Dickens is Right Again
To quote probably the most-often quoted opening line in literature: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…” In this case, for empathy.
Lookin back at 2022, what first comes to mind is the growing movement worldwide for LGBTQ+ people. As Charles Dickens continues on in his opening sentence: “it was the season of Light.” The U.S. passed the Respect for Marriage Act, replacing the old law that defined marriage as between a man and a woman, and guaranteeing that all states must recognize a marriage that is legal in the state where it was performed. In other words, the right to marry whom you love is now solidified into law.
But then Dickens juxtaposes, “it was the season of Darkness.” 2022 saw a horrendous mass shooting at a gay nightclub in Colorado Springs. We saw a huge upsurge in in hate speech and actions against transgender people in particular. School boards across the country removed books with positive content about being gay, and restricted transgender students’ rights to use the bathroom of their gender-identity. Many states passed laws restricting parents’ abilities to seek medical treatment or care for their transgender children.
To go back to Dickens, “it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness.” The media both promoted empathy and reduced it. Empathy is increased when we are exposed to people of different religions, ethnicities, abilities, etc. Perhaps empathy grew when Amy Schneider became the first hugely successful transgender Jeopardy champion, and millions got to know her as a person over the course of her many weeks on the show, especially because of Jeopardy’s delightful bit where the host asks each of the contestants to relate a fun, interesting personal story/factoid.
But then there was social media, often the epitome of idiocy, sucking people down into self-feeding spirals of prejudice as they followed destructive Twitter hate-filled posts, or explored dark sites on the internet that reinforced hate toward others–not only LGBTQ+ people, but also immigrants, Blacks (see the mass shooting of the grocery store in Buffalo NY), and people of other religions (in 2022, especially against Jews.) Sadly, this too often took the form of actual violence against those who have been deemed the “other”, the enemy. We saw so many mass shootings in the U.S., often by people who have been seduced into believing that all their troubles, all their country’s troubles, are caused by those who have been deemed evil, less than human, not worthy of empathy. The Southern Poverty Law Center is currently monitoring 733 active hate groups in the U.S.
So which way will 2023 go? We can hope that the needle will swing toward a more empathetic world, and we can all do our part to further empathy in our own and others’ lives. But we know that the needle will probably continue to swing wildly. Chances are, Charles Dickens will still be relevant on Jan. 1, 2024.