful, while being f&cking assholes. I couldn’t believe that. But then, it gave me courage. I figured: sympathy, gratitude, assholery – tools for living. 🙂

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