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The holocaust of sex, entitled: The Right to Sex by Amin Srinivasan (Reviewed)


The Short Review: The holocaust of sex

[Amin Srinivasan, The Right to Sex: Feminism in the Twenty-First Century, New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2021, 277 pp.]

This is an important book – and a difficult one. Provocative and thought-provoking, one of its many strong points is that it invites further conversation, debate, and productive agreement – and disagreement – about important, difficult topics in what is often referred to as “sexual politics.”

It is also a hard book to review, because it requires that the reviewer get in touch with [in this case] his own thoughts, feelings, and would-be positions on difficult issues in sexual politics, feminism, men behaving badly, gun violence, involuntary celibacy [key term], mental health, community well-being, social justice, incarceration, sex work, and the possibility of life, liberty, and the pursuit of property – I mean, happiness. 

Professor Srinivasan’s [Chichele Professor of Social and Political Theory at All Souls College, Oxford University]] book is not particularly confessional and the author remains fairly anonymous personally throughout. That is most proper in a scholarly collection – most people have uneventful lives that do not make a good memoir. However, a lot of things fell into place for me about her thought and writing when she acknowledged “offering a utopian feminist response to our current situation” (p. 121). Take a note – herein lie the strengths and limitations of utopian thinking – and this book. 

While the author does not get personal, the reviewer must do so – or he risks being just another annoying crank (not to say that could not also occur). So get ready. There I was a seventeen-year-old kid, graduating from an all-boys college prep about to go to the University of Chicago. The really tasteless joke about it was that the squirrels on the quads were more aggressive than the boys but less hairy. Ouch! I was not so much celibate as, in plain English, “hard up.”  I note as extenuating circumstance the lack of opportunity and the inhibition due to hell fire and damnation sermons from black-robed clerics about the spiritual dangers of masturbation. I started on the process of getting a lot of therapy and, mostly, it worked. 

As part of my enthusiastic efforts to understand what girls were and really wanted – little did I realize this was an ontological inquiry – I saw this book at the Green Door Bookstore, The Second Sex. It had an out of focus picture of an attractive woman on the cover, naked, so I bought it. It turned out that most of the young women I was trying to date were not interested in discussing existential philosophy, which was one of the strong points of Simone de Beauvoir’s monumental study. 

How was I supposed to know? Beauvoir’s presentation seemed like common sense to me – this is how things worked or ought to work. Human beings are pour soi, not en soi, conscious beings, not unfeeling things. Biology is not destiny. Woman is not a mere womb; man is not mere testosterone [I am adding the latter]. Human beings get socialized – oftentimes badly – and biological sex gets distorted into freedom limiting gender roles. Mutually consenting partners have interpersonal relationships, including sexual ones. Get a job. Get economic freedom. Set boundaries – consent or withhold it. Be spontaneous – be free! Seemed like a good idea to me. 

Now bring that to the battlefield called dating. “I just want to be your friend and have a meaningful conversation with you about existentialism – naked in bed.” Hmmm. In that regard, my self-study did not work very well. Fortunately, many women are empathic and appreciate men of integrity, even if they are socially awkward, men who want to relate to them as a whole person, including a sexual one. 

Maybe I am kidding myself. I looked at my own father’s bad behavior and committed that things would be different in my own life; and fortunately, I had the education and the resources to make it come out that way. It did not work perfectly but it worked well enough. (See also the above about the therapy process.) In a world in which the vast majority of men of integrity support equal wages and equal opportunity and sharing domestic chores and childcare, we are all feminists now. 

After reading Amia Srinivasan, I now know that my conventional feminism is significantly different than radical feminism, which, in turn, is different than Marxist feminism is different than psychoanalytic feminism is different than skeptical feminism is different than utopian feminism and so on. Who would have thought? The devil – and the politics – is in the detail. 

Fast forward to November 2021. I hear Amia Srinivasan interviewed on Ezra Klein’s New York Times podcast introducing this (to me) new distinction involuntary celibate (“incel”). Now I definitely need to get out more, but this was the first time I encountered it. Cherish the moment when one can bring a “beginner’s mind” to the conversation. 

An “involuntary celibate” is defined by Srinivasan as “a certain kind of sexless man: the kind who is convinced he is owed sex, and is enraged by the women who deprive him of it” (p. 73). The most famous incel was Elliot Roger, who perpetrated a mass casualty event, published a 107,000 word incel rant (“manifesto”) “My Twisted World” (p. 74), and took his own life.

Srinivasan draws together all the young men shooters who reference this celebrity celibate (incel) killer, Elliot Rodger (p. 111). Srinivasan reports that in 2017, the online discussion forum Reddit took down its 40K member incel support group for glorifying and inciting violence. Tough reading.

Srinivasan cites case-after-case of individuals, lonely young men, who talked themselves into that twisted point of view. It seems to be trending, which is to say delusional thinking is trending. It is. 

The incel seems to think “right” means the necessity of entitlement, not permission. Theirs is an error in modal logic. Srinivasan gives numerous examples of individuals who rehearse their grievances, real and imagined narcissistic injuries, and upsets about some aspect of man/woman relations and work themselves up into a towering rage. This individual is headed for trouble; and when he takes time out from playing single person shooter video games and gets an actual weapon, then the community is headed for trouble.

In the title article “The Right to Sex,” and including “The Politics of Desire,” Srinivasan make a list of young men who either self-identity as incels or invoke the name of “Roger Elliot” in the course of perpetrating mass shootings. To say the list is disturbingly long is an understatement.  

While we are making lists of the slaughters of innocents, Srinivasan calls out the suffering of woman victims and survivors in domestic, intimate partner violence without explicitly citing patriarchy expanding manifestos. These include named individuals Jyoti Singh, Delta Meghwal, Devi Punita (wife of the executed “rapist”), Maggie Reese ((e.g.) pp. 12, 16), which make the narrative accounts of the crimes and perpetrations highly impactful. 

If there is a writerly or rhetorical method to Srinivasan’s series of essays, it is to be matter of fact, objective, giving an account of what happened. The reader goes along, taking it all in as the account unfolds. It’s awful. It appalling. It’s devastating. It’s soul damaging, even. It gets inside you, then blows up. It is stressful. It requires recovery time – like after spending time in a sweat lodge or chewing peyote. These incels – and assorted other deviants, individual and institutional – are damaged goods, and the reader gets a strong sense of that too, because it bores its way under the skin. It works. 

Just as I sometimes had to put down writings about the Holocaust, lynchings in the US South, and the Armenia Genocide, I also needed frequent breaks to catch my breath. I hasten to add that it is important not  to shoot the messenger, and Srinivasan is not performing a body count (except in a few equally disturbing footnotes). And yet the steady drum beat of violence against women is like the sound in the background of the clubs hitting the heads of the Armenian victims.

Srinivasan’s book is the holocaust of sex. The fires of the “holocaust” in question are not ones of passion or desire, but rather of anger and rage. Note the small “h” this time since there is only one Holocaust with a capital “H”. This holocaust is filled with the suffering of innocents, widespread injustice, and an awful lot of violence. It accurately paints a picture so bleak that further consciousness raising will likely expand our consciousness of misery and pain, nor do I here want to debate the need for it.

Now I can hear the concerned interlocutor: But, Lou, can’t you take it? Do you want to bury your head in the sand like an ostrich with your rear end high in the air? The answer is direct: I can take it. But do I want to?

Though the Nazis worked faster and were methodical beyond method, they only had about eight years total to murder the six million. What if they had two thousand (or five thousand, depending how one counts) years on which the patriarchs have been working to exercise domination? 

Go back in mythical time and compare this with the death of Clytemnestra and the vindication of Orestes in the Greek tragic play, the Eumenides (458 BCE), one of the founding justifications of The Patriarchy [the unfair devaluing of women and the domination, enforced by men’s violence], which, to be sure, was already in place. 

Recall that Orestes was found innocent of the crime of murdering his mother, Clytemnestra, who Orestes really murdered, because she – the mother becomes “mother” – was just the vessel of his birth, the container, the nanny, there being really only one true parent, the father and his semen. You can’t make this stuff up; but you can connect the dots with the Sandy Hook mass shooting (2012) that began with one disturbed young man [an incel prior to the name?] shooting his mother – an act of domestic violence, a mom who bought him the gun and took him shooting prior to his killing her and all those teachers and children, everyone as cute as a button.  

The long history of violence against women and the shallow, fake ideologies to support blatant power grabs by the patriarchs, enforced by violence. An angry response is motivated, valid, human, and, if you (the reader) are not upset by the narrative, in particular the first essay, then you are not neurotypical. There is a calculated rage, a quiet seething, scholarly rage behind this book; and there is nothing wrong with that. Indeed the response is all the more powerful for not being expressed in loud exclamations or denunciations or rants. None of that here. 

Since this founding Patriarchal injustice [which does not  come up in Srinivasan, but, arguably, is a background presence], more than two thousand years ago, the sheer numbers of women, including females in orphanages and on the street in China and South Asia (and everywhere), killed, tortured, destroyed emotionally (if not physically) by abuse at the hands of men, dwarfs the work of the Third Reich. This is not good news. There is no silver lining. 

Our age is one “by the numbers” – so do the numbers, albeit of a kind on the back of an envelope. Patriarchy (and a close set of closely related misogynist movements and political identities such as incel-ism (if that is a word)) over the centuries has produced orders of magnitude of suffering pain, injustice, darkness, and evil. The reader’s head reels. 

This is the annulling of relations between the sexes. The emotion overrides the impeccable logic and marshalling of case after case of gender-based violence. As far as I am concerned, “Justice” Brett Kavanaugh, Dan Turner, Amy Cony Barrett [does she really subscribe to the “woman as vessel” theory of Aeschylus?] belong “under the bus” with Weinstein, Ray Rice, Crosby, et al. Along with the incels, these people are easy to dislike. Nor am I saying we should like them. I am asking: Is there any hope – for relations between the sexes (like, you know, men and women)?

This book requires a truth and reconciliation commission between the sexes. This would be similar to that formulated by Desmond Tutu in South Africa for the perpetrators of apartheid to tell the truth about what they did to the victims and see if the survivors can find something to forgive. That would be a practical, albeit utopian response. 

Such parties to such a Truth and Reconciliation process might be able, someday, to have lunch together at the mall, but it is unlikely they would ever be able to have sex (intimate physical relations). Neither will the oppositely gendered readers of this book. Blame patriarchy, not the book or its author. Yet it makes me sad. Maybe that’s bedrock. The work of mourning of so many loses. 

The Long Review: Don’t Say What is Wrong, Say What is Missing

This is a book rich in empathy, deep compassion, and committed to building a more inclusive community over the course of the next five years. And if you believe that, I want to sell you the London Bridge. No doubt I missed something – how else to explain the lack of a single gesture in the direction of empathic relations between men and women? Note that the word “empathy” does occur twice towards the backend, but then only in the context of the breakdown of empathy (solidarity) between mainstream feminists, radical feminists, and skeptical feminists (pp. 161 – 162). 

The possibility of empathy between men and women as men and women is not acknowledged. It is missing. I hypothesize the reason: The dystopia of Patriarchy (systematic unspoken sexism) crushes the empathy and compassion out of all of us. This is an issue for this reader because: in the face of so much violence, can we find or recover a shred of our humanity? I do not need to say “shared humanity,” because “unshared humanity” is not humanity.

Since this is not a softball review, I put this book down and wonder: All the happy couples, whether on their honeymoon, in their golden years, celebrating the birth of their first child or their third, are self-deceived, kidding themselves? If they are experiencing happiness, that is what they are experiencing. If one were to argue that all happy couples are also unhappy couples [an issue missed by Tolstoy], I would have to acknowledge the point. But that does not mean one should not enjoy the moment. 

Even if Patriarchy is the ideology of male chauvinism and its corrupt power dys-dynamic, the attempt to step outside the conflict of ideologies and utopias, risks precipitating an authoritarian regime. How to manage the risk?

Is a shared framework of communication between men and women even possible? This is not  changing the subject: One widely accepted approach to the philosophy of science according to Thomas Kuhn is that translating between paradigms involved a strong element of incommensurability. Something is lost in translations – usually the scientific theory. Aristotle and Galileo were talking scientific languages so different (because they were inhabiting world so different) that it made no sense to try to translate between their theories of motion and of nature. One had to undertake an apprenticeship from the ground up to learn from scratch by dwelling in the other paradigm. Rarely was that practical or possible. 

“The Very Idea of a Conceptual Scheme” by Donald Davidson tried to show that the entire idea of a conceptual framework was flawed.[1] If one assumed diverging conceptual frameworks (as did Kuhn or in another context P.F. Strawson) and if one succeeded in translating between them, then one soon realized the frameworks were not that different; or not the sort of thig it made sense even to try to translate between – e.g., witchcraft / sorcery and biochemistry. These remain like Mayan Glyphs in comparison to Egyptian Hieroglyphics prior to the discovery of the Rosetta Stone. However, then it turns out they were all calendars after all! Vastly oversimplifying matters for this review, the metaconceptual framework itself is natural, ordinary language.

But what about that tribe of indigenous people where the adult men and women really do speak two mutually incomprehensible languages, diverging in both vocabulary and syntax?[2] Although Srinivasan’s book is extremely well-written, hard-hitting, compelling, and even a tad funny at times, I repeatedly came away thinking we really are speaking two mutually incomprehensible dialects, like the men and women in those tribes. 

In the context of popular sex psychology, John Gray’s Men are From Mars, Women are From Venus (1992) series expresses the same idea, though with a large collection of tips and techniques for actually doing the translating. I can see Professor Srinivasan now quoting Nietzsche “EkelEkelEkel [Disgust! Disgust! Disgust]” and making a corresponding gesture. No one can be faulted for not  writing a tips and techniques book. But I wonder if blowing up the entire system and starting over is a workable, viable anything, not that she proposes such a gesture. 

Here is the rub. In spite of Srinivasan saying she is NOT playing a zero-sum game (winners and losers are required), she is. She is scoring intellectual points against an opponent who is not interested in debating and in many cases not capable of it. Notwithstanding the impeccable logic and marshalling of data, the potential for self-deception LIVES in this work. It’s a hard hitting conceptual analysis. It really is. It is a hard-hitting political parsing of the different kinds of feminism and options available to them in the face of continuing bad behavior on the part of men and the institutions that men continue to dominate. The inauthenticity is this is a high-end academic treatise and it is nothing personal and one should not take it personally or make it personal. Any yet … And yet if sex is not personal, then I would not know what is. Maybe that is why there is no way else to be in the face of this mess we call “humanity” other than utopian. The better angels of our nature are in short supply here, which, once again, is not necessarily the author’s doing but still must be charged to her account (narrative).

This is how personal she gets: Srinivasan is a utopian feminist (p. 121). This is the strength and limitation of utopian thinking. The power of utopian thinking is the power of language – the power of the condition contrary to fact statement(s). Simone de Beauvoir expressed some of that in a vision of a society in which free women and men could encounter one another as equals, economically, politically, sexually, and humanly. It hasn’t worked out – at least not well enough, fast enough, or comprehensively enough. Patriarchy dies hard – especially if is joined with economic, hegemonic, racist, homophobic, antisemitic, antiimmigrant, ideologically distorted modes of discourse. However, utopian thinking can also become a refuge for the powerless and frustrated. It is hard to hit a moving target. Did I mention, this is the limitation of utopian thinking?

Now once a person picks up a weapon (or a date rape drug) to perpetrate violence against his [female] neighbor – whether he is an incel, a Don Juan, one of the Marx Brothers, or one of the Muppets – the matter is no longer psychological, political, or medical – it is a matter for law enforcement. Even if such individuals need therapy – the right to therapy? – they still must be incarcerated to protect the community from their boundary violations. 

At the risk of a really bad pun, Srinivasan takes no prisoners. The carceral system – wide spread incarceration of young men of color and female sex workers – ignores the deep causes of most crime – poverty, racial prejudice, borders, and caste. Most mainstream feminists have little to say to incarcerated women “implicated as they themselves are in the carceral system” (p. 163). [Ouch!] Srinivasan innovates (for me) a new distinction – “immiseration,” expanding the oppression of the worse off woman in the short-sighted attempt to create a better long-term future, expanding criminalization of sex work and sex workers. 

Insofar as Srinivasan writes things that upset radical feminists, mainstream feminists, and the confused masses in between, she is definitely on the right track. There may have been a brief radiant moment about the time that Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex created a clearing for economic, political and sexual self-determination; but those days are history. The debate about whether women as a group represent an exploited class in the Marxian sense is still a bone of contention for radical and conventional feminists, but if there is any doubt about it read on. 

Given that the Mississippi Attorney General Lynn Fitch [“powerful white woman”] questions whether abortion promotes equality for women, it is clear that some successful, establishment women are willing to throw their “sisters” of color under the abortion abolition ban bus. The devil may quote scripture in saying that more than half of high-end corporations surveyed offered some form of parental leave, including unpaid leave [Nicole Ault, Wall Street Journal, Nov 28, 2021]. White lies, damn lies, and statisticians? Srinivasan notes that abortion bans do not result in fewer abortions, but rather increase the number of women who die. 

Perhaps we could/should turn our prisons into university-like facilities where professors from Oxford or the UChicago hold seminars with the incarcerated – the idea has merit – but better check with the professors first. Though Srinivasan does not say so – this would have been a specific utopian proposal – I think she would sign up to hold the seminar. I have my doubts about the other colleagues at Oxford or the UChicago. I am assuming that we could manage the risk of all this turning into Mao’s “reeducation camps” that flourished in the so-called cultural revolution.  

The Unreview: After the tragedy comes – the comedy 

Humor and empathy are closely related. In both practices one crosses the boundary between self and other. However, in the case of empathy one does so with a certain commitment to preserving the integrity and wholeness of the relatedness whereas with humor a large mixture of sexual and/or aggressive inuendo is perpetrated. We will start with empathy and work our way in the direction of a couple of really bad jokes. 

Now purely as a thought experiment – you know, like in Physics 101 where we take a ride on a beam of light, knowing full well it is not technically possible at the moment – let us try a thought experiment with the incels. 

After incarcerating or canceling or cognitive behavioral theraputizing the incel, let us try engaging him with – empathy. Key term: empathy. Let us take a walk in his shoes. Knowing full well that the incel is like a ticking bomb, let us engage with one prior to his picking up a weapon.

I cut to the chase. It is not just sexual frustration, though to be sure, that is a variable. There is also a power dynamic in play. This individual has no – or extremely limited – power in the face of the opposite sex. He is trying to force an outcome. 

Here we invoke Hannah Arendt’s slim treatise On Violence. Power down, violence up. Whenever you see an individual (or government authority) get violent, you can be sure the individual (or institution) has lost power. The water cannon, warrior cops, and automatic weapons show up. (I could not find it or Arendt in the index or notes.)

The incel is powerless – okay, include a large dose of sexual frustration too – lacking in the key skill of swiping left /swiping right [on an online dating app] – in the face of human beings who are also women. The incel embraces his own frustration like Harlow’s deprived Macaque monkeys embraced their cloth surrogate mother, even though it lacked the nipple of the wire-framed one.[3]

From the inside, the incel is a deeply aggrieved person. He nourishes and rehearses his grievances. He waters the tree of his sorrow and anger – and naturally the tree grows. He has gotten his feelings hurt by woman or women or his fantasy about them – and wherever there are hurt feelings, can narcissistic rage be far away? Is he more attached to his grievance [about not getting (sexual) encounters] than to having a life, however imperfect that life may be? Apparently so. 

Now I do not want to make light of anyone’s suffering. Srinivasan’s work presents us with a long narrative of suffering women, suffering humanity, presented objectively and without much rhetorical affect so that it may land all-the-more powerfully with full emotional impact. It does. And it is not appropriate to put the incel’s suffering in the same class or category as that of the victims or survivors. But that does not mean he is not suffering.

I repeat: I do not want to make light of anyone’s suffering; but that does not mean we cannot enjoy a lighter moment amidst this holocaust of sex. I don’t know – upon further reflection, enjoying a lighter moment does seem like an impossibly high bar. But I am going to try anyway. After the tragedy, we have the satyr play – like this review.

We can repurpose jokes about virgins and lawyers as “incel jokes”. An incel and a philosopher (female) walk into a bar. The bartender asks: Why would the incel rather date a lawyer than a philosopher? Give up? Because then he is sure to get screwed. 

Remember the more tasteless and objectionable the joke, the funnier it is (until it isn’t): 

The incel kidnaped this girl last night. Fearing for her life, she yelled: “Please – I don’t want to die a virgin!” The incel thinks: If that isn’t consent, I don’t know what is. 

[Right – he still doesn’t get it.]

The incel’s dystopian life points to his utopia, which consists in two words: “Get laid.”  

Here is a draft of a cold open for a Saturday Night Live (SNL) sketch between an incel and his new therapist. This work would really require about two years. You have two minutes. 

Light, action, camera: We are now in session:

Therapist (T): Dude, it’s ladies’ choice these days – swipe left / swipe right.

Incel (I): Drop dead! I want it [sex] on my own terms or not at all.

T: Where’s your sense of humor? Women like guys who are considerate and funny. 

I: I am happy having a satisfying relationship playing video games.

T: By the way, when is the last time you changed that t-shirt? 

I: Who needs to waste time changing and showering. Personal hygiene is for losers – love me as I am, dude. 

T: I really get it, man – showering is overrated – but how about showering with a consenting woman friend? Just saying…

I: [Insert an avalanche of devaluing language about women – not suitable for polite company] 

T: Look it, man – you are just not in touch with your inner jerk. Key term: inner jerk.

I: Cut the psychobabble. [Additional devaluing language about women – and now about the therapist – not suitable for polite company]

T: This is tough stuff and I can see your suffering is significant – but are you aware you got a chip on your shoulder the size of the Great Pyramid of Giza?

I: Cut the travel brochure – I won’t get on an airplane to travel if I have to wear a mask.  

T: Okay – the chip is only the size of the Washington Monument – women like guys who respond to them as a whole person – their interests outside the bedroom as well as in it. 

I: Nobody gets me, man, they are just not in touch with my greatness. [Additional devaluing language about women – and about the therapist]

T: I get it – you are angry – you feel invisible – not acknowledged as a possibility – you are feeling frustrated – say more about that 

I: [More devaluing language – but now more sexualized and seductive – includes actual and alleged narcissistic slights perpetrated by a girl he tried to ask out on a date years ago in 8th grade. ]

T: That must have hurt. It does sound like you have not been treated well – still sometimes she has to say “No” to establish a boundary before she can freely say “yes” and get intimate. And “no” does indeed mean “no” – but it is okay to check back in a week or two – unless she tells you not to do so.  

I: [Additional devaluing language about women]

T: You know, it occurs to me [dangles foot with high heel] that you may be overthinking this whole sex thing. 

I: I do think about sex a lot; but what I need is action. 

T: Keep it simple. When you’re hot, you’re hot; when you’re not, you’re not. Desire happens. Arousal happens. Keep your powder dry, and plan on being around when it happens – to her. 

I: I just can’t seem to score, man. [Breaks down and shares an instance of premature ejaculation or impotence or a same sex encounter or a boundary violation perpetrated by an adult member of his family on him when he was still of tender age (this list is not complete)]

T: I really get it – but sex with a willing adult partner is more like ordering a pizza than scoring points – each of you suggests a couple of toppings – and let the fun begin. Just a tip for beginners – don’t take off your clothes until you have had at least a couple of good make out sessions on the couch.

[Stage notes: Fade to black and break for a commercial – an online dating service where you meet your “soul mate.” At this point, the sketch is no longer funny – if it ever was.

Stage notes (continued): the therapist is a conventionally attractive woman, professionally dressed, with skirt that exposes the knees, legs crossed and high heels visible – one leg dangles seductively at key points in the conversation and is as expressive as the dialogue: think – the incel’s worst nightmare of the unavailable object: the nervous [male] energy will automatically be translated into laughter.] 

Srinivasan’s book presents a spectrum of incompletenesses from which none escape – neither the incels, the Patriarchs, the Marxists, the radical utopians, the traditional feminists, the skeptical feminists, the psychoanalytic feminists. All we have are fragments of human beings. As Nietzsche (a misogynist if not an incel) wrote: nothing but fragments of human beings – not a whole human in sight. How do we make things whole?

For most people, the fulfillment of one’s project of becoming a complete human being requires relationships with both genders. Note this does not necessarily mean consummating sexual relations with both genders, but rather interacting in the symbolic and social realms. Therefore, a recommendation to the author for her next book, perhaps on feminisms and empathy: reach out to Jeremy Howick of the Oxford Empathy Programme. He’s in the neighborhood [https://www.philosophy.ox.ac.uk/oxford-empathy-programme ]. 

According to Alain de Botton, “We need both art and love to make us whole…” [How to Think More About Sex, p. 72]. I would add laughter and empathy. 


[1] Davidson, Donald. “On the Very Idea of a Conceptual Scheme.” Proceedings and Addresses of the American Philosophical Association 47 (1973): 5–20. https://doi.org/10.2307/3129898.

[2]  Richard Brooks (April 26, 2017),”Cultures Where Mean and Women Don’t Speak the Same Language,”   https://www.k-international.com/blog/men-and-women-dont-speak-the-same-language/ [checked December 13, 2021]

[3] Harlow, H. F. (1958). The nature of love. American Psychologist, 13(12), 673–685. https://doi.org/10.1037/h0047884

(c) Lou Agosta, PhD and the Chicago Empathy Project

Empathy and the Novel by Suzanne Keen (Reviewed)


Suzanne Keen’s Empathy and the Novel (2007, Oxford University Press, 242 pp.) can be read as an introduction to empathy studies, fiction (novel studies), and reading in the enlarged sense of engaging with the Humanities. Keen’s approach to these intersecting discourses is nuanced, subtle, and not easily summarized. She provides a great springboard for further conversations, elaborations, and social psychology experiments. 

The usual definitions of empathy are reviewed, especially: a vicarious, spontaneous sharing of affect (2007: 4). I would add: talking a walk in the other person’s shoes; transiently, temporarily, and selectively identifying with the other person; appreciating who the other person is being as a possibility; feeling and experiencing vicariously what the other person feels and experiences; being fully present with the other person in such a way as to acknowledge and respond to the other’s humanity. Keen’s book is fully buzzword compliant, including accounts of theory of mind, mirror neurons, and storytelling.

A significant aspect of the interest in relating empathy and the reading of fiction, especially novels as in Keen’s book, is to make the world a better place. Read some quality fiction; expand one’s empathy; and take action to improve the world. Wouldn’t it be nice? 

Keen notes: an ideal type case is that of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852), which, in its time, was a run-away best seller, opening the eyes of contemporaries to the injustices and inhumanity of slavery, furthering the cause of abolition. Even if such a book as Stowe’s did not directly create a social movement, with the benefit of 20-20 hindsight, it is notable as representing a parallel and behind the scenes shift in the prevailing values of the community. (Sinclair’s The Jungle or Dickens’ Oliver Twist might be added to the list of influential works (2007: 118)). And yet the libraries are overflowing with novels that did not make a difference and are read by few.

Due to the importance of the empathy-altruism hypothesis developed by C. Daniel Batson, Suzanne Keen begins her book on Empathy and the Novel with Batson’s hypothesis and its relation to the practice of reading fiction.

At the risk of oversimplification, I gloss the subtleties and what the empathy-altruism hypothesis gets right: empathy creates a clearing for the prosocial, helping behaviors of altruistic behavior such as one finds in Good Samaritan scenarios. When read judiciously, this hypothesis neither reduces altruism to empathy, nor vice versa. Experimental subjects who are empathically “primed” find that their “empathy” understood as prosocial engagement spontaneously manifests itself in the direction of altruism when challenged to do so. Nevertheless, Batson’s work is a masterpiece of studied ambiguity when it comes to deciding where the boundary lies between empathy and altruism.

Keen’s approach privileges the novel, in which the fictional world brings forth a “safe space,” in which empathy can be applied without requiring that anyone take action: “…[F]ictional worlds provide a safe zone for readers’ feeling empathy without a resultant demand on real world action” (2007: 4). That is quite appropriate from the perspective of a professor of English literature. However, one might just as well reverse the equation. Empathy creates a clearing for acceptance and toleration within which the imagination performs its work of capturing experience as a narrative in which the empathic exchange of emotional and imaginative psychic contents occurs.

My position in the matter is: Empathy opens us to (“tells us”) what the other person is experiencing; our good upbringing, morals, ethics, and professional practices tell us what to do about it. This makes it sound like empathy is a mode of observation or perception, and it is indeed that. However, insofar as empathy is something that requires two people in interaction, the empathizer is required to perform an empathic response in order to complete the loop and validate the empathic interaction. 

One key point of debate is whether reading novels expands a person’s empathy. Though Keen is inclined to favor this hypothesis, she marshals significant evidence on both sides of the debate and concludes that the jury is still out. 

The literary career of empathy (Keen’s incisive phrase) extends from 18th century warnings by the clergy and other learned men that novel reading ranks among the incentives to the seduction of female readers (Keen, 2007: 37) all the way to the enlightenment philosophers such as David Hume and, finally, Percy Bysshe Shelley’s guidance to extend the sympathetic imagination to feel with others. “Sympathetic” because the word “empathy” had not yet been coined in the English language (which would happen in 1909 as E. B. Titchener’s translation of the German “Einfühlung”). Fast forward to James Joyce, Sam Beckett, and Berthold Brecht, who become anti-empaths, privileging defamiliarization and estrangement in narrative. 

The moral peril of vicarious emotions to the innocence of girls becomes the emotional contagion that Brecht sees as subverting the consciousness raising of the workers and potential for revolutionary action of the working class by means of his Epic Theatre. None of this is full blown adult empathy, but it is on a spectrum of empathic relatedness that is wide and complex. 

Arguably, the listening and receptivity of the community were ready to respond to the message of these books due to seismic shifts in social and productive relations; and the book provided concise language and a set of powerful images to make the point at hand. Though correlation is rarely causation, sometimes correlation is good enough.

No substitute is available for the “magic bullet” of identifying a specific replicateable cause, and such discoveries are rare. Though many people confuse cause and effect (nor am I saying that happens to Keen!), from the point of view of an alliance between empathy, fiction, and social action, it is almost as enlightening and effective to have the literary fiction represent the “signs and portends” of social dynamics that can then become the target of appropriate political action, fund raising, consciousness raising, and social influence. As Keen puts it, “…[reading literary fiction becomes] a sign of one’s empathy and commitment to human principles” (2007: 167). Reading literary fiction – presumably along with political editorials – would be a source and a method of consciousness raising. Still most readers do not look to reading literature as sources for social action in the real world – or at least the evidence-based studies that Keen sites do not show such a result. (2007: 118).

All the casual, easy generalization such as “altruism results in expanded empathy,” “empathy results in expanded altruism,” “reading quality fiction (novels) enhances empathy,” “empathy enhances appreciation of the novel” have significant qualifications, conditions, and counter-examples. Never was it truer, the devil is in the details; and Keen’s work contains a wealth of engaging examples and background on empathy studies. Incidentally, Keen ends her book with some twenty-seven proposals about narrative empathy (2007: 169 – 171).

In discussing the enhanced empathy of authors, who report that their characters come to life in their imaginations, Keen acknowledges the moral ambiguities of the possibilities of empathy for both good and evil. For example, Keen reports that William Pierce (pseudonym: Andrew MacDonald), founder of a white supremacist organization, published The Turner Diaries (1978), containing hateful depictions of blacks, Jews, and gay people. The novel was apparently written with some literary skill. Timothy McVeigh, the bomber of the Federal Building in Oklahoma City (1995), studied this book, and, based on the account in the novel, “emulated its protagonist by building a fertilizer bomb to explode a government building […] made and deployed in a small truck” (Keen 2007: 127). 

True, it is highly improbable that the novel by Pierce (MacDonald) caused an upstanding citizen to become a mad bomber. McVeigh was already entangled with murderous levels of prejudice and deviance, and was therefore attracted to the novel. Do not confuse cause and effect; yet the evidence is that this white supremacist novel – and the bomb making parts of it – inspired McVeigh and made him a more dangerous deviant.

Another celebrated example of a novel having alleged causative effects, not mentioned by Keen, in the real world is Goethe’s The Sufferings of Young Werther, in which the broken-hearted hero commits suicide. There really was an epidemic of copycat suicides across Europe in which romantically devastated individuals would jump off of bridges with a copy on the novel in their respective pockets as a kind of suicide note. More good empathy gone bad? Can’t get no satisfaction – or empathy? More likely, individuals who were already suicidal found an expression of their suffering in literary form thanks to the dramatic finesse of Goethe. 

I offer a bold statement of that which is hidden in plain view. The hidden variable is the practice of empathy itself. If I read a novel that enrolls me in the practicing prosocial empathic responsiveness to my neighbors, then empathy is expanded. If I read a novel that enrolls me in the practice of white supremacy, then the latter is expanded. 

One could argue, though I will dispute the formidable ambiguities, that even white supremacists can be empathic towards other white supremacists. That is the critique of empathy that asserts empathy is too parochial, limited only to the in group, and, as such, a problematic “virtue,” if one at all. The answer is direct. In so far as the white supremacists [and so on] require one conform to a certain prejudiced, humanly devaluing ideology to qualify as the recipient of the practice of empathy, the empathy misfires and fails. 

Thus, the debate is joined. The celebrated Self Psychologist and empathy innovator Heinz Kohut, MD, gives the example of the Nazis who equipped their dive bombers with sirens, the better to impart empathic distress in their victims, thus demonstrating their (the Nazis’) subtle “empathic” appreciation of their victims’ feelings. I am tempted to say, “The devil may quote scripture,” and Nazis may try to apply some subset of a description of “empathy.” 

Note that Kohut speaks of “fiendish empathy” and the use of empathy for a “hostile purpose” while emphasizing his value neutral definition of empathy as “vicarious introspection” (1981: 529, 580). Nevertheless, the point is well taken that empathy is a powerful phenomenon in all its dimensions and requires careful handling. [For further details see: “On Empathy,” The Search for the Self: Volume 4: Selected Writings of Heinz Kohut 1978-1981, London: Karnac Books, 2011: 525 – 535].

The Nazi applies a kind of entry level emotional contagion or affective transmission of feelings, but the process breaks down at the point of empathic responsiveness. Empathic responsiveness requires a core of acknowledgement and recognition of the other person’s humanity. 

But it is plainly evident that the would-be “empathy” of the Nazis (or the white supremacists) misfires and fails in a contradiction. It is a flat-out contradiction to relate authentically to another human being while dehumanizing him or her. Empathy doesn’t work that way. Empathic responsiveness simply does not admit of bombing people or disqualifying them as “less than” or other than human when they plainly are human. 

One of the strongest points of Keen’s book is the final chapter on “Contesting Empathy,” in which she cites a long series of objections, qualifications, and doubts about empathy. Failed empathy, false empathy, fake empathy, breakdowns of empathy, and the social construction of the emotions are engaged and deconstructed. Empathy has to run a gauntlet of things that can go wrong with it, though I suggest it emerges out of the backend bruised but still in one piece.

This point is not well-understood in the empathy research literature where break downs of empathy are mischaracterized as features of empathy itself. To blame empathy for its misuse, breakdowns, and misapplications is rather like using the smoke alarm to decide when Thanksgiving turkey is done. 

Keen is concerned that the empathy-altruism hypothesis with which she launches her project is left hanging by a thread. If the work of Kohut is to be credited (who, by the way, is not mentioned by Keen), the hypothesis is not likely ever to be validated. Yet if empathy is a practice, not a mere psychological mechanism, then by practicing it, we get better at it in using it to reinforce and expand our shared humanity. Empathy becomes a powerful force in creating a clearing to call forth “the better angels of our nature.” The empathy-altruism hypothesis as an aspirational project, not a social psychology given. 

Thus, the really tough question is how does “empathy” as a psychological mechanism relate to “empathy” as a interpersonal process and “empathy” as a practice in relating to people. One starts out talking about empathy as a psychological mechanism, subsumed by a biological mirroring system (even if mirror neurons remain debatable) and invoking identification, projection, and introjection. 

Almost immediately one has to give an example of two people having a conversation in which one is feeling and experiencing something that the person may or may not “get” or “understand.” Then one finds oneself immediately discussing the practical considerations of why, in the course of the personal interaction, the empathy succeeded or broke down in a misunderstanding, and how to improve one’s practice of empathy based on experience.

It makes a profound difference from which definition of empathy one begins, though ultimately one has a sense of traversing all the distinctions and simply coming back to enhanced relatedness and understanding of the other person. 

One goes in a circle. Readers are attracted to the literary fiction that speaks to their hopes, possibilities, and fears, which, in turn, expands and reinforces their hopes, possibilities, and fears. Then, either by accident or diligent search, readers encounter new forms of writing that change their experiences and perceptions. The writing causes the readers to see existing social structures and ways of relating to other people in new ways. The hermeneutic circle of interpretation? The engaging thing about bringing the hermeneutic circle to empathy is that it provides a series of steps, phases, within which logically to organize the process. Even if ultimately such a hermeneutic circle of empathy falls short of a formal algorithm, one gets a coherent guide against which to succeed or fail and engage in a process of continuous improvement based on experience. 

What if a rigorous and critical empathy gave us the data needed to grasp the way to the humanity enhancing actions that need to be taken? The application of empathy would become an imperative guiding our reading and relatedness along with the moral imperatives so important to Keen and Batson. Empathy has not usually functioned as a criteria of literary significance or greatness – until now. 

REFERENCES and NOTES

Since Keen published her book in 2007, several peer-reviewed have appeared that support the hypothesis that reading literary fiction expands empathy. These are useful, but do not decisively determine the outcome of the debate; and, obviously, these researchers did not include Pierce (MacAndrews) on their list. A lot of work gets done here by the adjective “literary.” For example: 

Bal, P. M , Veltkamp, M. (2013). How Does Fiction Reading Influence Empathy? An Experimental Investigation on the Role of Emotional Transportation. PLoS ONE 8(1): e55341, https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0055341;

David Comer Kidd, Emanuele Castano. (2013). Reading Literary Fiction Improves Theory of Mind, Science 18 October 2013, Vol. 342, Issue 6156, pp. 377–380, DOI: 10.1126/science.1239918; 

Kelly Servick. (2013). Want to Read Minds? Read Good Bookshttps://www.science.org/content/article/want-read-minds-read-good-books [The page # is not available on the web version; but they are short articles.]

The reader may usefully review my blog post on these publications and “reading literary fiction expands empathy”: https://bit.ly/311A2G8

(c) Lou Agosta, PhD and the Chicago Empathy Project