A World Of Universal Empathy Would Make Us Behave Worse, Said Octavia Butler

It's the third anniversary of Octavia Butler's death, and blogger ZeroAtTheBone is linking to some writing about her, as well as her own essays. My favorite is Butler's essay about a world of pure empathy.

Writing for NPR about the UN Conference on Racism, Butler talks about her own thought experiments in creating a world where people tolerate each other instead of trying to impose hierarchy from above. She tried to create a fictional civilization where everyone could actually feel each other's pain telepathically, but decided that it would make people less compassionate, not more:

The point was to create, in fiction at least, a tolerant, peaceful civilization — a world in which people were inclined either to accept one another's differences or at least to behave as though they accepted them since any act of resentment they commit would be punished immediately, personally, inevitably. Eventually, though, I chose not to write about such an empathic society. I wrote instead about a single empathic woman who suffered from the delusion that she shared other people's pleasure and pain. She was not a particularly peaceful woman, but she did have to consider the consequences of her behavior more than other undeluded people had to. After all, delusional pain hurts just as much as pain from actual trauma. So what if it's all in your head?

In my novel, unavoidable empathy worked fine as an affliction, but popular, painful sports like boxing and football convinced me that the threat of shared pain wouldn't necessarily make people behave better toward one another. And it might cause trouble. For instance, it might stop people from entering the health care professions. Nursing would become very unpopular. And who would want to be a dentist in such a society.

So much for fiction.

I love the fact that Butler did the thought experiment, and then rejected it, because the initial utopian impulse resulted in an even worse dystopia. Few writers are that honest and fearless with their thought experiments, I think.


The whole essay is worth reading, and so is the other stuff ZeroAtTheBone linked to. Jo Walton also wrote a great overview of Butler's Pattern series at Tor.com a while back, which I meant to link to at the time.

And, of course, if you haven't read Butler's work, especially the Pattern and Xenogenesis series, you should run out and get them right now.

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