EMPATHY 1.

 

In her book, Prosthetic Memory. The Transformation of American Remembrance in the Age of Mass Culture, Alison Landsberg explores a new type of memory she calls prosthetic memory. This memory refers to the appropriation of past experience through experiential museum installations, film and other media by people who do not have a personal connection to the events being portrayed.

Through the work of Toni Morrison, for example, people who are not African-Americans can take on a ‘deeply felt memory’ of slavery and the African-American experience. Through films such as the miniseries ‘Holocaust’ or ‘The Piano Player’ or ‘Sophie’s Choice’ people with no connection with the Holocaust can incorporate memories of this experience into their overall intellectual and subjective worlds. Through the numerous books, films and documentaries about the Gallipoli campaign, young people identify with the soldiers in the trenches to an extent that renders many of them to painful tears. ‘Through the technologies of mass culture, it becomes possible for…memories to be acquired by anyone, regardless of skin colour, ethnic background, or biology. Prosthetic memories are transportable and therefore challenge more traditional forms of memory that are premised on claims of authenticity, ‘heritage’, and ownership.’

Such ‘mass-mediated memories’ are reliant on an imaginative and empathic reader/viewer.

The success of any work of fiction requires the engagement of a similar sensibility. A reader is drawn into the world of a novel, into the lives and environments and historical circumstances of the characters being depicted. The reader enters the novelistic world and treats it as if real. It is for this reason that when a reader reaches the end of a compelling novel s/he doesn’t want it to finish, or s/he wants it to finish it differently, or s/he hopes that these same characters will appear in the author’s next novel. Readers care about characters in fiction, they are concerned with what happens to them.

The so-called ‘non-fiction novel’ such as Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood relies on the same sensibility. Capote could have written a straightforward documentary account of the murder of Herbert and Bonnie Clutter and their two youngest children by two ex-convicts on parole. But by writing it in a novelistic form he engaged a far greater degree of reader empathy.

The ability to empathise with ‘the other’, with people outside our own time, our own culture and our own experience is common to us all. Adults demonstrate it through their response to fiction and films, children reveal it in their wonderful ability to play ‘make-believe’. Why then is it so difficult to employ the same quality when it comes to people in the real contemporary world? Why is it that desperate people driven to leave the country of their birth and the language in which they are at home, are more likely to inspire fear, disparagement, even hatred, rather than understanding and empathy.

All of us have the cognitive tools to understand the plight of asylum seekers, indeed to understand all ‘foreigners’ who seek a homeland in Australia, but many choose instead to demonise these people as ‘other’, as ‘different’, as ‘threatening’. These exiles, these homeless people are condemned as undermining the Australian way of life; of taking our jobs; of polluting the essential Australian character.

The crucial question is: why this response?

Is it greed? That we are not willing to share the freedom and opportunity that most of us enjoy in this country.

Is it fear? That we are so insecure in our nationhood that a small number of broken, desperate, homeless people are a threat?

Or is it simply that there’s been insufficient public discussion, discussion untainted by popularist bias, political opportunism and/or media power? That these people seeking asylum are treated so badly because not enough honest thought and time has been given to aspects of the Australian culture that we might be reluctant to own.

Australians have been quick to criticise racism in South Africa and the United States, and religious intolerance in Ireland and the Middle East, but what about discrimination here in our own country? We have the ability to understand what drives people into exile but we choose to close our minds.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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