Thursday, April 14, 2011

Watch Where You Point that Compassion

New York Times columnist David Brooks posted the following on his blog recently:
April 13, 2011, 12:34 PM
Thoughtless or Careless?
Are bullies amoral or are they simply cruel? That is to say, do they bully others because they don’t know the difference between right and wrong, or simply because they don’t care about other people’s feelings? Gianluca Gini, Tiziana Pozzoli and Marc Hauser studied this question for the Journal of Personality and Individual Differences. They studied 719 children between the ages of 9 and 13 and found that those who engaged in bullying had advanced moral competence. They could make sophisticated distinctions between moral and immoral conduct. They scored low on measures of compassion, though. This reinforces a growing body of research that suggests knowing right from wrong is not necessarily connected to behaving rightly or wrongly. Moral lectures don’t work well, but telling people stories designed to arouse compassion might.
Who Is the Bully?  (Scene from Birth of a Nation)
It seems to me that one reason many people value creative literature is that it has the potential to arouse compassion in readers.  I think any parent would find it easy to think of ways to put this insight into practice.  As a literary critic, however, I pause over the phrase "designed to arouse compassion," because I know that an author's design is not the ultimate authority.  The "arousing compassion" part of the equation is also largely influenced by the reader, or, in a class, the teacher.    And then there's the sticky question of what kinds of compassion we seek to arouse.  The Birth of A Nation (1915) sought to arouse compassion for formerly empowered whites in the post-Civil War South who were, presumably, being bullied by the newly empowered former slaves.  Click here and go to the 2:42 mark (and endure a couple of ads) to see the notorious scene in which a mulatto (white actor in blackface) proposes marriage to a horrified white girl.  Soon after, the Ku Klux Klan comes to her rescue.

Compassion can be a salve;  it can also be a weapon.

1 comment:

  1. At first I was curious about why this post would be offered in this location, and then it became obvious. It seems to me that there is a huge body of evidence that argues for the unique power of story to point one's moral compass.
    Jim Benton