Empathy at the End of the World: Notes on Fiction and Resistance
At the height of the last COVID-19 surge that hit the Philippines a few months ago, the Washington Post ran a story on Filipino call center workers and the intersecting precarities that had made them particularly vulnerable to the pandemic. The story is titled “Your call was important to Glen Palaje. It may have cost him his life.” The subject was a father of seven who, like myself many years ago, answered the phone for the American telecom giant AT&T. Just one in the hundreds of thousands of disembodied voices that power the lucrative sector, declared “essential” by the national government. This meant agents like Glen had no choice but to work and sleep in their offices, where, according to his family, he caught the virus. His was among the six deaths among the nearly 1,000 cases recorded across dozens of locations in an industry that earned 27 billion US dollars last year.
In addition to the violence in the story, I was struck by the topmost comment in the online edition. After commending the “thoughtful” writing that “brought out the humanity of the Palaje family” and vowing to boycott AT&T, the commenter vehemently objected to the title, which to them unfairly and incorrectly attributed the death to Glen’s job answering someone’s call: “There is no evidence Mr. Palaje lost his life because ‘our call was important to him,’ as every piece of evidence in the article points to him losing his life because AT&T’s leadership willfully decided not to spend the money on protective measures, give their staff the opportunity to work at home, and was (and is still!) willing to allow people to burn through their sick leave and be forced to choose between their health and a paycheck. Let your title summarize the story that the story tells.”
I was struck by what the comment signals about the nuances and limits of empathy, how in the face of suffering the well-meaning solidarity it offers seems to stop short of implicating the self, which is absolved of any sort of complicity beyond conceding elsewhere in the comment that “we are all our brother’s keeper.” It’s a complicity that is nevertheless disclosed when they promise to boycott AT&T (objectively, according to a London School of Economics blog, Filipino call center workers were indeed put at risk to avoid “longer wait times” for consumers in the Global North). For sure, governments and multinational corporations benefit the most from the circuits of capital that levy such violence, but I’m curious how we make sense of our connection to this infrastructure on the level of our everyday relations with people we don’t necessarily know.
This notion of empathy is something that I think about and hold out for scrutiny in my novel The Quiet Ones (Ateneo Press, 2017), which follows a group of call center agents who embezzle money from their client, a thinly veiled version of AT&T. I do this quite transparently in the work. For instance, when an agent tells a customer, “Oh, I’m sorry to hear that,” the narrator issues a punctual reminder that the line comes as much from the agent as it does from a ring-bound manual for customer care associates. The page number and the “lesson” are even indicated—as in, “Page 5 under Empathy,” usually in a separate paragraph or a parenthetical note, like a robotic consciousness disembodied but also wedged within the narrative.
This seeks to foreground a number of things: (1) how relations under capitalism, including gestures of care, for which Filipinos are supposedly known, can be emptied out of meaning and reduced to scripted transactions, (2) how the immanent power of documents continue to control bodies and resources under globalization, the same way land titles and baptism and census-taking facilitated landgrabs and forced labor and conversions during colonial rule, and (3) how new jobs under a new world system and new technologies create new forms of alienation that nevertheless profess the same estrangement from one’s labor, and which the trappings of a “magandang trabaho”—a “good job”—like arctic air-conditioning and above-minimum wage are unable to hide.
Nothing quite as tragic and decisively violent as death in the workplace happens in the novel; what transpires is the slow and drudging accumulation of agonies and griefs masquerading as life, and which every now and then is interrupted by moments of humor, such as in making fun of a fellow agent’s pronunciation, or routine rebellions on the call center floor, like collectively voting for a Filipina contestant on American Idol, a rehearsal of sorts for the main embezzlement operation, or the relief brought by giving in to the seduction of consumer capitalism, which is of course constitutive of capital’s regimes of control.
Thinking about that comment on the Washington Post story, there may be something about empathy, in the adamantly gestural smoothening of otherwise clashing interests, that resembles how liberal democracy short-circuits its convoluted system of complicities via a denial of the violent payoffs that make it an untenable system in the first place, or how its operation frequently relies on “moral” but often depoliticized language: freedom, respect, democracy; how, for all the nod toward recognizing the suffering of others, empathy can result in a kind of paralysis that achieves little but is protected by claims of good intentions and thus can be used to shield the status quo. It is, after all, in the interest of capital and state-making to let bygones be bygones at this point in history; a truly historical reckoning requires a radical rethinking of how society is structured and subsequent action.
Of the mounting attention paid to empathy recently, I am struck by how it supposedly diminishes when the suffering afflicts an amorphous mass, as is the case of natural disasters, and how its marshalling can ultimately be a matter of choice. “It’s made of exertion,” Leslie Jamison writes in The Empathy Exams, “the dowdier cousin of impulse.” This tells me, too, that we can be socialized by pervasive systems to customize the contours of our empathy, which makes it, and perhaps this is a bleak interpretation, too unwieldy to declare as inherently virtuous. We may even say that empathy, and the mystification that at times seems to be built into it, can be coopted as an affective and ethical muscle of neoliberalism, as it can grant it the veneer of humanity, or even nonviolence. And what about fiction? The idea of empathy seems to be most hospitable to circumstances small and private enough to be conceivable and affecting.
Surfacing this is the broadest, most predictable idea of resistance in my novel: the attempt to look at the complex, often obscured system of performances and exclusions that props up the pervasive idea of globalization in the Philippines as a shiny, progressive gift from the West, like modernity itself. In general, I try to do this by attempting to suffuse narrative with a certain historicity, and overcharging the so-called ordinary moment in narrative with the force of this history. If, as Fredric Jameson says, we understand neoliberalism as something that privatizes contemporary life by way of a conceptual gap between history and the individual, social and psychological, political and poetic, and so on, a narrative that actively reconciles these planes may be instructive.
There’s a section at the center of the book that demonstrates this. It unfolds over the course of a typical call at the call center. Two characters: Mr. Connelly, the customer, is your average American caller: tireless at small talk, proud of their work ethic and principles, and just ever so slightly racist. Alvin, the agent, is going through the motions, at this point inured to the casual abuse, just passively listening and mouthing off lines from the manual, which he had all but memorized. The section begins with Alvin thinking about empathy, but, the narrator reminds us, “not the emotional capacity per se, the symbolic pressing of palm against chest, the semi-sincere pursing of lips to mouth a word of comfort, but the recommended script under ‘Empathy’ from page 5 of the UTelCo Manual.” Later, the call proceeds as normal but something intervenes in the narrative.
The unsettling of narrative here is at once, I hope, discursive, temporal, spatial, and even formal, in the abrupt shifts to an almost essayistic mode that transparently argues a point via the blatant interlaying of two “events.” The crisscrossing of moments and propositions here is hopefully pointed or at least generative, from the affinity between the transpacific undersea cables and the imagined first contact in Cebu where Magellan landed, to the freer association between the ominous anticipation of colonial bondage and the mundane act of Alvin listening to the rustling of paper. Jameson has characterized the postmodern situation as “an age that has forgotten to think historically”—a narrative thickened with this sort of muscular historical imagination, to me, is a resistance against the diminishing, or distracted sense of historicity.
But once or twice the characters in the novel actually find themselves empathizing with a caller, or at least experiencing something akin to, or conjuring something that blurs the line between, the put-on empathy and the stirrings of the real one. On the one hand, this may be read as potentially undermining the avowed political project about how empathy can be manhandled, instrumentalized, perhaps a sham, but I think it also demonstrates the slipperiness of narrative, of fiction as an exercise in contingencies, as an apparatus that always falls short of and at the same time exceeds theoretical ideas and lived experience. (This also says something about the procedure of writing, or creation in general, and how things like intention and experience rarely coincide.)
For instance, in this scene that takes place towards the end of the book, it is revealed that the span of that call with Mr. Connelly earlier was actually when Alvin discovered for the first time that the embezzlement modus worked. For Alvin, the sense of relief and gratitude and happiness, when the job stopped feeling dehumanizing for a moment, was ironically also the moment when he felt a semblance of real empathy for his caller.
Adrift in what Jameson describes as postmodernity’s fascination with “pure and unrelated presents in time,” in my work I think what restores to narrative a certain historicity is a conception and rendering of time as lush and surprising, a sense of time that foregrounds affect, relations, and sensorial depth in its insistence in seeing the present as an accumulation of what had transpired as well as the impetus for future reckonings. In these passages, for instance, the layers of self-deception for Alvin as a character thicken the idea of subjectivity in the narrative as it is confronted by and thrust headlong into such a lush history. At various points in the novel, he resists then relents, or pretends to resist or pretends to relent, or knowingly pretends or unknowingly pretends, etc., etc. This endless negotiation of history as an unsolvable predicament, especially in what they reveal about the limits of ethics and legality and what all this means in capitalism, is something that also deepens the sense of historicity in the work by letting ideas play out, in the way that fiction is ultimately a what-if proposition, a form of rehearsal in terms of what it means to constantly strive to remain human in the face of dehumanization.
It is also these gaps and vacillation through which a reader approaches a text, I think, with all of the biases and contradictions and lacunae that they carry with them, knowingly or not. Empathy is described as “an effort of imagination,” so to a certain extent the act of reading fiction, in the sense of attentively following a specific consciousness navigating some terrain of experience, can be seen as an exercise in empathy. More precisely, I refer to the perhaps intuitive process of sensing alignments and disjunctures between the reader and the consciousness in the text, which reveals the extent to which empathy is malleable vis-a-vis the demands of the narrative.
Without really intending to, I kind of put this idea to the test in Yñiga (forthcoming), my second novel, with a protagonist that is calibrated to be disagreeable and emotionally opaque and a narrative that is frequently unstable and destabilizing. Set during the spate of political killings in the Philippines in the mid-2000s, it maps the history of counterinsurgency all the way to the Cold War, and I’m curious how a reading experience that pointedly refuses legibility and relatability and ease can mediate an otherwise (hopefully) objectively sympathetic idea. How, in other words, does affect and narrative mediate history in fiction, and where does empathy as a project fall within this equation. As the world hurtles towards all manners of doom, with one theater of suffering quickly replacing another, is it possible to be empathetic to agony that we don’t completely understand because it is—narratively, historically—alien and thus to some extent less legible than others? What figures in the decision to dispense and withhold empathy? Is it purely contingent on affinities? On a certain expected behavior? And what does it reveal about our political imagination?
Where I am, it is a few weeks away from perhaps the most important elections in recent memory, and the son and namesake of the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos, aided by a massive years-long disinformation campaign, appears to be on the brink of being elected president. It is an existential crisis for many in my generation, born after the popular revolt that ousted Marcos and restored a precarious democracy that, to his son’s legion of supporters, failed to deliver on its promise. What about the thousands of victims of pervasive human rights violations under the Marcos regime? Well, they were probably trouble-making communists, goes the usual reply, things were so much better then, everyone was disciplined. Rehearsed relentlessly under the Duterte regime and now pushed anew by troll farms, this narrative is itself an affront to empathy, capitalizing on genuine discontent to fuel fascism as in many other places elsewhere in the troubled world.
To be sure, exercises like elections and the politicized everyday, as well as movements and campaigns, are to a critical degree a battle of narratives. With well-funded political operators taking advantage of social media algorithms and genuine discontent, the result is a chaotic landscape, geared to distort history to the point, I sometimes think, of exhausting, nihilist meaninglessness. The virtues of empathy buckle under the weight of this attack—the day-to-day struggle to eke out a living in capitalism in one of the most vulnerable places to climate change and a digital environment rigged to fragment communities and sow hate. The negotiation of what is peddled by power and what it deliberately tries to obfuscate is central, I think, in fiction’s project of intervening in the dizzying sleights of hand and routine manipulations through which phenomena like late capitalism and fascism schematize our experience of the world. Narratives that see through the contradictions that gestures like empathy can sometimes conceal and smoothen even if empathy is also, in its radical guise, how stories can close the loop by truly implicating the reader in the process of collaborative, collective meaning-making that stories invite.
Glenn Diaz’s first book The Quiet Ones (Ateneo Press, 2017), on the call center industry in the Philippines, won the Palanca Grand Prize and the Philippine National Book Award. His second novel “Yñiga,” on the spate of political killings in 2000s Philippines, was shortlisted for the 2020 Novel Prize. He is a recipient of fellowships and residencies in Bangalore, New York, and Jakarta, among others. Born and raised in Manila, he is currently pursuing doctoral studies at the University of Adelaide in South Australia.
Cabato, Regine and Nick Aspinwall, “Your call was important to Glen Palaje. It may have cost him his life,” the Washington Post, September 9, 2021, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/asia_pacific/covid-call-centers-philippines/2021/09/09/2afca61c-0a46-11ec-a7c8-61bb7b3bf628_story.html, accessed April 27, 2022.
Cameron, C. Daryl, Michael Inzlicht and William A. Cunningham, “Does empathy have limits?” The Conversation, March 2, 2017, https://theconversation.com/does-empathy-have-limits-72637, accessed April 27, 2022.
Diaz, Glenn, The Quiet Ones, Manila, 2017.
Jameson, Fredric, Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, Durham, NC, 1991.
Jamison, Leslie, The Empathy Exams, Minneapolis, MN, 2014.
Thompson, Maddy, “COVID-19 and the Philippines outsourcing industry,” September 22, 2020, LSE blog, https://blogs.lse.ac.uk/seac/2020/09/22/covid-19-and-the-philippines-outsourcing-industry/, accessed 4 May 2022.
go to topMay 13th, 2022 — Rosa Mercedes / 04