Empathy will save us, unless it gets us all killed

I have found in the last ten days that I avoid saying or writing the name of America’s new president, possibly in the same way that I would avoid putting weight on a broken limb; though it may be more like the way I used to avoid looking in the dark corner where the monster might be hiding, when I was six years old. I could say that I’m just tired of our new monster, or that I know that attention is the thing he wants above all else and it’s a small thing I can deny him. Really I’m in a state of violent recoil.

Ogion’s House: as I imagine it. This being where the Shadow Beast lurks by the door. This was as scary as things got, in my childhood imaginings

I was at a book launch yesterday. The introductory speaker, a librarian, spoke about the capacity of books to place us inside other points of view. She mentioned the US election, the terrible divisiveness of it. I’ve seen a few people in my particular cultural foxhole — the horrified book person foxhole — make this point lately. Stated more bluntly than people tend to state it, it would go, “Books promote empathy, empathy promotes understanding, understanding will help us save the world from Him We Must Not Name”.

I don’t know about this. Consider the analytical-thinking equivalent of empathy, the capacity to see complexity. This is valuable to me partly because it can lead to the capacity to be indecisive. Indecisiveness is something that frequently plagues me; to some degree talking up its virtues is like insisting that a deforming birthmark is in fact a beauty spot. But I do happen to believe that false certainty is the root of a large fraction of our species’s problems. It isn’t just that the American right live inside their own carefully curated consensual reality that makes them dangerous. It’s how fervently they insist on their reality. It’s their lack of capacity for self-doubt. On the other hand, people who don’t doubt themselves can get an awful lot done. The ability to see all seventeen sides of a question may turn out to be the thing that stops my people from stopping the people who think in bumper sticker slogans from trashing the planet. (For the joint purposes of this blog and of my ego, “my people” shall refer to people who find the world interesting and do their best to understand it.)

In the same way, the capacity for empathy may be strongly correlated with the inability to be ruthless when faced with ruthlessness. Again, I’m not sure about this; it’s a complicated question. (You see what I mean.) When people talk about the importance of books, and especially of good fiction, in promoting empathy, there’s an implied claim that empathy is in some way going to help us face the things we now seem to need to face. In certain very narrow tactical senses, that’s possibly true. (The writer Joe Klein gives a nice account of the way Bill Clinton, backed into a political corner by Newt Gingrich’s domination of the US congress after the 1994 elections, came to understand Gingrich’s surprising degree of emotional neediness, and used it to wrong-foot him and gradually regain the upper hand.) In a larger sense, empathy and understanding will save us only if we can teach them to people who have no interest in being taught. They were the right solutions a generation ago, when today’s radical right and blinkered swing voters were learning to see the world; if we can manage to teach them to those people’s children, we’ll be glad of it in a few decades. But for us now, they won’t solve much. They’re not superpowers. They’re merely the fundamental values that give our lives meaning.

It’s good to embrace complexity and refuse the jihadi mindset and see the other point of view. I suspect these qualities are going to matter less in the short term than a willingness to fight like dogs, stand up for our neighbours, and call bullshit in loud don’t-fuck-with-me voices. Even here, in New Zealand, where you might think that the only true danger Trump poses is the little matter of our species possibly going extinct after we miss our very last late chance to stave off the worst effects of climate change.

That sounds so alarmist. Don’t you get bored and annoyed when people reach for hyperbole, in this age of permanent mandatory outrage? But it isn’t hyperbole, it’s just the nastiest of the range of possible outcomes of a process too complex for us to make firm predictions. I choose to believe it won’t happen, because despair is paralysing and also a form of self-indulgence; the problem with this noble stance of positivity is that it slides so easily into complacent idling. I choose to believe it won’t happen: so I am living in a reality where it won’t happen: so no problem. I also chose to believe we wouldn’t elect Seriously I’m Not Naming Him.

This was actually meant to be a post about books, not about politics and the possibility that America’s new president will be every bit as bad as he’s promised us he will be. I began writing it in July, having been aware for a while that despite my best intentions I was letting this blog die on the vine. I’ve been offered more interesting writing jobs this year than I’d anticipated, which is one of several ways in which my private 2016 has been much more positive than the calamitous public 2016 it’s embedded in.

However. A second good thing to happen to me this year: I had a revelation in the wake of the Auckland Writer’s Festival, in May. After twenty years of reading mostly to deadlines, I found myself looking at all the books I’d bought at AWF, and I realised I wanted the freedom to read them whenever I wanted. I also wanted to read all of Jane Smiley. And reread all of Ursula Le Guin, in chronological order. I abruptly discovered that I wanted to read whatever I liked, for the whole rest of my life, like normal people do. So I decided to stop writing book reviews. In the time I’ve been contributing to the books pages of various New Zealand magazines and newspapers, the space devoted to reviews has gone down substantially, and so have review fees. This is partly to do with corporate consolidation and partly to do with digital disruption, and there are various arguments about what it does or doesn’t mean for our literary culture; what it means for me personally is that giving up regular book reviewing was an extremely affordable decision. I count this as unusual good luck. I’ve seen any number of people get trapped in occupations they no longer love by awkward financial reality.

So it happened that by midyear, when I actually began writing this post, I had a long list of good books I hadn’t written about. I decided I would do a midwinter books blog. I wrote down the list of titles. Then something distracted me for half a minute and the New Zealand International Film Festival broke over me like a tidal wave, and a month later I found myself gasping on the beach surrounded by angrily quacking deadlines. The blog has been parked until now, when it occurred to me that a tiny positive thing I felt like doing in the wake of the election was steer people towards some really good books.

I am going to make that list of books — which by now is now more or less my Best Of 2016 books post, doesn’t time fly — its own separate post, because possibly, who knows, people might like the option of reading it without wading through pages of election maunderings first; I’ll link to it at the bottom of this. But I’m still thinking about how people keep telling me that books are good because they promote empathy and understanding — the bumper sticker would read, “We need empathy, read more books!” — and about the fact that for the last two weeks I’ve only just been able to think about the election and the four years we’ve got coming to us. I wasn’t kidding about not wanting to say the bastard’s name. I really do not want to go there.

I will of course get over that. We have to go there. No way out that doesn’t go through. But while some of the books I’m going to write about do happen to offer some very good tools for thinking about the world we now find ourselves in, that really isn’t why I’m writing about them now. Truthfully, I’m turning to books at the moment for one of their other important functions. Nothing wrong with escapism, as my beloved C.S. Lewis famously once said: if someone accuses you of reading for escape, remind yourself that people opposed to escape are known as jailers.

It’s nearly summer in New Zealand right now. But it’s cold outside. Here are my books of midwinter.


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