568: Against Empathy
There were maybe fifty people in attendance.
There were maybe fifty people in attendance.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.