Wien: The Case for Single-Vision Lenses

by Elise Wien | 5/17/17 2:25am

Ironically enough, I woke up this morning and pulled a Velma. You know that moment in every “Scooby Doo” episode when Velma loses her glasses and feels around for them on the ground? That was me.

I’m in a writing class that has Midnight Madness assignments: the professor gives us a topic, we spend 20 minutes doing a free-write on it and whatever we’ve written we blitz in at 12 a.m. Though I am thankful for the creative opportunity and the intimacy of the form (we write in the body of the email), I find myself falling asleep soon after the class. Last night it was 8 p.m. That’s why I woke up this morning half-clothed, phone: ?, glasses: ??, lacking vision and a point of reference.

A couple of weeks ago I fell asleep on the couch, shoes on.

The class is emotionally exhausting. We share personal stories, topics that we care deeply about. There is collective healing and there are almost always tears. Yesterday, a community organizer came to the class. She worked in Montana, where she brought together the ranchers, the Northern Cheyenne and the Amish community to fight (and win) against a coal mine and railway.

One of her tips for successful organizing: be kind. “People are more complicated than we think they are,” she says. She tells us to ask ourselves what we can learn from the other party, how we can come to understand their way of thinking, even a little bit. This isn’t particularly new advice but it bears repeating; it can be damn hard to follow.

An example: I once went to a meeting of the Coalition for Israel and Palestine where this student — who must’ve had a difficult time gauging the volume level of the room since he spoke considerably louder than everyone else in it — advocated a one-state solution, in which Palestinians could ostensibly live in both a Jewish and democratic state and could just deal with it. Just, like, assimilate or whatever. When another student asked him to explain himself further and the “pro-assimilation” student came up short for words, I asked him: “Is ‘genocide’ the word you’re looking for?” After the meeting I went up to him and apologized. I invited him to coffee, so we could sit down and talk it out. I was working on quieter modes of political debate. He said I should blitz him. I did. And did. Then did a third time and he didn’t respond. The genocide remark was alienating, probably.

Another example: Once I sat down with a member of the College Republicans after they reserved a corkboard in Collis to make a “Blue Lives Matter” display for National Police Week. We had a conversation in a Berry study room — quiet, measured, one-on-one. I understood some of his points, I tried to convey to him the problems of the Blue Lives Matter slogan and the corkboard and then we left. I don’t know that it was effective; I don’t know that it was more effective than student outrage — a completely valid form of expression, but one often portrayed as invalid, especially for students of color. I don’t know how effective the follow-up article was. I don’t know that facts change people’s minds (as I wrote in my column for the “Facts” edition of the Mirror, there’s plenty of evidence against it), and I don’t know that taking on another person’s point of view — empathizing with them — does either.

In an interview with online magazine Guernica, Paul Bloom, author of “Against Empathy,” says: “In some experiments I’ve done with a graduate student, Nick Stagnaro, we tell people about an atrocity — something that has hypothetically occurred in the Middle East with people being kidnapped, people being tortured — and then we ask, how should the American government respond? We give people a continuum of responses, from doing nothing, to some sort of embargo, to airstrikes, all the way to a full-blown ground invasion. We also give them a standard empathy test; you could take one online. It turns out just as we predict: the more empathic you are, the more you want to retaliate and hurt these people. And so when people want to inspire you to turn against some group of people, they’ll often use empathy. When Obama wanted to bomb Syria, he drew our attention to the victims of chemical warfare. And in both of the Iraq wars, politicians said, ‘Look at the horrific things that are happening.’ I’m not a pacifist. I think the suffering of innocent people can be a catalyst for moral action. But empathy puts too much weight on the scale in favor of war. Empathy can really lead to violence.”

He is careful with his distinctions. He continues: “By ‘empathy,’ some people mean everything that is good — compassion, kindness, warmth, love, being a mensch, changing the world — and I’m for all of those things. I’m not a monster.”

He means specifically putting yourself in someone’s shoes, feeling what they feel. We talked about this in class a bit, too: if we’re feeling for the animals, the people, the trees, we can drive ourselves to burnout, or the opposite, to paralysis.

Do I want to empathize with someone who has a different scale of measuring human worth? Someone who “measures” human worth at all?

The most moral good comes not from empathy, but from the cold detachment of cost-benefit analysis. It doesn’t feel the best, it doesn’t have a face, but it does the most good. In cases like these, “trusting the gut” might be an immoral decision. I might feel more deeply for a charity that promotes women’s education or feeding the homeless, but this, quantitatively speaking, might not do as much good as donating to charities bent on preventing malaria. (This is one of the recommendations effective altruists make: the most effective short-term one, I learned at a recent Effective Altruism meeting, is donating to raise awareness about E.A.; that this, quantitatively, does the most good.) It also probably feels the worst; in the direct flow of resources, I am helping no one. I suppose this column counts as publicity: LOOK INTO EFFECTIVE ALTRUISM; LOOK INTO GIVING WHAT WE CAN.

I digress. If I decide to give my money to a charity that makes me feel better because I can empathize with its beneficiaries, as opposed to one that has quantitative evidence proving that it does the most good, is this not an immoral decision?

Maybe I can try harder. Maybe if I go the nice, quiet, civil discourse route again, and again, and again, something will come of it. Though I do still hold it important to remain skeptical of mere “niceness,” to be wary of the person who won’t yell when there are plenty of things to be shouting about.

A quote sticks with me. While traveling last fall and discussing what happens when you describe a person as “nice,” my friend Eamon turned to the group and said, “Have you ever seen a group of ‘nice’ people try to decide where to get dinner?”

It’s infuriating.