I’ve been enjoying the psychologist Paul Bloom’s latest whirl of insight, “Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion.”

He argues that empathy causes much more harm in the world than good.

Empathy has a spotlight quality that amplifies the humanity of those we already like. This wouldn’t be so bad if it didn’t also dim the focus on everyone else.

A reliance on empathy frequently leads to nonsensical societal reactions. Bloom cites the Newton, CT shooting that saw the murder of 26 people, 20 of them children. The country was understandably horrified by the massacre, and responded empathically by donating thousands and thousands of dollars to the already affluent community.

As Bloom points out, this generosity is reactionary and short-sighted. More school children died due to gun violence in Chicago in 2012 than at Sandy Hook, but because of our reliance on empathy, no one thinks about that fact — Bloom didn’t know about it until he did the research for this book.

“Empathy distorts our moral judgments in pretty much the same way that prejudice does,” Bloom writes.

There are other mental tools out there that can make our altruistic tendencies effective in the long-run. To make our kindness real and sustainable, Bloom argues we have to rely on mental tools other than empathy — compassion and reason, for starters.

Donating to a cause that reduces gun violence in Chicago isn’t as sensational as donating to Sandy Hook, but the donation, over time, stands to save more lives than a donation to an already affluent neighborhood.



I once had a job that allowed me to take home as many newly published hardcovers as I wanted. This company received 30 new books a day, ranging from the latest Real Housewife cookbook to Milan Kundera’s soon-to-be published novella.

The books no editors claimed were placed on four shelves dubbed “the Strand shelf.” Books that weren’t claimed would be sold to The Strand. Who received the modest profit was never revealed to me.

I saw a business opportunity: I could sell all of these books on Amazon. Using the company’s automated postage systems and envelopes, I stood to gain a sizeable profit.

So, with great glee, I sold these books as “Mr.Goodbar” (I happened to be eating a Goodbar when I made the account).


I sold over 250 books, and quickly noticed a trend. People liked to buy books about themselves.

White people in New Mexico and Ohio bought “Holy Ghost Girl” and “Miracles from Heaven.” Black people gravitated toward “Ordinary Light” and “The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl.” Jewish people sought out “After Abel and Other Stories” and “The Fifty Year Silence.” White guys liked “Dear Mister Essay Writer Guy” and “Imperium: A Fiction of the South Seas” and “Death on Diamond Mountain: A True Story of Obsession, Madness, and the Path to Enlightenment.”

A “Trevor Jones, IV” bought “My Struggle: Book Four.”

Of course, there were some surprises. Women bought books about gay guys. WASPY last names bought “The Fisherman” by Chigozie Obioma. A Patrick bought Heidi Juivatis’s “The Folded Clock: A Diary.” (This is balanced out by a Ryan buying “I Am Sorry to Think I have Raised a Timid Son” by Kent Russell)

Guimaraes bought from Manguel. An Irish man from Staten Island bought “Small Mercies” by Eddie Joyce, a novel about Staten Island. Older white women loved “The Wild Oats Projects: One Woman’s Midlife Quest for Passion at Any Cost.”

I feel cheap for flattening people like this. This purchase was just one of many. Ryan might also be into Isabel Allende and Amitav Ghosh and I’d be none the wiser.

I also feel dirty almost for noticing similarities between the names we’re given and the books we tend to buy. It’s like telling someone they’re dragging toilet paper on their show, or have spinach in their teeth. It’s nearly rude to point out this all too human impulse to buy what we know, what we want to read about, what we can relate to.

But I insist on pointing to the spinach in our teeth because I think there’s a simple way to pluck it out. Read beyond oneself. But the great question to me is how do we maintain the enjoyment of reading about someone that impacts our lives in no way? How can we become interested in mine workers in Argentina, or a mega slum in India?

In part, I think the answer lies in curating compassion rather than empathy.


There’s nothing wrong with reading about one’s clan first. In fact that’s often the first step toward loving literature–realizing it can reflect your own experience. Seeing an admirable gay character in The Perks of Being a Wallflower ramped up my curiosity about books in general. For people with politicized identities, reading about yourself first and realizing your place in the world is essential. I agree with Malcolm X (by way of Denzel Washington. To a white hippie who beeschees him to tell her how she can help, he says thank you but for now stay away from us. Don’t try to be good. We have to work to understand ourselves and love ourselves before we go working with people of disparate experiences. Thanks, but no thanks).

You read about yourself and your history first, but after adolescence, the goal is to keep expanding. Still keep questioning your values and expanding your ability to recognize the complexities of the world, which is to understand other cultures, other histories.

I always remind myself of this quote from Edith Wharton’s memoir, A Backward Glance: “Habit is necessary; it is the habit of having habits, of turning a trail into a rut, that must be incessantly fought against if one is to remain alive.”

One has to expand past the literature of one’s clan to remain alive. Yet one has to be firmly rooted in one’s history to begin living. “Know from when you came,” James Baldwin wrote. “If you know from whence you claim, there are absolutely no limitations to where you can go.”

One has to have a root in one’s own literature. One has to see one reflected in literature to realize its connection to you. And one has to feel it in the blood and carry that culture knowledge when meeting other cultures. With a firm base in one’s history, you can input ideas to the charming people you meet who may not quite understand your path. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, for instance, is an immensely gifted writer, but her work is very much heteronormative. If I didn’t have a firm sense of gay literature, I’d probably be blind to that.


Bloom did make me question the ability of the novel to encourage compassion.

Referencing the Sandy Hook shootings superimposing itself on the murders in Chicago, Bloom writes, “We’re constituted so that novel and unusual events catch our attention and trigger our emotional responses.” Novels, which are all about imagining the particular, or memoirs, which reach the universal through a single life–are these genres actually fortifying our blindspots to other people?

Novels and memoirs encourage empathy with a select group of people. It trains us to be moved by Rebecca Smith (adorable 8 year-old moved to near death with bad vaccine) and Willie Horton (convicted murderer who on furlough raped a woman). Both of these spotlight stories trigger our empathy for the victim, but they don’t make us consider the statistical abstraction that benefit from vaccination programs and furlough programs (Statistically, recidivism dropped in Massachusetts after the furlough program. Our empathy can’t react to the non-victims who were spared through routine vaccinations and smarter prison policies).

Bloom argues we need more intelligence and self-control–not necessarily more empathy, which is amoral. Does literature support intelligence and self-control? Yes — good literature challenges you and expands you.

E.M Forster: “What is wonderful about great literature is that it transforms the man who reads towards the condition of the man who wrote.” And I believe literature flexes our self-control too, as anyone who’s gotten through a Steinbeck or Hugo novel can attest. Impulsive people are notorious for being unable to read an entire book.

Yet fiction, like empathy, is not necessarily moral. As Joshua Landy noted, “For every Uncle Tom’s Cabin there is a Birth of a Nation. For Every Bleak House there is an Atlas Shrugged. For every Color Purple there is a Turner Diaries, that white supremacist novel Timothy McVeigh left in his truck on the way to bombing the Oklahoma building.’


A skilled rhetorician can make simple values–like torture is bad and unreliable. Bloom gives one example with Dick Cheney in 2014, after torture reports were published and he was asked to defend the US’s record with torture. When asked to define torture, he said “An American citizen on a cell phone making a last call to his four young daughters shortly before he burns to death in the upper levels of the Trade Center in New York City on 9/11.” Cheney pivots from the issue of torture by talking of the suffering of a relatable, single individual.

Political performance artists like Ann Coulter are great at doing this, as was Trump on his campaign trail, talking about Kathryn Steinle (who he referred simply as ‘Kate’) who was murdered in a random shooting by Juan Lopez-Sanchez, an illegal immigrant five times deported. These striking, singular, illustrative examples are used by both politicians to achieve political ends. They aim to invalidate the thousands of other people their policies would affect.

When stories demonstrate the grievances of someone, they can move us to action. This is especially the case when we can empathize with the individual. We want revenge when we empathize with someone, and easily lose our perspective of other people or long-term consequences.

Bloom showcased one experiment by Anneke Buffone and Michael Poulin involving hot sauce. They were told the study was about pain on performance quality, and to keep things random, they would choose how much hot sauce a competitor received.

The prize for winning this math competition was $20. Some participants read an essay that ended with “I’ve never been this low on funds, but it doesn’t really bother me” and some received an essay that ended with “I’ve never been this low on funds and it really scares me.”

The people who read the essay that indicated distress ended up giving more hot sauce to the nameless competitor. They felt empathy with the distressed essay writer, and wanted to step in and do something for her — even though the competitor may have needed help even more.

Fiction, of course, is not a monolith. There are thousands of presses out there, some publishing conservative or liberal or simply humanistic thought. Still, I was struck by Bloom’s comment — “Empathy is always on the side of the censor.”

The author chooses what’s important, what can be left out. And unless they’re guided by reason, very often their story is all about people they know, people they care about. (In The Art of Memoir, Mary Karr notes she only writes about people she loves–she doesn’t want to spend much time around those she dislikes). And when we select books, it’s always about whether or not we can care about the person. (Should there be more essays on why we chose to buy some books but not others?).


Some people contend that literature reaches the status of art when someone with no sociopolitical similarity with the author can be moved by that subject’s experience. Azar Nafisi: “Go Tell It On The Mountain is not confirmed when a gay black American man reads and likes it, but when a young girl from Tehran who is to be married soon reads and falls in love with it.”

It struck me that great literature builds compassion. It does not rely on empathy to be picked up, and for that reason many masterpieces are initially met with a shoulder shrugs (e.g. Moby Dick, Leaves of Grass, Emily Dickinson, Kurt Vonnegut, A Confederacy of Dunces).


Celebrity memoirs, generic fiction, essays that are shelved with a marketable audience in mind–these rely on empathy. One selects these books from the bookstore because one already likes the author. Literature offers compassion and builds compassion. Works that rely on empathy only continue that empathy; they don’t necessarily expand or challenge one morally or intellectually.

Bloom writes that empathy is good for building intimate relationships. When we look for a partner, the most valued skill is kindness, by which many people mean empathy, by which they mean they want someone who can look at them and make them feel special.

The writer-reader relationship is 1 to 1. Books have the enormous potential to make someone feel special It’s not all that uncommon to hear someone say they feel as if a book was written just for them. The intimacy that literature provides is just one of its many pleasures. But that 1 to 1 relationship is amoral: it can make one feel closer to Ayn Rand or E.M Forster.

What are the limits to our compassion? In wondering about the topography of humankind, Bloom quotes Claude Levi-Strauss: “Humankind ceases at the border of the tribe, of the linguistic group, even sometimes of the village.” Great atrocities, as well as the more muted, standard and daily atrocities, occur because we are limited to seeing the full reality of those greatly different from us. Europeans once had “African Zoos” because they viewed these humans as “earthy monkeys.” When guided by empathy, we may see outside groups as lacking the capacity for regret and envy, agency and self-determination. We may think that those we can’t empathize with do not have a rich emotional life.

Having a rich emotional life — it struck me while reading this phrase that this is exactly what great literature does: it expands our ideas of another’s life. And with this knowledge, we can’t act the same, morally or civically.


Literature builds compassion toward the lives of others. I grew up in an environment that never questioned white supremacy. I may have voted for Trump if I never read “Their Eyes Were Watching God” or “Interpreter of Maladies” as a sophomore in high school.

I’d probably enjoy Ann Coulter’s chapter in “Audios, America” titled “Lost a friend to drugs? Thank a Mexican”–if I never read Sandra Cisneros or Richard Rodriguez.

I’d be all about drilling ANWR and raiding Pebble Mine if I never encountered Joy Harjo, Sherman Alexie, Louise Erdrich, or “Blonde Indian” by Ernestine Haines.


Reading “Flight” circa 2008

I’d fall for ‘reverse discrimination’ if I never read James Baldwin or “The Autobiography of Malcolm X.”

I’d entertain holocaust de-magnifiers if I never read “Maus” or Anne Michaels’s “Fugitive Pieces,” or Anne Frank.

How can you think of ‘the Middle East’ as a monolith after “The Kite Runner” or “Persepolis” or “Guapa” by Saleem Haddad?

How can you not wonder about the interior life of someone with a funny accent after Amy Tan’s “The Bonesetter’s Daughter” or a stolid security guard after “The Elegance of the Hedgehog?”

I wouldn’t support refugees and immigrants as I do without Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s short story, “Checking Out.”

Perhaps I’d still unthinkingly say “that’s so gay” if it weren’t for Ryan Van Meter’s “Notes on ‘Faggot’” and the works of Paul Monette.

Political performance artists like Trump and Coulter want to see the world two dimensionally. It’s easier for them to have a firm opinion when they have less information. Literature insists on the more complicated truth. The lives of others are always more complicated than a superficial display of empathy. Literature requires (and builds) a diffuse compassion. As this doesn’t fit the political aims of Coulter and Trump, it makes perfect sense that they should do their best to curb its 3D-giving insistence by curtailing efforts like the NEA.

Living in this changing world is difficult, and we’d be a mess without our literature. Those who don’t recognize the need for literature — for compassion — will remain dictated by the short-sighted and unfair reflexive known as empathy. 



Why do people on Amazon love to buy books about themselves?

They are motivated by empathy more than compassion.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s