The End of Empathy – a response

Diversity and representation in fiction and the media is something I think about a lot. I want to include diverse characters in my writing, and I want to see more diversity and better representation in the things I consume. I also want to see creators from minority groups get more opportunities to get their creations out into the world and for those creations to be seen by as many people as possible.


But there are complex issues involved in terms of how people react to what they see or don’t see in the world. As a cisgender, white, bisexual women, I am mostly starting from a position of incredible privilege, but also think I can understand feelings of marginalisation to an extent. I’m very aware that it’s easy and perhaps likely for me to make mistakes in this arena, but I strongly believe the best way forwards is for people on all sides and within all groups to discuss these issues in a calm and tolerant manner. So I welcome a rational and curious exchange of opinions, with a view to enlightenment, education and improvement.


I recently read an article in Quillette by Heather MacDonald, called ‘The Death of the Author and the End of Empathy’, discussing the publication and subsequent retraction of a poem by a white, male poet, which sparked outrage at its use of black street dialect and the word ‘crippled’.


The writer of the article says that in their opinion the poet’s intent was clear, and that the poem was not intended to attack any minority group. In my view, the attack inherent in the poem is directed at those who marginalise those groups. The article goes on to suggest that ‘the victim universe’ has resulted in a situation where authors are unable to use nuance, ambiguity or irony in their work. Or to attempt to represent any other group than that to which they themselves belong, without fear of an irrational and vitriolic response.


The editors who published the poem, and the poet himself, put out abject apologies and said the whole incident is going to make them much more circumspect about what they publish/write in future, and the article suggests that this was unnecessary, as they should have stood by their interpretation/intent regarding the poem and challenged the response it received.


The article says:


“Yet these poetry editors, who of all people should understand irony, now reject the role of authorial intention in creating meaning in favor of a naive view of language, whereby a word itself, regardless of how it is being used, has the magical power to inflict harm.”


After some reflection, I find I disagree with both the point of view of the article writer and some of those who reacted against the poem, in terms of how the incident was handled.


Intent is a difficult area. In general, I believe if someone is offended by something, it’s important to acknowledge that is how they feel, even if the person responsible had no intention of causing offence.


In writing, an author will create a work with a specific intention in how it should be interpreted. However, once the work is out in the world, the author has no control over how people respond to it and readers will always bring their own views, background and associations to their interpretation of any piece of media. The meaning of a piece of writing is not immutable, not least because the author’s intent is rarely known to those who read it. So the intended meaning cannot be used unilaterally as a yardstick against which all interpretations should be measured.


Writers need to be aware that what they say may be interpreted differently by different people, and should be sensitive to the views of diverse readers who may see things differently to them. However, I don’t think this should stop them from tackling challenging topics, or attempting to be representative in what they write.


In the example mentioned above, I think the poetry editors could have explained their reasoning for publishing the poem, acknowledged that some readers were affected by it in ways they didn’t anticipate, and expressed regret that people were upset by it, but without going so far as they did in suggesting that the original intent of the poet was now invalid.


Where I think the readers who objected to the poem are at fault is in how they approached the way in which they expressed their opposition. The poet also apologised for causing offence, and made it clear he was open to learning from the experience in order to avoid further offence in the future. Yet, some then continued to attack him, suggesting that his apology was inadequate. And that’s where I lose sympathy, because the poet was actively asking to open a dialogue to understand the issues better, and just got slapped down.


To me, that isn’t the way towards finding a better path. A situation will never be improved by throwing more gasoline on an already raging inferno. If people who disagree with you are willing to talk about it, the answer should always be to welcome discussion, make people more aware of the reasoning behind the views on all sides, and come to a better understanding of those who are different from you.


I realise this is easier said than done, as I frequently find myself getting emotional and even aggressive when discussing issues I feel strongly about, even when I’m talking to people who largely agree with me. But we should all try to get better at being willing to listen to other people’s views, and try to understand where they’re coming from.


Rather than throwing up our hands and declaring that it’s pointless to even try, and that it’s ‘the end of empathy’, it’s vitally important that we keep trying to employ empathy and start discussions to bring us closer together.


If writers are going to be criticised for not including diverse characters in their stories, but also attacked when they attempt to do so, there is no way forwards. The best thing is for people of different backgrounds to work together to produce inclusive art that is representative in the best possible way. And also for publishers to create opportunities for as many different types of people to add their voices to what is published. But even if more diverse writers are published more often (which I wholeheartedly support), if each writer is restricted to only writing characters who are like them, every work of fiction will be incredibly narrow, no matter who it is written by.


To conclude with a quote from Anne Lamott in Bird by Bird:


“What’s going on is that we’re all up to here in it, and probably the most important thing is that we not yell at each other.”


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