Nisi Shawl’s Slippernet in Slate’s Trump Story Project.

The Trump Story Project: The Ethics of Weaponized Empathy

The Trump Story Project: The Ethics of Weaponized Empathy

Novels, stories, and more.
Feb. 22 2017 10:01 AM


Is it ethical to force empathy on your enemy?


Lisa Larson-Walker

In the Trump Story Project, we’re presenting a series of short stories from contemporary writers, compiled by Ben H. Winters, imagining America’s future under President Donald Trump. This series was made possible by support from Slate Plus members. Read Ben Winters’ introduction to the series.




Dalitha’s bare toes dug side-by-side scoops in the black dirt. She sat on Plum Creek’s high western bank, buttocks dampening through the thin cotton of her skirt, leaning back on her hands so that they sank into the soft soil. Free as jazz, the yellow-and-green branches of the budding alders around her waved in a joyful spring breeze. But the real music, Dalitha knew, played underground.

She heard it. She thought it heard her, too. To make sure, she put her shoes back on. It was easy. Thread-enabled fit.


We’ll be talking on today’s podcast with biologist Claire Simak. Simak has been investigating the so-called Wood-Wide-Web, an under-forest fungus network where deals are made and lives are saved via complex interconnections mimicking friendships, rivalries, and business relations. As she and scientists like her begin to untangle and map this network, they’re challenging our understanding of empathy and the role cooperation plays in survival.



“Bake it in their bread.”

“Not everyone eats bread.” Ross objected to plans of action easily. He had three older brothers; he’d seen plenty of mistakes made. “Some people are allergic. Besides, then we’d be just as bad. Forcing them—”

“Spare me the false equivalencies!”


“It ain’t false!” That was Kitt. They could be counted on to defend Ross, or anyone else they thought was getting ganged up on. “We need some way to make people wanna connect. Set up Meshes of their own, even. We need carrots insteada sticks.”

“If we could make them want to Mesh with people—each other, anybody—there’d be no need for the Threads.” The Grove sat around a small, slick-surfaced café table, their usual meeting spot. Evening gloom pressed against the floor-to-ceiling windows surrounding their bay; the café’s few other customers occupied tables near electric outlets on the big room’s far side. The latest member of the Grove to speak, Aavo, stared down at a corked glass tube, spinning it slowly back and forth between thumb and finger. The tube’s whitish-purple contents reflected blurrily in the tabletop’s glossy black. “We have to approach the problem indirectly. Make them want something else. Something this gives us.”

“Love? Everyone wants that.”

Aavo frowned. “Except if they think they’ve already got it. No, more basic even than that. Primal. And the kinda thing you can never have enough of.”



“Security,” said Ross at the same time. That happened a lot since the Grove had Meshed, its members saying things simultaneously. He elaborated: “Like how much more employable I am now I understand what you do.” He looked at the cis man on his right.

“Well, you don’t really understand flavor design. But I guess that’s a point,” Chris admitted. “You’re easier to work with now.”

“How long should we try this?”


“I’ll write up the ad.”

“I’ll edit it.”

“I’m graphics. Everyone on distribution. Let’s see how it spreads in six months.”
No one had called the meeting to order and no one needed to adjourn it. The Grove bussed their table and left.


Market-inspired menu creation for Third Coast fine dining enterprise. Compensation package commensurate with experience. Thread-friendly candidates preferred.


OK to post this here? A company where I freelance copywrite is expanding and they want like virtual tour guides training their incoming employees. So familiarity with Zoom and GoToMeeting and as many conferencing softwares as possible, but another thing they’re asking for is “Thread savvy” which is, you know, that scary empathy tech. May be worth exploring, though.


Are you going to apply?


And plant those Thread things under
your skin to qualify?


Your father and I are cool waiting
for you to repay us. If it’s not
right don’t do it.

        it’s legal

Yes, but what if you they don’t hire
you? Then you’ll have gone through
all that for nothing.

        if not these guys someone else

will want me
some mesh


“All right. Five months. It’s working.”

“Not fast enough.”

“What’s ‘fast enough’?” The café had hung a basket over the cash register for donations to support waitstaff health care. Candles flickered on tables like the Grove’s, where individuals’ electric lights had no place to plug in.

“Fast enough is fewer people dying,” Ross said. The lime-green pillar smoked badly. Good thing the ceiling was painted midnight blue. “Fewer arrests because more people are Meshed.”

Aavo grimaced. “You want to be all quantitative?”

“Things are getting a lot worse a lot quicker than we thought they would. Congress just passed that Bannon bill criminalizing non-gender-specific dress.”

“Camps are filling up, though. Pretty soon they’ll be at capacity.”

“That spozed to be good news? What, you think these fools about to stop charging people?” Kitt rubbed their neck and winced. They’d been sleeping on Ross’s floor since the Volunteer Militia started staking out their apartment. “Goddam Volunteers’ll put em somewhere. Buses. Trailer parks.” They paused and said what the Grove all thought. “Graveyards.”

Kitt shook their head, brass-tipped dreadlocks tinging together. “Naw. Now good news, that’s what I hear from my cuzz Dalitha’s feed.”

“She’s that Kpopper, right?”

“That ain’t what you call em. But yeah, she and her friends are all about these Korean actors and singers, K-drama, K-pop. They Meshed across the world, and they got a answer to how to hold theirself together if we wanna listen. Their phones on all the time to supplement the Thread—”

“Everybody can’t afford that,” Aavo interrupted.

“Sure they can. Group discounts from phone companies. Which would be another incentive to join, see?”

“ ‘Another’ incentive. A secondary one. So what’s the first?”

“We have to have the Meshes doin a kinda Cult of Personality thing, like Dalitha and them.”

“That could go really wrong,” Aavo cautioned.

“We’d hafta be careful, yeah. Tink and Bee-Lung, all those early Thread users, they warned against it pumping up people’s tendency to worship. But I think nowadays there’s less superstition.”

Ross snorted. “I know you do.”

“What if ... if we gave them somewhere else to focus?”

Chris was sitting closest and he caught Aavo’s excitement a fraction of a second faster than the rest. “A place? Like a literal Grove? Pilgrimages!”

Kitt frowned. “Then those Trumpers could hit us back by takin it over. Not a place. Not a place and not a person.”

All four said it together: “A thing.”


Zoe Blanche Jacksons! Exclusive deals for first-time purchasers. Get the designer shoes the whole world wants! Dress, casual, business. All sizes: children and adult. Thread-enabled fit.


how are they gay? shoes don’t
have sex

       seen the youtubes? they will make you
       want to suck cokc

idgaf they look cool and everyone wants
them me too

       jacksons not even married
       not even dating

idgaf really y do u? they even
have supermachostyle

        just be careful
       somebodys watching


Live/perform spaces now available in Artists’ Network. Work exchange. Shared bathroom, cooking facilities; private or community sleeping quarters; Thread-friendly. Text Dalitha.


The café had burnt down a week before the meeting. Insurance payments had been behind, so rebuilding probably wouldn’t happen. The sidewalk outside the ruin glistened in the warm rain. The Grove took turns stepping away from the huddle beneath their golf umbrella; currently Aavo stood in the soft drizzle, Jewfro ringlets plastered to her pale forehead. “It’s working,” she insisted.

Chris shook his head. “So what? Big deal. Bunch of artists and writers Meshing.”

“That ain’t who we gotta reach,” Kitt agreed. “We need to slip truth to power.”

“Doesn’t that go a little different--”

“People been ‘speakin’ it,” they interrupted. “What we need to do is work truth into em. Insert it somewheres they can’t get it out.”

“No. Make it so they slip it to themselves.”

“All right, Ross. We be as ethical as we wanna. Maybe just shift our marketing a teense? I have ideas how ZBJ could draw in more a them top percenters. Charity shows—”

A blare of horns sliced through the whisper of water on pavement, thin as a butter knife. A ratcheting beat followed, high and tinny, joined by deep plunging bass notes dropping like toy bombs. And a gleeful falsetto glided into place above it all as at the end of the dark street flashes of movement strobed, gray on black, angles and vectors in synch, movements in time—dancers. Approaching.

Security lamps, hung from the walls of businesses that had shut for the night, threw shimmering light, showing more of them as they neared: bare arms, faces, all races, damp flanks, long hair whipping behind heads turning, nodding, not in unison but matching, Meshing—

“That’s our flash mob we’ve been expecting, right?” Aavo asked.

“Yeah,” said Kitt.

“Good.” She craned past Ross to see the procession’s tail end. “Especially if we can prove they did this without rehearsals. Say it’s all about the Jacksons—which in a way ... They better be recording, though.”

“We can. They are,” Kitt assured her. “Or anyway I am. And Dalitha and her K-boo friends on FB feed 25/8.”

“You share what you capture?”

“Set it to public, tag the googob outta—”

WHOOOP! WHOOPWHOOPWHOOPWHOOPWHOOP!! Sirens and high beams pierced the rainy darkness.

“Volunteers!” Without one other word Kitt left. Aavo filled their vacancy under the umbrella.

Which Chris nervously tried to withdraw as he pulled away from the group. “Shouldn’t we all be going?”

“I wanna see the raw footage,” Ross replied. “No one has come after the Grove so far, and we could maybe learn a thing or two. And gas doesn’t work so good out in the open. Especially with the rain.”

“But the rain’s stop—”


The Volunteers’ station wagons had reached the dancers’ formation: One car idled in front of them while two others on the sides backed and filled, a 12-point maneuver that ought to have closed the dancers in a tighter and tighter knot. Instead, they leapt and somersaulted over hoods and roofs, landing outside them in a rounded triangle like a rack for pool balls.

A car’s window lowered. A gun barrel thrust out. It fired at a dancer—Dalitha—and missed. Dalitha’s body snaked around as one arm opened the door easily as a foil-wrapped butter pat, as her other arm flowed to embrace the emerging woman, as Dalitha’s lips sought and found her captive’s ears, her fluttering eyelids, and at last her narrow-pinched nostrils.

“Damn! Aren’t they supposed to shoot?” Chris asked. “I read one of their training manuals.”

“Hard to do, I guess, mixed up with their targets that way.”

All the dancers now swarmed like a slime mold’s amoebas over the cars and their contents. They joined together in several small clumps, Volunteers at their centers, filling the intersection a few yards off. Idling engines died, but the station wagons’ headlights stayed on, casting long, lumpy shadows. The clumps swayed. The music surged.

“This is wrong,” Ross muttered. “Just wrong.” He left, too. The remaining two tried to follow him, but he sped up and disappeared around a corner. Aavo asked Chris to wait while she ran ahead. He nodded.

Suddenly contact broke down. Out of sight shouldn’t be out of mind but Chris felt lonely as a teenager. Which by himself is what he actually was.

A clump of dancers shook, shivered apart as the man at its core dropped to the ground and forced himself through a gap in their legs. The escaped Volunteer rolled to rest face-up in a deep-looking puddle and struggled to unzip his soaked raincoat. An inflated transparent plastic trash bag strapped to his torso was exposed. As the dancers sank to their knees to converge on him again he made his fingers into claws and ripped it open.

“No! Run!” someone shouted. Chris lost his hold on the umbrella. Dancers and volunteers writhed silently together, fallen patternlessly in the street. His nose leaked snot. He coughed and bent double and coughed twice as hard and would have fallen himself if his jacket hadn’t caught on something. Something dragging it and him away and up unlit stairs. A dancer’s hand. Dalitha’s.

“Used to see my eye doctor here,” she announced irrelevantly. She let him go. “Lie down while I get this door.”

Chris found he had no choice. He couldn’t move much except to twitch. Tears filled his eyes and spilled onto his burning cheeks to mix with more snot. Piss plumed out from his crotch along the denim of his jeans. Noisy thumps and crashes filled the blackness. A creak and a squeal, and then weak light came through a blurry hole—and Dalitha’s voice.

“Fuck. I know I had a flashlight. And my Krewe—Where is everybody?” Softer thumps, a thud he felt more than heard. “Come on, people, you gonna let a little sarin spoil the party?”

Chris couldn’t answer to say he’d lost touch with the Grove as well. It was all he could do to breathe.

“Aha! Here we go.” Dalitha came back. “A box of atropine bottles. Don’t think I was exposed as heavy as you, since I got no symptoms, so you first. Not sure of the dosage, though.” A fist blocked the dim light. “Wait. I better get this drool wiped so it don’t dilute—there.

“Now Rachel was a doctor before her clinic went bankrupt and she’s always sayin rectal administration’s best in a situation like this—fastest, anyway. And I got a tampon to soak in the medicine, but from the smell of you I’d hafta waste time lookin for wipes and rubber gloves before I pushed it in.”

So it wasn’t only piss staining his pants.

“Next-best plan is under your tongue. Sublingual is what they call that route.” Chris felt a rough, dry grip pulling his tongue up and out. Then cool dampness dabbing its roots. “And I may as well get your gums while I’m at it.” Liquid stung the sore place where he’d burnt his mouth eating too-hot pizza.

“Aight. Now me. I could go vaginally—not like you—you cis, yeah? But I’ll do sublingual too, get a better idea how much we need. How much the effect. And I can put my Fitbit on you to check how fast your heart beats. I gotta have better light, though.”

A squeeze of his hand, a rustle of cloth, and she was gone again from his side. Sudden brilliance made him blink—and he could see! Clearly! The tears he’d been helplessly crying had stopped. He succeeded in turning his head.

“Don’t move! Stay still now—you don’t wanna contaminate everywhere.” Dalitha came back. “It’s workin, ain’t it? Say somethin.”

“We—” He stopped. So much better so quickly! “We—I lost touch with them.” He stopped again, panted. “Like you did.” Panic circled his throat, tight like wire. Alone. Wasn’t she afraid too? Her fingers trembled as she pulled a black bracelet over his wrist. “Why?”

“Think I figured it out. The parasympathetic system’s weird—that’s what the gas revs up. Thread engagement is tied to oxytocin, I hear, so when the parasympathetic commandeers what your Thread’s using, Meshing probably is not gonna be smooth as usual—” She interrupted herself. “Lookin good. Another milliliter maybe.” She administered it and leaned back to sweep him with her clinical regard, toes to head.

“You think if I help you to the bathroom you can clean up on your own? I wanna treat anybody left who been hurt.”

What did she call them? Her crew? Like pirates. “No; let me come with you.”

She hunched her shoulders forward, darted her eyes toward the bashed-in door. When she met his gaze again he felt her fear for the other dancers’ possible deaths. Meshed with it.

“Cool. Let’s move.”

Supported to the small public restroom in the hall, Chris let his body slump on the toilet while water ran in the sink. Dalitha went off to scavenge. When the water came clear from the tap he stood and stripped himself of his soiled and poisoned clothing, then sponged himself off with brown paper towels and foaming soap. As he patted where he’d washed with more paper towels Dalitha returned, carrying scrubs she’d scrounged from another set of offices. There would be investigations tomorrow when the building opened for business, if it subscribed to a security service.

The new clothes felt a little loose; Chris and Dalitha had known they would. The Mesh, however, fit perfectly. Better than before, potentially. Deeper. Wider. Compensation for the temporary cut off.

As the two descended to the sidewalk, Thread emanations rose from half-a-dozen half-dazed dancers and their Volunteer captives like steam or transparent smoke or heat, invisible to the eye but easy enough to detect with the right senses. Senses now sharper than ever. Extending further in space and in time.

The rain had begun again. No trace of sarin lingered in the air.

They Meshed.

Everyone would be all right.


Qualia magazine: Were you actually there? Did you undergo this experience—being “born again”—yourself?

Zoe Blanche Jackson: I might as well have. I know all about what happened.

QM: After the fact. In reality, couldn’t it be said you’re no better informed than the rest of us? That you—

ZBJ: Look, in reality there is no “after the fact.” No before. No me, no you—except of course there is, there are always individuals when anyone needs them. Always will be. But if not, if it’s not necessary .... I know how the victims were resuscitated because I’m as much Chris Sweeny as I want to be. As much Dalitha Scarborough. You could get the same effect. What an improvement to your career! Interview singers, CEOs, governors, cabinet members, without even leaving home to meet them. You’d understand what people meant. You wouldn’t have to ask these stupid questions.

QM: Thank you.

ZBJ: Sorry. It’s only—my true fans have chosen to accept me for what—for who I am. Why won’t you?