Empathy: A Monstrous Call?

by | Sep 12, 2017 | IBBYLink Spring 2017

‘I think I’ve worked you out, O’Malley,’ Harry finally said. ‘I think I know what it is you’re asking for.’ – Patrick Ness, A Monster Calls

This week I went to the film adaptation of the novel A Monster Calls. Commissioned from an idea by another Carnegie Medal winning author Siobhan Dowd, Patrick Ness made something very wonderful with his celebrated book about the power of stories, the limits of stories, and the need for truth telling in fiction and in real life. Despite being familiar with the book, and despite its flaws as an adaptation, like evidently many in the audience in the cinema that day, I wept my way through the second half, glad of the dark. I knew quite well what was to come and yet, still, I was overcome with emotion. Such is the power of good storytelling that digitally delivered strangers (actors pretending to feel things, using words made up by another) were affecting me, and others, beyond reason.

Empathy is described as the capacity to both understand a person as though from their point of view (cognitive) and to experience their feelings as though they were our own (emotional). It is also referred to as the capacity to both see life through another’s eyes and to walk in someone else’s shoes. Using the devices of cinema, A Monster Calls had tricked me into an experience of emotional and cognitive disclosure: I felt bonded with the hopeful mother and with the distressed child, and with the apparently unfeeling grandmother and the regretful father. Having, myself, both loved well and failed at loving, and lost well and failed at living well with loss, I felt their displays of grief very keenly. And, as a result of both cognitively understanding the reasons for Connor’s distress, and feeling his emotional pain ‘as though it were my own’, I got the full, niceness-inducing, hormonally supported, bonding hit that can, or so the argument goes, make the world a better place by dissolving the boundaries between people.

In terms of affect, it matters little that Connor is not a real person with whom there are no dissolvable boundaries. Connor is made up. He is a character in fiction. But Connor’s existence as a person of the imagination is no barrier to creating empathy. Indeed, as the conceit of the monster’s confounding stories-within-a-story illustrates, despite the complexity of good fiction, stories that confirm our cultural expectations of justice and retribution can be much easier to empathise with than the messy ambiguity of real life. Reading classic fiction is reported to make us nicer by increasing our empathy. Adverts, most notably the Christmas heavyweights that now make mainstream news and are watched on-demand through a variety of channels, have peddled in empathy and the enhanced ‘disgust’ response fed by oxytocin (the bonding hormone), from the get go. Given the viewing figures for this empathy-inducing material we should, by all accounts, be swimming in oxytocin and bonded to pretty much everyone. And yet, somehow that doesn’t seem to be how it works. I think A Monster Calls may hold some of the reasons why, and why empathy is actually a rather problematic attribute and a flawed driver for inclusive and generous socio-political change.

Empathy, and its powerful but narrow focus on those we are drawn to bond with, supports feelings of community
The idea that empathy is a central concern of the arts is embedded in Arts Council England’s recent publication on the value of arts and culture to people and society. The value proposition rests on the idea that the arts allow for sustained contemplation of self and others, and that this sustained consideration of what it is to be human can be the driver for transformational personal and collective change. This is an ambition worthy of public funding, but what if those who are portrayed in art and culture only represent a small cross-section of the human experience? What if only some lives and experiences are offered up for empathetic bonding? Work by Frans de Waal, with animals, on emotional contagion, that lies behind much of the science of empathy and related theories of mind should alert us to the dangers inherent in the extreme bias of empathy: the resultant bonding is highly selective. For there to be those with whom we bond there must be those who fall outside. There must be otherness. Empathy, and its powerful but narrow focus on those we are drawn to bond with, supports feelings of community. But this has a dark side: Waal cautions that strong community feeling can exclude those we decide are other and can quickly become expressed as negative prejudice, tribalism and racism.

It would be very hard to argue that either historical or contemporary fiction illuminates the full range of humans or the full range of human experience. Children’s literature, for example, has been criticised, perhaps more than most, for a narrow focus on white, western characters and their troubles. This is understood to be, in part, an outcome of selective publishing and that, based on factors such as colour, class, culture, sexuality, physical capacity and language, many voices are (still) unheard. The lack of diversity in children’s books, for example, means that the opportunities to see life through another’s eyes and walk in someone else’s shoes is necessarily limited by the range of eyes and shoes on offer. While the writer is not expected to write only from their own direct experience and there is an enduring conceit that the writer has a special way of listening to the world that enables them to escape the trap of their own frame, this is contested. Marina Warner in conversation at Newcastle University in 2016 was pragmatic about the limits of the power of fiction, arguing that the writer, and therefore the story, cannot escape their own frame. Despite our best intentions, we don’t know what we don’t know.

There are examples of fiction delivering significant changes in the real world. A recent storyline about coercive control in the BBC radio programme The Archers, generated thousands of pounds in donations to a number of domestic abuse charities. But it is important to acknowledge that this may have happened because the donors not only felt emotional empathy for the character but because the programme makers made clear that the fictional story was based on a real-life case. Listeners were able to invest both emotionally and cognitively in this story because, having interrogated it for ‘facts’ – and The Archers’ audience give this a very spirited interrogation – they found it to be authentic.

Perhaps, as Jane Davis, director of the Reader Organisation, argued on BBC Radio 4’s One to One series on empathy with ex-Arts Council director Peter Bazelgette, the best that fiction can do is to bring our own feelings to our attention and so help us to understand that we are complex in our responses but able to manage our feelings around ambivalence. Davis offers the idea that the empathy generated by fiction that is of most value, may be our empathy for ourselves.

Given the viewing figures for this empathy-inducing material we should, by all accounts, be swimming in oxytocin and bonded to pretty much everyone.
Alongside its selectiveness, empathy has another counter for the better-world argument: being very empathetic does not, of itself, mean that you are very nice. To illustrate this, I return to the quote from A Monster Calls that heads this article. For anyone not familiar with the story, Harry is a schoolyard bully who is targeting the central character, Connor. Connor’s mother is dying but he is insisting to anyone who asks that he is fine. Harry knows this is not true and is using an extraordinary amount of his time and thinking to working Connor out. Harry is not nice. But Harry is very empathetic. Like sadists everywhere, he is trying to understand exactly how Connor is thinking and feeling in order to make his torture of the boy more effective. I suggest that Harry is, aside from the otherworldly monster, the most effectively empathetic character in the story. Harry gives Connor the sort of deep reflective contemplation that allows him to say with confidence and, as we come to realise, accuracy, ‘I think I’ve worked you out, O’Malley’. Indeed, Harry’s subsequent strategy of no longer seeing Connor, is the trigger for Connor to unleash a sustained and violent attack on Harry, leaving him in hospital. The difference in empathetic capacity between the child Harry and the concerned adults surrounding Connor is illuminated by the head teacher’s refusal to punish Connor for his violent outburst. The sadistic Harry has seen what Connor believes he needs and the sympathetic adult has not. Sadism, like state-sponsored torture, is not confined to fiction.

In his provocative book Against Empathy, Paul Bloom argues that empathetic arousal is not the only force for kindness and that because of its narrowness and bias, and its insensitivity to numerical difference, empathy is a flawed basis for making decisions and a poor guide to social policy. He argues that certain activities must override empathy. For example, in order to be effective, medicine and the criminal justice system must ‘draw on a reasoned, even counter-empathetic, analysis of moral obligation and likely consequences.’

Bloom posits that ‘empathy is always perched precariously between gift and invasion’, and there is evidence for the warping impact of this dynamic in the competitive ‘enterprise’ funding of social care in the third sector. I have worked with organisations that are concerned with urgent need. Some of these organisations are focused on displaced people, such as migrants, and some on military veterans – themselves also conceptually displaced. These are people in pain and in great need. I find it distressing in the extreme to see these groups and their life stories pitted against each other for the provision of care. Even when resources are short, it is still unacceptable that the beauty-pageant approach demands a tally of empathy hits as currency. For me, and others working with the third sector, this is an example of relying on empathy to inform personal and collective decision making and social policy, and it is not good enough.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was published in a picture-book form by my publisher, Frances Lincoln, in association with Amnesty International. It is a lovely book and I am proud to have been awarded it as part of my prize for the Diverse Voices Children’s Book Award. The text reads: ‘We are all born free and equal. We all have our own thoughts and ideas. We should all be treated in the same way. These rights belong to everybody, whatever our differences.’ As the text of the declaration makes very clear, these are rights. There is no requirement for these rights to be earned by engendering the requisite empathy to belong to, and be bonded with, groups with power. The declaration is unambiguous: society should be compassionate, just and fair because these are human rights and obligations, not because we feel warm and fuzzy and bonded. While acknowledging that empathy plays an important role in shaping responses, Bloom concludes that ‘being a good person is more likely to be related to distanced feelings of compassion and kindness, along with intelligence, self-control, and a sense of justice’.

And this brings me back to the versions of A Monster Calls and what they reveal about acceptable, relatable narratives – those that might more easily generate empathy – and, as a result, revealing what I consider to be its flaws as an adaptation. In the book, the monster has power beyond the boy’s imagination: it leaves traces of itself in the world, such as leaves and berries, that Connor must tidy up and hide. The book monster is personal to Connor, but it is real. It has compassion for Connor and great power but it does not cure Connor’s mother. The monster is ‘set walking’ to help Connor cope after his mother dies. The stories the monster tells are (it says) about life not being how you may think it should be or would like it to be. I suggest that the film tells a different story. Marketed to a family audience, it tells of an imaginative child provided with all the material – drawings, stories, wise grandfather and creative capacity – to imagine a monster. So the film monster who helps Connor is not coming to bring knowledge from outside the boy’s existing experience. The monster is Connor. Through his mother’s sketchbooks we see that in-extremis, Connor calls forth a version of what he already knows, including all the difficult stories-within-stories. This is, I suggest, reassuring for an adult audience who do not believe in magic or real monsters. It is reassuring because it tells a story that yes life is unfair and sad and unkind but actually it is just as it should be: the child, surrounded by thoughtful, supportive adults should and will be able to recover from great grief by accessing their own creative capacities and the embedded gifts of distributed good (enough) parenting. This is a story congruent with psychoanalytic theory. The story it tells is familiar and it is not disturbing. We can empathise with Connor and weep in safety because he is not really disrupting an adult sense of how things (probably) are and how they (probably) should be. Connor is looked after well enough and will be alright in the end, and he didn’t need any real magic to do it. This is the problem with asking empathy to do too much of the heavy lifting in the world. Empathy is a great and wonderful tool but like all tools its role is limited. Empathy is constrained by our capacity to hear the people and their stories that really disturb us and so it is constrained in the nature and variety of the problems we want, and need, to address.

Helen Limon is a writer, teacher and researcher at Newcastle University. Her research is concerned with the transformative capacities of life-stories and the politics of service design. She currently works with those experiencing (forced) displacement such as women military veterans and migrants. She recently joined the IBBY Italy camp on the island of Lampedusa and used the Silent Book Collection located at the library. Her first novel for children, Om Shanti Babe, won the 2011 Frances Lincoln Diverse Voices Award. Helen is currently working on her second book, Start a Hare, with the illustrator Anne Wilson.