On 20 January 2017, we held the second workshop in the ‘Ethics, Affect and Responsibility: Global Citizenship and the Act of Reading’ series, held at the University of Bristol. The day took the broad theme ‘World Literatures and Global Conflict’ and featured a range of speakers and reading groups.
The day opened with a general introduction which sought to delineate some of the aims of the workshop series more broadly, and to reflect on the lessons learned and questions raised at the first workshop. In my remarks, I tried to trace the ways in which my own thinking around empathy, global citizenship and social justice have changed since I first started this project. Given the events of 2016 – especially Brexit and the election of Donald Trump to the presidency of the United States – I have started to feel as though some of the scepticism towards empathy which underlies this series might not need to be reconsidered. Is part of what has been happening across Europe and America, with the regeneration of the far right, perhaps not a consequence of a lack of empathy? What about the lessons that might be learned from failures of empathy, from the realisation of its limitations and boundaries, and the effort towards it nonetheless?
I’ve been particularly interested in Paul Bloom’s recent book, Against Empathy. Writing in the Boston Review on the project, Bloom argues that ‘Most people see the benefits of empathy as akin to the evils of racism: too obvious to require justification. I think this is a mistake. I have argued elsewhere that certain features of empathy make it a poor guide to social policy. Empathy is biased; we are more prone to feel empathy for attractive people and for those who look like us or share our ethnic or national background. And empathy is narrow; it connects us to particular individuals, real or imagined, but is insensitive to numerical differences and statistical data.’ For Bloom, then, empathy can be the driver of new barriers, led by a sort of blindness which comes as a consequence of emotional and affective interference in what should be matters of policy. Yet, an alternative built upon reason and rationality is not always viable or even desireable. And empathy still holds a considerable sway in the way in which we envision the world as a more just place, if one that is not entirely straightforward.
Next up was a roundtable session on Teaching World Literature and Global Conflict. Zoe Norridge (KCL) spoke about her experiences of teaching material around Rwanda and the Holocaust, offering practical suggestions for bringing potentially-sensitive material into the classroom and engaging students in the practice of empathic engagement with conflicts which are often conceived of as alien or remote. Zoe’s talk was also useful for problematising the very idea of world literature – what world? And whose? And conceived under what set of parameters? Zoe was followed by Florian Stadtler (Exeter), who discussed the ways in which he and his colleagues have been addressing global conflict through a focus on the environment and anthropocene. Florian helpfully detailed the ways in which they have organised their teaching, particularly in the face of a significant demographic gap between the student body which they teach and the material which they use. Brendan Nicholls (Leeds) then spoke about his experience of teaching poetry from the global South, leading us through a practical example of the ways in which we might leverage our particular ability to focus on aesthetics – and the disruptive potential therein – as a way of complicating the easy idea of empathy and forcing other kinds of recognition. Finally, Anna Bernard (KCL) spoke about her role as an educator, researcher and activist who engages with Palestine and larger notions of solidarity, and the inextricable inter-connectivity of those roles.
After the panel, we spend the afternoon in a series of reading group sessions led by each speaker. I was not able to sit in on any of these in their entirety, but popping my head in and out, I was impressed with the level of engagement in each room, and the variety of view points which were raised. We finished the day with a reading and discussion by Kenyan writer Billy Kahora and British-Palestinian author Selma Dabbagh, who shared with us a variety of yet-to-be published material and generously reflected on their own perspectives, as writers whose work engages variously with conflict zones, of the relationship between literature, empathy and social justice.