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The Banality of Empathy

Empathy is, in a word, selfish.


Elsa Triolet Library, Bobigny, France, 1996. Photo by Patrick Zachmann / Magnum Photos.

I killed a man the other day. Not literally, of course. I was watching “Bandersnatch,” an episode of the dystopian TV show Black Mirror. The episode cleverly imitates the form of a choose-your-own-adventure book. Every few minutes, the hero—I forget his name, an adorably disheveled white dude trying to make it as a videogame programmer in the Eighties—confronts a binary choice: this cereal or that cereal, this album or that album, follow that creepy fella or have a chat with your shrink. A black menu bar rises from below and you, the viewer, have to click on a choice for him before the thin white line retracting from both sides of the screen disappears—a kind of techno-hourglass. If you abdicate, the show makes its own choice.

I found this episode pleasingly meta: there’s an actual choose-your-own adventure book the dude’s obsessed with and a conspiracy theory (plots and plots!) about being controlled by unseen forces. At one point, he shouts something like “Who’s there?!” while gazing paranoiacally at the ceiling. (A missed opportunity for direct address, imho.) All this was fun at first: choosing a record that would become the soundtrack for the next scene and so on. But then the format began to paralyze me, its innocuous “this vs. that” choices building slowly toward fatal decisions. Take the psychiatric meds or flush them down the loo. Try acid or don’t. Jump off this balcony or make the other guy jump. That last one is when I killed a man, simply by not clicking at all, my eyes widening as the white line zoomed in from its edges. It vanished into its middle. A man went splat. Back to the previous menu.

Every time I restarted the “game” to explore another fork in the path, I got a little less squeamish about drug abuse, about self-harm, about murder. Gradually, something became apparent to me. My empathy for the hero was completely at odds with my desire to watch Black Mirror—that is, to indulge in an often violent and therefore titillating TV show about the horrors of technology. This gave the lie to the idea that I had any genuine empathy for this white dude at all. I wasn’t there to feel his pain. I was there to impose it—and simply because that would be more interesting.

This viewing experience finally undid for me what I have long suspected to be a meaningless platitude: the idea that art promotes empathy. This idea is particularly prevalent when it comes to those works of art described as “narrative”: stories, novels, TV shows, movies, comics. We assume that works that depict characters in action over time must make us empathize with them, or as the saying goes, “walk a mile in their shoes.” And we assume that this is a good thing. Why?

The idea goes back at least to the eighteenth century, when the philosopher Adam Smith placed “sympathy” (meaning something closer to what we would now call “empathy”) at the center of ethical relations, leading the novelist George Eliot to claim, a century later, that “if Art does not enlarge men’s sympathies, it does nothing morally.” This concatenated belief is now everywhere: art encourages empathy and empathy will save us all. We see it in lay summaries of neuroscience, in the use of virtual reality to foster empathy, and lately, in sporadic calls for us to read fiction about those especially under threat in our time: refugees, victims of mass shootings, transgender people, etc.

Karl Ove Knausgaard’s acceptance speech for his 2015 Welt Literaturpreis, published as “The Vanishing Point” in The New Yorker, doesn’t use the word empathy but typifies the general tenor of the claim. Musing on the photo of a “dead little boy on the beach”—Alan Kurdi, a young Syrian refugee who washed up drowned on the shores of the Mediterranean—Knausgaard is shocked into a realization: “Are people dying? While this insight may be banal, its repercussions are not.” He goes on to compare the news media, which he thinks takes a remote, drone’s-eye view of other people, with an idealized version of the novel:

There is a vanishing point in our humanity, a point at which the other goes from being definite to indefinite. But this point is also the locus for the opposite movement, in which the other goes from indefinite to definite—and if there is an ethics of the novel, then it is here, in the zone that lies between the one and the all, that it comes into force and takes its basis. The instant a novel is opened and a reader begins to read, the remoteness between writer and reader dissolves. The other that thereby emerges does so in the reader’s imagination, assimilating at once into his or her mind… This space—that is, the novel’s—is idiosyncratic, particular, and singular: in other words, it represents the exact opposite of the media, which strives toward the universal and general.

Knausgaard captures how our concept of empathy has shifted. This isn’t just putting another person’s shoes on. Rather, the space between people “dissolves”; the reader “assimilates” the other into his or her mind. It’s a kind of ghostly possession or occupation. Knausgaard goes on to give an example of how to access an individual’s experience rather than lazily adopting a generalized, standard account of them. “If we allowed that remoteness to dissolve, what we would see would no longer be the very image of evil, but a boy growing up in Austria with a violent, authoritarian father and a mother whom he loved. We would see a sixteen-year-old so shy he hadn’t the courage to speak to a girl with whom he was in love…” And so, boringly, on. The individual in question turns out to be none other than Adolf Hitler. Knausgaard’s perversity here—using a Nazi to exhort us to humanize others—isn’t that surprising. After all, he named his multi-volume autobiographical opus My Struggle. Many readers feel that its last book is at its worst when he eschews empathizing with his ex-wife, clearly under severe mental duress, because he’s too busy writing about… Hitler.

Godwin’s law notwithstanding, Knausgaard’s speech unwittingly reveals several problems with this, as he says, “banal” model of ethics. There’s what we might call the unequal distribution problem: Who gets to have our empathy? Hitler or one’s wife? The living or the dead? Those near to us or far? Those who resemble and agree with us, or those who don’t? The one or the many? And when it comes to art, as Knausgaard rhetorically asks, “Is it not more important to engage with our neighbor, who after all is real, rather than with one who exists only in a work of fiction?” Jean-Jacques Rousseau raised the same point a couple of centuries ago: “In giving our tears to these fictions, we have satisfied all the rights of humanity without having to give anything more of ourselves; whereas unfortunate people in person would require attention from us, relief, consolation, and work, which would involve us in their pains and would require at least the sacrifice of our indolence.”

Knausgaard answers this counterargument by claiming that fictional empathy is in fact better because it takes place “in the reader’s own most private, intimate sphere, where the rules that govern our social interaction do not apply and its practical constraints do not exist.” This feels like a specious little paean to the triumph of the personal over the public good in our time. As Rousseau also noted, one can never be sure of the purity of one’s desire to empathize: “when the strength of an expansive soul makes me identify myself with my fellow, and I feel that I am, so to speak, in him, it is in order not to suffer that I do not want him to suffer. I am more interested in him for love of myself.”

Empathy is, in a word, selfish. In his bracing and persuasive 2016 book Against Empathy, Paul Bloom writes, “Empathy is a spotlight focusing on certain people in the here and now… Empathy is biased… It is shortsighted.” Bloom helpfully distinguishes between the more useful cognitive empathy—understanding what’s happening in other minds and bodies—and emotional empathy, trying to feel like or even as someone else. With a simple thought experiment—you pass by a lake where a child is drowning—Bloom shows that emotional empathy is often beside the point for moral action. You don’t have to feel the suffocation, the clutch of a throat gasping for air, to save someone.

The slippage between emotional empathy and the good in our public discourse also presumes that when we do feel the suffering of others, we are prompted to relieve it. But this is not always true. Sometimes, we just want it to go away. Bloom cites a German woman who wrote a letter complaining of the concentration camps near her home: “One is often an unwilling witness to such outrages… I request that it be arranged that such inhuman deeds be discontinued, or else be done where one does not see it.” Other times, we empathize with suffering as a kind of amusement that has no bearing on our ethical behavior. A case in point: white American football fans may wince with vicarious pain as they watch black players ram into each other, but that doesn’t mean they care about the state-sanctioned violence to which those players are susceptible when they walk off the field.

If witnessing suffering firsthand doesn’t necessarily spark good deeds, why do we think art about suffering will? The Hate U Give, a movie adapted from a novel about police brutality against black kids, has been praised for making “a lot of white people cry.” Its star, Amandla Stenberg, calls it “a tool of empathy” and the movie has even been screened to groups of black teenagers and police officers to foster solidarity (results were uneven). Narrative art is indeed an incredible vehicle for virtual experience—we think and feel with characters. It simulates empathy, so we believe it stimulates it.

The philosopher Candace Vogler takes this assumption apart. She notes that fictional characters lack two qualities fundamental to humans: a capacity for change and a resistance to being known. In fact, she argues, “I will be making an ethical mistake if I take myself to have the kind of grasp of a person that fiction makes available to me in my engagements with imaginary people… No human being will be knowable in the way that any literary character worth repeated readings is knowable.”

We actually already recognize this. Whenever we rail against tokenism, objectification, or stereotype in our accounts of real people, we are saying that they ought not be reduced to a single imaginary fabrication. The very idea of readers using fiction as a guide for life is mocked in classics like Flaubert’s Madame Bovary and Cervantes’s Don Quixote. Many of our best fictions of recent decades, like Nabokov’s Lolita and Morrison’s Beloved, make a moral case against their characters overidentifying with others (Humbert with Dolores; Sethe with her children) lest they usurp them.

I often think about a sequence in Tom McCarthy’s 2005 novel Remainder, in which the wealthy, white male narrator repeatedly re-enacts the murder of a black man at the actual scene of the incident. He hires two black men to march up to him and shoot at him with blanks, each time at half the speed of the previous iteration. McCarthy said in a 2013 interview: “My hero does have an empathy for others and really wants to imagine himself into this guy’s death. He’s deeply moved by it in a perverse way.” Regardless of whether his empathy is “real” or “perverse,” this passage shows the ease with which it can be co-opted into a kind of cathartic release:

My two assassins took their time in killing me. The slowed-down pace at which they raised and fired their guns, the lack of concern or interest this seemed to imply, the total absence on my part of any attempt to escape although I had plenty of time to do so—all these made our actions passive. We weren’t doing them: they were being done. The guns were being fired, I was being hit, being returned to the ground. The ground’s surface was neutral—neither warm nor cold…. When I let my head roll slightly back, a bollard hid all these words except for one of the two Escapes. Would my man have seen this, just before the life dribbled out of him towards the puddle? Escape?

The possessives, “my two assassins” and “my man”; the conscription into a willful passivity; the mechanical quality of the sequence, absent of concern or interest or survival instinct; the supposed neutrality of the usurped ground; the ironized “Escape”: Isn’t this creepy, fugue-like occupation of the dead a truer picture of contemporary empathy than the older cliché of walking a mile in another’s shoes?

The fact that it’s a rich white man taking a poor black man’s death for a spin is no coincidence. The empathy model of art can bleed too easily into the relishing of suffering by those who are safe from it. It’s a gateway drug to white saviorism, with its familiar blend of propaganda, pornography, and paternalism. It’s an emotional palliative that distracts us from real inequities, on the page and on screen, to say nothing of our actual lives. And it has imposed upon readers and viewers the idea that they can and ought to use art to inhabit others, especially the marginalized.

Perhaps worse, it has imposed on makers of art, especially the marginalized, the idea that they can and ought to construct creative vehicles for empathy. This grotesque dynamic often makes for dull, pandering artworks. And it in fact perpetuates an assumed imbalance in the world: there are those who suffer, and those who do not and thus have the leisure to be convinced—via novels and films that produce empathy—that the sufferers matter. The scales remain tilted and this is why cultural appropriation still runs only one way, as does what we might call ethical slumming. To wit, when I, as a black woman, read or watch a white male hero, I’m meant to take on his perspective by default; no one assumes that it humanizes him or makes me more empathic. Unless, of course, he’s Hitler.

In Knausgaard’s celebration of literature’s capacity to engender empathy, he corrals to his cause Hannah Arendt’s critique of a different Adolf (Eichmann): “Clichés, stock phrases, adherence to conventional, standardized codes of expression and conduct have the socially recognized function of protecting us against reality.” This is the basis of her famous equation between banality and evil. I’ve always found this syllogism—“cliché is evil, therefore literature is good”—both snobbish and self-serving. You only ever hear it from writers, and besides, isn’t it a bit cliché by now?

I still think Arendt would have balked at her inclusion in Knausgaard’s argument, but for other reasons. For one, she had a powerful distaste for sentimentality. She expressed impatience and even hatred for pity, sorrow, emotional appeals, displays of suffering, and especially patriotism—“I have never in my life ‘loved’ any people or collective,” she once wrote. And she proposed that literature’s special talent for adopting the viewpoints of others was geared not to ethics but to politics:

I form an opinion by considering a given issue from different viewpoints, by making present to my mind the standpoints of those who are absent; that is, I represent them. This process of representation does not blindly adopt the actual views of those who stand somewhere else, and hence look upon the world from a different perspective; this is a question neither of empathy, as though I tried to be or to feel like somebody else, nor of counting noses and joining a majority but of being and thinking in my own identity where actually I am not. The more people’s standpoints I have present in my mind while I am pondering a given issue, and the better I can imagine how I would feel and think if I were in their place, the stronger will be my capacity for representative thinking and the more valid my final conclusions… The very process of opinion formation is determined by those in whose places somebody thinks and uses his own mind, and the only condition for this exertion of the imagination is disinterestedness, the liberation from one’s own private interests.

Arendt derived her theory of “representative thinking” from Kant’s aesthetic theory in The Critique of Judgment, which she called “his unwritten political philosophy.” To make an aesthetic judgment, you cannot use reason alone; you need input from other people. Because humans are social beings, judgment requires an investment in what others believe. When others disagree with you, you reconcile your beliefs with theirs by adopting a Kantian “disinterestedness,” which Arendt sometimes calls “impartiality.” In so doing, you shift from being an actor in a situation to being a viewer detached from what Arendt elsewhere disdained as “the inner turmoil of the self, its shapelessness.” You achieve this “general standpoint” by enlarging your mind to encompass the positions of others.

This may sound a lot like empathy but Arendt insists that it isn’t. Rather than virtually becoming another, she asks you to imagine using your own mind but from their position. It’s a matter of keeping your distance, maintaining integrity, in both senses. It has some affinity with Bloom’s emphasis on cognition rather than feeling. This need not be cold, just less… voracious. I find that the best way to grasp the distinction between “representative thinking” and emotional empathy is Arendt’s lovely phrase, “one trains one’s imagination to go visiting.” This way of relating to others is not just tourism. Nor is it total occupation—there is no “assimilation” of self and other. Rather, you make an active, imaginative effort to travel outside of your circumstances and to stay a while, where you’re welcome.

It has something in common with John Rawls’s veil of ignorance, which is also geared toward political justice rather than moral feeling: What would I want the world to offer me if I were born in another person’s situation? What is it like to be and think “in my own identity where actually I am not”? How would I—still as myself—“feel and think if I were in their place”? Note that you might feel and think differently than they (say they) do; the point is to inhabit the position, not the person.

It’s no surprise that when Arendt turns to literature, she sees it as rooted in the “disinterested pursuit of truth”: “The political function of the storyteller—historian or novelist—is to teach acceptance of things as they are. Out of this acceptance, which can also be called truthfulness, arises the faculty of judgment.” Arendt does not mean “acceptance” as a form of political quietism. She means “truthfulness,” as opposed to propaganda, which is partial—biased, incomplete information.

She traces the tradition of literary political representation to “the moment when Homer chose to sing the deeds of the Trojans no less than those of the Achaeans, and to praise the glory of Hector, the foe and the defeated man, no less than the glory of Achilles, the hero of his kinfolk. This had happened nowhere before; no other civilization, however splendid, had been able to look with equal eyes upon friend and foe, upon success and defeat.” This is not humanizing Hitler, but rather offering a broader view of humanity, while maintaining a keen awareness of who is friend and who is foe. This is what Keats praised in Shakespeare as “negative capability.” To be sure, authors often feel the need to imagine themselves into others. But that act of empathy is instrumental, not ethical as such—writers are not historically renowned for being good people—and ideally, it is in the name of a greater impartiality and equality.

What would this model of art as “representative thinking” entail? Well, for one thing, literally more representation. One can only bring the experiences of others to mind if they are made imaginatively available to us. Perhaps, instead of the current distribution—portrayals of “default humans” (that is, straight white men, good and evil) vs. empathy vehicles (that is, everybody else)—we could simply have greater variety of experience represented in our art. The part of the hero has been dominated for so long by what is actually a world minority that this kind of change is almost hard to picture. But there’s a reason the “Bandersnatch” episode of Black Mirror felt anachronistic to me, beyond its nostalgia for Eighties-era music and games. Its London is lily-white. Things have shifted enough in pop culture, and what we expect from it, for that partial and implausible representation to be newly noticeable to me. We can offer a fuller, deeper, rounder picture of human experience simply by casting characters in a different shade, so to speak. But we can also make more interesting—more daring—art.

A remarkable sci-fi story by Violet Allen entitled “The Venus Effect” is, to my mind, one of the best recent depictions of the struggle to reimagine art centered around someone other than “the default.” The story, which first appeared in Lightspeed and was selected for The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2017, is divided into subsections, most of which are subtitled with potential versions of an adventure tale about a black superhero. The first, “Apollo Allen and The Girl from Venus,” features a rooftop party, at which Apollo catches sight of a love interest just as she accidentally falls off the roof. He watches in shock as she speeds toward the ground, then “just stops and hangs in the air.” The girl from Venus lowers herself gently and races off. Intrigued, he chases after her, but then, an unexpected twist:

There is a man in a police uniform standing at the corner. Apollo does not see him in the darkness, does not know that he is running toward him. The man in the police uniform draws his weapon and yells for Apollo to stop. Inertia and confusion do not allow Apollo to stop quickly enough. Fearing for his life, the man in the police uniform pulls the trigger of his weapon several times, and the bullets strike Apollo in his chest, doing critical damage to his heart and lungs. He flops to the ground. He is dead now.

Here, a wry voice intrudes: “Uh, what? That was not supposed to happen… Dudes aren’t supposed to just pop off and end stories out of nowhere.” This writerly voice reflects on their narrative choices—“He was a pretty unlikeable protagonist, anyway, a petty, horny, pretentious idiot with an almost palpable stink of author surrogacy on him”—and decides to start over: “This time, we’ll go classic. We’ll have a real hero you can look up to, and cool action-adventure shit will go down.”

The next version of the story, “Apollo Rocket vs. The Space Barons from Beyond Pluto,” gives us a goody-two-shoes type, a star basketball player whose words are edited into anodyne cheese on the page (“ ‘Holy shit Golly,’ he says”). This time, Apollo discovers the alien woman after her ship has crashed. But while gathering supplies to heal her wounds, he is again accosted by a police officer. Apollo reaches for his wallet. You know the drill. The story again breaks into a metafictional aside, this time puzzling out why the story keeps hitting a wall with this specific character:

To be honest, I don’t really get the whole “relatability” thing. Isn’t the point of reading to subsume one’s own experience for the experience of another, to crawl out of one’s body and into a stranger’s thoughts? Why would you want to read about someone just like you? Stories are windows, not mirrors. Everybody’s human. Shouldn’t that make them relatable enough?

The writer figure tries another tack: “Everybody loves children, and everybody was one. Plus, it’s really easy to make them super-relatable.” But even with softening edits like “a fantastic-looking gun object that in no way resembles a gun or any other real-life weapon,” our next hero Apollo Kidd reaches an untimely end at the hands of a cop. As does Apollo Young, member of a “multicultural, gender-inclusive” justice league, and Apollonia Williams-Carter (“Why not a lady-protagonist? Women are empathetic and non-threatening and totally cool”), and on and on. The writer figure begins to despair: “It’s the same story every time. Again and again and again.”

Allen’s story essentially returns us to a model of political art that Bertolt Brecht theorized in the 1930s. Brecht was against the catharsis of emotion that Aristotle once postulated as the purpose of dramatic art—to be moved to pity and fear in the theater so as to expunge those dangerous feelings. Brecht didn’t want audience members cleansed of emotions. He wanted them to leave the theater ready to start a riot. Art should not be a release valve, but a combustion engine. One of Brecht’s aesthetic innovations was to disrupt immersion—that characteristic “dissolve” of the line between audience and players. By highlighting the apparatus—the stage, the props, the set changes—this “estrangement effect” continually makes the audience aware of the artifice of the play. For Brecht, as for Arendt, the receptive experience should entail a measure of distance, not an emotional mind-meld.

Allen’s meta-literary musings serve this function, reminding us of the work of constructing the story, while preventing us—and this is key—from experiencing emotional empathy while reading it. We are not meant to cry when Apollo dies, nor are we meant to laugh (à la Marvel’s Deadpool). Empathy for him turns out to be not just difficult (he’s not relatable enough; he dies too many times for us to feel it, even if we occasionally witness people mourning him) but foreclosed by the story’s formally rendered awareness of the difference between art and life, between artistic empathy and political life. Instead of weeping or frowning with pity, we are asked to “visit” an experience, to learn or recognize what it’s like “to feel and think” when the specter of unexpected, unjustified, unjust state-sanctioned death hovers at every corner.

At one point in “The Venus Effect,” there’s a digression about a moment in John Barth’s “Lost in the Funhouse” when some “young people” play a game called “Niggers and Masters.” “In playing the Nigger,” Allen’s writer figure says, “one can experience subjugation on one’s own terms. There is no real danger, no real pain. You can leave at any time, go home and watch cartoons and forget about it. Or you can indulge fully, giving oneself up to the game, allowing oneself to experience a beautiful simulacrum of suffering. It is perfect pretend.” As in McCarthy’s Remainder, black pain, black death, is the clarifying limit case for the use of art for empathy. Its very seamlessness condemns it.

I won’t spoil the rest of Allen’s story—you should read it yourself—but its chilling end makes a deft formal turn that takes our contemporary faith in the power of fictional empathy and twists it like a knife. The story as a whole offers an object lesson in how empathy is beside the point when respectability politics neutralizes the kind of hero we can “relate to.” It makes us question which kinds of murder we represent and which we censor. It challenges the buoyant, frictionless illusion of choice in representations of the eternal return of death in works like “Bandersnatch.” Most importantly, “The Venus Effect” gives the lie to the idea that art can somehow save us from the violence that still permeates people’s lives, shockingly unevenly. “I was just trying to find some meaning, the moral of the story,” the writer figure says. “But murder is inherently meaningless.”

Namwali Serpell is a Zambian writer and an Associate Professor of English at the University of California at Berkeley. She is the author of “The Old Drift,” a novel.