The Radical Empathy of Eli Clare

“Complicit brutes, dumb brutes. I sit at my computer and imagine
you, my reader. You have never seen a clearcut, or if you have, you
were a tourist. Regardless of what you think about the timber industry, you believe loggers are butchers, maybe even murderers. Perhaps I’m oversimplifying. Maybe your people are coal miners or oil drillers. Maybe you’re a logger or fisherman. Or maybe, like me, you grew up among them. If so, you will understand my
need to talk about complicity and stupidity, although our understandings may differ dramatically.” (Clare 55)

I really loved this passage from Eli Clare’s Exile and Prejudice. One of my key takeaways from Clare’s writings is how well he breaks down different perspectives, especially that of perception of peoples and the “clearcut: brutes and bumper stickers chapter” is a great example of his ability to see things alternatively.

The chapter begins with Clare recounting the story of loggers who felt threatened by environmental activists, particularly the radical activist group Earth First!, where an article describe the loggers as “Neanderthal thugs” and no better than the Ku Klux Klan. Clare’s response to this is as follows:

“To clearly and accurately report unjust, excessive, and frightening violence is one thing; to portray a group of
people as dumb brutes is another” (Clare 52). Clare makes a powerful statement here on how we understand class structure in society. The general assumption being made are that the loggers are uneducated folk, who are actively harming the environment by their profession and being, and their retaliation of feeling threatened is blown up to a point where it is described as violence by a group fundamentally opposed to them. Clare however, in the original quote that I’ve brought in continues to further ponder what this dichotomy implies. He emphasizes the word ‘oversimplifying’, claiming there is more to what meets the eye. Clare goes on to recount a few stories to prove this, including one about Jim the timber cruiser turned environmentalist, and this passage accurately presents how nuanced identities can be:

“Is Jim the dumb brute you expect a logger to be? Probably not, but you don’t like the ambiguity. Or maybe you’re feeling tricked. Did you expect a story about a working-class redneck, a faller or choker setter, a bucker or truck driver, or maybe the man who pulls green chain — pulling the fresh-cut lumber off the saw — at the mill?” (Clare 56)

Clare is not afraid to embrace the nuanced complex worldview, and is not afraid to take a stance here some might find controversial. He is humanitarian in that aspect, willing to give benefit of doubt to people who might be seen as wrong to others. Some of these included people in his own hometown, and his ability to show compassion and empathy makes him a strong person, and it drives a larger theme in the book of acceptance and how complex identity can be.

PS. Here is a link to an archive of Earth First! journals, if you want to see what they were like and the kind of writings they used to publish

4 thoughts on “The Radical Empathy of Eli Clare”

  1. Hi there! I also enjoy Clare’s empathetic perspective toward people who society would generally view as “uneducated” or “brutish”. I think that the idea of studying queer identities in rural spaces applies to what you are saying as well. Socially there is this stereotype that queer people cannot achieve survivance in rural areas due to strong homophobic views. Contrarily, rural queerness is also viewed as idyllic through groups such as Lesbian Lands and Radical Faeries. These statements are true, and they directly oppose one another. I think that Clare would agree with the multifaceted, rural, queer argument that there are a “multitude of social belongings”, and that there are people within rural communities that are known as more than their queer identity.

  2. The notion that Eli Clare’s open world-view is “radical empathy” is fascinating. Clare lived in drastically different places, which gave him a broad perspective on the world. As you pointed out, he heard the insults and assumptions people have about loggers and internalized those ideas. His experience with homophobia, transphobia, and abuse also influenced his experience with loggers and blue-collar workers. His empathy is apparent in his care for the people who have hurt him. My question is what does Clare possess that allows him to have this empathy? Many cannot look past the apparent wrongdoings of people like loggers or “small town, small minded” people. It is difficult to see the nuances of a person or group of people, so what in Clare’s past has made him able to do this?

  3. Being from a rural area myself, I felt a sense of personal guilt when I read this section. Mostly because I felt I wasn’t being as virtuous as Clare, his forgiveness and acceptance for the working class loggers of his hometown was definitely more compassionate than the treatment I have given to the majority conservative agricultural workers in my town. Clare does and excellent job of destructing identities and abolishing the idea of having a singular defining characteristic, and I think you did an excellent job highlighting this in your post. These men and women are not just country brutes, who disregard the environment mindlessly, they’re just people trying to survive. The fact that he is able to see these intersections, and analytically critique their character and perceptions of their character with such composure considering his traumatic ties is testament to power of his personal journey of recovery and discovery.

  4. Hi! I also really appreciated this passage from Exile and Pride. I think that the ambiguity of “bad” or “stupid” people is a very interesting thing to talk about because of the lack of clear-cut definitions for what makes a person smart or a good person. The nuanced views in this show how empathetic Clare is, and your use of the term “radical empathy” is a really great way to word that because of how rare it seems to be to see this nuanced and complex views of other people (even if it shouldn’t be seen as so radical).

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