Gaza Doesn’t Need Patronizing “Empathy”

Self-help guru Brené Brown is calling for using the tools of “radical vulnerability” for dialogue in Israel-Palestine. The result is a vapid plea for empathy for both sides that shies from confronting the massacre actually underway in Gaza.

Brené Brown attends on April 16, 2019 in Los Angeles, California. (Joe Scarnici / Getty Images for Netflix)

“Silence is violence” is a slogan with a long, storied history, even before it was again popularized by the Black Lives Matter movement. Despite its wide acceptance and frequent invocation on protest signs, “silence is violence” has had many nauseating consequences, intended or otherwise.

Take Brené Brown.

She’s a New York Times bestselling author, podcast icon, and vanguard of the therapeutic zeitgeist of vulnerability, empathy, and introspection that has spread like wildfire through bourgeois public discourse over the last decade. One can only surmise that the societal weight of the “silence is violence” schema — white women are apparently uniquely afflicted, due to their gendered positionality — is in part of what led Brown to pen a long-winded tour de nowhere regarding Israel’s annihilation of Palestinians in Gaza.

Before we go into the details of her both-sides-ism, we must admit that this is what we asked for. The claim that “silence is violence” necessarily pushes people who are ignorant about a topic to give public soliloquies. Such monologues are frequently an order of magnitude revealing more than they are informative.

Brown begins,

I continue to be overwhelmed by the violence, trauma, and sheer magnitude of the Israel-Hamas war. I’m deeply connected to the Jewish community, and I want the people I love and care about to know that I see their fear and hurt and that I support them. As a fierce supporter of human dignity, I want the Palestinian people who are also in pain and fear, and who continue to struggle for basic freedoms and self-determination, to know that I support them.

How can this be said plainly? Brené Brown is not “overwhelmed” by the massacre of Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank. If she was, she might have been one of the people who spent the last five months on advocacy work, rather than relying on the word “overwhelmed” to express her alignment with the prevalent emotional diktats. Many of us know people who are overwhelmed right now; a hollow use of the term is an affront to them.

It’s past time we stop allowing the nation’s dignitaries to engage in vast overestimations of their own affectedness amid crisis — from the obvious cases, like celebrities singing “Imagine” at the onset of the COVID-19 lockdowns, to the more nefarious ones like this. If she is, in fact, overwhelmed, it might be more a testament to egocentrism than solidarity with the people actually affected.

I’m almost less interested in the obvious issues with her words. Many others have already pointed out, in response to Brown, that a “war” would be a fight between rival armed forces, whereas what we’re actually seeing is a mass murder of civilians and a flattening of public infrastructure. In this, reference to Hamas serves as the critical rhetorical device for those, like Brown, who are reflexively compelled to see “both sides.” The false equation of a Jewish community in “fear and hurt” and a Palestinian one in “pain and fear” has also received rebuke. Both communities might be in fear: this much is true. But to not mention that one is being systematically killed is not an error of omission — it is a tell. Not a surprising one, per se, but a tell that is emblematic of the socio-political dissonance we allow this cadre of self-help gurus and therapy-speak translators to engage in. I wouldn’t expect much else from celebrities like Justin Bieber, who post their support of Israel on October 7, receive pushback, and then immediately post their support of Palestinians. But what we can’t allow for is the neoliberal empathy enforcers to parade as political minds.

Brown goes on to decry the attack by Hamas, and the authoritarian leaders of Israel, and doubts that either has the support of their respective populations. She ensures us that she “sees God easily and fully in the faces of both Israelis and Palestinians.” She is against both antisemitism and Islamophobia, “terrorism” and “extremism,” and how they are both unjustifiable and indefensible, and wants a “free Israel” and a “free Palestine.” It reads, at some point, less as an earnest yet uniformed analysis than a feeble effort to grip each end of a subscriber-stuffed audience and cling to their pocketbooks.

In her epilogue to the piece, Brown appears frustrated and hurt. She writes,

I’ve been thinking a lot about why so many people consider any position on this war that centers all humanity as sacred as a weak position or a cop out.

What do we think we know about someone when they take a certain position? Are we seeking understanding and dialogue or looking for counterfeit connection and common-enemy intimacy? We’re on the same side and we hate the same people.

What do you think you know about someone who hasn’t posted or spoken out? I’ve been called everything from pathetic to a huge disappointment and a fascist.

She goes on to mention the recent death of her mother and the mourning process that kept her from speaking out sooner. More than anger with Brené Brown’s ultimately inconsequential words, I’m convinced that what we are left with — at the logical conclusion of this anti-silence societal rhetoric — is simply another kind of violence: the violence of discourse. Or, the tyranny of being told that everything must be up for dialogue.

I don’t know Brené Brown, nor do I despise her, as some do. But I would say that I see her — and the measured attempt to accrue the reputation of a luminary — against the backdrop of a misguided culture. As the issues of the day have expanded, so too have her messages been adapted. When George Floyd was murdered in summer 2020, Brown spoke out with a number of interviews and articles, and even coedited a book on Vulnerability, Shame Resilience, and the Black Experience. “How to have difficult conversations about race” and “4 lessons on anti-racism from Brené Brown and Ibram X. Kendi,” read a few of the headings.

Brené Brown wants to be seen as the avant garde of the inner life; she is, rather, the center that will not hold, the core of the misguided culture she seeks to advise. Self-help and Western therapy ideals, the industry that exists well outside of Brown herself, are masturbatory at base if not paired with an earnest effort towards accounting for the history and power relations present in a given situation. Insofar as she sees a foray into the political arena as necessary or profitable, Brown should know that the “call to courage” mantra she sells might actually entail taking stances that risk one’s following and marketability. Talking, itself, is not an act of bravery; in the case of an ongoing genocide, insisting on a “both sides” model of dialogue is, in fact, the means of enforcing the silence that allows it to continue.