Archive for August, 2012

That’s a headline that tries to capture it all. The single point of this entry is to make note of, and direct attention to, a recent article in the Boston Review on the role of literature, and especially poetry, in reducing violence and – over time – humanising us. The article is by Prof Elaine Scarry, and is “Poetry that changed the world: Injury and the ethics of reading” which you can find here.

At the end you’ll find the usual range of supportive and vituperative responses – the latter at least revealing that we’ve some way to go before the “comments” sections of web sites will meet the Habermasian hope of public deliberation, rather than the practice of firing broadsides.

While the article is clearly not about mediation and Asia, at the same time it is . . . in the sense that the core of the argument is about the degree to which literature, especially poetry, has shaped our understanding of others, through fostering the capacities of empathy, discourse/dialogue and beauty. For mediators, the especially interesting part – I find – is in the discussion of those genres of poetry that pit opposites together in moral and mortal combat. It’s reminiscent of the epic poems of Iceland, in which the sagas of the immortals and heroes were ways of capturing the perennial themes of order and chaos, loss and redemption and so on.

There may also be a cultural and historical point to explore, which was beyond the brief of the original author, concerning the possible links between the political and moral life of a community and the type of literature that prevails – or even whether the “humanities” remain a force in the curricula of universities. On that, see for example Richard Sennet’s essay on “Humanism” in The Hedgehog Review. The particular question Prof Scarry raises is as to the humanising power of fiction, through which we may come to learn empathy, especially with those characters who are not like us. She calls on the recent work of Stephen Pinker and his tracing of the reduction of levels of violence – despite the appearances of the 20th century – and the re-emergence of empathy. It is possible to claim that, where there is less emphasis on those “humanities” there may also be less empathy – exemplified (she might claim) in the persistence of the death penalty as at least one possible marker?

There is, I suspect, a parallel line of thinking to be pursued here, taking up the discussion that Jeremy Rifkin explored in his book The Empathic Civilization. The argument there too is that, despite the appearance of conflict, greed, self-interest etc; and despite the predominance of an economic ethic that portrays us as self-interested, utility maximising game-players, it is empathy rather than selfishness that is the core – and evolutionary – value.

The point for mediation may be more narrowly cast: ancient traditions of literature and narrative are, in a variety of voices, ways of exploring conflict, opposition and resolution. At the heart of narrative is conflict; and, conversely, at the heart of conflict is narrative – the power of story, in which we may explore difference and resolution. This, for me, comes back to the point in an earlier post in this blog, to the effect that at the heart of mediation and negotiation lies the core need we have to tell our stories and to have them heard.


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