RAMBLING THOUGHTS ON EMPATHY: TOWARDS A BETTER WORLD

There are many things that are disappointing about the 21st century. Surely we can do without the flying cars so often fantasized, and even prophesized, by SF writers. Yet, it is both tragic and absurd that religious wars and racism persist. A time will come, hopefully, when the need to kill people on behalf of a totally imaginary deity will cease and also when the need to classify people according to their skin colour will be regarded as a barbaric practice (seeing the hatred against certain racial and ethnic minorities, I always wonder how other human species would fare if they shared Earth with us). These thoughts are prompted not only by the aftermath of the horrific terrorist attacks of Paris two weeks ago but by more academic matters, such as reading Thomas Huxley with my Victorian students and attending a conference on post-colonialism at my own university.

Huxley is famous for being the grandfather of a far more famous Huxley, Aldous–who penned, of course, Brave New World–and for defending Charles Darwin’s theories in a famous debate in 1860 with Samuel Wilberforce; his staunch, early defence of evolution earned Huxley, as it is well known, the nickname of ‘Darwin’s bulldog’. The point that interests me more about Huxley, however, is that he has legated to us the very handy word ‘agnosticism’, which he invented about 1869. He conceived of believers as persons who had reached some kind of ‘gnosis’ or knowledge about divinity and so he came up with ‘agnostic’ to define those who, like himself, had not been enlightened by belief. In Huxley’s own words, “It simply means that a man shall not say he knows or believes that which he has no scientific grounds for professing to know or believe” (“Agnosticism: A Symposium”, 1884). I consider myself an atheist even though I do believe in the supernatural and would be happy to be offered scientific proof of its existence, which technically makes me an agnostic. My atheism is what makes so impatient with religious belief, which I find a very shallow way of coming to grips with the scary thought that we humans are alive in the universe and do not know why. Sorry, I philosophize.

In the text by Huxley which I shared with my students, “The Interpreters of Genesis and the Interpreters of Nature” (1885), he makes a totally reasonable point: religious fanaticism is the root of bad science, and therefore religion should leave science alone, as much as science should not interfere with personal belief. He also hints that knowing about how monotheism recycles paganism helps to understand the root of contemporary religion and to make informed decisions about what to believe. Reading this I suddenly thought, and so I told my students, that for all its bad press, paganism doesn’t seem to be less civilized than monotheism and is, on the whole, possibly a much better alternative if you must adore something. Greeks and Romans were pagan, remember?, and look how much they contributed to civilization… No, I am not going to call for a return to worshipping gods and goddesses but I wish the Isis I hear discussed all day long was the Egyptian goddess and not the Islamic State. We’d be better off.

The conference was the ‘International Conference Relations and Networks in Indian Ocean Writing’, organized with her habitual efficiency and savoir faire by my good friend and colleague Felicity Hand. There was a paper in this conference on the now forgotten terrorist outrage in 1982 against an India Airlines flight, in which 329 persons died when a bomb detonated off the Irish coast (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Air_India_Flight_182)–the largest casualty count before 9/11. The presenter called our attention to the specific Indian Canadian identity of many of the 268 Canadian citizens killed and she speculated (or rather defended) the idea that grief and mourning are culturally conditioned. Although I see her point, and I agree with the need to specify how this particular community was hit by the attack, apparently perpetrated by the Sikh terrorist group Babbar Khalsa, it deeply worries me that grief is not perceived as something universal for I believe that empathy is undermined this way. And we need it so much…

Terrorism connects with my musings on Huxley because it has been mostly caused in the 20th century and is being still caused in the 21st century by religious fanatics (IRA and ETA also count as fanatics, but of a political persuasion). Terrorism also connects with ethnicity and race because as you can see who is killed and how they’re mourned matters very much, whether they are Indian Canadians or French. In the Paris attacks, the novelty is that what is eliciting most anxiety is not the identity of the victims–a cross section of today’s multi-ethnic France plus her visitors–but that of the also French (and Belgian it seems) terrorists. They invoke Allah to justify their crimes but you don’t need a PhD in sociology to understand that the barriers that north-African, Arab migrants find in France regarding upward social mobility are the breeding ground for their atrocious way to seek empowerment. Daesh, Isis or whatever you want to call it, offers the dispossessed literally a social network to meet and vent their anger.

Let me go back to empathy. It seems to me that this should be the main project of post-colonialism as an academic field, I mean building empathy. My own environment is 95% white, with still very few students of non-white backgrounds, and it is then for me exceptional to meet people of so many different ethnic and racial backgrounds. My colleagues Felicity Hand and Esther Pujolràs have been working lately on ‘life writing’ and I attended at least two presentations at the conference that connect with this idea of narrating your life as a way to make sense of your own positioning and, thus, work towards increasing empathy with others. In one presentation, Neville Choonoo, a scholar born to Indian and Tamil parents in South Africa and now living in the USA, explained to us, with a great deal of emotion, how it feels to be him after the crises he has endured connected with the racial issues in his background. Another scholar, Flora Veit-Wild, a white German woman whose work has had a great impact on the academic and literary world of Zimbabwe, discussed, or rather narrated, the links with India of her family: two uncles and her grandparents, German Jews who had to flee there when Hitler came to power.

I must confess that I wondered whether an academic gathering is the right place for this kind of presentation, as we’re supposed to be able to theorize even our own life. Yet, on second thoughts if even academics feel the need to cross oceans to narrate how our lives are conditioned, then something is going on–perhaps a certain weariness with the limits of the (impersonal) academic discourse, to begin with. I’m wondering, going back to the idea of ‘life writing’ whether the young French terrorists would have used words rather than guns to explain themselves if given the chance to be heard. Violence, it seems to me, is after all the opposite of discourse, hence discourse might do away with violence. But I daydream of course.

Let me finish this rambling post written on a sluggish Sunday afternoon by attempting to link the dots: (monotheistic) religion and racism are two of the most formidable weapons to prevent empathy from connecting human beings among themselves; do away with either or both and a great deal of the suffering in the world will disappear. I have no patience, as I say, with believers not only because, as I said, I’m an atheist but also because they insist on inflicting organized, hierarchical churches on the rest of us–can you not believe on your own if you absolutely must?? Racism scares me on two counts: one, because it seems to be an almost universal principle of human life; two, because it is based on plain absurdity. Imagine a world in which people were classed and discriminated depending on their foot size and you get the idea…

If only we could explain who we are to ourselves to each other…

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