Between the Wolf in the Tall Grass and the Wolf in the Tall Story

A Course on Empathy

We’re delighted to share three responses to Scott’s essay “Between the Wolf in the Tall Grass and the Wolf in the Tall Story” from Paul Bloom, William Gatewood, and Daniel Raeburn.

Jump to responses by Paul, William, and Daniel.

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The Arrogance of Empathy by Paul Bloom

I don’t regret calling my last book, Against Empathy, even when people tell me they are embarrassed to read it in public. But this in-your-face title does force me to do a lot of explaining.

The first problem lies with “empathy” — a word with far too many meanings. Some people take it to refer to morality and kindness and love, to everything good. And so I spend a lot of time explaining that I’m not against that — I’m not a psychopath! Empathy also has to do with understanding other people, and I’m not against that either, though we often forget how much damage this sort of understanding can do in the hands of a bully, a con man, or a sadist. Empathy in this sense of understanding is morally neutral; it is a form of intelligence and like any other form of intelligence, it can be used for good or evil.

The notion of empathy that I’m interested in is more visceral. It involves experiencing the world as others do, when you feel the pain of others. This capacity has a lot of fans, but I argue that it is a moral train wreck. It is narrow and biased and innumerate, giving rise to selfish and irrational and often cruel decisions. I won’t make the argument here; it’s in my book and elsewhere.

The second problem with the title has to do with the word “Against.” I’m against empathy, sure, but only its moral effects. It has other merits, and I end my book by describing one of them:

Empathy can be an immense source of pleasure. Most obviously, we feel joy at the joy of others. I’ve noted elsewhere that here lies one of the pleasures of having children: You can have experiences that you’ve long become used to—eating ice cream, watching Hitchcock movies, riding a roller coaster—for the first time all over again. Empathy amplifies the pleasures of friendship and community, of sports and games, and of sex and romance. And it’s not just empathy for positive feelings that engages us. There is a fascination we have with seeing the world through the eyes of another, even when the other is suffering. Most of us are intensely curious about the lives of other people and find the act of trying to simulate these lives to be engaging and transformative.

In the last couple of sentences, I was talking about the pleasure of stories, and this brings me to Scott Korb’s fascinating discussion. I’m pleased to see that my work has had such an influence on his thinking — now it’s mutual.

Korb distinguishes between empathic engagement and “the sympathetic imagination.” Empathy is all about the other, while sympathetic imagination implicates the self; we lose ourselves in empathy, while the sympathetic imagination lets us retain some valuable distance — it gives rise to “an aloofness about the self that makes possible the very self-implication or dramatic irony, or what have you, that turns life into art, our ideas into stories.” In life and in art, such aloofness is better than the selfish immersion of empathy.

Korb talks about the moral problems of empathic engagement, and I agree with him too much to have a good discussion on this issue. But his analysis leads me to look at another worry about empathy, nicely illustrated by his remarkable quote from the novel Elizabeth Costello, by J.M. Coetzee. Much of the book is about a controversial lecture series given by Costello — an elderly Australian novelist — and Coetzee’s book includes long excerpts from Costello’s lectures, including one in which she justifies her claim about appreciating the inner lives of animals.

“If you want proof, consider the following. Some years ago I wrote a book called The House on Eccles Street. To write that book I had to think my way into the existence of Marion Bloom. Either I succeeded or I did not. If I did not, I cannot imagine why you invited me here today. In any event, the point is, Marion Bloom never existed. Marion Bloom was a figment of James Joyce’s imagination. If I can think my way into the existence of a being who has never existed, then I can think my way into the existence of a bat or a chimpanzee or an oyster, any being with whom I share the substrate of life.”

Elizabeth Costello is an arrogant character, and this is an arrogant claim. How does she know that she has succeeded in thinking her way into the existence of Joyce’s character? She thinks it’s obvious from the fact that she has been invited to present in such a prestigious lecture series, but this just pushes the question back — how can she know that her audience knows that she got things right? But it’s the final sentence that really shocks. Perhaps we can have some success figuring out what it’s like to be someone very much like us (perhaps even someone imaginary), but it hardly follows from this that we can think our way into the mental life of bats or chimpanzees or oysters. (If I were in the audience, I’d ask, “So, fine, answer Thomas Nagel’s question: What’s it like to be a bat?”)

I’ve written about this arrogance elsewhere, describing psychological research by Nicholas Epley and his colleagues showing that while people are often highly confident in their ability to appreciate the thoughts of others — even highly similar others — they are wrong much of the time. The philosopher Laurie Paul, in her book Transformative Experience, takes this further, arguing that it’s impossible to know what it’s like to be a person who has had certain deeply significant experiences that you haven’t yourself experienced, such as becoming a parent, changing your religion or fighting a war. You not only can’t successfully think your way into a similar other, then, you also can’t even think your way into your own future self. Even the best descriptions won’t do the trick — you really have to be there.

I’m a fiction skeptic, then. I think novels and short stories and movies and the like can give us some glimmerings of the minds of others, some approximation of the inner life of — to give some examples from my favorite recently-read books — an autistic teenager, a black boy growing up in the South, or a small-town sheriff. But this understanding is nowhere near as much as we would hope. As for the claim that reading fiction somehow makes us better people, well, anything is possible, and the right fiction might lead certain moral qualities to flourish. But we should be mindful of Richard Posner’s point that there were no better readers than the Nazis.

With all of my cynicism about empathy, one might think, then, that I would resonate with Nabokov’s advice on how to read, quoted by Korb: “We ought to remain a little aloof and take pleasure in this aloofness while at the same time we keenly enjoy — passionately enjoy, enjoy with tears and shivers — the inner weave of a given masterpiece.”

But I’m not. Such advice reminds me of this series in Slate called “You’re Doing It Wrong.” (Typical article: “Stop Pretending Banana Bread Can Be Healthy. It Is Basically Cake”). It turns out that we love doing precisely what Nabokov tells us to avoid, becoming immersed in the lives of others, imagining ourselves (or better, foolishly believing that we are imagining ourselves) as Anna Karenina or Tony Soprano or Nabokov’s own Humbert Humbert.

Maintaining aloofness may be excellent advice for writers, and is likely the better moral stance. But as readers we are naturally compelled to ignore this advice and lose ourselves in the minds of others. We like our cake and we should be left alone to enjoy it.

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Paul Bloom is the Brooks and Suzanne Ragen Professor of Psychology at Yale University. His research explores how children and adults understand the physical and social world, with special focus on morality, religion, fiction, and art. Dr. Bloom has written for scientific journals such as Nature and Science, and for popular outlets such as The New York Times, The Guardian, The New Yorker, and The Atlantic Monthly. He is the author or editor of seven books, including Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion.


Nothing But the Writing by William Gatewood

I’ve long operated under this assumption: not only is empathy inherent in good writing, but writing itself will make you more empathetic. Empathy is like a muscle, teachers, students, and blogs say (e.g., “Why Empathy is Key to Story”— the first Google result!). It can be trained, built up. Strengthened until the whole world fits on your shoulders. And writing, real high-minded literary writing, is the best way to get your reps in. Unfortunately for all of us, these beliefs are dogmatic in the purest sense, both in that they seem right and good, and that there’s no evidence to support them.

The idea that writing is empathy is so pervasive that I’ve yet to meet the beginning writer immune to its charms. I was especially guilty of this. For years, I wanted to believe that the more I wrote, the better person I’d become: less self-obsessed, more communal, hell, friendlier. So I wrote fiction that made it look like I was these things. I still do.

After two years engaged in an MFA, I’ve learned that what a writing workshop really teaches you is how to portray empathy. Whether the work is actually empathetic (can work even be empathetic?) is impossible to know. Peers and teachers in workshop can only judge and react to the performance. “This seems lived,” someone might say. Or, “You really captured this person’s essence.” And the tricks are always the same (they’ve been standardized over the last hundred years): specificity, proper names, the sensorium — “A Tropicana and a Kind Bar.” This is mimicry wearing empathy’s boots. But that doesn’t make it less beautiful, less meaningful, or less moving art.

There’s a fantastic moment in “Between the Wolf in the Tall Grass”: “when we write, we’re engaged in another sort of activity, tapping into a different…mode of being.” Yes, we are, if we’re lucky, but terms like “sympathetic imagination” lean too close to those value judgments meant to validate writing, to explain the why of it all: after-the-fact explanations. Instead, what happens to me once in a while is what Paul Bloom has described experiencing himself: a “flow state,” wherein all that exists is the next word, the next sentence. Gone is the self, gone the room. Gone, especially, are other people. My mind amalgamates its stolen ideas wildly, haphazardly, rearranging them piece by piece. How could any kind of relationship survive in this vacuum? Sure, everything comes back, but for a time: nothing but the writing.

I suspect that “aloof detachment” (to the self, to others, to the work) is only truly possible following a lifetime of obsession and isolation. It’s the best possible outcome (and there are a million terrible ones). The swordsmith folds steel for decades until they’re lost in folding. The baker in baking. The painter in painting. So too should it come for the writer, lost in her verb. That trick Scott recommends at the end, “resisting whatever need I have to know immediately what a thing means to me” — this is important. Since hearing this line when he first delivered his talk, it’s become my standard definition of artistry. This is how you lose yourself in the work, and it is the getting lost that matters.

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William is a graduate of Pacific University’s MFA program. He lives in Hillsboro, Oregon, with his wife and Cocker Spaniel.


Can Empathy Lead to Theft? by Daniel Raeburn

Before I read Scott’s piece I felt certain I’d start my response with my long-standing distinction between sympathy and empathy, one I explain to my writing students. Sympathy, I always say, is fellow-feeling. Commiseration. Empathy, on the other hand, is understanding. It’s not only putting yourself in another person’s shoes, but her head, as well. It allows you to see her point of view without necessarily sharing it. It allows you to have shared emotions — despite, perhaps, not knowing whether the emotions are actually shared — but it’s ultimately more cerebral than sympathizing, and I’ve long maintained that it’s what you’re really after in writing.

But after reading “Between the Wolf in the Tall Grass and the Wolf in the Tall Story,” I think I might have it backward. Perhaps my confusion boils down to semantics: if you draw a Venn diagram of sympathy and empathy there’s a lot of overlap. The two are like fraternal twins, similar enough that their differences seem magnified by comparison. I’d call it the narcissism of minor differences except that Scott’s a) making a crucial distinction and b) clearly arguing on behalf of a mindset that’s the opposite of narcissism. When he says empathy I think he means what’s sometimes called emotional empathy: feeling, almost against your will, what the other guy is feeling — which is what I meant by the word sympathy. When he argues on behalf of what he calls sympathy I think he’s arguing for what’s sometimes called cognitive empathy: thinking what the other guy is thinking. Grasping his perspective. Going from reading the words on the page to reading someone’s mind — which is what I want in writing, and what I meant by empathy.

In other words, Scott and I agree. At least I think so. I think he’s arguing on behalf of Coetzee’s “sympathetic imagination” for the same reasons that Bloom argued, in Against Empathy, the book that apparently started all this, for replacing emotional empathy with rational compassion. With a cooler, more distant care and concern. Caring that keeps your identity, and thus your ability to function (and write), intact. One of the many problems with purely emotional empathy is that that way lies identification with or, God help you, confusion of your self with the other. That way lies all kinds of sins, including Rachel Dolezal — remember her? — and other white people with dreadlocks.

I think this is what identity politics is pointing out, at least in literature: the inherent limits of empathy. People pride themselves on it a bit too much, and readers and writers are especially susceptible. Especially so-called liberal readers and writers like me. I think what traditionally marginalized writers are saying is that you may think you feel me, Straight Man or White Woman, and therefore may in fact feel me, but you don’t know me. You can’t. Try as you might, you can’t, and that’s why you need to listen to me and my story. Writing it required less empathy of me, its author, than your version of it would, and that’s why it’s better. No, not better: more integral. More authentic. Truer.

Or not. Any diehard believer in imaginative truth — what Tim O’Brien famously called story-truth — can and perhaps should come back at the identity politicians with Elizabeth Costello’s maxim: “There are no bounds to the sympathetic imagination. I can think my way into the existence of . . . any being with whom I share the substrate of life.” The problem is, that way lies others’ sins, including Lionel Shriver — remember her? — and other white people in sombreros and glue-on Zapata mustaches.

So where do we draw the line? When does the sympathetic imagination become a kind of minstrelsy? The truth is that I don’t know and probably never will. Which is the most exciting place to be, as Scott pointed out, and I’m grateful to be put in it by his piece. If I had to draw one conclusion, and I guess I do, this being a response, I’d say that some kinds of empathy are arguably theft. Let’s take fiction, for example. It’s theft to write what you don’t know, to pretend to be someone you’re not. Which isn’t a bad thing—fiction is lying, after all. The question is whether or not you can get away with it, and that depends on how good you are, not just technically but morally. By morally I mean tonally. Tone makes the difference between borrowing and stealing. When Walt Whitman said, in 1855, in Song of Myself, that he was a runaway slave, it was cultural appropriation, sure. But it was also an act of radical empathy:

I wince at the bite of the dogs,
Hell and despair are upon me, crack and again crack the marksmen,
I clutch the rails of the fence, my gore dribs, thinn’d with the ooze of my skin,
I fall on the weeds and stones,
The riders spur their unwilling horses, haul close,
Taunt my dizzy ears and beat me violently over the head with whip-stocks.

This is appropriation insofar as Whitman’s borrowing the African-American’s experience, but his horrified—and horrifying—tone makes it plain that he’s repaying that debt with interest. With empathy. As Whitman put it one line later, “I do not ask the wounded person how he feels, I myself become the wounded person.” That’s what happens when we read, and it’s radical.

Then there’s Lionel Shriver. When I read her speech on paper her words seemed reasonable; it wasn’t until I listened to her speak them aloud that I understood why people were upset. Her tone wasn’t just snarky, it was sneering. Whitman’s tone made it clear he was inhabiting someone else, but when Shriver put on that sombrero, her body language made it clear: she wasn’t advocating becoming a Mexican, she was advocating impersonating him. Using him. It was the difference between emulating someone and plagiarizing him. Between good writing and bad writing.

Speaking of which, I’m off now to draw up my own course on empathy, called On Empathy, to teach my writing students next year. Because this is a debate that should never die.

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Daniel Raeburn is the author of Vessels: A Love Story and the monograph Chris Ware.