Truth, Empathy, and Action: A Response to “Future of Truth” Panel

It seems like all we’ve been hearing about in the last few months is fake news. We’ve been fed fake news by major media outlets, or major media outlets have been accused of publishing fake news, and then other outlets write think piece after think piece about the consequences of fake news.

To help sort through this chaos of alternative facts, The Forum for the Academy and the Public hosted a weekend-long conference at UCI last weekend, called “The Future of Truth: Blurred Borders and Crossed Lines.” The series of panels and lectures explored various aspects of everyday truth and the greater Truth, as well as its love-hate relationship with politics.

During Friday night’s panel discussion with writers Maggie Nelson, Viet Thanh Nguyen, Hector Tobar and Danzy Senna, the questions and conversation broadened from fact versus fiction to include issues on race and identity, representation and empathy. One daring audience member, who introduced herself as an immigration reporter, asked the bold question:
“Is empathy a liberal quality?”

The room heaved an enormous sigh — not out of disapproval but out of duress. How do you even begin to answer that?

Tobar, most recently known for his book on the thirty-three Chilean men who were trapped in a mine in 2010, broke the ice by claiming that empathy certainly isn’t a fascist quality, to which everyone laughed.

However it was Nguyen, writer of “The Sympathizer,” that had a more poignant message. He explained that empathy isn’t inherently liberal because Trump himself does express empathy. His appeals to the plights of the white working class convey a kind of empathy, but it’s a limited one. The expansion of empathy is what’s liberal. And further, empathy can at time distract from politics because there is no action in empathy.

What’s the point of feeling something if you’re not going to do anything about it? Now that, Nguyen joked, is a liberal quality.

I’ve had these words tumbling in my head all weekend. It appeals to everything people I know have been asking themselves for months. What do we do next? I think Nguyen’s words made this uncertainty clear. Right now, we are feeling more as a generation or as a culture or as a species than we ever have (if we’re younger) or in many, many years (if we’re old enough to remember the Civil Rights Era).

So we have all these emotions — for the unwanted Syrian refugee and for the assaulted Black man and for the harassed trans person– and sometimes we can identify with the oppressed and sometimes we can’t, but the point is we all affect each other initially on an emotional level. It can feel like an overload: which emotion to address first?

Nguyen didn’t have an answer to this — I don’t think any one person can come up with any one answer. It’s got to be on an individual basis, because we have different priorities and skills. If you believe in the power of change through local governments, then your action could be through city council meetings, calling representatives, writing letters. If you’re an artist, your art needs to be reactionary. Scientists and engineers need to be seeking ecological remedies. Lawyers need to volunteer their services to helping migrants and refugees. And journalists need to question every fact in order to get to the truth.

A professor of mine recently gave me some advice, as I confided in him my half-formed post-graduation plans. Counter-intuitively, he said, when everything feels so urgent, the most important thing to do is take your time. Things are so critical right now, that we can’t afford rash decisions. Taking the time to plan and think will lead to the most effective actions. So it’s okay to not know exactly what the next move is yet.

Because the point is, everyone is capable of doing something. You just need to decide what your action will be.

Savannah Peykani is a fourth-year literary journalism and film and media studies major. She can be reached at speykani@uci.edu.