Monday, December 12, 2016

Empathy with a Razor

Two quick reviews of two of last week’s reads:

Against Empathy by Paul Bloom

Yale professor Paul Bloom begins by defining his terms. Many people use the word “empathy” broadly to mean being kind and generous. He uses it in the narrower sense used by psychologists to mean (to quote Bill Clinton) “I feel your pain.” This is not the same as sympathy, for we can feel for someone without feeling with them. Psychologists also distinguish between emotional empathy and cognitive empathy. The latter is an intellectual understanding of what another person is feeling without feeling it oneself. Bloom doesn’t have a problem with cognitive empathy per se, though he notes that it is morally neutral. It is not true, for example that psychopaths lack empathy. On the contrary, they often have exceptional cognitive empathy. They know what you are feeling: that’s how they manipulate you and exercise their cruelty. They just don’t care. They lack emotional empathy. Yet even if they had this, it’s not clear they would have sympathy and compassion, which are more important. After all, folks with Asperger’s also have limitations on emotional empathy, yet they are not any more likely than anyone else to be cruel intentionally.

So what is Bloom’s beef with emotional empathy? He thinks it is just fine for enjoying literature or a movie, but that it is a terrible basis for morality: “It can spark violence; our empathy for those close to us is a powerful force for war and atrocity toward others.” We tend to empathize with whomever is in front of us, whether, as examples, it is a victim of a crime or a youthful perpetrator with a troubled past. Bloom suggests what the world needs is not more empathy but more rational compassion: step back and look at the big picture.

Bloom’s book is not just an extended opinion-piece. He brings in neuroscience and various social studies. Some of what he says might seem obvious, but I’ll give him credit for a contrarian title.

Thumbs very mildly Up.

**** ****

Razor Girl by Carl Hiaasen

Despite the everglades, the abundance of beaches, and the artificial landscapes of Disney World, Florida does not rank high on the list of visually interesting US states. Socially, however, it is in the top tier for weirdness, colorfulness, and diversity. This weirdness has attracted the attention of numerous authors both homegrown (e.g. Jeff Lindsay of the Dexter novels) and visiting (e.g. Tom Wolfe: Back to Blood). One of the most prolific native writers is Carl Hiaasen. Carl probably is still best known for Strip Tease, thanks to the Demi Moore movie based on the book in the 90s, but he has published a new book every two or three years since the early 80s. His latest novel, released earlier this year, is Razor Girl.

In an odd way Hiaasen reminds me of Jim Thompson, whose gritty noir-ish novels so perfectly captured the flavor of low-life America in the 1950s. Hiaasen is just as on-point although, his setting being contemporary Florida, his lowlifes sometimes have money. His imagery is at one and the same time gaudier and tawdrier than anything in Thompson.

This one is set primarily in the Florida Keys. The complex plot defies brief summary, but it involves con artists, a redneck star of a TV reality show, the star’s agent, murder, an unscrupulous sand replenishment contractor, organized crime goons, and a cantankerous ex-cop turned health inspector named Yancy. The eponymous Razor Girl arranges car accidents, usually as an insurance scam but in this case to facilitate a kidnapping. All the different characters and subplots emerge and interlace easily, and Hiaasen presents it all with dry humor.

Razor Girl is not high-lit, nor does it try to be. It is literary snack food. But it’s tasty snack food. As a recreational read, Thumbs Up.

Muddy Waters - Deep Down in Florida


  1. I watched an old Dick Cavett episode recently when he had on Erich Segal, who wrote Love Story, and was enjoying some of the success from the novel and film. The next guest, I forget his name, was a snobbish book critic, who of course had little to say about either. Segal didn't take offense to it, nor would I have had if I'd had such a hit. I'd laugh all the way to the bank, which is more than probably the book critic did. I guess I was reminded of that from reading your review on the Hiaasen book. Not every book has to be high art for success or even an interesting read.

    I thought of you this morning when I was on Amazon, and ran across a novel about Palisades Park by Alan Brennert (I remember the hit song as well). I've never been there, but thought you may have. Sounded like an interesting read though:

    Against Empathy reminded me of a small independent film I watched over the weekend called I Am Not A Serial Killer about a young man with a propensity for a sociopathic behavior (they didn't go into why they thought he had that). It was an interesting enough film, a bit silly like most horror, but engaging enough. It starred Christopher Lloyd.

    1. I don’t imagine Erich Segal was concerned at all. I remember the critics absolutely trashed that little novel – they went far out of their way to do it. They just seemed horrified that a Harvard/Yale/Princeton professor of classics could write a simple sentimental melodrama instead of some snorer of a treatise on Terence to accompany the treatise on Plautus that he actually did write. More the pity them not to have an adolescent romantic sense still inside them – it’s called “layers.” And I didn’t even like Love Story, but not because it is trash. It’s just not my preferred flavor of adolescent melodrama; I like other flavors just fine.

      Yes, Palisades Amusement Park was open until 1971. It was more accessible than any other large nearby park and it was pretty kid-friendly. The local residents hated it of course. They were even willing to rezone the property for luxury high-rises (which they also hated, but less) to get rid of it.