• Céline Zahno

Thoughts on rationality, empathy and asymmetry

You are born into this world as a vessel of a singular perception, an individual entity in possession of an individual consciousness. You become the bearer of your own experiences and you will be shaped into a person that has never and nowhere existed before. Your thoughts are unique and so are your struggles because nobody has a perspective quite like you - the others can merely imagine what it must be like to walk in your shoes. You don’t understand! You never will. Race, class, gender, religion, nationality, profession. You are not what I am; you are not entitled to voice your opinion on this issue. Your empirical standpoint in the world limits what you can think and what you can speak – you are so embedded in your own little corner of the world that your ability to imagine otherwise has been swallowed by your own subjectivity.

The knockout argument of new-age activism and the killer of not only our ability to empathize but also our ability to reason and make claims based on rational argumentation. “This is not your place to speak” has become a way of telling people that there is no way they can ever extend their consciousness beyond their own experiences. You are trapped, so to say, in the subjective life you have been born into. Even though many new-age political movements are centered around inclusivity and equality, there is little of that to be found in the culture of debating the issues at the heart of their causes. But when we feel limited in what we can say based on what we are, then the conversation must have missed a mark.

There is a sharp difference between uplifting oppressed voices of a society and denying our common experience of being rationally thinking creatures. Recognizing the way in which certain groups have been continuously shut down and gone unheard throughout history will make the importance of giving these groups space and platforms for expression very clear. Speaking on behalf of an oppressed group is equally part of that very oppression because the voice of the dominant group is taken to be more valuable than the one of a person part of the oppressed group. However, taking this absolute necessity of giving space to certain voices must not be mistaken as a justification to silence others. Everyone is part of every conversation. Giving space to certain voices should come from inner contemplation and historical awareness but should be based on personal judgement and not imposed from outside. Cancelling a voice based on either who speaks or which opinion it expresses can never be justified. First, because what someone says should always be more important than what they are. Arguments, ideas, and rationality are independent of their bearers. And second, because truth in social settings is relative, has to be contemplated, approximated and defended in debate. As the philosopher John Stuart Mill said, “the deep slumber of decided opinion” is where we stop questioning ourselves and what we hold to be true.

I could have been born in your shoes just as well. One of the most important recognitions of what it means to be human is that we could all have been in anyone’s place. I have not chosen to lead the life I am leading – I am here by chance. I am not unique in the way I am. There is something that it is like to be a human and it is something that we all have in common. And the most fundamental aspects of that experience are empathy and reason.

What is left to our species if you take away our ability to access the rational world of ideas and arguments? Not more than what is found in any other animal. What is left to our species if you take away our ability to empathize with other people, our ability to abstract from our subjective sensory world and feel for someone else? Not much more than is found in the transactions of a machine. And it is exactly those two things that should allow everyone to speak up about just any of all the things that there are to speak up about. Not just the ones that one is personally affected by.

Lisa Halliday’s “Asymmetry” takes an impressive turn in illustrating this point. In the first part of her novel, Halliday relies on her personal experiences to tell a story. It is not hard to recognize the way in which her own life mirrors the one of the main character Alice. The story unfolds in front of us and yet, we are left wondering what Alice is feeling, what she is thinking. Telling her own story with so little depth, Halliday grants the reader little understanding for the character. The second part of the novel takes an abrupt turn into the life and mind of an Iraqi-American man, held in Heathrow airport for questioning. The lack of connection between these stories is not what comes most shocking to the reader, but the sudden profundity of thought and feeling of this unknown person. The character is asymmetrical to the author in all perceivable aspects of identity and yet, the depiction of the ongoings of his mind drastically contrasts our obscure sympathy of the previous character that Halliday should technically know so much more about. There is little plotline in the novel, the actual point lies in the way Halliday portrays her characters. The uneven depiction raises questions about the limits of the self, about our ability to understand each other across subjective experiences of race, class, gender, nationality, religion and so on. She is radical in her demonstration of this matter – instead of just posing the question she goes right ahead to answering it.

By nature, we are thinking beings and we are feeling beings. In the history of philosophical thought these attributes have often been taken as opposites, standing as the two polar ends of the human experience. Idealism versus empiricism, rationality versus emotions, thinking versus feeling. But taken together, they gift us the ability to experience empathy and to put ourselves into other people’s shoes by contemplating what it must be like to be someone else. Denying this would be nothing short of denying our common human experience.

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