“I understand the large hearts of heroes,” wrote an ecstatic Walt Whitman in “Song of Myself”:
The courage of present times and all times,
How the skipper saw the crowded and rudderless wreck of the steam-ship, and Death chasing it up and down the storm. . . .
I am the man, I suffer’d, I was there.
The disdain or calmness of martyrs,
The mother of old, condemn’d for a witch, burnt with dry wood, her children gazing on
The hounded slave that flags in the race, leans by the fence, blowing, cover’d with sweat,
The twinges that sting like needles his legs and neck, the murderous buckshot and the bullets,
All these I feel or am.
What an incredible claim these stanzas make — that in his cosmic expansion of self, the poet not only hears or sees other people but becomes them. A contemporary undergraduate might raise her hand and remark that Whitman has no right to speak about the lives of others, a project that can so quickly turn into speaking on their behalf. But Yale psychologist Paul Bloom would reject Whitman’s felt identifications for a different reason: they are unlikely to lead to good moral outcomes. “I want to make a case for the value of conscious, deliberative reasoning in everyday life,” he writes in AGAINST EMPATHY: THE CASE FOR RATIONAL COMPASSION (Ecco, $26.99). “If you are struggling with a moral decision and find yourself trying to feel someone else’s pain or pleasure, you should stop.”
“Empathy” is a capacious term, but Bloom limits his inquiry to the sense of “coming to experience the world as you think someone else does” — what Whitman conjured with more flair as “I do not ask the wounded person how he feels, I myself / become the wounded person.” Those who recall Bloom’s New Yorker article from a few years back — the baked potato to this rehash — will know the score already. Empathy is everywhere: on the lips of essayists, social scientists, activists, and world leaders, proffered as something to guide government policies and everyday interactions. But if you’re looking, as Bloom is, for a fair and objective basis for an ethical life, you’d better look elsewhere.
Empathy makes the moral compass go wonky. It is easily manipulated to provoke prejudice or violence. It causes us to elevate individuals over groups, so that we care more about one hounded slave than thousands in chains. It is exhausting and “corrosive” in intimate relationships. It does not make us more sensitive to more people; it is more easily aroused if we already approve of the person in distress. Bloom cites a study that found that people experienced more empathy for AIDS patients who got the disease from blood transfusions than for those who got it from using intravenous drugs. But for a more overt example, see the New York Times op-ed “Empathy for Black Lives Matter,” in which Glenn Beck explicitly excludes the “worst” elements of the movement from his generous fellow feeling.
Some of Bloom’s examples miss the point of moral action, or might better go by other names. Giving money to a panhandler, for instance, has less to do with solving a problem than with acknowledging a human being. A warehouseful of stuffed animals sent to Newtown, Connecticut, after the Sandy Hook shooting seems more like evidence of survivor’s guilt than of contagious grief. Against Empathy leans on Adam Smith, but Bloom is still committed to lab tests, too many of which “discover” only the most obvious facts of daily life. One hardly needs neuroimaging to know that taking in someone else’s sadness and feeling kindness toward that person are distinct mental activities, with distinct physical manifestations.
Bloom is so keen to reason empathy away, to prove that it doesn’t work, that he misses what is most interesting: the desires it expresses. Why do people want to feel one another’s pain and pleasure? What satisfactions does empathy — and the writing about it — provide? How did empathy become such a bankable bet for publishing houses and grant-seeking researchers?
Much of today’s empathy discourse revolves around something with which Bloom has no problem: “cognitive empathy,” the capacity to pick up on what someone else is thinking. That kind of empathy has acquired an especially august status among English professors and book reviewers, or in any circle where literature is defended with morally hygienic alibis. Empathy is also a narrative structure. So many novels, television shows, and movies, whether for adults or for children, hinge on a character learning to see a situation from another point of view, and thereby saving the day.
But, fortunately, not all of them. The short stories in Kathleen Collins’s Whatever Happened to Interracial Love? (Ecco, $15.99) are fresh, energetic, and free of the teachable moments that punctuate the empathy plot. Collins was a bohemian from the black bourgeoisie. She directed two feature films, The Cruz Brothers and Miss Malloy and Losing Ground — neither of which had a theatrical release in her lifetime — before dying of cancer in 1988, at the age of forty-six. Two decades later, Collins’s daughter had the films restored and found a distributor. Last year Losing Ground, a rough and rueful portrait of a philosophy professor and her painter husband, opened a New York festival dedicated to black independent film. Brigid Hughes, the editor of the literary journal A Public Space, got in touch to ask if Collins had left behind any writing; as it happened, there was a trove of autobiographical short stories among her papers that had never been published.
It has become common to describe fiction as “cinematic,” but many of the stories in Interracial Love really do read like short films; some are written as scripts, or treatments. The first story, “Exteriors,” is a monologue spoken by a director who is lighting a scene.
Now dim the light. He’s picking at her and teasing her. No, take it way down. . . . No, kill it, there’s too much silence and pain. Now fog it slightly when he comes back in the evening and keep it dim while they sit on the bed. Now, how about a nice blue gel when he tells her it’s over. Good. Now go for a little fog . . . fade him to black and leave her in the shadow while she looks for the feelings that lit up the room.
The feelings are gone, but they were never anyone else’s to share. They belong wholly to this young woman, whom we observe through several layers of mediation — the text, the director’s voice, the camera’s eye. The story plays with distance, placing the reader in the room with the woman and yet never penetrating her thoughts. The next piece, “Interiors,” consists of two fragmentary, elusive monologues, one from a husband and one from a wife. Their marriage has failed and their words hurtle along, missing one another entirely, breaking off without any hint of mutual recognition. Collins is drawn to “interiors,” but her interest has to do with real estate as much as with psychology. (She was a New Yorker, after all.) “Her lover sits dejectedly in the sunless room,” she writes in the collection’s title story:
When they took the apartment, she chose the back bedroom just off the foyer, thinking it would provide her greater privacy. It does, but it is also without light, and by the end of her time there she will discover that almost all her unhappiness stemmed from that dark and dusky corridor she called her room. It was only sunlight she needed. Pure, delicious sunlight flooding through a room.
In “Lifelines,” a woman whose husband is living abroad — letters arrive from the Dominican Republic and Jamaica — sells their upstate cabin and buys a house near Garrison, New York, fifty minutes from the city. “The house suited me,” she explains. “It was small and the sun came into every room, filling it with light and giving me an incredible sense of well-being.”
A typical Collins situation shows intellectual passion in conflict with the appetites of the body. Her characters — musicians, artists, and professionals — endure divorce and death, relish solitude, fail to connect. They are lifelike even when sketchy or one-dimensional. “Documentary Style” takes place on the set of “a training film on sensitizing white employers to their black employees,” which I suspect is a reference to William Greaves’s documentary In the Company of Men (1969), a time capsule about the life of the “hard-core unemployed” and the history of American management techniques. (Collins had been a production assistant on Greaves’s Symbiopsychotaxiplasm, which came out the year before.) At the climax, an arrogant cameraman kicks a “smart-ass high-yaller chick” — the assistant editor — in “her fucking fat stomach.” She’s six months pregnant.
I didn’t come to see the world from the narrator’s point of view. But lines like “I was the best fucking goddamn black cameraman in this country and I’d walk all over her before I’d give her my footage to code” — they told me a lot about what Collins had to put up with.
Sander L. Gilman and James M. Thomas’s ARE RACISTS CRAZY? HOW PREJUDICE, RACISM, AND ANTISEMITISM BECAME MARKERS OF INSANITY (New York University Press, $35) is a twice-told tale buried in deadly academese, but extra points for that title: it’s got to be the best of any book published this month. Gilman is the author or editor of more than ninety volumes, known for his psychoanalytically inflected literary criticism and his studies of Jewish self-hatred; Thomas is a young sociologist at the University of Mississippi. They begin in the nineteenth century, when most medical professionals agreed that African Americans and Jews registered higher rates of mental illness — but why? Was it genetic inferiority or, as W.E.B. Du Bois maintained, the result of social conditions? There were plenty of factors to blame — slavery, migration, diaspora, state oppression — but the data itself was unreliable. The 1840 U.S. Census, for one, grossly overreported the rates of insanity among black people in the North.
By the middle of the twentieth century, it had become widely accepted that race was a social construct, not a biological destiny. Social scientists, as well as philosophers including Sartre and Fanon, wrote about the mental-health problems that racism caused its victims. Psychological experts documented the trauma, and sometimes the resilience, of the survivors of death camps, and buttressed the civil-rights movement in the United States. Dr. Fredric Wertham, the German Jewish psychiatrist and anti-comic-book crusader who worked with Richard Wright to open a private outpatient psychiatric clinic in Harlem, testified in a school-desegregation case in 1951. Kenneth Clark’s doll studies, in which both black and white children expressed preferences for white skin, were cited in Chief Justice Warren’s opinion in Brown v. Board of Education.
It was an easy pivot from psychologizing racism to psychopathologizing racists. Some studied the crowd (the lynch mob) and the nation (those authoritarian Germans), but the individual psyche won out. Wilhelm Reich blamed sexual repression. Early in his career Horkheimer characterized anti-Semitism as an aspect of capitalism and fascism, but then decided it was a separate psychological state. Although the American Pyschological Association has received several calls to include extreme bigotry in the D.S.M., its line remains that racism is bad, but normative. (That was Hannah Arendt’s point too.) Some clinicians have developed treatment protocols anyway, diagnosing “prejudice personality, intolerant personality disorder, and pathological bias.” Gilman and Thomas dub ours a “second age of biology.” The first was 150 years ago, “the moment of the birth of scientific racism.” Back in the 1960s, Kenneth Clark prescribed empathy for racists, but in 2012 researchers at Oxford found that unconscious bias could be reduced with beta-blockers.