Only Connect! Urgent Questions for our time

Social ecologist Nora Bateson published an urgent blog post this morning, a list of the questions she believes need to be posed in order for global society to shift from our current careen toward chaos towards a sustainable future.

Her excellent questions are (and I quote):

“Education: How can we best cultivate curiosity, information, and learning between generations to prepare ourselves to perceive and respond to the complexity of our world with less destruction than centuries past?

“Health: How can we support health in human beings by making it possible for each person to eat healthy food, sleep well, know that their families are supported, be respected in their community, have relevant contributions (education and employment), breathe clean air, and drink clean water?

“Ecology: How can we interface with the complexity of our natural world so as to create less harm to the interdependence of all living things?

“Economy: How can we shift the economic system so that it is not based upon exploitation of nature and humanity –without crashing the globe into chaos? (note: no one gets rich on this version of economy)

“Politics: How do we get the policy makers of our world to mandate cross-sector information for their decision making processes so that they have the possibility of taking into account complexity?

“Media: How do we get a moratorium on binaries? How do we support public understanding, not trained in perceiving complexity, to become accustomed to it and demand communications institutions deliver cross-contextual information?

“Culture: What is the approach to open the global discussion about the pending fate of humanity? What matters? What are we willing change? How can we survive together?”

She specifies, “The danger we are in is woven across these contexts, so the questions posed must correspond to that transcontextual process,” and “All of the questions…scale from personal, to institutional, to global concern.”

I so agree that ours is a time of questions. In my classes these days, I spend a lot of time working with my students on formulating their questions about whatever material we’re reading/viewing/discussing. The old answers no longer suffice, and the old ways of framing questions are often too simplistic to address the full scope of the complexity and multi-dimensionality of our time.

I tell my students that I care more about the questions they raise in their humanities papers than about their “thesis statements”; and that the goal of their work is all about process: tracing a new thought path by getting into conversation with others about possible answers that can help us all to refine our questions, sharpen our vision, and build sturdier bridges into our uncertain future.

I believe that there is an important category/ context missing from Nora’s list of questions: the sacred.

I have been thinking a lot about the 95% of the cosmos that is made up of “dark energy” and “dark matter”—“dark” meaning that we don’t know what in the world it is. Everything we can perceive represents only 5% of the universe. What is the rest?

My guess is that the vast 95% is related to what humans have been referring to for millennia as the metaphysical, the psychic, the spiritual, the divine.

That divinity is the big “context,” the sacred connective tissue shining through the cracks between each of Nora’s questions. Science has only just realized it’s there, though our mystics and shamans have always been able to access it (sometimes with a little help from the fungi and plant world).

I see Nora’s first and last questions as related, closing a circle. Education must encourage curiosity and questioning about what matters most: the survival of our species and all of our companion life forms on Earth, including the elemental building blocks of life and the vast, largely invisible-to-us micro-biomes that support and enable life on the planet.

If we shift our vision from the foreground represented by Nora’s rightly urgent questions to the background—the vast “dark” energy and matter that we might call the spiritual interconnections of self and cosmos, immanent in every speck of the familiar 5% confines of the universe we know so far—suddenly the questions shift too, crystallizing into a mighty clarion call that can reach around our little planet and unite us all:

How can we live in sacred harmony? How can we most firmly, most productively, most lovingly connect with each other and with All That Is?

I am reminded of the famous quote from E.M. Forster’s novel Howard’s End, when Margaret Schlegel reflects on the “incomplete asceticism” that rules her would-be lover, Henry Wilcox. Margaret believes that:

“She might yet be able to help him to the building of the rainbow bridge that should connect the prose in us with the passion. Without it we are meaningless fragments, half monks, half beasts, unconnected arches that have never joined into a man. With it love is born, and alights on the highest curve, glowing against the grey, sober against the fire….Only connect! That was the whole of her sermon. Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height. Live in fragments no longer. Only connect, and the beast and the monk, robbed of the isolation that is life to either, will die” (Chapter 22).

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At this moment, in the early 21st century, we are poised on Forster’s “rainbow bridge.” We have the potential to “connect the prose in us with the passion,” to leave the beast and the monk in us behind.

It’s time for Benjamin’s Angel of History to turn around, snap out of the trance of the past and look bravely into the glowing, as-yet-unlived future, asking the question that reverberates through the “dark” realms of our cosmos:

How can we connect and truly progress?

 

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Bypassing the Old Boys’ Club

As we move exuberantly into the second half of the 2014 Berkshire Festival of Women Writers, my mind is sparkling with memories of the powerful, indeed heart-stopping moments that have already taken place at Festival events this season.

DSCN4609Grace Rossman extending a powerful poetic hand to the drowning Ophelia in so many girls today; Ruth Sanabria impersonating both her mother and the fascist regime that unjustly imprisoned her in a fierce poem about the impossibility of stamping out the love between mother and daughter; Kate Abbott celebrating the cultural diversity of the Berkshire hills as she works quietly and steadily to make it more visible; Barbara Bonner eloquently describing the spirit of generosity that seeks and needs no recompense.

The list could go on, and it will, as the Festival continues to unfold day by day this month, and throughout the year in the on-going readings, workshops and writers’ circles that will be taking place under the Festival banner.

This is important work we’re doing together at the Festival—creating multiple entry points and platforms for women writers to step into the spotlight and shine.

The truth is, such opportunities are still all too rare for women writers, and creative women more generally.

Overall17-316x173At the end of February, just in time for Women’s History Month, the non-profit, all-volunteer group VIDA published its annual Count, revealing the continuing disparity between men’s and women’s voices in literary and upscale magazines and journals.

Overall14-316x173I invite you to take a look for yourself: the results show clearly that in literary circles (think The New Yorker, the Times Literary Supplement, The New Republic, The Atlantic, the London Review of Books, The Nation and the New York Review of Books), the old boys’ club is alive, well and holding steady at an average of 75% male voices represented in their pages over the past year.

The same is true in the film industry, the theater industry, and in the television industry. 

It’s the same in book publishing, which may be one reason why women are so interested in exploring new opportunities for self-publishing and self-promotion.

publishing_quadrant1222These days in publishing, it’s like the Berlin wall coming down—gates thought to be invincible are simply crumbling away, with their keepers revealed in all their flabby ordinariness.

Having spent far too much of my life not even trying to take myself seriously as a writer because I knew exactly how high the odds were stacked against my success, I’m excited about the DIY spirit of the new publishing landscape.

I’ve got a book that’s almost ready to launch, and buoyed by the lively, can-do spirit of the Berkshire Festival of Women Writers, I’m thinking seriously about bypassing the old boys’ club entirely and taking responsibility myself for getting my words out into the world.

No more sitting on the sidelines complaining that “they won’t let us in!”  No more waiting to be asked to dance.  No more hiding my light for fear it won’t be appreciated.

BFWW-square-logo-2014If all of us women started supporting each other and working collaboratively to create the opportunities we all need to shine, we could change the creative cultural landscape for the better, turning those red and blue pie charts a lovely shade of purple.

What a beautiful world it would be!

Writing of Disaster, Writing of Hope

As a professor of literature, I tend to pay special attention to what my son is reading in school.  I wish I could say I paid attention to what he reads at home, for pleasure, but the truth is that he does not read for pleasure.  He reads on assignment, and that’s it.

So what is he reading, in his typical 9th grade American public high school?

So far this year he’s read 1984, Lord of the Flies, and Night. Now he’s reading a contemporary novel, How the Light Gets In, by a British author, M.J. Hyland, billed as a 21st century girls’ version of Catcher in the Rye.

In short, it’s been one depressing, upsetting book after another.  Thought-provoking would be the kind term to use, but it saddens me to recognize that generally speaking, “serious” literature is about the things that frighten us.

And it’s not just in literature that this is true.  In pop culture too, the violence that plays out over and over in every form of media entertainment is catering to what seems to be a human need to imagine and play out in fantasy our deepest fears.

Almost all science fiction series and movies that try to imagine the future show us disasters and social dystopias.  These are considered “realistic” (a positive attribute), as distinct from “utopian” scenarios (dismissed as unrealistic, hence not to be taken seriously).

As a parent, a teacher, and a member, like you, of the transitional generation on this planet, I worry about our apparent addiction to what 20th century philosopher Maurice Blanchot called “the writing of disaster.”

Certainly I have not shied away, in my own career, from making myself aware of the ugly side of human experience.  I have studied human rights abuses of every stripe and geographic origin, including sexual abuse, torture, war and genocide.

I have confronted the grotesque truth of the devastation we humans are wreaking on non-human animals and on our planetary environment—the chemical poisoning of air, waters, earth, along with the life forms that inhabit these strata; the factory farms; the mountaintop removal, clear-cutting and strip-mining; the plastics pollution of the oceans; and on and on.

I don’t bury my head in the sand, by any means.

But I question the wisdom of inundating our imaginations, especially those of young people, with violent stories.

Whether they’re historical like Night or futuristic fiction like 1984; whether they’re video game scenarios like GTA or Call of Duty; or TV series, movies, or the daily news—if all we see in virtual reality is human beings being violent, doesn’t this begin to affect the way we understand ordinary reality?

Doesn’t it make us more guarded with each other, less likely to trust, less likely to build community and bring out the best in each other?

Mary Pipher

Mary Pipher

In preparation for my new class this spring, “Writing for Social and Environmental Justice,” I’ve been re-reading Mary Pipher’s 2006 book Writing to Change the World. Mary Pipher, you may remember, is the psychologist who wrote Reviving Ophelia, a book from the late 1980s that provoked a major surge of attention to the way American girls self-sabotage as young teens, and what societal factors made their swan-dive of self-esteem more likely to occur.

In recent years, Pipher has become an environmentalist, leading the charge in her home state of Nebraska against the Keystone XL.  Although the pipeline is not dead yet, it has at least been re-routed away from the ecologically sensitive Sand Hills region.

In Writing to Change the World, she offers a how-to book for those, like me, who see writing as one of the best tools to raise awareness about the issues that matter most.

Pipher writes: “The finest thing we can do in life is to grow a soul and then use it in the service of humankind.  Writers foster the growth of readers’ souls, and the best soil for growth is love.  Writing can be love made visible….This is our challenge: to cultivate lives of reflection, love and joy and still manage to do our share for this beautiful broken planet of ours” (241-2).

However, it seems to me that the kinds of writing we are consuming as a culture, and especially what we’re feeding to our young people, will neither “cultivate lives of reflection, love and joy” nor inspire us to take arms against the sea of troubles that is our planet today.

On the contrary, the dominant narratives I see, at least in American culture, are violent, cynical and despairing, showing us the worst of humanity rather than enticing us forward with dreams of what could be.

I’d like to see the start of a new global literary movement of change narratives in every genre aimed at holding a positive mirror up to human nature, giving us examples of the good we have done and the good we are capable of doing if we draw on our positive qualities—our ability to love, to nurture, to steward, to protect.

Even our oh-so-human violence has a place, if it is used to protect rather than to abuse and wreak wanton havoc.

I would like school curricula to stop replaying the horrific stories of our past—or at least, to balance these negative stories with narratives that give students some positive, hopeful models of human beings as well.

Trying to “grow a soul” in today’s social climate is like trying to grow a plant without sunshine.

Writers, let’s take on the challenge of using our gift with words to change the world for the better.  Let’s be the sunshine, not the shadow.

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Sparking Creativity at the 2012 Berkshire Festival of Women Writers

It’s finally snowing in Massachusetts!  My afternoon meetings were cancelled, and I can settle in by the fire and enjoy the peaceful quiet that always descends when we hunker down under a good New England snowfall.

This gives me a welcome chance to share something positive for a change with my blog readers.

Tomorrow is the opening of the 2012 Berkshire Festival of Women Writers, a month-long celebration of the talents of local and regional women writers, taking place at venues from one end of Berkshire County to the other, with nearly 100 women participating.

I’ve been working over the past year with a dedicated local committee on planning and organizing this event, which is sponsored by Bard College at Simon’s Rock with the generous support of 11 Local Cultural Councils and many other donors, businesses and individuals, all listed on our website under “sponsors.”

This will be our second annual Festival, but it’s an event that grows out of the decade of annual conferences I organized at Bard College at Simon’s Rock in observance of International Women’s Day, co-sponsored by Berkshire Women for Women Worldwide, the Women’s Fund of Western Massachusetts, the Women’s Interfaith Institute and many other collaborators.

I’ve been at this a while.

Organizing events like these takes an extraordinary amount of energy, focus and commitment.  If you’ve ever organized a wedding, you have some idea of what’s involved–although for our conferences and Festivals, we’ve also had to do a fair amount of fundraising, which hopefully is not the case for wedding planners!

There always comes a point in the process where I bury my face in my hands and feel like crying, out of sheer exhaustion, “Why am I doing this to myself?!!”

After all, no one ever asked me to take on this extra commitment, year after year.

And sometimes I wonder whether anyone would notice if I stopped.

But then that low point passes, the brochure or Program comes back from the printers and starts to make its way in the world, the press inquiries pick up and I start hearing the oohs and ahhs of appreciation from participants and audience members, and I remember what it’s all about.

For women writers, in particular, it can be hard to find opportunities to come together and share our talents and achievements with each other and the larger world.

Hannah Fries

This weekend is the big AWP (Association of Writers and Writing Programs) conference in Chicago, and many women writers will be in attendance there, including one of our Festival organizers and participants, Orion Magazine editor Hannah Fries.  But that is a big, competitive event, which can be overwhelming for writers who are just starting out, or who just write for the personal satisfaction of it.

The Berkshire Festival of Women Writers is purposefully low-key and non-competitive.  We organizers wanted to create a broad, inclusive platform for all kinds of women writers, of all ages, backgrounds, and stages in their writing careers.  If you browse the Festival listings, you’ll see a few names you’ll probably recognize, like Francine Prose and Ruth Reichl, but many more whose fresh, innovative voices might not be heard publicly this year without the space provided by our Festival.

I also sometimes ask myself why I continue to focus on women writers in my classes, events organizing and in my own writing.

Lately I have been moving from a longstanding focus on global women’s rights to a broader human rights perspective, still with a strong interest in gendered human rights issues.  Although the goal for any social justice activist is to put herself out of business, it still seems important to me to draw attention to voices who might not otherwise be heard–and the 50% of us who are women are disproportionately represented among those quieter voices.

The participants and audiences who will be gathering at the 40 Festival events scheduled daily throughout the month of March will  together generate a host of collaborative creative sparks that will go shooting out like fireworks, energizing all of us and giving us new strength and determination to meet the challenges of the coming year, whether at our writing desks or in other areas of our lives.

I certainly hope that just as women always turn out to listen to and learn from writers who happen to be men, men will also be among the audiences at all of our Festival events.

In these sobering times, we need all the chances we can get to come together and fan the flames of our community and our creativity.  Let the Festival begin!

Censorship in Academe, 21st century style

Unfortunately, the banning of books by Mexican Americans in Tucson last week was not an isolated incident.  It’s part of a larger pattern in American education.

At the elementary school level, it takes the form of resisting bilingual education for students whose family language is not English, and—for example—still teaching “Thanksgiving” as though it were the happy, peaceful start of a triumphant positive march towards a shining, splendid American empire.

At the middle school level, it’s about teaching Egyptian history—mummies, anyone?—instead of Native American or Mexican history.  Mummies are safe—there’s no politics left in them, they’ve been dead too long.

In high school, students are asked to stand and pledge allegiance by rote to the American flag representing “one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all,” but not asked to interrogate the proposition that liberty and justice really are available to all in our great land.

In undergraduate education, after a brief, highly contested period in the 1980s and 90s when the gates guarding the required curricula were wrenched open to let literature by ethnic minorities and women in, the tides have turned again.

Just as in middle school it’s safer to teach about the ancient Egyptians, in college the safest route is towards ancient Greece.  “After all,” I was once told blandly by a senior (white male) colleague in the course of a heated meeting on the core curriculum, “the Greeks are a minority too.”

The modern Greeks may be struggling, but the ancient Greeks are alive and well and generously represented in curricula throughout the Western world, where ancient figures like Plato, Sophocles and Aristotle still exert remarkable influence.

Meanwhile, graduate schools in the humanities are focused on jazzing up the study of history and literature through fancy digital applications.

I’m as digitally oriented as the next prof, but I won’t support “digital humanities” if it means that we no longer have the time or resources to engage in what I see as the most important functions of the humanities: teaching students how to analyze and wield the tools of narrative and argument; giving them the time and space to explore complex ethical issues; and most of all, empowering them to become informed, autonomous individuals who can research and think for themselves.

In theory, this could be done within a digital framework.  But the problem is that much of the push towards “digital humanities” is coming from the great surge towards online education as a business model for universities.  Of course you can do online education much better if you have high-tech online tools.  No argument there.

The problem is the bigger picture of online education, where tenured professors are being replaced with adjunct faculty who can teach in their pajamas from home, at a fraction of the salary or responsibility and no influence at all over what gets taught.  If you have an army of part-time online instructors working with students from remote locations all over the world, it’s pretty hard to have the kind of discussions that I’m remembering from my department’s deliberations over the core curriculum.

Most decisions over what gets taught in those burgeoning online courses are made by administrators who remain faceless to the instructors, with the result that professors become paid employees rather than professionals who are not only engaged in the process of teaching, but also in the process of deciding what gets taught.

It’s as easy as the push of a button for some administrator to decide that HUM 26X, Chicano/a History, will not be taught, while HUM 25X, History of Ancient Greece, will. And for the most part, no one will even notice.

This is going on all the time.  The incident in Tucson last week, when administrators were so sloppy as to order physical books pulled from the shelves, was a rare slip-up that brought the insidious practice of censorship into the public eye.

Most of the time it’s going on invisibly, under the radar, and so subtly that most of us won’t notice it until all of a sudden we look up and find that there are only a handful of Ethnic Studies Departments or Women’s Studies Departments left in the country, so there are hardly any graduate degrees being offered in those fields, so within a generation the whole hard-won movement to open the curriculum will be gone.

No, I am not over-reacting.  I am not hysterical.  I am not crazy.  Open your eyes, people, and you will see what I’m talking about.  Open your eyes, before it’s too late.

Who’s Afraid of Women’s Writing?

Last night I participated in a panel discussion on Virginia Woolf and Margaret Mead called “Who’s Afraid of Women(‘s) Writing,” with Bard College of Simon’s Rock colleagues Maryann Tebben and Asma Abbas.

We were talking about how women’s writing is often oppositional, representing an outsider’s point of view to male-dominated mainstream discourse, whatever the discipline.

One of the students in the audience asked whether women’s writing would therefore always be reactionary, simply responding to the dominant rather than staking new ground.

I have been thinking about that question all day, off and on.

What I answered at the time was that while women’s writing is often a response to the dominant discourse, it also goes off in its own directions, which are not simply reactions to the mainstream, but rather true departures.

Of course, all writing occurs in dialogue with other writers, so even a departure is part of a larger conversation.  But I do believe that women, as outsiders, have something unique to contribute to any conversation.

Indeed, it is staggering to think of how impoverished literature, philosophy, history and all the other disciplines have been (and still are) in cultures where women have not been allowed to add our voices to the chorus.

Worst of all is that so few people (read: men) even noticed our absence.

I can recall so many times when have I had to fight for the inclusion of texts by women in our General Education curriculum at Simon’s Rock, arguing with colleagues who could say, with a sad shake of the head, that it was just too bad that women had never written any great, canonical literature.  For the past 20 years, out of the 16 required texts in our Gen Ed canon, which stretches from Gilgamesh to Achebe, only three are by women–though as of this year, after much lobbying, the ratio has finally improved slightly.

First deny women literacy and keep those few who do manage to become literate tightly locked in the private realm.  Then look back over history and note complacently that, as Woolf has the “odious Mr. Tansley” tell the artist Lily Briscoe in To The Lighthouse, “women can’t write, women can’t paint.”

In our time and place, young women now outnumber young men in higher education, and no one would dare to argue that women are innately less intelligent and talented than men.

But still, women in the U.S. earn 78 cents on the male dollar, for a variety of reasons, including the fact that we still shoulder more responsibility for housework and child care even when we work fulltime.

Women are still valued more highly as ornaments and service workers than as autonomous creative agents, and we still have to struggle harder to make our voices heard, especially if what we have to say is not what the mainstream wants to hear.

In To the Lighthouse, Lily Briscoe worries that her painting will be rolled up and thrown under a couch to gather dust.  Today, women still seem to have less self-confidence than men, perhaps because we’ve absorbed the prevailing ethos that considers a strong woman to be a “ball-breaker” or a “bitch on wheels.”

As MaryAnn Baenninger, President of the College of St. Benedict, wrote in a recent piece in The Chronicle of Higher Education, studies continue to show thatwomen underestimate their abilities and express lower levels of self-confidence than their abilities suggest. Men overestimate their abilities and express higher levels of confidence than their abilities warrant. This difference arrives with them as first-year students and leaves with them as seniors. When I talk about this, or I hear researchers describe this finding, the audience always chuckles (boys will be boys, after all).”

Baenninger concludes that while American women “have access to just about every educational opportunity and every career…access doesn’t guarantee outcomes. A gendered culture, mostly in unconscious ways, limits women’s expectations for themselves and our expectations for them.”

In other words, our gender role conditioning as women too often tends to silence us, while amplifying the voices of our brothers.

Soon after the great poet Audre Lorde was diagnosed with the cancer than would eventually kill her, she gave an address at the 1977 Modern Language Association annual convention in Chicago, called “The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action,” later published in the collection Sister Outsider.

In thinking back over her life, she said, “what I most regretted were my silences.”

“In the cause of silence,” she continued, “each of us draws the face of her own fear–fear of contempt, of censure, or some judgment….But most of all we fear the visibility without which we cannot truly live….That visibility which makes us most vulnerable…is also the source of our greatest strength.

“Because the machine will try to grind us into dust anyway, whether or not we speak.  We can sit in our corners mute forever while our sisters and our selves are wasted, while our children are distorted and destroyed, while our earth is poisoned; we can sit in our safe corners mute as bottles, and we will still be no less afraid.”

What we need to do, she said, is to “learn to work and speak when we are afraid in the same way we have learned to work and speak when we are tired.  For we have been socialized to respect fear more than our own needs for language and definition, and while we wait in silence for that final luxury of fearlessness, the weight of that silence will choke us.”

So many women today are still feeling the same fear and insecurity Lorde wrote about in 1977.  So many of us will go through our entire lives not daring to utter the truths we can hardly bring ourselves to acknowledge even in our most private thoughts.

In the same way that the richness of the Earth is diminished every time a species is lost, no matter how small and seemingly insignificant to the bigger ecological tapestry, the great canvases of literature, philosophy, science and all the other disciplines are impoverished and dulled when 50% of the population is not enthusiastically welcomed into the conversation.

Yes, we women can have our own conversations, outside the male-dominated mainstream.  There’s always “women’s writing.”  But what we should really be striving for is what Virginia Woolf called “androgynous writing,” where the masculine and feminine energies are brought together in a fecund explosion of cross-pollinating difference.

As Lorde put it so memorably in another of her important essays, “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House,” “Difference must not be merely tolerated, but seen as a fund of necessary polarities between which our creativity can spark like a dialectic.  Only then does the necessity for interdependency become unthreatening.”

Maybe there will come a time when interdependency and androgyny will be the accepted standard of gender relations.  Until then, we still need to meet periodically and consider questions like “Who’s Afraid of Women’s Writing?” and why? and at what cost?

 

Empathy: Igniting Force for Social Action

Now that the mainstream media has finally caught on to the importance of the Occupy Wall Street protests, I feel like I can go back to using this space to explore some other questions that have been niggling at me lately.

Last week there were not one but TWO op-ed pieces in the NY Times about empathy–both responding to Harvard Professor of Psychology Steven Pinker’s new book The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined.  I haven’t read Pinker’s book yet, but I gather that he argues that humans have become more empathetic of late, and thus less violently aggressive towards one another.

Honestly, I haven’t noticed any decline in violence recently, have you? We still haven’t had a year go by without war erupting somewhere on the planet, and usually in many places at once. Men are still raping and battering women in alarming numbers all over the globe.  Suicides are up, and that deadly malaise I’ve talked about before subjects many of us to a constant low-level form of self-directed aggression.

But what I really want to think about are the two reactions to Pinker’s book, published last week in the Times by columnists David Brooks (conservative political pundit) and Benedict Carey (science reporter).  Both were extremely negative about the potential for empathy to be a positive force for social change.

Brooks argues that “Empathy makes you more aware of other people’s suffering, but it’s not clear that it actually motivates you to take moral action or prevents you from taking immoral action….

“Nobody is against empathy,” he says. “Nonetheless, it’s insufficient. These days empathy has become a shortcut. It has become a way to experience delicious moral emotions without confronting the weaknesses in our nature that prevent us from actually acting upon them. It has become a way to experience the illusion of moral progress without having to do the nasty work of making moral judgments.”

Brooks ends his column by proffering “sacred codes” as an alternative to mere empathy.  “Think of anybody you admire,” he says. “They probably have some talent for fellow-feeling, but it is overshadowed by their sense of obligation to some religious, military, social or philosophic code. They would feel a sense of shame or guilt if they didn’t live up to the code. The code tells them when they deserve public admiration or dishonor. The code helps them evaluate other people’s feelings, not just share them.”

The problem with this formula is obvious.  Sacred codes are all very well, as long as they don’t direct their adherents to, say, “exterminate the cockroaches,” as was the cry both in Nazi Germany and in Hutu Rwanda.

Benedict Carey comes up with another objection to empathy as a trigger for social action: people are much more likely to feel for and want to help a single victim whose story is well-told, than to reach out to help in a major disaster involving millions of unnamed victims.  We get “compassion fatigue” pretty quickly, and if we are fed enough sad stories, we begin to get “psychic numbing,” where we lose our ability to feel any empathy at all.

Carey ends his piece by suggesting that psychic numbing may actually serve a useful purpose.  People charged with trying to help victims of disaster or tragedy are better able to function, he says, if they are not wallowing in empathy.

“In his book “Death in Life: Survivors of Hiroshima,” the psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton argued that rescue workers at Hiroshima were able to function at all only because they succeeded in “turning off” their feelings of compassion. He called that process “psychic numbing,” too, and it’s a reminder that empathy may be a limited resource for a reason.  Real action, when it’s called for, often requires a cool heart, if not a cold one.”

So here we have, within the space of a single week, two well-respected intellectuals arguing that empathy may be overrated. Both maintain that empathy can actually get in the way of constructive action.

I have thought quite a bit about this very issue, since so much of my teaching over the years has involved exposing young people to narratives of political struggle with the goal of awakening their empathy as a first step on the road to positive social action.

Very rarely have students complained to me that the narratives of testifiers like Ismael Beah, Fadumo Korn or Rigoberta Menchu have caused their circuits to bust into “psychic numbing” mode.

And while it may be true that the experience of empathy is not enough in itself to produce the kind of social change called for by the testifiers in these narratives, it is still an important and necessary first step for potential allies from outside the given cultural context of the narrative.

In her closing essay to my first anthology, Women Writing Resistance: Essays on Latin America and the Caribbean, Julia Alvarez invoked the simple, hopeful expression of human connection exemplified in the phrase, “Here, let me help you with that.”

Gloria Anzaldua also wrote about the importance of situating oneself in the liminal space between self and other, which she named “nepantla,” the space of the borderland.

Those of us who have been blessed with privilege may never venture into that borderland space of connection and social change unless we are jarred into awareness by a jolt of empathy.  It may just never occur to us to reach out a helping hand.

I teach literature because I believe in the power of stories to provide this crucial explosive charge of understanding, which Simona Sharoni, who visited the Simon’s Rock Junior Proseminar today, calls “compassionate resistance.”

It’s true that this is a starting point, not an end in itself.  But it’s a critical ignition stage, not to be under-estimated.

I wonder about the subtexts of these two Times columns this week, both putting down the value of empathy a means towards social change.  Just what are these guys afraid of?

Whatever it is, Rachel Corrie found out how dangerous that fear–or lack of empathy–can be.

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