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In 2014 Fear Trumped Empathy, and Other Smart Insights

December 27, 2014 in Blogs

By Michele Filgate, Salon

Looking back on a long, hard 2014, communal panic was a dominant theme, says the critic Leslie Jamison.

Leslie Jamison’s “The Empathy Exams” came out from Graywolf Press to much acclaim, and people bought and read and discussed her brilliant essay collection with such rare gusto that it landed on the New York Times best-seller list. She has a remarkable ability to take other people’s stories alongside her own and present necessary narratives that stay with the reader long after finishing the book.

As part of Salon’s series of year-end conversations with some of the most essential nonfiction voices of 2014, we spoke both over the phone and then by email about everything from Ebola to selfies to tattoos.

Your collection is in so many ways about pain, about how we face and discuss and experience illness and pain. So I’m curious about a story that broke after your book was published: How do you think our country is handling Ebola victims and the medical workers who have traveled overseas? 

I was doing an event in Chicago a few days after Craig Spencer was diagnosed with Ebola — after returning from his work for Doctors Without Borders — and all of New York was going crazy and the Internet was publishing maps of where he’d gone bowling in Williamsburg and where he’d eaten a snack and which subway lines he’d ridden. Somebody asked me whether I felt like Americans were showing enough empathy about Ebola. It was something I’d already thought about in relation to the uproar over Spencer — how sometimes fear can be the enemy of empathy.

If this man were going through something similar in a faraway place — i.e., he’d been doing important medical work and had gotten diagnosed with a potentially fatal illness — people might have respected his bravery. But in this case, many people’s primary reactions had to do with their own proximity to danger. It was striking to me how that sense of fear — a kind of communal panic — seemed to trump feeling empathy for him, much less respecting him for …read more


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