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Many humanities professors feel anxious about the future of their subject. Declining enrollments, shrinking budgets, a depressed academic job market, and widely publicized gibes by governors and editorialists about the uselessness of the humanities are prompting some humanities scholars—myself included—to wonder occasionally whether anyone is going to carry on the work we care so much about. In her contribution to one of several recent books that I will be examining here on the plight of the humanities, Judith Butler admits, “I even sometimes think maybe I will be lucky enough to leave the earth before I have to see the full destruction of the humanities.”1

Although pressures to demonstrate the value of the humanities cannot be ignored, the case for the humanities must be made carefully.2 Literary study will be my primary focus here, but I imagine other humanities fields face a similar dilemma. Calling the study of literature intrinsically valuable or an end in itself only aggravates parents, students, and taxpayers who want more tangible evidence of its benefits. But reducing the study of literature to the marketable skills it imparts (such as writing) shortchanges why most of us are indebted to it. We professors of literature need to articulate the larger usefulness of studying literature (which can include learning transferable skills) without reinforcing the [End Page 431] narrow, instrumentalist determinations of value that have called literary study into question in the first place.

One increasingly influential response to this challenge defends literature by claiming it promotes empathy, most often defined as the capacity to see the world from other vantage points. The empathy defense has many advantages, including the fact that just about everyone praises empathy. A survey of recent opinion writing in the Sunday Review section of the New York Times and in the Chronicle of Higher Education finds empathy touted as, among other things,

  • • An evolutionary tool for survival

  • • The key to successful fund-raising, classroom teaching, university administration, doctor-patient communication, and drug addiction treatment

  • • A necessary precondition for moral action and judgment

  • • An indispensable means of nonviolent conflict resolution

  • • A reason for the decline of fighting in the National Hockey League.3

Financial advisers need empathy and CEOs do, too. Empathy contributes to such workplace priorities as smart hiring, collaborative problem solving, constructive employee evaluation, and sound management. In the New York Times Sunday business section a headline goes so far as to ask, “Is Empathy on Your Resume?”4

Along with these testimonials to empathy, the absence of empathy gets invoked to explain many things, among them:

  • • The rise in African American incarceration rates

  • • Male physicians overmedicating women patients

  • • Challenges facing political conservatives in presidential elections

  • • Police violence against African Americans

  • • Mass shootings and other horrific killings

With so much riding on the cultivation of empathy, it is not surprising that a Center for Building a Culture of Empathy has been established to promote empathy worldwide through training, community organizing, and publications.5

Adding to the widespread affirmation of empathy may be scientific evidence that reading fiction enhances our ability to detect and understand others’ emotions.6 Moreover, fostering empathy feels like the right fit for literary study right now: neither too audacious (such as achieving wholesale social change) nor too smug (such as T. S. Eliot’s blithely [End Page 432] calling poetry “a superior amusement”).7 Finally, instilling empathy supports the professional benefits of literary study without, however, reducing it to vocational training. In the March 2013 issue of The Rotarian magazine, Frank Bures connects workplace success to empathizing with others, which he argues gets reinforced by the power of fiction to shore up “our ability to imagine what another person is thinking or feeling.”8

Academic advocates for literary study rightly argue that we can get more from literature than improved business skills. What Bures sees as the point of reading fiction, others regard as an unintended, maybe even unwelcome, byproduct. Nevertheless, if we are trying to strengthen public support for studying literature, I do not think we should dismiss out of hand an injunction in The Rotarian to read more novels. Unlike snide dismissals of literature, Bures’s praise of fiction offers an invitation to dialogue with others who might want to make larger claims on behalf of literature—an invitation, again, brought about by a shared respect for empathy.

The empathy defense of literature deserves closer scrutiny, but not because it keeps in play a vocational case for studying literature. Historically, defenses of literature have strengthened confidence in it by associating literature with something that could confer authority on it, as when Aristotle in the Poetics calls tragic poetry “a more philosophical and a higher thing than history,”9 or Giovanni Boccacio ties poetry to Christian theology and Holy Scripture, or Georg Lukacs praises (some) fiction for advancing historical materialism and antifascist political action. At first glance, linking literature to empathy exemplifies much the same approach: defending literature by showing its consonance with what the defender sees as a less contested good, whether philosophy, Christian scripture, or dialectical materialism.

But the empathy defense of literature is more complicated than this time-honored, halo-effect approach suggests. Even as many praise empathy, they also decry the waning of empathy in contemporary American life. For a variety of reasons, these observers argue, we are increasingly oblivious to one another’s concerns, needs, and feelings. From this point of a view, which I share, a microcosm of our everyday experience might be flying on a crowded airplane, an ordeal stratified by the ability to pay, from boarding to being assigned a seat. I take this example from the New York Times opinion writer Frank Bruni, who uses the analogy of air travel to make a larger point seconded by many other commentators: “If there’s one thing in even shorter supply [in American society] than legroom, it’s empathy.”10 [End Page 433]

The empathy deficit in contemporary American life calls into question the cultural clout empathy can lend to literature. Empathy turns out to be as endangered as the academic practice (literary study) that some professors are calling on it to support. Associating the study of literature with fostering empathy thus does not by itself solve the problem of defending literature but relocates that problem in the social conditions that jeopardize them both. Instead of conferring cultural prestige on literature, empathy is an equally embattled ally.

In my first section I look at defenses of literature that invoke empathy, focusing on the impact believed to accrue to literature because of its capacity to strengthen access to other points of view. In the next section I review in general terms the social challenges undermining empathy and complicating the empathy defense of literature. Although these challenges do not negate the empathy defense, they do require us to recalibrate it, as I argue in my concluding section, where I propose seeing literature not only as a force for influencing others but also as a means of releasing the good in each of us. To show how literature (so defined) can make a political difference, I draw on Danielle Allen’s analysis of the political power citizens can exert in their everyday interactions with one another.


Helen Small’s The Value of the Humanities is an excellent overview of current academic arguments—and their nineteenth-century precedents—defending the humanities, including the study of literature.11 Small starts from the assumption that “the humanities might ideally find justification in our doing them” (VH, p. 1). I take Small to be suggesting that for many people already convinced of the value of the humanities, “doing” the humanities may feel intrinsically valuable and thus in no need of further justification—until put into competition with other activities. Ideally, this competition leads to low-level decisions that balance our many interests, as in Karl Marx’s comment in German Ideology about how, in communist society, one might hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, and criticize after dinner.12 But in a grim, zero-sum world of tight budgets and scarce jobs, institutions and individuals have to make difficult decisions about their priorities. Small puts the point this way: “It is a sign of being in a prosperous, stable, educationally and culturally rich society that we can come to experience as ‘needs’ things whose absence or diminishment would be, strictly speaking, a relative [End Page 434] rather than an absolute impoverishment” (VH, p. 177). But in a different kind of society—one characterized by apparent scarcity, economic insecurity, and anxiety about the future—engagement with literature can seem dispensable: something desirable and pleasurable, but not as necessary as more productive pursuits.

As I mentioned at the outset, pressure to justify the value of the humanities is especially acute in many universities, where reduced state support (in American public universities) and declining tuition revenue (in liberal arts colleges) have created an atmosphere that feels anything but prosperous and stable. Small carefully analyzes several defenses of the humanities that originated in the nineteenth century and still attract adherents today. Some defenders of the humanities continue to reaffirm their intrinsic value and go so far as to argue that “social benefit is not the brief of universities, and that the pursuit of knowledge and engagement in research must be understood as mattering for its own sake and its own sake alone” (VH, p. 63). Matthew Arnold’s affirmation of curiosity and the free play of the mind fostered by culture anticipated this defense. From this point of view, studying literature provides a respite from the utilitarianism that overwhelms the rest of our lives. The value of that respite is either self-evident or can be argued for by criticizing the philistinism that stunts individuals when they try to dispense with culture.

Small astutely notes in many current defenses of the humanities a “toning down of anti-instrumentalism” (VH, p. 67). I think anti-instrumentalism—which Arnold could embrace—is losing its appeal because the pressure to demonstrate the economic benefit of universities has become too intense to bypass. As Small points out, a softer, more palatable version of the intrinsic-value defense argues that, while the benefit of literature cannot be captured in economic or vocational terms, reading literature is nevertheless useful to us as individuals. Small notes that John Stuart Mill arrives at this defense, as reading poetry reactivates his ability to feel and thereby recharges his languishing energy for pursuing political reform. In a famous chapter in his autobiography (“A Crisis in My Mental History”), Mill asks himself if he would be happy if all the political improvements he is seeking came to pass. He is devastated by his own negative answer. But reading, by chance, Jean-François Marmontel’s Memoirs moves Mill to tears and lifts his depression. Surprised by his own spontaneous emotional response, Mill gratefully concludes, “I was no longer hopeless; I was not a stock or a stone” (quoted in VH, p. 94). Mill goes on to rethink his understanding of happiness and recommit himself with fresh enthusiasm to his political interests. [End Page 435]

Mill’s personal indebtedness to literature is unmistakable. Reading literature fuels his hope for a better world and revitalizes his commitment to the political struggle necessary to achieve change. Even so, for all Mill’s indisputable respect for literature, Small notes his “difficulty in securing a logically binding relation” (VH, p. 107) between personal and collective happiness. Literature remains a private good for Mill: an important personal interest, to be sure, and essential preparation for engagement with society, but not a means of political participation in its own right.

What Small calls the “democracy-needs-us” defense of the humanities takes the next step and argues for the direct impact of studying literature on democratic citizenship. According to this defense, studying the humanities makes us better citizens: more tolerant of others’ views, more skilled in critical thinking, better able to engage constructively in collective democratic decision-making. Small finds little precedent in the nineteenth century for this defense, with the possible exception of William Morris, who, however, emphasized a quixotic artisanal or apprenticeship model of education. The democracy-needs-the-humanities defense got little traction in nineteenth-century England perhaps because limitations on university education and access to culture restricted the impact of the humanities to Mill’s “instructed few” and Arnold’s “saving remnant.” Broader preparation for citizenship depended on lower level civics training, if it was made available at all.

Even today in England and the United States, with expanded, though not universal, access to higher education, Small thinks that the democratic-citizenship case for the humanities is at odds with what she calls the guardianship or gadfly model of humanistic scholarship: the isolated, oppositional, Socratic intellectual speaking truth to power but never sure that power is listening. The democracy-needs-us argument, Small concludes, rightly aligns the possible contributions of the humanities with the needs of contemporary society, especially the need to reinvigorate our dysfunctional political decision-making. But the argument owes us a better account of how the skills cultivated by the humanities can inform a collective social practice, as opposed to the work of diminishing numbers of students and professors in scarce university seminars.

Another important book, The Humanities and Public Life, a collection of essays edited by Peter Brooks, takes up this challenge of elevating the humanities from a private good to an indispensable public force. The capacity to promote empathy spurs this augmentation of the role of the humanities, literature in particular. The Humanities and Public Life [End Page 436] starts out with Judith Butler also explaining why trumpeting the intrinsic value of the humanities is necessary but insufficient: it fails to persuade skeptical university administrators and other decision makers whose perspective has been shaped by what Butler calls the “new metrics for determining value” in different academic disciplines (HPL, p. 19): profitability, immediate usefulness to vocational training, appeal to legislators and donors, marketability, and conduciveness to technological innovation. Butler cautions that complying with the dominant instrumentalist determinations of value risks reinforcing the narrow perspective that put the humanities on the defensive in the first place. Selling out is as unacceptable as refusing to play the game. Butler rightly wants to safeguard “the very practice of asking about the value of those values [that diminish the humanities], whether they are comprehensive, what they facilitate, what they foreclose, what kind of world they establish, and what kind of world they destroy” (p. 31).

I quoted earlier Butler’s fantasy of leaving the earth before she has to see the full destruction of the humanities. Gallows humor is tempting because, in her view,

We [defenders of the humanities] find ourselves housed and displaced within language with metrics of value that not only cannot gauge well what we do, but have so monopolized the field of value that they threaten to consign what we do to oblivion. What can those whose language is consigned to oblivion do?

(HPL, p. 36)

Butler’s answer to this excellent question is stirring but abstract—more of a plea than a plan of attack. She urges us to “reenter the fray, open up the space between the language that has become obvious or self-evident and the enormous loss it has already accomplished and still portends” (p. 36).

Other contributors to The Humanities and Public Life respond to Butler’s injunction by making the capacity of literature to foster empathy the key to identifying and keeping alive what we are in danger of losing: respect for literature and attentiveness to others, which these contributors intertwine. In her essay “Poetry, Injury, and the Ethics of Reading,” Elaine Scarry cites historian Lynn Hunt, who traces the eighteenth-century development of human rights in part to men reading best-selling novels such as Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa and “thereby entering imaginatively into the lives of other people, including those without social power: women, servants, and children” (HPL, p. 42). [End Page 437] According to Scarry, the attributes of literature that opened the eyes of these readers to the lives of others are “its invitation to empathy, its reliance on deliberative thought, and its beauty” (p. 42). By “reliance on deliberative thought,” Scarry means the dependency of literature, novels in particular, on the give-and-take of dialogue, which strengthens “the capacity of literature to exercise and reinforce our recognition that there are other points of view in the world, and to make this recognition a powerful mental habit” (p. 42), a mental habit so powerful that it helped move eighteenth-century male readers to acknowledge the humanity and rights of some marginalized groups. Scarry stresses that the impact of literature is not causal, universal, or immediate but “glacial and over time” (p. 67): “it’s not that I read and then go and care more about people.” Nevertheless, by fostering “a greater pliancy of thinking, a greater openness to the concerns of others” (p. 69)—in this case, women and others without social power—reading fiction reinforces such central democratic values as tolerance, human rights, and the necessity of dialogue.

Two other essays in the volume extend Scarry’s recourse to empathy. In “The Call of Another’s Words,” Jonathan Lear sees marginalized authors, along with fictional characters, triggering empathy in readers. Lear observes how work by Crow poets has reactivated concern for Native American rights:

We need the words of another to wake us up. Obviously, it is not easy to say what this consists of. We are all familiar with examples of advocacy in fiction that leave us cold. Still, we also know that there can be occasions in which we are struck, confronted, and implicated by the words of another in ways that both draw us out of ourselves and toward our own humanity and the humanity of others. This seems to me one way in which the distinctive voice of the humanities can play a crucial role in helping us come to appreciate basic violations of human rights.

(HPL, p. 115)

Paul W. Kahn (in “On Humanities and Human Rights”) shifts attention from fictional characters and writers to the creativity expressed in literature. Kahn notes that focusing on distressed individual characters risks sentimentality, which substitutes a personal emotional response for political action. Congratulating ourselves on being moved by individual characters and letting it go at that may be why “training in the humanities long seemed compatible with support for both Jim Crow laws and a subordinated working class” (HPL, p. 118). Kahn prefers to think of literature and the other arts as provoking “wonder at creation” (p. 120). [End Page 438]

In place of the body in pain, we find [in literature] an experience of self-transcendence. To link dignity to freedom and freedom to creation is to recover the link of human rights to revolution. We might, however, think of this as the humanities’ reading of revolution, which does not wait for the extraordinary political event, but reminds us that the same free imagination is at work in every discursive exchange. The humanities are not likely to change our political beliefs and practices, but thinking within the humanities may still tell us something about why every person deserves our respect.

(HPL, p. 122)

In my conclusion I will return to the link between empathy and the body in pain, but for now I want to emphasize that in the essays by Scarry, Lear, and Kahn, the route may differ but the outcome remains much the same. Whether by occasioning new insight into marginalized individual characters, by opening us to the words of an otherwise silenced author, or by exposing us to the creative energy animating literature as a whole, we readers expand our awareness of other points of view, thereby making us more responsive to the rights and needs of others.

Not every contributor to The Humanities and Public Life endorses this defense of literature. Jonathan Culler, for example, questions the equation of reading with reinforced respect for others, whether characters or authors. According to Culler, while it may be wrong to ignore the person speaking directly to you, we readers “can do what we will” (HPL, p. 61) with literary texts: quote selectively, pursue implications the author might disavow, pick and choose what we care to use for our own purposes. Reading a literary text, in other words, need not serve as proxy for our ethical relations with people.

I can imagine Culler’s aggressive model of reading attracting support when he was commenting sympathetically on deconstruction in the 1980s and 1990s. For many critics then, it felt important to unsettle, not reaffirm, the meanings assigned to literary works and to celebrate the endlessness of interpretation, its subversion of any values or ends called on to give it an extrinsic purpose. In the heyday of deconstruction, authorial voices gave way to indeterminate texts. But times have changed. Faced with intensified doubts about the public importance of the humanities, most of the contributors to The Humanities and Public Life are more interested in giving criticism a broadly stated political point than in celebrating its independence from the works it is dealing with. Culler quotes with approval G. K. Chesterton: “Either literary criticism is no good at all (a thoroughly defensible proposition) or else criticism consists of saying about an author those very things that [End Page 439] would have made him jump out of his boots” (HPL, p. 62). Flaunting the inconsequentiality of literary criticism or reveling in its open-ended autonomy: neither of these options is appealing when the sustainability of the humanities in public life is at stake.

In his essay “Misunderstanding the Humanities,” Peter Brooks summarizes the view of literature emerging from The Humanities and Public Life as a whole. Like Scarry, Brooks disavows any direct correlation between reading a work of literature and treating others with compassion and respect. His model is not didactic: not Uncle Tom’s Cabin accelerating abolitionism or The Jungle leading to the Meat Inspection Act and other reforms. Instead, Brooks sees our overall experience with literature enabling other voices to enter our lives, including the voices of those with whom we discuss what we are reading. A humanizing ethics of “self-dispossession” results from literary experience in its totality.13 Brooks ties this “self-dispossession” to what John Keats called negative capability, or the poet’s capacity to inhabit other points of view. I also hear Brooks’s argument echoing Percy Bysshe Shelley’s claim in A Defence of Poetry:

A man, to be greatly good, must imagine intensely and comprehensively; he must put himself in the place of another and of many others; the pains and pleasures of his species must become his own. The great instrument of moral good is the imagination; and poetry administers to the effect by acting upon the cause. Poetry enlarges the circumference of the imagination by replenishing it with thoughts of ever new delight. . . . Poetry strengthens the faculty which is the organ of the moral nature of man, in the same manner as exercise strengthens a limb.14

The empathetic imagination of readers, strengthened by literary experience, over time transforms their actions as citizens, enlarging their circle of concern to include others previously denied attention and respect.

I take “circle of concern” from Martha Nussbaum’s Political Emotions: Why Love Matters for Justice, my final example of a defense of the humanities—especially literature—that depends on empathy.15 In Nussbaum’s view, a just society extends equality, dignity, and political freedom to all its citizens. By political freedom, she means due process rights, equal protection under the law, freedom of expression, and other liberties underwritten by the U.S. Constitution’s Bill of Rights. To shore up equality and dignity for all, Nussbaum favors expanding health care, education, and housing by redistributing the revenues generated by a progressive, fair, tax system. Nussbaum’s vision of a just society aligns her [End Page 440] with such quintessential liberal initiatives as Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal and Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society, which for her were on the right track.

Following John Rawls, in Political Emotions Nussbaum focuses not on totalitarian or utopian societies but on imperfect societies aspiring to the just society I have described. These flawed but promising societies—among which Nussbaum would include contemporary America—have made gains and are headed in the right direction but remain beset by antidemocratic forces. These forces cater to racial and other forms of prejudice, exclude the less powerful from decision-making, and license aggression against others.

Nussbaum’s key point is that love matters for achieving and sustaining justice: more specifically, emotions such as compassion, empathy, and forgiveness need cultivation to combat fear, distrust, disgust, and other negative emotions that stigmatize others and undermine concern for their well-being. As in The Humanities and Public Life, literature and the other arts are crucial to nurturing love and empathy:

A linchpin in the cultivation of this love is the imagination: we must become able to see each person’s fate in every other’s, to picture it vividly as an aspect of our fate, and to conceive of the whole history of the human kind and its possible future as part of our own sphere of concern, through intense focusing on ideal images of human achievement.

(PE, p. 62)

For Nussbaum, stories, symbols, and images play an indispensable role in fostering “love of comrades,” a phrase she borrows from Walt Whitman, with “comrades” growing to encompass otherwise marginalized others. As Nussbaum puts it, “Compassion strongly motivates altruism, but it is also rooted in concrete narratives and images. If altruistic emotion is to have motivational power, it needs to hitch itself to the concrete” (PE, p. 209).

Nussbaum sees in societies and individuals a tug-of-war between compassion and divisive emotions such as envy, distrust, disgust, and greed. She shares Whitman’s aim of using literature to “plant companionship thick as trees” (PE, p. 375) instead of stranding others as distant, “dehumanized nonindividual units” (p. 197) or demonizing them as deserving their subordination. Stories, characters, and images enable literature and the other arts to create “proximity” and overcome estrangement: “listening to narratives of individual predicaments” (p. 197) builds “cultures of empathy” (p. 198) where we recognize the fate of others as bound up with our own. [End Page 441]

Emotions such as love and empathy matter to justice, in short, because they motivate legislative change and extend its reach into everyday relationships, making political reforms stick.16 Lacking emotional reinforcement, laws, constitutions, and political directives stay remote and lifeless. On their own, laws and abstract principles create what Nussbaum, borrowing from Aristotle, calls “watery motivation” (PE, p. 219). They elicit begrudging or fitful compliance, not enthusiasm and everyday support. Resentment, anger, and hatred continue to simmer, waiting for the least provocation to reassert their claims against others.

If love thus actualizes justice, for Nussbaum justice offsets the potential narrowness and exclusivity of love. Nussbaum concedes the partiality of personal feelings, which can get riveted on particular cases and not see broader trends.17 Empathy triggered by an especially moving case can be prejudicial, as when, for example, the heart-rending story of one would-be kidney transplant recipient encourages decision-makers to move that person unfairly to the top of the waiting list. As Nussbaum puts it, “the very individualism of the reference point can at times become an impediment to policies that are truly evenhanded” when “the one blocks the many” (PE, p. 317). Individual stories thus need to be supplemented by attention to larger causes and disinterested principles. A bigger picture must always be in dialogue with individual instances, allowing citizens to “construct a bridge from the vividly imagined single case to the impartial principle by challenging the imagination, reminding people that a predicament to which they respond in a single vividly described case is actually far broader” (p. 157).

More than any other recent advocate for literature, Nussbaum assigns it a major role in a much bigger historical drama: the partnership between love and justice that in her view keeps democratic societies moving forward. Literature plays a key part in the interchange between deeply felt personal emotions and institutional concerns. When lacking a broader perspective, love and empathy can skew decision-making in favor of especially moving particular cases. But without love fortified by literature and the other arts, justice stays abstract and hollow, allowing fear, distrust, and hatred a foothold for continuing their reactionary work.

Political Emotions: Why Love Matters for Justice extends The Humanities and Public Life by providing a much richer view of that public life. Historical examples abound in Nussbaum’s book. Leaders, including Abraham Lincoln, Mahatma Gandhi, and Martin Luther King Jr., tap the resources of literature to expand concern for others and promote positive social change, always in the teeth of antidemocratic opposition. [End Page 442] In addition, the humanizing impact of literature finds reinforcement in public art (the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial, Vietnam Veterans Memorial), well-designed urban places (Central Park, and in Chicago, the Reva and David Logan Center for the Arts and Millennium Park), and celebrations of symbolic holidays (Martin Luther King Jr. Day). In Political Emotions, why literature matters to love expands into why love, embedded in social change, matters to justice. Nussbaum steps back from focusing on a solitary reader being moved by a literary work to seeing literature join other cultural forces in activating fellow feeling and keeping in check disgust at others.

I admire the breadth and central argument of Political Emotions, in particular how it interrelates the prospects of democracy, love, empathy, and literature. One downside of Nussbaum’s panoramic perspective, however, is that it thins out her attention to the present, specifically to the forces at work today eating away at her vision of a just society. She only glances at “our era of ongoing racial tension” (PE, p. 338) and the “huge error” of “all federal money for the arts about to be cut” (p. 311). She also notes in passing “the erosion of the New Deal in the United States” that results “from an emotional shift [prompting] major changes in institutions and laws” (p. 214):

Roosevelt’s appeal to emotions through a carefully crafted use of the arts seems to have been an important feature in the success of his New Deal programs. The fact that nobody is thinking much about these matters today goes at least some way to explaining the slide back to the view that the poor cause their own misery, and, in turn, to the decline of the American welfare state.

(PE, p. 284)

In Nussbaum’s long-range view, forces obstructing democratic progress must always be contended with. But I think something more important than ordinary backsliding is contributing to the “emotional shift” threatening to roll back the New Deal, funding for the arts, and the welfare state. Empathy and literature—and by extension democracy—are facing new challenges, to which I now turn.


One way to get at these new challenges is to recall an earlier effort to reinforce the role of the humanities in American culture: The Humanities in American Life (1980), a report of the Commission on the Humanities.18 [End Page 443] Anticipating some of the concerns raised in The Humanities and Public Life, the report starts with the premise that “the humanities are widely undervalued and often poorly understood” (HAL, p. 4). As evidence of the marginalization of the humanities, the report cites declining enrollments in university humanities courses, a worsening academic job market, and students shying away from the humanities out of concern for what they are going to do when they graduate: “In times of economic uncertainty, young people are often urged to prepare for earning a livelihood and discouraged from studying the humanities” (p. 30). The humanities matter, the report emphasizes, because they strengthen our self-knowledge and deepen our insight into others: “By awakening a sense of what it might be like to be someone else or to live in another time or culture, they tell us about ourselves, stretch our imagination, and enrich our experience” (p. 1).

These are by now familiar themes. Nevertheless, despite concerns about eroding support for the humanities, the specific recommendations of the report are mild—for example, increasing funding for research in the humanities and making a more effective public case for their value—and the overall tone of the report is serious, but not grim or alarmed. It contains no anxious fantasies about interest in the humanities one day drying up.

One crucial difference between then and now helps account for the more confident tone of the 1980 volume: the current accelerating polarization of American society, by which I mean the fracturing of American social and political life into discrete, antagonistic, noncommunicating camps. Although I won’t attempt a full-scale analysis of this balkanization here, I want to touch on two major factors contributing to it: the internet and unprecedented economic inequality. Each has important implications for the empathy defense of literature.

Information technology is acknowledged in The Humanities in American Life primarily for its potentially positive impact on preserving and disseminating scholarship. The report could not foresee a more ominous consequence of proliferating digital resources, namely, how the internet has exacerbated what Cass Sunstein has called “enclave extremism”: like-minded individuals sealing themselves off from outside influences; interacting via the internet only with one another; drawing on their own filtered digital sources of information; and egging each other on to take even more extreme positions, usually against outsiders.19 After observing that “we live in a country of sharpening divisions, pronounced tribalism, corrosive polarization,” with individuals trying “to tuck themselves into [End Page 444] enclaves of confederates with the same politics, the same cultural tastes, the same incomes,” Frank Bruni similarly observes,

The Internet has proved to be one of the great ironies of modern life. It opens up an infinite universe for exploration, but people use it to stand still, in a favorite spot, bookmarking the websites that cater to their existing hobbies (and established hobbyhorses) and customizing their social media feeds so that their judgments are constantly reinforced, their opinions forever affirmed.20

Sheltered from independent scrutiny, distortions take on a life of their own and spawn fear, distrust, and anger directed at maligned outsiders, stirring up the negative emotions that Nussbaum calls on love, empathy, and literature to counter.

The skimming, multitasking, and intellectual fidgetiness fostered by internet culture also pose challenges for empathy and literature. As has often been noted, these habits shrink attention spans, exacerbate the craving for endless distraction, and promote rapid-fire, simplistic exchanges, all of which militate against the sustained concentration necessary to reading and writing about complex literary works.21 These same habits also impair self-awareness and attentiveness to others.22 In addition, what Stephen Marche has called the “epidemic of facelessness,” unleashed by overreliance on digital communications, gives individuals the opportunity to vilify others at a distance, impersonally, without a thought. As Marche argues, “when the face is removed from life, empathy and compassion can no longer be taken for granted.”23 Along similar lines, Richard Kearney worries that we may be “losing our touch,” as digital exchanges remove “us further from the flesh.” Borrowing from Shakespeare, Kearney emphasizes how coming into actual contact with others helps us “feel what wretches feel” and thereby enhances “the role of empathy, vulnerability and sensitivity” in our relationships.24

Unprecedented economic inequality adds geographic to virtual balkanization, subdividing nearly every aspect of social life, from schools and workplaces to neighborhoods, travel, and entertainment options, according to the ever-widening ability to pay. The Humanities in American Life mentions the economic uncertainty that in the late 1970s was on the minds of many young people and families. But the report could not anticipate the impact of the recent Great Recession and the uneven recovery that resulted.

As numerous commentators have argued, two incommensurate worlds have split apart in contemporary American society: the many at the [End Page 445] bottom, anxious about making a living in an all-or-nothing economy, with only a fraying safety net to catch individuals in financial trouble; and the few at the top, whose rapidly expanding incomes and isolation from the rest of society allow them to congratulate themselves on their success and to blame “losers” for failing. Daniel Goleman finds evidence that “rich people just care less,” not because of any innate moral failing but because their insulated circumstances shrink what Nussbaum would call their circle of concern.25 Poorer people, by contrast, are more attuned to interpersonal relations because they have to be. Their livelihood depends on the approval of others—reading others’ minds, anticipating their moods, complying with their values. In the absence of shared public spaces, those at the top can limit their interpersonal interactions to peers and to the deferential people dependent on them. They can afford to shun outsiders and develop damaging misconceptions about them that legitimize the subordinates’ failures while validating their own financial success. As Goleman observes, reinforcing a point I will return to, “A prerequisite to empathy is simply paying attention to the person in pain.” As the distance between rich and poor has widened and rigidified, the willingness of the wealthy elite to see itself in the less advantaged has waned. Goleman concludes that “reducing the economic gap may be impossible without also addressing the gap in empathy”—and vice versa.

In Mirror, Mirror: The Uses and Abuses of Self-Love, Simon Blackburn vividly pictures the narcissism that results when those at the top are sure that they deserve their wealth, fame, and power, “that there is no such thing as society, that, because they are worth it, their predations on the common good give them no more than their due.”26 Blackburn singles out “the many bankers, CEOs, remuneration committees, hedge fund managers, tax lawyers, civil servants scuttling through the revolving door into the arms of the great accountancy companies, private medical providers, or arms manufacturers—the many politicians of all stripes with inherited wealth castigating the inadequacies of the poor” (MM, p. x). Like Nussbaum and other proponents of empathy, Blackburn values compassion and fellow feeling, which he grounds in identifying “with the suffering animal, by leaving, so to speak, our own nature and taking his” (p. 90), an exercise of the imagination sparked by realizing that we, too, are vulnerable. According to Blackburn, arrogance and ignorance of the privileged few block this identification with others: arrogance fed by courtiers who reinforce their self-regard, ignorance kept in place by unbridgeable, ever-widening social distance. Blackburn [End Page 446] concludes, “Secure in their smoke-tinted limousines and gated communities, the kelptoparasites are literally ignara mali” (p. 100): “The thought that ‘there but for the grace of God go I’ is lost upon [them]” (p. 99).

In contemplating the toll of inequality on empathy, Blackburn wavers between “blank despair” (MM, p. x) and the hope that “bit by bit, with people working in schools, in media, by example, and over time, the ideological climate can shift” (p. 189). Other advocates of empathy are similarly unsure anything can be done to safeguard it. In “The Decline of Empathy and the Future of Liberal Education,” Nadine Dolby cites a 2011 meta-analysis of seventy-two studies on empathy conducted on college-age students from 1972 to 2009 that documented a 43 percent decline in empathy. Among the causes accelerating this decline, Dolby includes the technological and economic changes I mentioned, specifically “the innate distancing of social networking technologies” and declining economic security, which she thinks encourages students to focus on themselves and their uncertain career prospects, not on helping others. According to Dolby, colleges are complicit with this assault on empathy when they substitute MOOCs (massive open online courses) for small classes where students can practice reading others’ body language, hearing their voices, and seeing their eyes and facial expressions. Empathy also loses out when colleges focus on skills-driven courses and narrow utilitarian outcomes at the expense of the liberal arts, leading Dolby to warn, “The decline of liberal education may trigger an even greater decline in empathy”—at the very time we most need it.27

The splintering of American society that I have been describing thus inhibits empathy and jeopardizes our ability to communicate across political, economic, and racial divides—essential to collective decision-making in a diverse democracy. When some university students and faculty members seek “safe spaces” on campus sheltered from opposing views, they are not separating themselves from the larger culture but reproducing its pooling of individuals into like-minded groups. The consequent inability to talk across differences—to persuade one another, to disagree constructively, to arrive at a shared understanding—means that we have lost a common language for responding to the world around us.

The June 2016 mass shooting at Pulse, a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida, is a recent case in point. As Vinson Cunningham points out, talk about the tragedy barely paused to acknowledge the suffering before politicizing its origins and consequences from different, nonintersecting points of view: [End Page 447]

The incredible danger of our polarization lies, I think, in a fact that has become unavoidably clear in recent months: the old common American language has all but evaporated, perhaps permanently. . . . We seemed unable to dwell on the single incontrovertible item—the loss of life, the spilling of blood—because of our inability to categorize, or classify, its cause. . . . We speak no longer within one language (where understanding is hard, but possible) but across the gulf that seems, every day, to widen between many. We quibble over words, codes, signals, whistles.28

The overlapping consensus John Rawls thought essential to a pluralistic democracy has given way to atomization: antagonistic groups competing to describe and own the world—even a mass shooting—instead of finding ways to share responsibility for it.

The loss of a common language makes the empathy defense of literature at once appealing and precarious, as a final example will show. The gifted short story writer George Saunders has often celebrated kindness and empathy, which he, too, ties to seeing life from someone else’s point of view.29 A recent New Yorker assignment tested Saunders’s capacity for fellow feeling. Saunders was tasked with making sense of supporters of the presidential candidate Donald Trump, whose policies he abhors. In struggling to explain Trump’s appeal, Saunders brings up the polarization paralyzing our political culture:

Where is all this anger coming from? It’s viral, and Trump is Typhoid Mary. Intellectually and emotionally weakened by years of steadily degraded public discourse, we are now two separate ideological countries, LeftLand and RightLand, speaking different languages, the lines between us down. Not only do our two subcountries reason differently; they draw upon non-intersecting data sets and access entirely different mythological systems. . . . In the old days, a liberal and a conservative (a “dove” and a “hawk,” say) got their data from one of three nightly news programs, a local paper, and a handful of national magazines, and were thus starting with the same basic facts (even if those facts were questionable, limited, or erroneous). Now each of us constructs a custom informational universe, wittingly (we choose to go to the sources that uphold our existing beliefs and thus flatter us) or unwittingly (our app algorithms do the driving for us). The data we get this way, pre-imprinted with spin and mythos, are intensely one-dimensional. (As a proud knight of LeftLand, I was interested to find that, in RightLand, Vince Foster has still been murdered, Dick Morris is a reliable source, kids are brainwashed “way to the left” by going to college, and Obama may yet be Muslim. I expect that my interviewees found some of my core beliefs equally jaw-dropping.)30 [End Page 448]

In the absence of a common language, stories seem to Saunders a possible way of reaching the Trump supporters he disagrees with. He tries to bridge the chasm between him and them with anecdotes about specific individuals: Noemi Romero, for example, a young woman he met in Phoenix brought to the United States by her undocumented parents when she was three. Saunders hopes her sad story will at least prompt further thinking about Trump’s deportation proposals, if not agreement with Saunders’s own point of view.

Saunders reports that by asking the Trump supporter—“What do we do about Noemi?”—he does initially shift an ugly exchange of insults into a more promising dialogue:

In the face of specificity, my interviewees began trying, really trying, to think of what would be fairest and most humane for this real person we had imaginatively conjured up. It wasn’t that we suddenly agreed, but the tone changed. We popped briefly out of zinger mode and began to have some faith in one another, a shared confidence that if we talked long enough, respectfully enough, a solution could be found that might satisfy our respective best notions of who we were.

The power of a well-told specific example explains the considerable appeal of the empathy defense of literature, especially in a fragmented cultural context when no other form of communication seems to work.

But, as Saunders goes on to say,

Well, let’s not get too dreamy about it. We’d stay in that mode [of mutually respectful conversation] for a minute or two, then be off again to some new topic, rewrapped in our respective Left and Right national flags. Once, after what felt like a transcendent and wide-ranging conversation with a Trump supporter named Danny (a former railroad worker, now on disability), I said a fond goodbye and went to interview some Hillary supporters across the street. A few minutes later, I looked over to find Danny shouting at us that Hillary was going to prison, not the White House. I waved to him, but he didn’t seem to see me, hidden there in the crowd of his adversaries.

The very conditions that make the empathy defense of literature so attractive also make it fragile. The impact of Noemi’s story seems fleeting, its potential cut short when familiar patterns of distrust, resentment, and fear reassert themselves with a vengeance. Nudged by a specific story—the hope of the empathy defense of literature—Danny’s circle of concern tentatively expands, only to close tight again. [End Page 449]


Writing in the late 1960s, when bitter arguments about the Vietnam War were tearing apart college campuses, Stanley Cavell observed, “Our problem is that society can no longer hear its own screams.”31 I see that as our problem today, too, when, in an increasingly divided world, the suffering of others reaches only those already inclined to hear it. This problem can be recast as the weakening of empathy and the related resurgence of racism, fear, and distrust whipping up ugly feelings against others, muffling their voices. Under the circumstances, it is not surprising that confidence in literature surges and diminishes, especially to the extent that the defense of literature aligns it with empathy, which seems at once widely appreciated and in short supply. Planting companionship as thick as trees—the lofty aspiration Nussbaum takes up from Whitman—collides with the proliferation of strangers. Drawing on Danielle Allen’s timely book, Talking to Strangers: Anxieties of Citizenship since “Brown v. Board of Education,” I conclude by reconceiving the empathy defense of literature to take into account the social pressures I have been discussing.

As a first step, I return to a recurrent theme in writing about literature and empathy: the special connection between empathy and pain. Empathy seems especially triggered by someone else’s pain capturing our attention, stopping us short, interrupting our usual habits of neglect, distraction, and self-absorption. Awareness of someone else’s pain reminds us of our shared vulnerability, which gets us outside ourselves and highlights our need for one another. Someone else’s happiness and good fortune, by contrast, can rekindle envy and disappointment, which throw us back on ourselves and keep us locked in our own grievances.

The interpersonal dynamics of responding to another’s pain are central to the novelist and essayist Leslie Jamison’s stunning recent collection of essays The Empathy Exams.32 Jamison’s book takes its title from her stint as a medical actor charged with evaluating the medical students examining her. One of the evaluation categories is whether or not the medical student “voiced empathy” for the patient’s pain. Jamison learns that empathy is not simply parroting back what someone else feels but drawing out that feeling, helping the patient express and understand it. Empathy is “figuring out how to bring difficulty into the light so it can be seen at all. Empathy isn’t just listening, it’s asking the questions whose answers need to be listened to” (EE, p. 3). These questions mix curiosity with kinship, the medical student feeling the patient’s pain but [End Page 450] admitting to not yet fully understanding it. In this developing relationship between physician and patient, intimacy, grounded in a shared capacity for suffering, oscillates with separation, understood not only as professional decorum but also as respect for the other’s individuality, her unfamiliarity. True to the word’s origins, “empathy” suggests to Jamison a kind of travel, an entering into another person’s pain as one would another country.

In considering the responsiveness expected of medical students, who again are expected not just to feel empathy but to voice it, Jamison stresses that empathy is not automatic but “a choice we make: to pay attention, to extend ourselves” (EE, p. 23). Extending the comparison between empathy and travel, she distinguishes empathy from the “quick fix” of tourism, or the self-serving illusion that merely “bringing our bodies somewhere draws that place closer to us, or we to it” (p. 59). In empathizing, we inhabit a space with others instead of only visiting it, thereby acknowledging our interdependency and our porousness to one another, our interest in caring for others and our own need to be cared for. The effort required by empathy distinguishes empathy from sentimentality, or fellow feeling disconnected from action.

Even as a pretend patient, Jamison rediscovers the isolation, helplessness, and infantalization that accompany suffering—how pain can render us voiceless, frustrated, and confused, compounding our powerlessness and fear. In the concluding essay of her book (“Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain”), she reflects on the experience of female adolescent cutters and anorexics who want their bodies—their cuts, their hollowed-out faces—to say what they cannot express in words, as if “starving could render angst more articulate,” as if wounds could speak for themselves and imply what cannot yet be said. At some level, Jamison feels “each of us must live with a mouth full of request, and full of hurt” (EE, p. 193)—“full,” because for a variety of reasons we cannot release into words all that we feel and need. Receiving empathy from someone else helps us recover our voices and rebuild the relationships that mitigate our isolation. Initially strangers, the medical students and their pretend patients find their words together.

Doctors and patients are unusually motivated to strike up the interchange described by Jamison. Another important book dealing with empathy, the essayist Rebecca Solnit’s The Faraway Nearby, shows how empathy can also come to life in less propitious circumstances.33 Solnit calls attention to leprosy, the quintessential isolating disease in which she says sufferers grow numb to their own limbs. Along similar lines, Solnit [End Page 451] reminds us, “whole societies can be taught to deaden feeling, to dissociate from their marginal and minority members, just as people can and do erase the humanity of those close to them” (FN, pp. 106–7)—Solnit’s picture of a society that cannot hear its own screams. But just as lepers can learn how to reclaim their limbs, Solnit thinks communities can expand to include previously shunned people. Recalling Nussbaum, she applauds the power of narrative to enlarge the scope of our concern and bring the hidden or silenced suffering of others into view:

Many of the great humanitarian and environmental campaigns of our times have been [through storytelling] to make the unknown real, the invisible visible, to bring the faraway near, so that the suffering of sweatshop workers, torture victims, beaten children, even the destruction of other species and remote places, impinges on the imagination and perhaps prompts you to act. It’s also a narrative art of explaining the connections between your food or your clothing or your government and this suffering far from your sight in which you nonetheless play a role.

(FN, p. 53)

For Solnit, “pain defines the boundaries of the body” (p. 106) and, by extension, communities. These boundaries can be expanded through empathy activated by stories—again, the hope of the empathy defense of literature.

I laud Solnit’s optimism but, as Saunders might say, let’s not get too dreamy about it. I discussed in my previous section how internet enclaves and inequality, among other developments, reverse Solnit’s argument and try to keep the nearby faraway. But even being put face-to-face with someone else’s suffering or hearing of it firsthand does not guarantee connection, let alone transformative action, as I am sure Solnit would concede. We might, for example, hold back from responding because we know that pain can be faked, exaggerated, or wallowed in. As Keith Wailoo reminds us in his fascinating book Pain: A Political History, such skepticism about the alleged pain of others contributed to the “emotional shift” that, according to Nussbaum, retracted government support for the New Deal social programs she values.34 Ronald Reagan exemplified this skeptical approach in the early 1980s when he advocated purging the Social Security rolls of fraudulent or suspicious disability cases. This weeding out of supposedly illegitimate claims had as its target the undeserving recipients of Social Security and the duped proponents of expanding aid: the “bleeding heart” liberals willing to be taken in by subjective complaints of suffering. What Reagan’s political adversaries [End Page 452] saw as compassion, Reagan criticized as self-interested manipulation, or using the putative misery of others as a pretext for adding to government programs instead of insisting that individuals take responsibility for their lives. Reagan spun his own stories of “welfare queens” supposedly enjoying their idleness and getting rich at the expense of hard-working taxpayers. In Reagan’s handling, skeptically questioning whether someone else really was suffering became a rhetorical weapon for undermining the naivete of liberals and the costly dependency on government they fostered. Tough-minded skepticism vanquished gullibility.

Wailoo points out that Reagan was not so much rejecting compassion as redirecting it: away from the ersatz suffering of selfish individuals pretending to be incapable of working and toward the self-reliant, industrious taxpayer forced to subsidize other people who were feigning or embracing helplessness. Reagan’s conservatism did not deny the reality of pain but relocated it, not only in the aggrieved, small-business owner smothered in regulations and taxes but also in the fetus threatened by abortion. The fetus had its own narrative, the 1984 documentary The Silent Scream, which gave voice to its inaudible suffering and brought its invisible personhood into full view. The original VHS cover of the film proclaimed in capital letters, “Now the whole world can see the truth”: “A first trimester suction abortion seen on an ultrasound screen from the victim’s point of view.” Conservative proponents of empathy had found someone genuinely in pain and deserving of compassion and defense: the threatened fetus.

As Wailoo’s history vividly shows, pain can be politicized, by which I mean assigning pain and extending empathy can be questioned, debated, and amended. No one has probed the questions surrounding pain, the uncertainty shadowing its acknowledgment and avoidance, with more acuity than Stanley Cavell. Cavell shows how the ever-present possibility of doubting whether or not someone really is in pain feeds into “other-minds” skepticism, which elevates the uncertainty of knowing whether someone else is in pain into the impossibility of knowing another person at all. As Cavell points out, this far-reaching conclusion leaves others not simply unclear or ambiguous but absent for us as human beings: inexpressive, blank, empty, bereft of the capacity to become intelligible to us or to draw out our own feelings. Although Reagan’s criticisms of welfare cheats stopped short of explicitly dehumanizing them, his distrust of their suffering cut off any connection with them and abandoned them as incorrigible outsiders, recalling the fate of others in other-minds skepticism. [End Page 453]

Cavell shows how we can dehumanize others not because of some deficiency in them but because of some need in us to stay off limits to (some) others or to keep them at bay, to avoid our internal relation to them, maybe out of distrust, disgust, or fear. Cavell thus shifts our attention from the possible objects of empathy to the internal activation or suppression of empathy—from the screams of others to our ability or willingness to hear them—a move I think crucial to reconceiving the empathy defense of literature. As Cavell puts it, “Being human is the power to grant being human.”35 Affirming or denying someone else’s humanity results from what Cavell calls our capacity for empathic projection: attributing to others, or withholding from them, the same humanity we claim for ourselves. Cavell emphasizes our personal responsibility for granting or denying humanity to others and the reciprocity at stake in this judgment. Acknowledging someone else as human affirms our mutual attunement: our capacity for reading one another; our sharing of expressions, interests, and values; our exposure to each other’s needs—everything that in Jamison’s view comes to life when medical students voice empathy for their patients.

This power to grant being human isn’t foolproof. It can be misdirected or wrongfully withheld. As an example of the former, Cavell cites antiabortionists who claim the fetus is a human life; as an example of the latter, he cites a slave owner denying the humanity of his slaves. I am interested here not so much in defending these conclusions as in emphasizing how Cavell arrives at them. He argues for these points not by providing additional information about slaves or fetuses but by encouraging slave owners and antiabortionists to look inside themselves: to examine their own attitudes, actions, and motives, which Cavell thinks show they cannot mean what they say when they make their claims about slaves and fetuses. Again, the key move is to shift attention to the internal determination of empathy, or, more precisely, the empathetic projections we choose to extend or withhold.

In Cavell, as in many of the writers I have discussing, these empathetic projections turn on the power to grant someone else is in pain. As we have seen in the debates touched off by Reagan, this power to acknowledge or repudiate someone else’s pain can have political consequences and underpinnings. Here is a more recent example of what can be at stake. Darren Wilson, the police officer who killed Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, recalled that Brown looked “like a demon,” “like he was almost bulking up to run through the shots,” as if he were some horror-film monster impervious to pain, not a vulnerable person. As [End Page 454] Melissa Harris-Perry notes, Wilson thus bought into the “myth of the black brute incapable of pain himself bent on inflicting pain on others.” She concludes, “Americans have long had difficulty in understanding, acknowledging, and having empathy for the pain of black men.”36

Cavell alerts us to internal sources of that difficulty, to our personal responsibility for dehumanizing someone else. Offshoots of “dehumanizing” here might include distrusting, demonizing, and fearing; seeing another person as Wilson saw Brown, namely, as an irredeemable stranger, a brute force exploiting our vulnerability and smashing into our world, not a companion equally at home with us in it. Wilson’s actions and Reagan’s decisions had obvious political ramifications that set off debates still going on. Allen’s brilliant book Talking to Strangers, the final book I will examine here, shows how even lower-level, everyday decisions about others—not just police officers shooting citizens or courts deciding on disability claims—can have far-reaching political consequences, for better or for worse.37

Allen recalls the advice parents sometimes give children: don’t talk to strangers. This advice grows out of concern for the child’s safety and fear of strangers taking advantage of the child’s vulnerability. Allen is interested in how long-standing patterns of racial segregation at once implemented this advice (by keeping the races from talking to one another) and perpetuated its apparent wisdom (the distance between whites and African Americans reinforcing their mutual suspicion and fear of one another). By mandating the integration of schools, Brown v. Board of Education attacked these barriers, releasing a volatile mix of opportunity and anxiety that continues to simmer.

Allen rightly argues that racial, economic, political, gender, religious, and other differences are here to stay. They are not going to be melted away in some mythical oneness or give way to unanimity (an illusory goal she finds in Jürgen Habermas). The persistence of these differences means that antidemocratic forces will always have them available to legitimize the inevitably uneven distribution of wealth, privilege, sacrifice, and loss in their society. Winners and losers, in other words, will appear in any democratic society, American included. As Allen puts it, “The hard truth of democracy is that some citizens are always giving things up for others” (TS, pp. 28–29). But those sacrifices should never be from the same citizens over and over again, marked off by their race, gender, or other points of differentiation from the majority. Like Nussbaum, Allen emphasizes the great cost to democracy of interracial and other forms of distrust. It is crucial that “winners” and “losers” remain fluid [End Page 455] in a democratic society, always open to reconstitution, not hard-and-fast divisions allegedly justified by racial and other differences.

Never having a chance to succeed, never having one’s concessions appreciated or one’s patience and suffering acknowledged, generates feelings of disappointment, hopelessness, and anger, which, when locked in place long enough, prompt some citizens to withdraw their consent from society, to opt out of its future. As Allen concludes, “Within democracies, such congealed distrust indicates political failure. At its best, democracy is full of contention and fluid disagreement but free of settled patterns of mutual disdain. Democracy depends on trustful talk among strangers and, properly conducted, should dissolve any divisions that block it” (TS, p. xiii). Absent “trustful talk among strangers“ that constantly reshapes a society’s distribution of benefits and sacrifices, low-grade civil wars can result, tearing apart society and forestalling progress.

By labeling these civil wars “low grade,” Allen calls attention to the importance of everyday interactions among ordinary citizens or, what comes to the same thing, daily exchanges with strangers. For her, a critical middle ground exists between individuals at home, on their own or with close family members, and public democratic culture (for example, legislative debates, elections, and court deliberations). For better or for worse, what Allen calls “the deep rules” of a society take shape in everyday life, enabling or impeding democratic change:

Trust is not something that politicians alone can create. It grows only among citizens as they rub shoulders in daily life—in supermarkets, at movie theaters, on buses, at amusement parks, and in airports—and whenever they participate in maintaining an institution, whether a school, a church, or a business.

(TS, p. 48)

Earlier I mentioned attempts to control one’s interactions with others, for example, by clustering with like-minded people in internet groups, gated communities, and sealed-off offices. For Allen, everyday life exposes the limits of these withdrawals and highlights what they try to avoid: the stubborn reality of our implication in one another’s lives.

Allen aims at making our inevitable, ongoing interactions with others productive of trust—for her, a necessary precondition for political progress in a democracy. Following Aristotle, she wants our dealings with strangers to partake of the good will, mutual respect, and sharing of power that characterize our political friendships. She aims not at reproducing in every relationship the warm feelings we have for our [End Page 456] close friends. But she does want to expand the practices and habits of political friendship: specifically, how political friends feel safe in one another’s presence; are grateful for each other’s company; take turns exercising control; trust that their accommodations to one another over time will be equal and reciprocal, not one person always giving in. Political friendship finds a middle ground between acquiescence and domination, where “each friend moderates her own interests for the sake of preserving the friendship” (TS, p. 126)—moderates her own interests, that is to say, instead of suppressing or insisting on them. Although differences between political friends will always surface, potentially acrimonious battles give way to equitable resolutions, not once and for all but day in and day out, as conflicts flare up and die down.

In expanding our political friendships to include strangers, someone has to go first. For Allen, the willingness to make the first move has to come from within each of us, much as Cavell assigns to each of us responsibility for the empathic projections we extend or withhold. Allen’s guide to talking with strangers in ways that foment mutual trust is Aristotle’s Art of Rhetoric, for her a guide to making ourselves trustworthy and for helping us earn the confidence of the strangers we are now talking with, not fleeing. Among the many suggestions Allen takes from the Art of Rhetoric, empathy for one’s interlocutors is key, empathy defined as attentiveness to the grievances, disappointments, and losses they inevitably bring to the nascent relationship:

A speaker who seeks to inspire trust must be especially concerned with the pains, or losses [of others]. . . . Public negotiation even of apparent pains is crucial to democratic deliberation because it gives a community an opportunity to address inconsistencies in how different citizens think benefits, burdens, recognition, and agency should be distributed within the polity.

(TS, pp. 150–51)

To gain trust, we must expose our sense of things to the vantage point of others:

Political friendship (which finds its tools in the art of rhetoric) cultivates habits of imagination that generate politically transformative experiences out of ordinary interactions among strangers. Herein lies its power. To be a good rhetorician, one must see oneself as strangers do. The effort to do so entails understanding how one is implicated in strangers’ lives, and how calculi of goods and ills look different from other experiential positions.

(TS, p. 171) [End Page 457]

Again, we are not trying to be friends with everyone but “to be like friends” (p. 157), which means allowing others’ grievances, fears, and expressions of pain to matter to us.

The tools Allen finds in rhetoric (again following Aristotle) I find in literature, pictured now not only as a means of persuading other people—often the goal of the empathy defense—but as a means for releasing the good in us. The larger problem I have been posing in this essay, which I think is the problem posed by empathy defenses of literature, is how to withstand moral cynicism or, more exactly, how to respond to political discouragement and disappointment in contemporary American society “otherwise than by excuse or withdrawal.” I borrow this phrase from Cavell, who goes on to observe how, in the grip of political discouragement, we typically wish we could change the hearts and minds of the people we disagree with:

a philosopher will naturally think that the other has to be argued out of his position, which is apt to seem hopeless. But suppose the issue is not to win an argument . . . but to manifest for the other another way . . . a shift in direction, as slight as a degree of the compass, but down the road making all the difference in the world.38

I see the defenders of literature discussed in this essay wishing not to argue others out of their position but to move them, or, more exactly, have literature move them, through powerful stories, images, and words that reactivate their slumbering empathy and, with it, their tolerance, generosity, and love. The writers I have been discussing can cite some successes: in Elaine Scarry, men in the eighteenth century reading novels and extending rights to women; in Jonathan Lear, other people being awakened by Crow poets into concern for Native American rights; in Martha Nussbaum, leaders such as Roosevelt, Gandhi, and Lincoln tapping the resources of literature and the other arts; in Rebecca Solnit, humanitarian and environmental campaigns responding to stories of sweatshops workers, torture victims, and others.

But disappointments have to be reckoned with, too: George Saunders’s distress when his powerful anecdote pauses but does not deter the hatred of a Trump supporter; Ronald Reagan redirecting the acknowledgment of pain and government assistance away from people arguably most in need of it; Nadine Dolby worrying about the decline in empathy among her students. Avoiding empathy can seem as widespread as embracing it.

Tallying up these successes and setbacks is apt to make one feel hopeless or at least unsure, as we have seen several advocates of literature [End Page 458] sometimes feel. But, again to paraphrase Cavell, what if we saw our task as teachers of literature not only to change other people, say by overcoming an empathy deficit in them, but to manifest for others another way, indebted to our own engagement with literature: an enlarged perspective on our own limited ways of dealing with others, a heightened responsiveness on our part to their pain, fears, and dreams.39 We sometimes shy away from making the release of responsiveness in us a major outcome of reading and discussing literature because we cannot imagine any follow-up, any politically consequential result, that would ensue. Our uncertainty brings to mind how Mill sees himself appreciating literature and then engaging in the very different activity of achieving political change. But Allen reminds us that Mill skips a step. He lets stand a gap between reading alone at home and engaging in public political reform, a gap that Allen fills with everyday interactions with others in supermarkets, movie theaters, and other public places. Our experience with literature can regenerate these interactions by awakening empathy in us—with profound long-term political consequences.40

I earlier quoted Judith Butler urging us to “reenter the fray, open up the space between the language that has become obvious or self-evident and the enormous loss it has already accomplished and still portends” (HPL, p. 36). The heroine of Talking to Strangers does just that. She is a young African American girl, Elizabeth Eckford, who attempted to attend Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, on September 4, 1957, in the wake of the Brown decision. The fray she entered was a turbulent scene of hostile strangers screaming at her and denying her admission. The language enveloping her included another young woman angrily cursing at her as she left the scene. As Allen notes, Eckford’s composure, dignity, and quiet pain, captured in a memorable photograph, shamed the nation into beginning to create a new order that broke with the patterns of exclusion and domination Eckford courageously defied.

Everything about Eckford’s story is beyond the reach of most of us. I conclude with it because of the crucial part played by a black-and-white-checked dress Elizabeth herself made for the start of school. That dress mapped out the new postsegregationist community Eckford and her supporters were trying to achieve. As Allen observes, the dress was her flag for the project of reconstituting American society, the only form of speech available to her, but powerful in its potential impact on others and in fortifying her own resolve: [End Page 459]

The important thing . . . is that the symbolic required real power, real fashioning, on Elizabeth’s part. Her ability to subdue matter to form with her skirt no doubt helped secure her belief in the possibility of doing the same with her fellow citizens, and her conviction that eventually she and they would together reweave their social fabric. The dress may well have reassured her of her ability to help reform the future.

(TS, p. 23)

Again allowing for the enormous gap between Eckford’s experience and ours, I propose seeing literature as playing the same role in our lives. The very qualities that for Brooks, Nussbaum, and others make literature a possible public force can also reassure us of our ability to help shape the future. That reassurance is not wishful thinking but resides in our everyday interactions with others, where we have the opportunity to plant political friendships as thick as trees.

Michael Fischer
Trinity University


1. Judith Butler, “Ordinary, Incredulous,” The Humanities and Public Life, ed. Peter Brooks with Hilary Jewett (New York: Fordham University Press, 2014), p. 20; hereafter abbreviated HPL. Along similar lines, Jacques Berlinerblau describes the anxiety of humanists this way: “We humanists are at an inflection point, careering down the steep gradient like terrified campers on a mammoth water slide. We accelerate into the bottomless future, arms flailing, mouths wide open, eyes closed, gowns streaming behind us” (“Teach or Perish,” Chronicle of Higher Education [January 19, 2015]). For other worried comments about the future of the humanities, see Verlyn Klinkenborg, “The Decline and Fall of the English Major,” New York Times (June 22, 2013).

2. In “The Coup That Failed: How the Near-Sacking of a University President Exposed the Fault Lines of American Higher Education,” Hedgehog Review 15 (2014): 65–83, Talbot Brewer notes how he is torn between, on the one hand, vocational defenses of the humanities that could help their cause but aren’t heartfelt and, on the other, emotionally appealing but politically ineffective defenses “that, if taken seriously, would provide fresh grounds for attacking us” (71). These latter defenses would argue that instead of contributing to economic growth, the humanities question the imperatives of the marketplace.

3. See, for example, Pascual Restrepo, “Canadian Violence, From the Prairie to the N.H.L.,” New York Times (October 11, 2015): “As is true of society as a whole, violence is declining in professional hockey, as violent codes of honor give way to empathy and reason.”

4. Adam Bryant, “Is Empathy on Your Resume?” New York Times (July 12, 2015). [End Page 460]

5. See the center’s website, Ronan Krznaric concludes, “If you think you’re hearing the word ‘empathy’ everywhere, you’re right.” Krznaric attributes “the buzz about empathy” to new research showing that empathy is a habit we can cultivate. “6 Habits of Highly Empathetic People,”

6. See David Corner Kidd and Emanuele Castano, “Reading Literary Fiction Improves Theory of Mind,” Science 342 (2013): 377–80. In “Can Reading Make You Happier?” New Yorker (June 9, 2015), novelist Ceridwen Dovey cites this article and other psychological research to show that “people who read a lot of fiction tend to be better at empathizing with others.” Emile Bruneau, a cognitive neuroscientist, has also conducted psychology experiments showing that “short narratives about individuals from rival groups proved particularly effective at getting opponents to empathize with one another.” See Jeneen Interlandi, “The Brain’s Empathy Gap,” New York Times Magazine (March 19, 2015).

7. T. S. Eliot, preface to the 1928 edition of The Sacred Wood: Essays on Poetry and Criticism (London: Methuen, 1960), p. viii.

8. Frank Bures, “The Truth about Fiction: To Sharpen your Business Skills, Read More Novels,” Rotarian (March 2013). On the value of empathy in the workplace, see also Anita Woolley, Thomas W. Malone, and Christopher F. Chabris, “Why Some Teams Are Smarter Than Others,” New York Times (January 18, 2015). Along similar lines, Brian Chesky, the chief executive of Airbnb, says that his art school education made him a better executive by strengthening his capacity for empathy: “I think it helped me become a good C.E.O. because it really teaches you empathy. It’s like method acting: you have to put yourself in someone else’s shoes. It’s very easy for C.E.O.s to become transactional and focus on numbers and quantitative analysis, and that can create an emotional detachment.“ Adam Bryant, “Brian Chesky of Airbnb, on Scratching the Itch to Create,” New York Times (October 12, 2014).

9. Aristotle, Poetics, trans. S. H. Butcher, in Critical Theory since Plato, ed. Hazard Adams (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1992), p. 55.

10. Frank Bruni, “Just Plane Ugly,” New York Times (November 29, 2014). Along similar lines, Nicholas Kristof contends that “an empathy gap” is one of America’s most urgent problems. See “Where’s the Empathy?” New York Times (January 25, 2015).

11. Helen Small, The Value of the Humanities (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013); hereafter abbreviated VH.

12. Karl Marx, The German Ideology 1845–46, in Writings of the Young Marx on Philosophy and Society, ed. and trans. by Lloyd D. Easton and Kurt H. Guddat (Garden City: Doubleday Anchor, 1967), p. 425.

13. Peter Brooks, “Misunderstanding the Humanities,” Chronicle Review (December 15, 2014).

14. Percy Bysshe Shelley, A Defence of Poetry, in English Romantic Writers, ed. David Perkins (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1967), p. 1076.

15. Martha C. Nussbaum, Political Emotions: Why Love Matters for Justice (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2013); hereafter abbreviated PE. [End Page 461]

16. Two recent examples show how Nussbaum’s reasoning inform some current political efforts. Jerry McGill argues for the extension of the Americans with Disabilities Act by concluding, “My belief is that the people who are against affirmative action must lack an empathy gene. Oh, if they could only roll a mile in my wheelchair” (“Losing Mobility and Gaining a Work Life,” New York Times [February 1, 2015]). Molly Worthen argues that to make “the Affordable Care Act stick, and to make it work, means convincing more Americans that they are not just their brother’s keeper”—that they have obligations to Americans outside their family and church (“Onward Christian Health Care?” New York Times [February 1, 2015]).

17. In conceding the partiality of empathy, or its insufficiency as a guide to action, Nussbaum anticipates and moves beyond one point often made against empathy. See, for example, Paul Bloom, “Imagining the Lives of Others,” New York Times (June 5, 2015), and Jesse Prinz, “Against Empathy,” Southern Journal of Philosophy 49 (2011): 214–33.

18. The Humanities in American Life: Report of the Commission on the Humanities (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1980), hereafter abbreviated HAL.

19. Cass R. Sunstein, “The Polarization of Extremes,” Chronicle of Higher Education (December 14, 2007).

20. Frank Bruni, “Demanding More From College,” New York Times (September 7, 2014).

21. See, for example, Naomi S. Baron, “The Plague of tl;dr,” Chronicle of Higher Education (February 9, 2015): “We powerbrowse, we snippet read, we read on the prowl. We are encountering more individual texts but giving them shorter shrift.” The 2004 National Endowment for the Arts report Reading at Risk: A Survey of Literary Reading in America makes much of how electronic devices have shortened attention spans, multiplied opportunities for distraction, and otherwise impaired the sustained concentration that reading serious literature requires. A 2013 Harvard University report on the humanities (“The Teaching of the Arts and Humanities at Harvard College: Mapping the Future”) also warns that new technologies militate against the “deep immersion” demanded by literature and other art forms.

22. In “No Time to Think,” New York Times (July 27, 2014), Kate Murphy cites studies showing that “not giving yourself time to reflect impairs your ability to empathize with others.” Murphy cites Giancarlo Dimaggio, a psychiatrist with the Center for Metacognitive Interpersonal Therapy in Rome, who studies the correlation between self-reflection and empathy: “The more in touch with my own feelings and experiences, the richer and more accurate are my guesses of what passes through another person’s mind.”

23. Stephen Marche, “The Epidemic of Facelessness,” New York Times (February 14, 2015).

24. Richard Kearney, “Losing Our Touch,” New York Times (August 31, 2014).

25. Daniel Goleman, “Rich People Just Care Less,” New York Times (October 5, 2013), See also Daryl Cameron, Michael Inzlight, and William A. Cunningham, “Empathy Is Actually a Choice,” New York Times (July 10, 2015): “People with a higher sense of power exhibit less empathy because they have less incentive to interact with others.”

26. Simon Blackburn, Mirror, Mirror: The Uses and Abuses of Self-Love (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2014); hereafter abbreviated MM. [End Page 462]

27. Nadine Dolby, “The Decline of Empathy and the Future of Liberal Education,” Liberal Education 99 (Spring 2013): 6. Dolby cites Sherry Turkle’s 2011 book Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other: “Today’s youth crave the sterility and disconnection of the screen, shunning the messiness that comes with interacting with another human being. They are the very students sitting in our classrooms, obsessing over their Facebook profiles and ‘friends’ while slipping even further into a solipsistic and hermetically sealed world.” See also Ranjan Adiga, “Even an Earthquake Can’t Stir Student Empathy,” Chronicle of Higher Education (June 1, 2015). Adiga thinks that in his students “the absence of simple curiosities in each other makes empathy sound like an unattainable ideal, requiring a landslide shift in our moral compass,” leading him to conclude that “we must recognize the empathy vacuum in our classrooms and, as an extension, in society.”

28. Vinson Cunningham, “Obama and the Collapse of Our Common American Language,” New Yorker (July 13, 2016).

29. See George Saunders, Congratulations, By the Way: Some Thoughts on Kindness (New York: Random House, 2014). This book reprints a convocation address Saunders gave at Syracuse University.

30. George Saunders, “Who Are All These Trump Supporters?” New Yorker (July 11 and 18, 2016),

31. Stanley Cavell, “The Avoidance of Love: A Reading of King Lear,” Must We Mean What We Say? (New York: Scribner, 1969), p. 350.

32. Leslie Jamison, The Empathy Exams (Minneapolis: Graywolf Press, 2014); hereafter abbreviated EE.

33. Rebecca Solnit, The Faraway Nearby (New York: Penguin Books, 2013); hereafter abbreviated FN. On the moral impact of stories, see also Marshall Gregory, Shaped by Stories: The Ethical Power of Narratives (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2009).

34. Keith Wailoo, Pain: A Political History (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2014). Just as pain can be politicized, so can empathy, as shown by this comment from Paul Ryan’s speech at the 2016 Republican National Convention: “Real social progress is always a widening of the circle of concern and protection. It’s respect and empathy overtaking blindness and indifference. It’s understanding that by the true measure we are all neighbors and countrymen—called, each one of us, to know what is right and kind and just, and to go and do likewise.” (“House Speaker Paul Ryan Delivers Remarks at Republican National Convention,” C-SPAN, July 19, 2016, Nussbaum would agree, though she of course differs in what she considers “right and kind and just.”

35. Stanley Cavell, The Claim of Reason: Wittgenstein, Skepticism, Morality, and Tragedy (New York: Oxford University Press, 1979), p. 397.

36. Quoted in Jake Halpern, “The Cop,” New Yorker (August 10 and 17, 2015). Recent studies have documented African Americans and whites receiving unequal pain treatment, partly because of racial bias and stereotyping. See Abby Goodnough, “Finding Good Pain Treatment Is Hard. If You’re Not White, It’s Even Harder,” New York Times (August 9, 2016). [End Page 463]

37. Danielle S. Allen, Talking to Strangers: Anxieties of Citizenship since “Brown v. Board of Education” (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004); hereafter abbreviated TS.

38. Stanley Cavell, Conditions Handsome and Unhandsome: The Constitution of Emersonian Perfectionism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990), pp. 18, 31.

39. In Regarding the Pain of Others (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003), Susan Sontag notes, “To designate a hell is not, of course, to tell us anything about how to extract people from that hell, how to moderate hell’s flames. Still, it seems a good in itself to acknowledge, to have enlarged, one’s sense of how much suffering caused by human wickedness there is in the world we share with others” (p. 114). Realizing that we share the world with others is at stake in this discussion.

40. Paul Kahn’s contribution to The Humanities and Public Life comes closest to the view I am arguing for here. I accept his point that I am offering a “humanities’ reading of revolution, which does not wait for the extraordinary political event, but reminds us that the same free imagination is at work in every discursive exchange.” But, following Allen, I disagree with Kahn’s contention that “the humanities are not likely to change our political beliefs and practices” (HPL, p. 122). Our political beliefs and practices take shape in everyday interactions that literature can influence. [End Page 464]

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