Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Thursday, February 09, 2017

Reading and Empathy

I've been largely taken up lately with work on the novel, an unusually busy period at work, and also a reluctance to write on my usual topics due to the burn-out I'm feeling with many political and cultural topics as I watch the extremes of pro and anti Trump opinion wage scorched earth battle against one another. Given the topics I have been keeping up with, however, I found this piece from the Chronicle of Higher Education about reading and empathy an interesting read.

The author, a newly minted literature PhD, cheerfully starts off by telling her American Literature for non-majors class that reading literature makes us more empathetic.

One of her students (a diligent engineer of a conservative political bent) finds her choices of readings to be overly pessimistic:

Henry lingered after class to talk to me about how troubling he found our reading. The American literature I was teaching, Henry asserted, had nothing good to say about the United States, or about humanity, for that matter. It wasn’t uplifting.

He had a point. Our reading was a little on the bleak side. Benito Cereno interrogates the notion of good intentions; Kate Chopin’s "The Story of an Hour" sees marriage as an arrangement in which "men and women believe they have a right to impose a private will upon a fellow-creature"; and Mark Twain’s Pudd’nhead Wilson exposes race as a social construct but offers no way out of its grip.

So I made the case to Henry that literature is often, if not always, critique. The greatest writers don’t engage in blind celebration, I told him; their writing shows us what needs to change.

He didn’t buy it. Literature should model character traits like gallantry, courage, and perseverance, and he thought British literature did so in spades. Henry had a taste for the epic, and the books on my reading list couldn’t hold a candle to stories of heroes vanquishing obstacles to save the world. "If this is the best American literature has to offer," he opined, "then I’d say American literature is pretty terrible."

Trying to stifle my defensive response, I pointed out that using literature as a tool for critique wasn’t solely the province of American writers. Shakespeare was a critic. Sure, his plays have heroes, knights, and kings, but Macbeth’s anatomization of power isn’t uplifting, and The Merchant of Venice doesn’t have hopeful things to say about relations between Christians and Jews. Henry hadn’t read much Shakespeare, though. When I asked him to give an example of a British writer he did admire, he offered the name G.A. Henty.

"Have you read any Henty?" he asked. I had not. I had never heard of him. But I later learned that he wrote children’s historical fiction in the 19th century, "boys’ stories" filled with risk-taking, travel, and adventure. Beyond that, Henty was an unapologetic proponent of empire whose fiction traded in ethnic stereotypes and, in the view of some, racism. This was the writer my student held up as a literary ideal.

Later the same student tells her that he's gone to reading the SparkNotes rather than the full texts because he's leery of aligning himself too closely with some of the subjects she's chosen:
Not long into our drama unit, he came to see me, starting our meeting off with a confession: "I stopped completing the reading for this class long ago. Now I just read the SparkNotes so that I can pass the quizzes, and I do just enough of the reading to be able to write the papers." I’d never have known had he not told me. Henry was passing the quizzes, no problem, and was even writing pretty perceptive close readings. This was not a student who didn’t want to put in the time. He had a principled objection to reading the books.

Quoting the Bible — Philippians 4:8, "whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things" — Henry explained that he didn’t want to expose himself to an envy-ridden, infighting family with a son who may be repressing his homosexuality (Tennessee Williams’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof) or to a philandering former thief guilty of manslaughter (August Wilson’s Fences). The characters and conflicts were not "pleasing," and they certainly weren’t "pure." As he would later write to me, "I did not want to be affected by the material."

Different as we were in our tastes and our politics, Henry and I both believed in the transformative power of fiction, and he did not want to be transformed. There I’d stood on the first day of class with my "Reasons We Read" PowerPoint, an evangelist for reading as a profoundly ethical experience. I’d referred to a study reported on in Scientific American in 2011 showing that the number of stories preschoolers read predicts their ability to understand the emotions of others and that adults who read less fiction report lower levels of empathy. I’d referred to research in cognitive science showing that readers of fiction score higher on tests of empathy and social acumen than do readers of nonfiction.

In short, I had tried to make the case that literature generates empathy, and that empathizing with those unlike us is valuable because it expands our sense of whose lives matter. It goes hand in hand with open-mindedness and tolerance. Henry didn’t disagree. The question for him was, what would our shared reading make him tolerant of?

It wasn’t that he decried empathy, in theory. But the prospect of spending time inside the mind of a character whose behavior he’d been taught to revile made him profoundly uncomfortable.

If these snippets make the author sound a bit self satisfied, she is. But she's also moderately self examining. For instance, at one point, she points to where she thinks an author is calling on readers to identify behavior which is culturally accepted now but may be regarded with horror in later times. She expects answers like "eating animals, playing football, capital punishment", things which she considers wrong but which many others accept. Henry one-ups her by suggesting abortion -- something which she culturally accepts without question, but which he points out people may one day find deeply shocking as a common cultural practice.

It strikes me that her student implicitly has two different criticisms of the books she's asking him to read.  One is that he simply doesn't find then enjoyable.  He comes to books looking for an enjoyable and to some degree uplifting experience.  She is instead picking books which she sees as presenting critiques of the parts of the culture she thinks need changing.

The second critique, however, is that as she emphasizes to him that the purpose of literature is to cause us to empathize with others, by putting us into their experiences, he is cautious about what people he wants to empathize with.  Does he really want to put himself in the positions of the characters she's introducing him to, or will that tend to corrupt is morals?

It seems to me that the first of these is mostly a matter of taste, but the latter gets to a deeper question about empathy and understanding others which the author of the piece does not seem to think about. She argues that literature leads to empathy and that empathy leads to open-mindedness and tolerance. This she sees as a key reason for reading literature. Empathy is often thought of this way in modern society: Though empathy you come to like and understand someone. Through liking them you come to approve of them and their actions.

In this sense, I think that the heavy emphasis on empathy is based on the modern moral approach (I hesitate to call it reasoning) which holds that if we like someone, they must be a "good person", and if they are a good person, then what they do must be basically good.

There lies, I think, the problem. Fiction can indeed provide us with a way to see from the inside a character whom we might not otherwise meet, or with whom we would not naturally sympathize. This close perspective on a person very different from us can and should lead to understanding why and how that person, as a person with the same basic human emotions and powers of reason that we have, acts and reacts the way that they do.

However, the fact that we can now understand how another person feels and acts does not necessarily mean that we should approve of that person. Whether in fiction or in real life, understanding enough about someone's experiences, feelings and reasoning to know why they do what they do should not necessarily lead to approval of what they do. Indeed, sometimes properly understanding what leads to a person's actions help us see how those actions are choices that can be wrong, rather than seeing others' actions as simply being a necessary aspect of who they are.

This is where, for an adult reader (deciding what is appropriate content for children to deal with in fiction is a whole separate issue) I think the student described in the essay gets things wrong. We can encounter truth even in reading about people who sin and cause suffering in major ways. It's by watching good and bad actions play our in realistic ways that we come to understand moral struggle via fiction.

But his teacher is not doing his understanding any favors by seemingly portraying the sort of empathy and going into the experience of another which we perform when we read (or watch) fiction as logically leading to acceptance. The student is right not to want to become more 'tolerant' of what is wrong. And by suggesting that reading about a character will lead to being more tolerant of people like that character (if we take "tolerant" to mean: accepting of people who make similar moral choices) the author is actually laying down a rather dangerous lesson and potentially driving people away from an deeper encounter with fiction.


Melanie Bettinelli said...

Thank you. I read that piece and it irritated me, but it was late and it was brought up in the context of a different discussion so I didn't follow the train of thought. And I forgot to go back and look at it later. I agree that empathy is indeed one of the major reasons we read fiction but I find the empathy leads to tolerance thinking to be pernicious. Thank you for highlighting that aspect of the piece.

Rob said...

1. I've been meaning to make a post about Benito Cereno so thanks for that!

2. In re: empathy, I had an interesting related experience teaching my juniors last year. Discussing fortitude, I brought up the coward in Saving Private Ryan who is paralyzed with fear while his comrade dies gruesomely upstairs. After describing the scene for the kids who didn't know it, I mentioned something about how powerful the scene is because it's easy to empathize with the coward. One of my students vehemently denied this, blurting out how awful and despicable he was. He absolutely would not entertain the notion of empathizing with him.

I mused with him and the class that perhaps his reaction was correct, more along the lines of a morality tale. But at the same time, it seems obvious to me that we should all worry that we ourselves would be equally despicable in his shoes, to be grateful for not being in them, and to pray for the strength to be brave in the trial.

Ironically for the story you reference, I would say the genre most wedded to this idea of empathy that we are discussing is...epic.

Darwin said...

"I would say the genre most wedded to this idea of empathy that we are discussing is...epic."

Could you expand on that thought a bit? I'm interested.

Agnes said...

"After describing the scene for the kids who didn't know it, I mentioned something about how powerful the scene is because it's easy to empathize with the coward. One of my students vehemently denied this, blurting out how awful and despicable he was. He absolutely would not entertain the notion of empathizing with him."

I think this is why one has to see the scene itself (as opposed to listening to the description) to experience the empathy, even if we still think it's wrong to be a coward, we will be less likely to blithely condemn the person as despicable for not being strong enough to be brave. and as you say, stop thinking that we would never ever act so despicably in that situation. It is art itself that invokes the empathy.

"But the prospect of spending time inside the mind of a character whose behavior he’d been taught to revile made him profoundly uncomfortable. Henry insisted on his right to uphold, rather than upset, his moral scaffolding (...)"
This shows very clearly the problem. Moral principles ought not to be a "scaffolding". The ought to be a person's backbone. It should not tumble down by reading something that doesn't support it. And perhaps if Henry had encountered more mature literature than the idealized boys' adventure books, he would see that catharsis, even in a tragedy, can be more uplifting than cheery optimism.

Also, I think that what you wrote earlier about Conservative Christian writers ties in here exactly:

"If as Christians we are committed to the truth, including the truth about lived human experience, our fiction should reflect these less neat realities. If we develop and resolve the stories we write with a sort of pat wishfulness, we create a distance between our writing and any reader who does not share our ideas of wish fulfillment."
It would serve well both the student and the teacher, I think.