…This is a problem straight white men suffer from especially, because the western world has held up a mirror to them for so long—and turns compliant women into mirrors reflecting them back twice life size, Virginia Woolf noted. The rest of us get used to the transgendering and cross-racializing of our identities as we invest in protagonists like Ishmael or Dirty Harry or Holden Caulfield. But straight white men don’t, so much. I coined a term a while ago, privelobliviousness, to try to describe the way that being the advantaged one, the represented one, often means being the one who doesn’t need to be aware and, often, isn’t. Which is a form of loss in its own way.

…paying attention is the foundational act of empathy, of listening, of seeing, of imagining experiences other than one’s own, of getting out of the boundaries of one’s own experience. There’s a currently popular argument that books help us feel empathy, but if they do so they do it by helping us imagine that we are people we are not. Or to go deeper within ourselves, to be more aware of what it means to be heartbroken, or ill, or six, or ninety-six, or completely lost. Not just versions of our self rendered awesome and eternally justified and always right, living in a world in which other people only exist to help reinforce our magnificence, though those kinds of books and comic books and movies exist in abundance and cater to the male imagination. Which is a reminder that literature and art can also help us fail at empathy if it sequesters us in the Boring Old Fortress of Magnificent Me.

There has been a lot said this year about college students—meaning female college students, black students, trans students—and how they’re hypersensitive and demanding that others be censored. That’s why The Atlantic, a strange publication that veers from progressive to regressive and back again like a weighty pendulum recently did a piece on “The Coddling of the American Mind.” It tells us that, “Jerry Seinfeld and Bill Maher have publicly condemned the oversensitivity of college students, saying too many of them can’t take a joke,” with the invocation of these two white guys as definitive authorities.

But seriously, you know who can’t take a joke? White guys. Not if it implicates them and their universe, and when you see the rage, the pettiness, the meltdowns and fountains of male tears of fury, you’re seeing people who really expected to get their own way and be told they’re wonderful all through the days.

Photographs and essays and novels and the rest can change your life; they are dangerous. Art shapes the world. I know many people who found a book that determined what they would do with their life or saved their life. Books aren’t life preservers; there are more complex, less urgent reasons to read them, including pleasure, and pleasure matters. Danto describes the worldview of those who assert there is an apartheid system between art and life: “But the concept of art interposes between life and literature a very tough membrane, which insures the incapacity of the artist to inflict moral harm so long as it is recognized that what he is doing is art.” His point is that art can inflict moral harm and often does, just as other books do good. Danto references the totalitarian regimes whose officials recognized very clearly that art can change the world and repressed the stuff that might.

…You read enough books in which people like you are disposable, or are dirt, or are silent, absent, or worthless, and it makes an impact on you. Because art makes the world, because it matters, because it makes us. Or breaks us.

This semester, I’m teaching an American literature course at a private international school in London. My students have come with their families from all over the world and have empathy and insight, but for the most part, they have lived privileged lives. For the last semester, I’ve forced them to read nothing but “outsider fiction”. Stories by immigrants and people of colour. Stories about poverty. Stories about being made to sit on the periphery. Most are loving it, but some are frustrated. “I’ve already learned the race stuff,” one said, after our third story with a protagonist of colour. More than one parent advised me that Bharati Mukherjee and James Baldwin are not important when these kids have yet to read “classic writers” such as Harper Lee (because how could they develop their literary taste if they hadn’t first grounded themselves in the point of view of the impossibly saintly white family?).

…There should be no question of earning my place, of showing that I was a good bet. My family and I were once humans in danger, and we knocked on the doors of every embassy we came across: the UK, America, Australia, Italy. America answered and so, decades later, I still feel a need to bow down to airport immigration officers simply for saying “Welcome home”.

…The refugee has to be less capable than the native, needier; he must stay in his place. That’s the only way gratitude will be accepted. Once he escapes control, he confirms his identity as the devil. All day I wondered, has this been true in my own experience? If so, then why all the reverence for the refugees who succeed against the odds, the heartwarming success stories? And that’s precisely it – one can go around in this circle forever, because it contains no internal logic. You’re not enough until you’re too much. You’re lazy until you’re a greedy interloper.

Advertisements

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