This past Thursday I attended a discussion on empathy and literature, led by Dr. Ken Asher. The discussion was terribly interesting, and I could not help but draw some mental connections between the discussion and the content of our course. Cassie happens to discuss empathy in her last post (with a nod to Sami), which makes me feel more confident about the relevance of this post.
Dr. Asher began the discussion on Thursday by reading some empirical research which proved the presence of “mirror neurons” in the brain, which are able to recreate the sensations that another being is experiencing simply by watching that being experience a certain thing. Dr. Asher extrapolated that we must have neurons that establish our sense of self and the differentiation of that self from others, too, otherwise we would be experiencing uncontrollable sensations and lose our ability to tell our own experiences from those we experience through mirroring others. Thinking about this mirroring of sensations and experiences immediately directed my thoughts toward the Oankali. But no, I wanted to focus on this philosophical conversation and think about something other than Butler’s work for the night. The discussion went on.
Dr. Asher turned the focus of the discussion more directly onto empathy. He made the interesting distinction between understanding a person’s emotions as if you were in their shoes, versus understanding them as if you were them. He asked which of these we should consider to be “true empathy”, if either. He also asked if empathizing by understanding (or trying to understand) a person as them (instead of in their shoes) can lead to arrogance as one believes they truly understand what a person is feeling or experiencing (i.e. “I know exactly how you feel”). Most people engaged in the discussion seemed to agree that people cannot understand the experiences of others as those other people, and that people who try to do this or believe they do it successfully do tend to develop a certain arrogance. At this point in the discussion, I couldn’t help it – I was thinking about the Oankali again. Butler clearly tells us that the Oankali experience sensations through other beings just as those other beings experience them. This is true for both pleasure and pain. If an Oankali were to say, “I know exactly how you feel”, they would be telling the complete truth. Is this arrogant? Or is it only arrogant when humans say it because it cannot possibly be true?
I find myself wondering if this contributes to some readers’ (at least initial) dislike for or discomfort with the Oankali. It seems that at least some people are quite bothered by the idea of another person attempting to understand exactly what they are feeling or experiencing. Since the Oankali have this ability, perhaps that makes some readers uncomfortable. Perhaps some readers might see this ability as giving the Oankali a certain arrogance, as they understand that which is considered highly personal by humans, and they are open about having this ability. It seems plausible that humans only dislike when other humans try to, or claim they can, understand another’s sensations or experiences because they know that this is impossible, but then again, maybe this is precisely what contributes to some readers’ discomfort with the Oankali – the concept of a species that can actually perceive the genuine experiences of another being lies outside of, at least, my own understanding, and may seem like a disturbing invasion of the most personal and intimate parts of ourselves.
Side note: The discussion that I refer to in this post was held by the Philosophy Club – this was the first time I had attended one of their meetings, and it was invigorating! I highly recommend attending one of their discussions if you ever get the chance (they usually send out emails when they hold discussions).