When COVID and a recession and everything else hit in 2020, a lot of us who work on the web got way burnt out. Working in higher ed and having a podcast, I’m privy to a lot of marketing Twitter chatter. My friend and cohost, J.S., posts a lot of good content calling out bad practices and suggesting better approaches. But when everyone got exhausted, the calls for “empathy” started.
After the seditious attack on the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021, Republicans who had hinged their political prospects and careers on divisive, hate-filled rhetoric started calling for unity and healing.
The thing is, none of these people really want empathy. What they are seeking is sympathy and implicit acceptance of their actions. Best case, empathy is used as an excuse or an avoidance tactic.
Maybe this is the decade for justice rather than empathy. Many of us have spent a long time in our privilege, listening (or half-listening), making excuses for the way we do things. But our colleagues, neighbors, and friends who are marginalized have made it clear that empathy isn’t doing them any good.
One fear I have with the new White House administration is that their desire to focus on unity will come at the expense of digging out the rot. Similar things happened when Barack Obama took office. Those indiscretions helped build the ideology that fueled a Trump presidency, the re-mainstreaming of white supremacy, and the domination of conspiracy theories and misinformation.
Unity doesn’t come without justice. Lasting success doesn’t come without justice. Respect doesn’t come without justice. And justice doesn’t come without facing hard truths.
When you don’t seek justice, you enable injustice. And at some point, you become complicit in it. For instance, marketers who are told to post something that is offensive, racist, or culturally tone-deaf have a responsibility to push back. I’d go so far as to say that if they espouse values of equity, they have a duty to quit that job or be labeled alongside that content.
To lower the stakes, if you’re called out for bad practices, don’t whine about needing empathy right now. Fix the problem. Stop perpetuating things that harm others.
So what does justice look like? It’s making sure your website and social content are inclusive of all people. Optimizing your website’s speed so you can serve people in rural areas or without access to fast internet. It’s researching the cultural weight of memetics before putting out a meme that objectifies or exploits another group. It’s holding others to account when they refuse to fess up.
Empathy is often where justice starts. We can’t simply call for empathy and leave it there. Understanding the pain, joy, needs, and desires of others demands radical movement to correct and repair the broken systems, messages, and ideologies that so often harm our neighbors. Anything less is complicity.
I hope you had some rest over the holidays. Now it’s time to make some change in how we approach work, life, relationships, and civics. If you like this newsletter and know someone else who wants to read my ramblings, please share!