Daniel Mendlesohn in Sunday’s NY Times elegantly articulates what’s at stake in the most recent revelations about high-buzz memoirs that turned out to be complete fictions. Both memoirs told stories of suffering and oppression that was were not a part of the authors’ experiences. Of particular interest to me was Mendelsohn’s dissection of our excessive interest in “identification.” He writes:
While these statements [on the part of the authors explaining their intentions] want to suggest a somehow admirable desire to “empathize” with the oppressed subjects, this sentimental gesture both mirrors and exploits a widespread, quite pernicious cultural confusion about identity and suffering. We have so often been invited, in the past decade and a half, to “feel the pain” of others that we rarely pause to wonder whether this is, in fact, a good thing.
Empathy and pity are strong and necessary emotions that deepen our sense of connection to others; but they depend on a kind of metaphorical imagination of what others are going through. The facile assumption that we can literally “feel others’ pain” can be dangerous to our sense of who we are — and, more alarmingly, who the others are, too. “We all have AIDS,” a recent public-awareness campaign declared. Well, no, actually we don’t: and to pretend that we do, even rhetorically, debases the anguish of those who are stricken.