Sarah Silverman on Why the World Needs More Empathy

Brad Barket/Getty Images for The New Yorker
Sarah Silverman

The comedian spoke at the New Yorker Festival about the dangers of cancel culture, why change is good and the importance of finding common ground with those share different views.

Sarah Silverman is probably thinking about what this headline says.

At the New Yorker Festival on Saturday night, the comedian spoke with New Yorker staff writer Andrew Marantz about the dangers of clickbait culture and how headlines don’t always accurately reflect the nuance of the discussion.

"People are terrified, and to be honest, so am I right now," Silverman said about speaking honestly, noting that she’s inadvertently hurt people in the past through her comments being digested into short soundbites.

That didn’t stop her from speaking honestly about the importance of change and empathy in the current social and political climate. Marantz opened the conversation by asking Silverman about her journey as a performer and the change in her comedy. While she started out performing an ignorant and arrogant character version of herself in her first special Jesus Is Magic, she’s since "had an identity crisis" as a comedian.

"Comedy dies in the second guessing of your audience," Silverman said about her early trials to figure out how to perform what people wanted to see. "You have to be willing to bomb and start over. It’s easy to bomb when nobody knows who you are."

Silverman and Marantz also spoke about her show I Love You, America, in which Silverman met with people who held different beliefs from her own and tried to have an open discussion. She explained that many an individual’s hatred stems initially from a desire to be a part of something with other people.

"It’s not about hate, but it’s about they found a community where they belong," Silverman said of white supremacists. "Nobody has changed by being shamed or being judged."

She also spoke about people like Christian Picciolini, who founded Free Radicals Project to prevent extremist movements after his own time in a white supremacist network, and Megan Phelps-Roper, the granddaughter of the Westboro Baptist Church founder who discovered a new path for herself through discussions with people on social media.

"People go towards love. This is what humans do," the comedian said. "I’m a hypocrite in a thousand ways, but people are changed."

Silverman went on to speak about her own change, as she hesitantly mentioned her decision to apologize for a segment on The Sarah Silverman Program when her character performed blackface as part of an episode about racism. Silverman said she harbored shame for many years and wanted to apologize for her "complicity in a liberal bubble racism."

The comedian also discussed the dangers of cancel culture and internet shaming. "Can we hope for people to change? Can we be open to being changed?" Silverman asked.

"Cancel culture is a weird black and white thing that I think should take into account the nuance of things and the people’s intentions and their room for growth and if they have changed or if they have not — there’s a big difference," she said.

When asked about the recent social media uproar surrounding Ellen DeGeneres and former President George W. Bush’s friendship, Silverman chose to stay on the sidelines.

"I watched her response and I went, 'That’s great.' And I read a bunch of counter responses and I went, 'That’s true,'" she said. "I don’t have to weigh in."

When Marantz asked Silverman whether the growing political correctness of today’s culture affected her comedy writing, she had a nuanced answer.

"No, because I don’t ever preconceive what I write about. It just is the stuff I’m thinking about and if I have a funny angle on it," the comedian said. "It’s not that I’m not aware of the world around me. It completely informs the stuff I end up writing just because everything’s connected. I mean, yes."

Ultimately, she expressed her desire for people to have empathy for each other. Marantz spoke about the time Silverman befriended someone who bullied her on Twitter and ended up direct messaging with him daily for a year and finding common ground in back pain. The comedian explained that she sees internet trolls or comedy club hecklers as people looking for acknowledgement of their existence.

"If you see them, it means something," Silverman said. "Empathy is free, it’s not like something you can get back."