Astrogator's Logs

New Words, New Worlds
Artist, Heather Oliver             

Storytelling, Empathy and the Whiny Solipsist’s Disingenuous Angst

In the last few weeks, I’ve been reading stories nominated for the Hugo awards. One of them, the first choice of an SF/F author whose judgment I trust, gave me pause. The concepts were interesting, although the story was a variation on Total Recall. But the characters tasted like cheap cardboard and the style was equally flat. This led me to ponder yet again the much-discussed decline of SF. And from there, with the help of yet another Dr. B. (not the Dr. B. I discussed in Camels, Gnats and Shallow Graves, though they’d fall into a bromance at first sight), my thoughts segued to empathy.

Empathy, the ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes, neatly falls into the “feminine” virtues. Certainly, it is a requirement for successfully rearing children. It is also is a survival tactic for the powerless. So it’s not surprising that it’s a cultivated and praised attribute in women and slaves.

Three kinds of adult humans lack or have difficulty with empathy. The first group cannot help it: they are the people with autism spectrum disorders who often find it hard to understand or interpret the emotions and motivations of others. The second group consists of fundamentalists of all stripes who are convinced they verily possess the stone tablets of Truth and are ready to smash dissenters’ heads with them. [ETA: the second group includes narcissistic socio/psychopaths, who invariably regard themselves as messiahs].

Finally, we have the obnoxiously smug. Invariably these are comfortably off white men who feel free to smirk and sneer about Other’s issues, but when called on it insist that they are misunderstood free spirits persecuted by the humorless PC police. Which brings us to Dr. B.

A few months ago, a pingback showed that someone had referred to my essay The Double Helix: Why Science Needs Science Fiction. Being a curious cat, I followed the link. It led to the blog of Dr. B., an academic astronomer who also writes hard SF. He advocates science literacy, calls himself progressive… so, ever hopeful, I started visiting, happily prepared to join the conversation.

Yet almost immediately, I couldn’t help but notice that several of Dr. B.’s stances “ain’t evolved” (to paraphrase Clarence Thomas). Among them was gratuitous, strident misogyny skulking under the “fairness” veneer. The trend culminated in a recent post in which Dr. B. commented approvingly on an anonymous screed from the National Post, the Canadian equivalent of Fox News:

Women’s Studies programs removed from Canadian universities: “These courses has done untold damage to families, our court systems, labour laws, constitutional freedoms and even the ordinary relations between men and women.” I guess I don’t shed a tear if these are gone. Where are the Men’s Studies? I guess some would say every other course and department out there, but that’s not exactly fair. // Well, that should be provocative enough for some comments.

The Post article itself is the usual venomous tripe about the horrific harm feminism hath wrought, though it missed one obvious talking point – that them dastardly feminazis caused 9/11. It’s the sort of thing Marc Lépine might have written before he murdered fourteen women students of engineering in the Montréal École Polytechnique.

Being a believer in giving people a long rope, I went through four rounds of exchanges with Dr. B. In his responses, he covered every single square of the misogynist bingo board, from the demand to “educate him” to the opinion that women bring down standards in the hard sciences, to whining about the humorlessness of feminists. The gist of his replies was: Enough about women and their imaginary problems. What about oppressed tenured white male ME???

People of this ilk infest self-labeled “progressive” groups – SF authors, transhumanists, “futurists”. Their mindsets are so similar that I wonder if pod-style human cloning isn’t already with us. Their sense of entitlement is as vast as that of any three-year old. They sulk and throw furniture when they’re thwarted in any way, consider their monoculture experience to be universal truth, and believe that their muddled self-serving ideas should be accepted without question because… well, because they are “liberal, leaning libertarian” (translation: it’s fine to bully Others, as long as it’s not state-imposed).

At this point, my readers will justifiably say: “Yet one more obscure navel-watcher is dragging his knuckles on the Internet. Maybe he had a messy divorce, maybe the Diversity Office in his campus took a corner office he was eyeing. Why are you wasting your time and ours on him?”

The answer is, because this man has assumed the role of thought leader and storyteller. A person with a mindset like his is highly unlikely to write absorbing fiction or convincing characters. The empathy that would make the works anything beyond a mirror of the author’s blinkered self-involvement is absent. I found one of Dr. B.’s novels on the Internet. I gave up after slogging through sixty painful pages. Bear in mind that I like hard SF, from Egan to Mixon, and I’ll endure infodumps, shallow characters and tin-ear dialogue if a story’s elements captivate me.

To write well (let alone live well), people need to have open, informed minds. What constitutes such a worldview goes beyond just imaginative extrapolations of concepts and objects. Curiosity and empathy toward others are equally crucial components. If an author can’t (won’t) do that, s/he won’t be able to create credible elves or andromedans either. By encouraging and rewarding lopsided parochialism, SF/F contributes to its own ghettoization and puts a stamp of approval on being junk-food escapism by/for the emotionally stunted.

When people in relatively privileged circumstances live as Others even briefly (John Howard Griffin comes to mind), their outlook changes radically. If I ever became Supreme Dictator, one of my edicts would be that everyone spend at least one year in another culture during their adolescence. Even a brief stay in a different environment peels away the complacency that arises from being embedded in a single context. The double vision that results from such exposure forever alters people’s perceptions. Layered, nuanced storytelling, free of navel-watching and whiny angst, can arise from these jolts.

Most fiction works are slated for oblivion. “Cool” concepts date fast, genre fashions even faster. But storytellers who see into others’ minds create characters that haunt and compel us, whose actions and fates matter to us. Through them, they burst past genre confines to make great literature that is long remembered, retold and sung.

Passed-out-cold bookworm: Gutenberg Project.
“Tantrum” bronze sculpture: Gustav Vigeland, Oslo.
Tales from Earthsea cover: David Wyatt

25 Responses to “Storytelling, Empathy and the Whiny Solipsist’s Disingenuous Angst”

  1. ZarPaulus says:

    I find it a little offensive to be compared to fundamentalists, even if it’s true.

  2. Athena says:

    The three categories just indicate a single end result, rather than any other commonality. Hence the explicit qualification about the first group.

  3. Sue Lange says:

    Where did you get that photo of the whiny brat statue? That’s one of the funniest things I’ve seen on the Internet.

    I hate beating the thing about the womens’ studies classes to death, but here’s another thing I thought of:

    If womens’ studies are not ghettoized, that means they’ll be mainstreamed. What do you want to bet that the same people that don’t think we should have womens’ studies are also the same people that whine about their son being irreparably damaged when he had to read Pride and Prejudice? Further then: Do these people never want womens’ work, womens’ history, womens’ roles examined ever?

    Answer: yes. Women must forever be delegated to the role of “other” and swept under the carpet.

    As always an enlightening read.


  4. Caliban says:

    This is because we’ve replaced reasoning by logic with reasoning by emotion. And especially by narcissistic emotions.

    The Post editorial is a classic example of this. It makes broad, vituperative claims without backing it up with evidence. In particular they claim systematic and effective efforts by Women’s Studies programs. They don’t even bother with anecdotal evidence (which, by the way, would not be enough, as the claims are that Women’s Studies programs are *systematically* bad) that usually pretends to be argumentation these days.

    The tragic thing is, we have someone like Dr. B who puts himself forward as an intellectual leader, an academic and a writer, who cannot think his way out of a wet paper bag. He takes a purely emotional script such as the Post editorial and puts it forward as solid fact.

    Unfortunately, ZarPaulus, you’ve fallen into this same kind of trap. Athena clearly differentiated between physiological and sociological causes of lack of empathy. It’s possible that her parallelism is fallacious. (Though I don’t think so.) But instead, you reasoned on a purely emotional level–you find it offensive to be linked to fundamentalists. And I think it’s fine to acknowledge that immediate emotional response. But one needs to learn to dig into that emotional response, understand what buttons are being pushed, and to ask: who’s doing the pushing? Is it the author (in this case Athena)? Or is it some script you’ve imbibed from the outside world?

    Dr. B in this case has unconsciously swallowed a script from the Post, Fox News, Rush Limbaugh, and so many others, that “feminists hate men” and “feminists are the cause of the world’s (my) problems.” The fact that he is unable to scratch even a little below the surface and see that script staring in his face means, in the end, he simply does not know how to think.

    (It should go without saying that reasoning by emotional scripts is not at all limited to the right side of the political spectrum. It occurs everywhere. In fact, most often I hear from conservatives a defense of this of reasoning that “they (liberals) do it too.” Which is a truly lousy defense, and yet another example of emotional reasoning. )

  5. Blake Stacey says:

    “These courses has done”?


    “Bear in mind that I like hard SF, from Egan to Mixon, and I’ll endure infodumps, shallow characters and tin-ear dialogue”

    In that case, I know a book you might appreciate. . . .

  6. ZarPaulus says:

    I was being sarcastic.

    Maybe I haven’t fully grasped that neurotypical concept (or it’s just difficult to do with text).

  7. Athena says:

    Sue, I have two great “tantrum” images — I just googled the term and these two came up in the first clutch. The other is the one I used in Web Flatunauts and Electronic Tribbles. Also, I sorrowfully agree with you that the mainstreaming of women’s studies won’t decrease the whining. People like Herr Doktor B. see this as a zero-sum game: as far as he’s concerned, if women gain, he loses. Of course, the interesting question is: what does he lose?

    Calvin, I think your point that people respond to/with emotional scripts is exactly right but let me fine-tune it further. You actually touched upon what I want to mention by your description of buttons: emotional thinking need not be a problem per se, if the emotions are examined rather than instinctive, unquestioned reactions (in biological terms — if they arise in the cortex by committee, not in the brainstem by reflex).

    Blake, your book sounds intriguing. An alternative future with sixties trapping, though? Wasn’t that the era of bad hair and clothes that only Diana Rigg looked good in??

  8. Athena says:

    I did suspect you were being sarcastic, but you never know! Thanks for clarifying the point.

    You’re right, incidentally. Sarcasm is difficult in this medium. One problem is that internet conversations lack the crucial elements of body language, voice pitch, etc — and they’re most often soundbites. Another is that unless you know the person you’re talking with very well, it’s easy to misinterpret their soundbites.

  9. Eloise says:

    As long as we’re discussing emotional responses and such, here is a connect article that you might find interesting:

    It’s not strictly related to the subject at hand, but I found that some of the insights shared herein made sense. Though I would like to know what our resident biologist has to say on the matter…


    Eloise 🙂

  10. Caliban says:

    Good one, ZarPaulus.

    Not only sarcastic, but satirical–you captured correctly the indignation assumed by the Bs (in this essay and the previous one). And you fooled me completely 🙂

  11. LauraJMixon says:

    Hey, Athena, I know of whom you speak. I read the post and comments, and I have to say that I think your assessment is on the money. It saddens me. It also frustrates me.

    He and I actually have a cordial relationship; he has done a couple of professional favors for me, and more importantly, he has also done yeoman’s work in educating writers, editors, and the like in astronomy and physics, through a summer program he runs every year. He has shown dedication to a number of progressive causes. But there is no denying that in his recent post he demonstrates an inability — nay; a stubborn refusal — to look around outside his own bowl of horse radish. Consequently he propagates very harmful messages. Teh suxxor, and a bummer, to boot.

  12. Athena says:

    Eloise, that’s an interesting link. I had actually read about the earlier study mentioned in the article. It’s no surprise that the treatment of one’s children correlates with one’s voting habits. However, the mixing of biological intrinsics with cultural habits makes me very wary. So does the distinction in the reactions by gender, as well as the reason given for it (which is frankly silly — but the article is written half tongue-in-cheek).

    Laura, I have no doubt that Dr. B. is well-intentioned. But his position is equivalent to that of a vocal, dedicated union member who thinks it’s still ok to beat his wife (there were/are many people like that). I have no idea how to demonstrate to someone like that that they sport a huge blind spot, short of having him briefly become a woman. Maybe if he lived in a burqa for a month, a medicine I recommended for the other Dr. B.

  13. Eloise says:

    Another wee link to shed some light on the other side of the fence, and about how we can make change happen:


    Eloise 🙂

  14. Athena says:

    The article makes an excellent point, Eloise. Same for books, of course. However, there’s a crucial clause to that argument, brilliantly and wittily discussed here: Ladies, Please (Carry On Being Awesome). Namely, women are forgiven a lot less than men, even for their strengths. If it had been Harriet Potter instead of Harry, Edwina Rochester instead of Edward, people would be exclaiming how whiny/abusive/oversexed/too perfect/too whatever the female hero was. I’ve had that accusation leveled at me about my women heroes. We have a long way to go towards treating women as fully human who deserve to have both warts and greatness.

  15. intrigued_scribe says:

    Excellent essay, and the photo of the “Tantrum” statue fits perfectly. 🙂

    And truly, even with the best of intentions in place (at least initially) rigid, self-centered stances like those clung to by the Dr. B’s of the world do considerable harm when placed into influential roles. Indeed, I’m seeing how little short of a month in a burqa could stand as an effective remedy for that.

    Also, the points raised in the links are spot on, Athena, Eloise; thanks for sharing them!

  16. Greg. Tingey says:

    Pace your comment:
    “Invariably these are comfortably off white men”
    Erm, no – look at your previous post.
    What about sincere religious believers, of either sex, who oppress and torture and kill, to preserve their (one holy true) way…..

  17. Athena says:

    Perhaps you read this post too quickly. The sentence before the one you quote says: “The second group consists of fundamentalists of all stripes who are convinced they verily possess the stone tablets of Truth and are ready to smash dissenters’ heads with them.” I believe I have not differentiated this group by gender. But the third group is as described.

    As for my previous post, the horrific things I list there are only partly motivated by religion. “Custom” is very often invoked in their execution. And the Dr. B. of that post had opinions on how Iranian women should regulate their own existence, a domain in which he has zero qualifications to judge.

  18. The tantrum sculpture is priceless!! How funny! Very well-written and thought-out, Athena.

  19. Athena says:

    Glad you enjoyed it, Amy! Yes, the tantrum sculpture says it all. That, along with Beardsley’s smallest Spartan ambassador, will probably reappear in my blog, given my habit of dissecting mindsets.

  20. Flewellyn says:

    The only part of this I would object to, is the rehash of the tired old trope that people with Autism Spectrum Disorders lack empathy.

    I assure you, we do not. What we lack is a natural ability to learn social behavior. I myself had to go through a great deal of training to learn how and why neurotypical social behaviors exist, and how to navigate the social world. But I was only willing to do so, and able to succeed as well as I have at said task, because I empathised with other human beings. I knew they were valuable, knew they mattered, and wanted to connect with them.

    The people who do lack empathy have something else: Antisocial Personality DIsorder, also known as sociopathy.

  21. Flewellyn says:

    That said, the rest of the post is wonderful. (Sorry for double post.)

  22. Athena says:

    I may have phrased it in such a way as to make it ambiguous. I did not say ASD people did not want to empathize. Empathy is partly innate, but it’s mostly an acquired skill. ASD people have the desire for empathy but have a harder time acquiring the skill. What I wanted to emphasize was that with autism spectrum it is not a choice. With smug people, it is.

  23. Scott Bakker says:

    Hi, Athena. I found this link among some remarks you made while mischaracterizing (!) my views. I’m actually curious about many things you mention, but I’m most curious as to how you characterize the distinction between sex and gender. I had assumed you were a Butlerian, given the criticisms you have levelled against me elsewhere, but here you seem to assume the nature/nurture distinction in a way not so different from me.

  24. Athena says:

    I didn’t mischaracterize your views, including your insistence on holding forth about things you know nothing about, whether these be biology or culture. I will not be drawn into discussions with you, just as I don’t debate creationists and young earthers. However, I do plan to write a post about “rape genes”, “rape modules” and similar (evo)psycho idiocies.