From The New York Review of Books:
I killed a man the other day. Not literally, of course. I was watching “Bandersnatch,” the newest 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.
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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?
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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.
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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.
Link to the rest at The New York Review of Books