The Politics of Empathy
I was once told that a writer should work from a clear sense of what the world is, and what the world should be. Not that one’s judgment should be treated as infallible, but that all true tension and conflict comes, in some sense, from a discrepancy between these two ideas. What I have not been told is that a writer should, through his work, attempt to effect change in the world, and attempt to shift the needle in the direction of what the world should be.
While particular works of literature have occasionally been credited with changing the world—Uncle Tom’s Cabin springs to mind—it is often seen as passé for a writer to set out with the intention of changing a reader’s views. In particular, any work that is seen as politically motivated is liable to be dismissed as didactic. I would argue, however, that one of the essential tasks of literature is precisely to change the views of the reader toward an inherently political end.
I am referring to the purpose of expanding the reader’s empathy. Certainly I wouldn’t claim that it belongs to one political party or the other (as political parties seem to exist primarily to undermine any sense of empathy for their opponents), but rather to the general tendencies of political progress. Every great political advancement in history—or at least all the ones I can think of to scrutinize—has involved an expansion of empathy. The abolitionists, the suffragettes, the civil rights leaders of the 1960s all depended on their ability to make themselves (or those they were fighting for) recognized as the equals, in humanity, of the men (generally speaking) who propped up systems of oppression and dehumanization.
Identifying the deep unity between ourselves and those who are outside of our “tribe” will always have a political component. A powerful sense of empathy can be brought to bear on every structure of social hierarchy, every system we have for assigning people to simple categories—immigrants, criminals, enemies—and every rule we have for suppressing what is “deviant” in all of us. But the question remains: What does it take for a work of literary fiction to deliver a reader to this higher state of understanding?
The most basic component is a character that the reader doesn’t wish to relate to—a fraud, a bully, a coward. Pulp fiction (as opposed to Pulp Fiction) has always relied on protagonists who represent an inviting space between good and non-descript, into which readers can happily project themselves. If literary fiction is going to achieve something more, it must start with characters who are substantially flawed—enough that a reader would naturally resist engaging with them as equals—but too well-developed, too real, for an earnest reader to ignore their humanity.
The good news is, even before any development, flawed characters are inherently interesting. Even in simple stories we love to hear about characters who are self-indulgent and irresponsible. We resent them for claiming the freedoms that we deny ourselves. While we relish the chance to enjoy their indulgence vicariously, we maintain a smug sense of superiority—anticipating the arrival of comeuppance with a vindictive glee. Much as we might thrill at their transgressions, we still root for the downfall of The Boy Who Cried Wolf, or the latest “reality” star to be martyred on the altar of manufactured celebrity.
Unfortunately, it’s not such an easy thing to change someone’s mind just because you have their attention. No one wants to see something of themselves in the villain or the loser. It’s so much easier, so much happier, to relegate those characters and their flaws to another species. If we hold to the conviction that there is something alien in them, it is never necessary for us to fear that we could become them, never important for us to interrogate our own flaws and consider the role we fill.
The more we work to dehumanize the Other—the thinking seems to go—the more we fortify our own privileged sense of inalienable humanity. So lock up addicts, separate immigrants from their families, bomb foreigners. They are only criminals, illegals, enemy combatants. They are unlike us.
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