You Don’t Have To Empathize With People Who Want You Dead
Surprisingly, this is a point that has to be made!
Last week, a man called Jake Angeli participated in a failed attempt to overthrow the US government and install Donald Trump as a fascist dictator. A few days later, he was arrested. After arriving in prison, Angeli refused to eat the food the prison offered because he insisted on an “organic shaman diet” (apparently, according to his mom, anything else would upset his stomach). This is, you might notice, pretty funny, and a lot of Angeli’s ideological opponents on the left quickly began making fun of him.
Today, I read a Twitter thread from a concerned leftist putting forth a few ideas about this situation: 1) Denying access to the food required by a person’s dietary restrictions is a form of torture and a violation of human rights, 2) It is not consistent with the values of the radical left to believe only some people deserve fair treatment, and presented as a logical consequence of the first two ideas: 3) We must empathize with Jake Angeli, or we are on a slippery ideological slope into justifying far more severe inhumanities.
I won’t link the thread because I have no beef (organic or otherwise) with this person. I strongly disagree with them, but this is only a convenient example of a problem that extends far beyond this individual or this particular incident. Let’s break down their ideas and see if we still come to the same conclusion.
Point 1: Is Denying Free Choice of Food Torture?
The concept of torture is an inherently arbitrary one. Most dictionary definitions frame it as the deliberate infliction of severe suffering as either a form of punishment or to coerce some behavior from the person being tortured. These definitions specify “severe” suffering because there are many forms of punishment or coercion that cause suffering but would not be considered torture. For example, almost no one would consider a parent putting a young child in time-out for a few minutes a form of torture, even though the child will experience some amount of suffering as a result. On the other hand, nearly everyone would consider what agents of the US government did to prisoners of war at Abu Ghraib torture. In this framing, we must imagine there is a dividing line somewhere between those two extreme examples: if you lined up all forms of punishment and coercion from the ones that cause the least suffering to the ones that cause the most, you would be able to identify some maximum value of suffering you can inflict before a practice is considered torture. And thus it logically follows that once we have deemed one practice torture, anything that causes an equal or greater amount of suffering is also torture.
I’m not interested in the question of whether denying Jake Angeli access to his “organic shaman diet” actually constitutes torture. I’m more interested in the logical consequences that follow when we have already decided that it is. As a person with a sensitive stomach myself, I have a good understanding of the suffering that can result from eating food that your body doesn’t agree with. Digestive pain can be pretty awful, and I’ve certainly been in situations where I chose to go hungry rather than eat something I knew would cause me pain.
But if I was given the choice between losing access to the foods I prefer, or continuing to eat what I want but inside a prison, I would choose the former. My privacy and autonomy are of far more value to me than ideal digestive health, and I think most people would feel the same way. So if denying Angeli organic food is torture, it stands to reason that imprisoning him in the first place would be a far more severe form of torture. And yet, the Twitter thread chastised people for laughing about his dietary restrictions, but was silent on people celebrating his imprisonment in general.
And what if Jake Angeli was just poor? What if he had to eat lower quality food because he couldn’t afford organic food? Certainly if it’s torture to hold him in a place where organic food is unavailable, it would be even more sadistic to give him open access to places where organic food is distributed, but deny it to him on the basis of his inability to pay. In fact, countless people who might prefer to eat a particular diet, be it for health reasons or ethical reasons, are unable to. Are all of them experiencing torture?
As you start to consider this, you can come to either of two conclusions. Either this isn’t torture and we shouldn’t care, or it is torture but it seems like a really weird thing to focus on! If our prison system and our economic system cause torture simply by existing, then the very structure of our society is one enormous crime against humanity. Asking us to feel bad about Jake Angeli not getting his organic shaman diet would be like asking us to feel bad for the people who cleaned the windows on the World Trade Center buildings because their hard work went to waste after 9/11—you have grossly misidentified the part of this situation we should feel bad about!
Point 2: Do We Have To Treat Everyone Equally?
I don’t think it’s a controversial idea that people should be treated equally, even when we don’t like them. Torture is wrong, no matter who’s getting tortured. If what Jake Angeli is experiencing is torture, then it’s wrong. If I had a magic wand that could instantly and permanently end all human actions that cause that much suffering or more, I would absolutely use it, and it wouldn’t bother me that doing so would make Jake Angeli’s life easier. But again, when we dig into this concept, we quickly find it’s a lot more complicated.
You have probably seen this image before. It’s a visual metaphor for two ways we can interpret the idea of equal treatment. Interpreted literally, the principle of equal treatment means we should give everyone the same number of boxes to stand on, but not everyone needs a box to see over the fence, and among the people who do, not everyone can get by on the same number. So if we instead interpret equal treatment as doing whatever is necessary to create an outcome in which everyone’s experience is equal, we distribute more boxes to shorter folks and fewer or none to taller folks. The tall person might be an asshole who complains about short people getting “special privileges,” but in fact, he’s the one with a special privilege — his height — and the distribution of boxes is designed to bring everyone up to his level. (Alternatively, we can just remove the fence, and thereby remove the need for a centralized authority determining who should get how many boxes, but that’s another story.)
So which kind of equal treatment should we give Jake Angeli? In the literal interpretation, if I wouldn’t want, say, a Black vegan in jail for possession of marijuana to be forced to eat meat, I should be just as upset about Jake Angeli being forced to eat non-organic food. If we instead accept that unequal treatment can be necessary to produce equal outcomes, though, we have to think about it a bit more deeply.
Jake Angeli’s body is covered in tattoos of symbols that have been co-opted by white supremacist groups. I haven’t read his writing, so I can’t claim to know his personal beliefs, but he certainly has aligned himself with a belief system that holds that white people are inherently more deserving of respect and should hold power over people of color. Part of how white people hold power in society is through white privilege. Long after white people and Black people in the US have become legally equal, white people are still more likely to be selected for a job or housing opportunity than an equally qualified Black candidate, they are more likely to face fewer consequences for the same crimes, and they are far less likely to be harmed in interactions with the police.
Returning to our visual metaphor, Jake Angeli is tall enough to see over the fence without any boxes, and not only that, he believes that it’s a good thing that the fence is there to keep the shorter people from seeing over it. His privilege — his whiteness — means that he is inherently guaranteed to receive more sympathy and be more likely to have his requests fulfilled than our hypothetical Black vegan. In fact, spoiler alert, just days after his “hunger strike” began, a court ruled that Angeli’s request must be accommodated by the prison, and now he’s totally fine. Meanwhile, despite plenty of horror stories from vegans in prison, the only way to guarantee access to vegan food while incarcerated is to convert to a religion that bans eating meat.
So if you only have the time in the day to advocate for either Jake Angeli or our hypothetical Black vegan to have their dietary restrictions respected in prison, and you chose Jake Angeli, you are giving a box to the person who can already see over the fence. Of course, we are now pretty far removed from the original context of the Twitter thread I’m discussing. This person didn’t ask anyone to advocate for Angeli, just to stop making fun of him. But in writing that thread, they chose to devote some of their finite time on this Earth to promote sympathy for someone who is already systemically favored to receive more than his fair share of sympathy. This tweet appeared on the timeline of their nearly twenty thousand followers, as well as countless others (myself included) who the Twitter algorithm chose to show it to. And I don’t think that is a morally neutral choice.
Point 3: Do We Have To Empathize With Fascists?
To recap, the basic argument we’re deconstructing is as follows: Denying Jake Angeli organic food is torture. Leftists empathize with people who are tortured and believe everyone deserves to be treated equally. Therefore, leftists should empathize with Jake Angeli.
And as we’ve deconstructed this argument, we’ve come to two ideas that complicate this argument: 1) If we say that denying Jake Angeli organic food is torture, we must acknowledge that it is a relatively less severe form of torture compared to things that happen to many people on a daily basis in the US. 2) It would actually be consistent with leftist values not to offer empathy to Angeli if doing so allowed us to offer empathy to people who needed it more. Taking these two ideas together, we reach a conclusion that I really shouldn’t have needed to write so many words to justify: 3) It is a gross misapplication of leftist values to entreat people to empathize with Jake Angeli’s temporary loss of access to organic food.
At this point, I’m going to drop the mask. I’ve used very measured language so far because I understand the value of making a point calmly and precisely. But to conclude this discussion, let’s get into how I really feel about it.
Receiving empathy is a form of power. When people empathize with you, you can get your needs met more easily. You’ll escape consequences that others in your shoes would have to face. You can openly plan an insurrection for weeks and still be met with only a meager resistance from a small number of cops, some of whom happily take selfies with you as you go home without being arrested. People who know you want them dead will still tweet about wanting to fuck you. And when you do end up in jail, you can get your political opponents to write Twitter threads about how we should all feel bad for you when you complain about the gross food.
I’m a queer, neurodivergent, anarchist trans woman. Jake Angeli would want me five different kinds of dead. He was arrested because he was attempting to take the very system that is currently “torturing” him, and strengthen it by installing a dictator who would use it to torture people like me instead — and not just by making us eat something that didn’t come from a fucking Whole Foods. So if I spare a moment’s consideration for his suffering, I am not just participating in white supremacy, I am not just insulting the experience of every marginalized person in the world — I am inviting my own destruction! Because not every Jake Angeli in the country went to jail, and the ones that did won’t stay there for long.
When the Nazis are no longer powerful enough to be an existential threat to every value and desire of the left, then we can talk about feeling bad for them. In the meantime, if some of them get punched, tortured, killed— I don’t give a shit. Not only are there so many people more deserving of empathy, but denying them that empathy, and making people feel ashamed to give it to them, actually meaningfully serves to weaken them. You do not need to empathize with people who want you dead.