Sunday, June 17, 2018

But Does Fiction Make Us Better? MLA 2018, part eight

This is the eighth part of a series wherein I share my notes on the panels I attended at January's convention of the Modern Language Association. Here are part one, part two, part three, part four, part five, part six, and part seven.

568: Against Empathy

There were maybe fifty people in attendance.

Joshua Landy announced that he would take it as a given that the U.S. political situation is catastrophic. What role should fiction and criticism play in remedying that? It’s natural, in the Shelleyan tradition (see also Rorty and Nussbaum) to think that fiction will help us by increasing empathy. There’s been a drop in empathy among college students of late—Sherry Turkle blames it on cell phones. But bigots do not, in fact, lack empathy! They use it on the wrong people and entities. Coates has written that “racism . . . is broad sympathy toward some and broad skepticism toward others.” Empathy advocates would say, okay, make artifacts that make us empathize with the right people. Suzanne Keene’s research shows that the empathy fiction generates makes students nicer to those in their in-group.

So what can literature do? Toni Morrison, Richard Wright, Spike Lee, and Ralph Ellison all work in part by blocking empathy. Do the Right Thing is one of the great artworks of the twentieth century, but the art, not Radio Raheem, is the object of our empathy. Radio is deliberately not a positive image. The visual approach to the black characters is highly stylized, the approach to the Italian-Americans more realist: they’re the ones who get more face shots and more signs of interiority. Bigger Thomas and even Invisible Man have imperfections that make them hard to side with: Ellison is celebrating imperfection. Pilate Dead is a problematic moral center: her love leads to catastrophe. Ditto Milkman’s epiphany in the hunting scene; in general, Milkman is no great shakes and refuses to consider the effects of his actions on the women around him.

Fictions can be political without being empathy-generators. The blocking of empathy facilitates a) nuanced moral judgment, such as the ability to discriminate among categories of wrongdoing b) the capacity to step back from our representations—the Brechtian ability to recognize narratives. Spike Lee’s point is to equip us with a bullshit-detector; Harriet Beecher Stowe cannot strengthen our capacity to step back from our representations and see them for the illusions they are.

What do people coming of age today need? An understanding of politics, of law, of history . . . literature and literary studies can offer critical reasoning skills and techniques of logical argumentation. Landy ended his talk with a weird denunciation of anti-Enlightenment and anti-reason positions, and said people who cannot follow Bruno Latour’s path and change course on these issues should shut up for several years.

Patrick Colm Hogan promised to show us problems in how we think about empathy and ethics, but to argue only against the use of the affect heuristic in moral evaluation. The biases Paul Bloom identifies affect spontaneous empathy, but not the cultivated empathy that ethicists advocate. No one is urging us to use spontaneous empathy as a moral criterion (although everybody does). Ethical principles demand systematic and unbiased consistency. Cultivated empathy is a response to the biases of spontaneous empathy. The objects of right-wing empathy should get our empathy, but so should everybody else: we need to resist the saliency and group-identity biases in determining whom we identify with. Prudence entails empathy with my future self; ethical considerations are of the same sort; so we can make empathic decisions on behalf of someone’s future self or future society, and they might require inflicting or failing to relieve current suffering. We need to cultivate ethics more assiduously for generic unknown persons.

Certain sorts of narratives may reduce prejudice against outgroups. And empathy—a nontargeting but universalizing empathy—is necessary for action. Here Hogan took on the arguments in Paul Bloom’s book one by one and argued contra Bloom that empathy is distinct from the egocentric responses of emotional contagion and personal distress. He spoke of having asked a doctor recently whether his Parkinson’s would soon affect his faculties, as that would be tragic for someone whose entire life rests on complex cognitive processes. The doctor gave a brutally unempathic response, and Hogan described, using colorful corporeal metaphors, how that’d made him feel.

So what do we mean by “empathy”? A mnemonic re-experience of the situations we imagine others to be in. It simulates a target’s experience and responds to that experience with a parallel emotional stance. It necessarily occurs en route to sympathy. We may modulate our responses based on our judgment of the appropriateness or deservingness of the other’s distress. Localized emotional sharing is subject to modulate. What we need is the ethical expansion of modulation across space and time.

Paul Bloom expressed gratitude to both Joshua and Patrick for their accurate and generous readings of his book. When he first published his “Against Empathy” article, he expected a small but positive response. The amount of denunciation he got on Twitter shows that people use “empathy” to mean many many things. What Paul Bloom means is more or less the Scottish Enlightenment idea of “sympathy,” chiefly as described by Adam Smith, not “everything good” or “the capacity to judge what other people are feeling,” as his Twitter detractors variously seemed to think. There’s lots of research on how our brains in a literal sense feel people’s pain. Empathy is seen as a good, but it’s just a spotlight: remember the impact of the photo of the drowned Syrian boy. It has a narrow focus. Empathy is innumerate, biased, concrete, and myopic, even in Hogan’s refined definition. People don’t care about numbers: they respond the same way to “How much would you pay to save eighty birds from an oil spill?” when the number is changed. Our empathy is also biased toward the dominant group, the in-group, or the fandom: people were less willing to inflict or condone pain inflicted upon a man who they were told was a fan of the same soccer team they liked. Granted, all of these biases apply to all of our affective lives, but empathy’s especially vulnerable.

See Elaine Scarry on “The Difficulty of Imagining Other People”: we need to change tactics. We don’t give everybody else an imaginary weight equal to our own. We erase our own dense array of attributes, à la Rawls. Empathy has immense power: there’s a great deal of pleasure in living out another life. But does fiction make us better? What side do we take on Nussbaum v. Posner? Paul Bloom is not entirely convinced that lit scholars are much nicer than scientists or even stockbrokers. Does reading fiction improve Theory of Mind? The results of studies making that claim are fragile.

Josh and Pat are both moving toward focused empathy. And once you’ve decided what the right thing and the wrong thing to do is, you can use empathy to make it easier. Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Birth of a Nation are both powerful empathic works. We can resolve to teach the right works, or teach all the works in the right way—that’s Nussbaum’s position—but there are people who are more powerful than literature professors, promulgating their own narratives. People who measure high on empathy are also high on retribution; and DJT mobilizes empathy very well. But there are other moral motivators. Remember the Buddhist distinction between empathy and compassion. Compassion is caring for somebody: in mindfulness meditation, you don’t feel suffering. In confronting the suffering of the world, the Buddhist feels bliss.

Are empathy and concern psychologically distinct? How much you empathize does not correlate with how much you care for/about people. Look at how many expressions of fear or hostility we see in a Wordle for high-empathy people versus the more positive terms that dominate one for high-compassion people.

The first questioner in the audience said, Paul, I love most of your work, but why do you have to go to compassion? Affective routes will always lead us to biases: we need impartiality, universality, and systematic thinking. Not all personal experiences and emotional responses. Paul Bloom replied, ha, most people ask why I needed the “rational” in “rational compassion,” not why I needed the “compassion”! The reason is that you need motivation. A descriptive theory of what makes people do good things. Moral motivation could be wrong about future shame and future guilt. Something something Smithian about concern for your reputation.

Another questioner said that in the Buddhist tradition, to have compassion is to be suspicious of narrative and to be detached from all personal notions. Does fiction produce empathy that leads to harm? Landy said, the movie Adaptation and Beckett’s trilogy chip away at our idea of narrative, but yeah, that’s true of most fiction. A third questioner made an observation about irony, which may be constitutive of the literary, and asked whether the uses and abuses of irony apply to the Nussbaum v. Brecht narrative? Landy opined that romantic irony in Do the Right Thing is the Brechtian drive.

A fourth questioner noted that there’s a gap between examining empathy in the literary and in your life. The paradox of Kurtz . . . what is entailed in identifying empathy within the literary domain? What would be entailed by looking at empathy outside the literary? What case could be made for a connection? ‘cause the case has not been made for an analogy. Paul Bloom remarked that there’s plainly overlap: seeing someone’s hurt isn’t too different from hearing a story. But! Empathy in fiction and journalism is always mediated and rhetorical: it judges what’s worthy and what isn’t. Hogan asked, literature as general training for empathy? Or as specific training for seeing a specific group as human? We have some evidence for the efficacy of the latter, not so much for the former.  Landy replied that the result of Uncle Tom’s Cabin in the South was a hardening of racist attitudes and a literary backlash, which included the work of Thomas Dixon. People’s responses are wildly variable—Not so wildly, said Hogan: there are statistical tendencies.

A fifth questioner asked, what about when the ethical response is that you cannot walk in the shoes of the other? Vide Sontag. Paul Bloom said, even if empathy were a good way of making moral judgment, we’re incompetent at it. We are very bad at knowing what it’s like to be in a situation unlike our own. Look at these absurd Disability Simulations that are supposed to help people understand what disabled life is like. Hogan replied, those are problems with the falsity of the simulation, not problems with the empathy.

A sixth questioner said it’s part of our style as literary critics to be detached. How would I write as a critic, if I were to empathize? Hogan (I think it was) said, there’s a literary genre that’s supposed to inspire compassion in its audience: what about tragedy? Paul Bloom said art can move us in a great many different ways. Lalita Pandit Hogan said, Tragedy makes a distinction between emotional contagion and empathy, between pity and catharsis. Paul Bloom said, when Trump makes you feel for Kate Steinle in order to mobilize xenophobia, he’s telling you a story: that’s not emotional contagion. Patrick reminded us that Plato said you can’t be good soldiers if you’ve seen tragedy, ‘cause then you’d pity the enemy; and that’s what Aristotle is refuting. Some questions arose about whether ethics come first or last.

Another questioner brought up Berlant on sentimental citizenship and how empathy is used to uphold the status quo and liberal individualism if we don’t think about power relations about about who’s being sympathized with. Paul Bloom agreed that empathy favors the needs of people in power. A final questioner asked, Can’t compassion fall victim to the same pitfalls as empathy? Paul Bloom said, Not to the same extent. Hogan objected that universalizing does not mean projection.

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