What Empathy Looks Like: Twitch Streamer Brandon Nance Resigns After Ranting At A Depressed Fan

Everyone knows that if you've fought depression or anxiety or bipolar disorder, you'll be much more patient and compassionate with others who suffer, right?

Right?

Well, no. Not necessarily.

I've heard that nobody has more contempt for junkies than another junkie, that nobody despises drunks like a drunk. This doesn't surprise me. Compassion and empathy are beautiful, but they are products of conscious effort, not of nature. Our minds often run the other way. Even if you've had a searing experience with mental illness, your reaction to others might not be saintly. It might be a visceral, angry snarl of "why the fuck can't you just be normal?" It doesn't take an advanced degree in psychology to figure out who the you in that question really is, friends and neighbors.

I, for one, am not more patient with mental illness than I was before I learned to manage it. In my gut I'm less patient. It rustles my jimmies something fierce. I know perfectly well why: I'm pissed off about how depression and anxiety have impacted my life, I'm pissed off about how it's impacted the lives of those I love, and I resent the hell out of having to deal with it. So I fight the urge to shout the questions at others that I can't shout at myself: why can't you just walk it off? Why can't you seek help when you ought to? Why can't you stay on your meds? Why won't you take a methodical approach to this? Why the hell can't you manage this better? I don't actually ask these things, and most of the time I think I achieve decency and compassion to fellow sufferers through deliberate effort. But it's a damned uncomfortable feeling.

So: if I see someone go off on the depressed or the anxious or the suicidal, I'm not inclined to assume that they're just a horrible unfeeling person. Rather, I suspect they may have been there themselves.

Brandon Nance is a Twitch Streamer — that is to say, people watch him play games online. This bit of modern culture is inscrutable to me, but my kids claim it's fun. Whatever. Recently, when one of Nance's viewers messaged him during a session that Nance's videos had helped him recover during a period when he was suicidal. Nance didn't react well. He ranted brutally and bitterly at the viewer, characterizing depressed people as lazy and helpless and suicide as selfish and weak. Controversy ensued, and Nance resigned.

When I heard this story I assumed that we'd learn that Nance himself had lived a life touched by mental illness, and indeed he has — he wrote honestly and bravely about fighting serious depression and about the experience with a family member whose life was ravaged by addiction. That shit's not easy. It might even make you lash out in an angry, bitter rant about suicide and depression.

Many people were very angry at Nance, and expressed that anger in various popular Internet ways. Some were just venting themselves. But I'm sure some thought that they were fighting for empathy and compassion by condemning Brandon Nance. But they weren't, really, were they?

h/t Stephen Combs

Last 5 posts by Ken White

Comments

  1. LlamaHerder says

    I follow Smite (the game he's famous for), and I've watched his stream on multiple occasions. He's always had a habit of lashing out at people — friends and randoms and enemies alike — which has made him deeply unpopular. This is the latest in a long line of similar incidents, which made him a pretty appealing target for a lot of people. Including me.

    Every time I've joined in on an internet pile-on, I've regretted it.

    This is one of those times.

  2. Daniel Weber says

    Every time I've joined in on an internet pile-on, I've regretted it.

    This is one of those times.

    Our lizard brains love to pile on. To kick the crap out of an enemy that can't fight back? C'est merveilleux!

    One trick I try to do — and by no means am I successful — is to remind myself that my brain really wants every reason to believe it's okay to pile on someone, so that I should be really really skeptical of it.

  3. LlamaHerder says

    Our lizard brains love to pile on. To kick the crap out of an enemy that can't fight back? C'est merveilleux!

    One trick I try to do — and by no means am I successful — is to remind myself that my brain really wants every reason to believe it's okay to pile on someone, so that I should be really really skeptical of it.

    Every time I've piled on, I haven't really realized I wasn't the only person going after the person. I mean, I know there are other people upset with them at the moment, but I don't process the scale properly.

    Not until after I've started yelling at someone for not understanding depression.

    And then it turns out they really do, and much better than I ever could.

    Welp.

  4. Castaigne says

    From the Kotaku article, he says “I have always been loud, abrasive, and I don’t know how to change it. I don’t know that I would.” One thing you've always talked about is that we are not free from the consequences of our speech – and it's something I fervently agree with. Brandon fucked up. The reason why he fucked up isn't really relevant; what matters is the action, not the intent. I don't feel a need to pile on him, but neither can I find sympathy or him. I would say he has been appropriately punished; may he go and sin no more.

  5. Lulex7 says

    Nah, they were; after all, they were rejecting his–objective–lack of empathy. You can condemn him for what he says because it was a shit reaction. Kid shouldn't have resigned though, Twitch has had much worse happen (just watch Reckful).

  6. LlamaHerder says

    Kid shouldn't have resigned though, Twitch has had much worse happen (just watch Reckful).

    He resigned from his job at HiRez as a caster for the Smite Pro League, not his Twitch stream.

    Whatever else anyone we have to say about him, you don't get to act like this and still be the face of a company.

  7. Erin says

    I've been reading this blog for years. You've helped change my thinking in a LOT of ways. I'm so glad that you write about depression, about your family, and about your work. You inspire me. Thanks.

  8. Stormy Dragon says

    Brandon Nance is a Twitch Streamer — that is to say, people watch him play games online. This bit of modern culture is inscrutable to me, but my kids claim it's fun.

    Is it really any different then watching people play football or golf or poker or fish or drive cars in circles or any of the other activities people like to watch on TV? I get you don't personally like it, but I find it hard to believe you don't understand why anyone would like it.

  9. Anonymous says

    "This bit of modern culture is inscrutable to me"

    It's kinda similar to watching people play sports.

  10. Stormy Dragon says

    Most hobbies start to look ridiculous if you think about them too hard. I mean the year is only a third over and people around the world have already spent more than $1.5 billion because they love watching fake fights between people pretending to have magical powers.

  11. michelle says

    I know perfectly well why: I'm pissed off about how depression and anxiety have impacted my life, I'm pissed off about how it's impacted the lives of those I love, and I resent the hell out of having to deal with it.

    Wow. I don't know who this person is, and don't give a shit about game streaming or whatever, but WOW did you just completely capture what I thought I was completely alone in feeling about my oldest two children suffering from depression. I fought through that shit tooth and nail, pretty much by myself, and it almost killed me — and now it's hurting my children and there's fucking nothing I can do about it. And yeah, I just want to scream at it until it stops. :(

  12. Murphy says

    In this case I think he was just needlessly cruel but in the general case…

    Sometimes you can be less charitable to people with the same problems as yourself because you know damned well what they're going through and can have contempt because you have no illusions about how they're dealing with it.

    It can be particularly annoying when someone whines about something similar or lesser to your own while insisting that there's "no way you can understand"

    Rhetorically:
    Hour 1: someone goes on and on and on about how losing the knuckle of one of their pinkies is the worst thing ever and nobody understands and YOU don't understand.
    Hour 2: they continue
    Hour 3: They continue even more stressing that there's no way you can understand ever.
    Hour 4: [You finally give up and hold up the stump of your missing hand to give them a clue.]
    They continue saying there's no way you could ever understand and that you've never experienced anything as bad as they have.

    Utter contempt and utterly uncharitable screaming ensues.

  13. GeoffreyK says

    While twitch has parallels to something like traditional sports broadcasting, it is also decidedly different. Commentating streams are the closest (like the big ones hosted by championship organizers, with "talent" brought in), but once you're talking about a stream with the person playing the game, where they are talking to the audience, both in general, and about what they're doing at that moment, that is a distinct twist. I think you have to imagine instead, racing with the in-vehicle camera, except the driver is actively narrating their experience while driving, providing tips about how to achieve such driving results, responding to questions from the chat thread displayed to them in-car, pimping their sponsors, all while trying to both win the race against other drivers, AND win a popularity contest amongst the potential viewing audience for which they and all of the other drivers also engaged in this activity are competing.

    It is not unknowable, but it is foreign to the experience that exists elsewhere.

    Personally, my recommendation to people unfamiliar with Twitch is to forget about the videogame aspect of things, as that's just subject matter (like golf vs basketball vs soccer vs fly-fishing), and perhaps go find a stream of something that you do find inherently interesting, so that you can try out the format. That would give you a better sense of reference, as well as a more legitimate porch from which to yell at the miscreants on your lawn.

  14. echo says

    On the other hand, how would you feel if the response to your angry rants was a pop-clinical diagnosis disguised as empathy?
    "Oh, Ken's only ranting about [thing Ken cares about] because he's lashing out. Cut him some slack, you know he's not right in the head."

    If there's anything worse than internet mobs, it's weaponized empathy that second-guesses every statement people make, declaring them unfit to speak for themselves.
    Which would you rather deal with: outraged comments, or a "whiteness studies" analysis that wrote off everything you say as the "false consciousness of a privileged cishet white-male lawyer"?

  15. says

    Well, echo, in general I'm not a fan of using mental illness as an excuse. And I don't think Nance was. I was just pointing out the incongruity of thinking that you're a champion of empathy and compassion if you pile on someone who goes on a rant about depression or suicide.

  16. susiegreen says

    My grandfather died a depressed addict, as did my mom who upped the ante by committing suicide when I was in the next room. Safe to say I come by my own depression and addiction (18 years clean from heroin) naturally. I can no more divorce depression and drugs from what I've accomplished than I can from what I've lost. And having progressed from Top 50 law firm partner to impoverished shut-in on Social Security disability, I've had my share of both.

    So I get how hard it can be to empathize with someone who's pushing my buttons. But if I'm to hope the people I care about will do it for me — and let's face it, I'm no picnic — the least I can do is make the effort for others. At the same time thanks to my family history, relieving the mentally ill of their moral agency tends to be my personal bullet train to crazytown, and it does them no favors.

    How to navigate those opposing currents? The only way I know is to vigilantly delineate between sin and sinner. Attach appropriate sanctions to the behavior, e.g., firing Nance, while expressing compassion for his difficulty doing what others take for granted. Let him know you know that the ability to perform (abstain from) what's required (prohibited) for a job isn't the measure of his virtue.

  17. Osama bin Pimpin says

    I'm a lawyer who follows this blog out of libertarian sympathies. Also a person labelled with "mental illness" who rolls with Thomas Szasz therefore arguably like this guy Nance. Those two things actually go together.

    Anyone understand that inside baseball?

  18. Dragoness Eclectic says

    Everyone knows that if you've fought depression or anxiety or bipolar disorder, you'll be much more patient and compassionate with others who suffer, right?

    Depends what phase of depression you're in this week, too. When I'm out of the hole, I'm intensely sympathetic to those who are deep in the hole–"been there, done that, I know how it hurts". When I'm deep in the hole, I am miserable and hate everything and can't stand other people's "whining".

  19. Jon Marcus says

    Somewhat OT, but:

    @Stormy Dragon

    I mean the year is only a third over and people around the world have already spent more than $1.5 billion because they love watching fake fights between people pretending to have magical powers.

    I love that I have no idea which sport you're talking about. It lets me fill in so many possibilities. My best (for various values of "best") guess is that you're talking about the presidential primaries?

  20. babaganusz says

    that or fantasy MMORPGs. not sure how the "pretending to have magical powers" distinction factors into any of the muggle pursuits …

  21. Anon, good nurse, Anon says

    Ken, the things you write about depression are very good things, smart things, insightful things, wise things, helpful compassionate things. I thank you for hitting the nail on the head yet again.

    To help you understand why things like Twitch are popular, I'll explain why I like watching streamers and Let's Players:

    When we were young, my brother and I would play a lot of single-player console games. Since we only had one of any given console, and only one family room TV on which to play it, we'd take turns watching each other play and helping each other remember directions and solve puzzles. Now, we live in different places and have our own lives and stuff, but watching people play video games and hearing them react to the events of the game reminds me of that time I spent with my little brother. I bet a lot of people have similar experiences, or remember hanging out with friends and doing the same sort of thing, so "hanging out" with some random funny Internet person and their entire chat room kinda scratches that same itch.

  22. TurnColors says

    babaganusz – I think StormyDragon was talking about professional wrestling. Pretend magic powers – check. Fake fighting – check. Ridiculously lucrative? Oh yeah. Could be totally wrong: just my S.W.A.G.

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