Getting past empathy

We are all neighbours now. There are more phones than there are human beings and close to half of humankind has access to the internet. In our cities, we rub shoulders with strangers from every country, culture and faith.

1. So begins Free Speech: Ten Principles for a Connected World (2016), Timothy Garton Ash’s ambitious bid to fashion a new global consensus or at least an updated set of guiding norms about the freedom of expression for the digital age (see also ‘The world is not a global village but a global city, a virtual cosmopolis’, he continues, establishing one of his central metaphors and correcting Marshall McLuhan’s celebrated description of the new electronic era in the early 1960s. In his conclusion, he returns to the urgent questions life in this new cityscape raises:

The quest for a more universal universalism is one of the great challenges of our time. Over the last half century, human enterprise and innovation, from the jet plane to the smartphone, have created a world in which we are all becoming neighbours, but nowhere is it written, least of all in the book of history, that we will be good neighbours. That requires a transcultural effort of reason and imagination. Central to this endeavour is free speech. Only with freedom of expression can I understand what it is to be you. Only with freedom of information can we control both public and private powers. Only by articulating our differences can we see clearly what they are, and why they are what they are. (380)

In these appeals to ‘our differences’ and to the need for ‘a transcultural effort of reason and imagination’, David Bromwich detects the influence of Isaiah Berlin who, he notes, did much ‘to shape Garton Ash’s understanding of freedom’ (6). Writing in the London Review of Books, Bromwich explains: ‘Berlin sought to apply an idea of political tolerance not only to persons but to whole cultures; the reason was that cultures themselves were expressive achievements akin to works of art’ (7). On this issue Berlin took his cue from the Prussian idealist philosopher Johann Gottfried Herder. ‘To understand a thing was’, Berlin wrote of Herder in 1976, ‘to see how it could be viewed as it was viewed, assessed as it was assessed, valued as it was valued, in a given context, by a particular culture or tradition’ (154). This version of relativism, which blurs the cultural and the cognitive without denying the possibility of mutual understanding, formed the basis of Berlin’s own tolerant pluralism. ‘For to explain human experiences or attitudes’, he continued in the same essay, ‘is to be able to transpose oneself by sympathetic imagination into the situation of the human beings who are to be “explained”; and this amounts to understanding and communicating the coherence of a particular way of life, feeling, action: and thereby the validity of the given act or action, the part it plays in the life and outlook which is “natural” in the situation’ (154). As this suggests, cultures are, for Berlin, akin to works of art in a specifically Romantic sense: they are self-contained, unitary and expressive. 

2. For Bromwich, Garton Ash’s Berlinesque idiom not only leaves him vulnerable to the charge of relativism. It makes him complicit with the efforts on the part of contemporary speech police to ‘discourage criticism of identity politics‘ (7). 

If cultures resemble works of art, if they are supposed to speak in different languages that resist translation, how can my norms be governed by yours? And more: given the investment each person must have in a cultural identity, how can disapproval ever be enough to meet the offence of seeing one’s identity harmed by insults?

Bromwich overplays these concerns. For one thing, though clearly an admirer of Berlin, Garton Ash is well aware of the pitfalls of his thinking. ‘A world composed entirely of Berlins would tend to relativism and excessive tolerance for the sworn enemies of tolerance’, he comments (376). For another thing, he rejects what he calls ‘the “I’m offended” form of the heckler’s veto’ (218) and insists throughout his book, particularly when discussing the principles covering diversity and religion, on the need to create space for the kinds of criticism Bromwich wants to defend:

Principle 5: We express ourselves openly and with robust civility about all kinds of human difference.

Principle 6: We respect the believer but not necessarily the content of the belief. 

What troubles Garton Ash’s analysis is not so much the ghost of Berlin’s Herderian relativism or pluralism as the legacy of his equally Romantic conception of the ‘sympathetic imagination’. This limits him to thinking only in terms of the transcultural, distorts his understanding of identity and difference, and deforms his conception of the role literature might play in his quest to defend the freedom of expression and find a normative language of good neighbourliness attuned to the hazards of life in today’s ‘global city’.

3. As part of his broader justification of free speech as an indispensable ideal, he cites Nina Simone’s rendition of Billy Taylor’s gospel/jazz and American civil rights classic ‘I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free‘ (1963). After quoting the following lines from the first verse – ‘I wish I could say / All the things that I should say / Say ’em loud say ’em clear / For the whole world round to hear’ – he singles out two lines from the second – ‘I wish you could know / What it means to be me’ – as ‘the most elemental argument for free speech’ (74). ‘Only with freedom of expression can I understand what it is to be you’, he reminds us in his conclusion as I have already noted, before adding: ‘Only by articulating our differences can we see clearly what they are, and why they are what they are’ (380, italics added). He returns to the theme of art’s knowledge in the chapter on diversity (Principle 5):

Literature, theatre, film, painting, sculpture and many other arts enable us to understand the experience of others in countless ways, with what Martha Nussbaum has called the ‘inner eye’ of imaginative sympathy. They allow us to get inside the skin of other human beings who live in utterly different circumstances from our own, and to discover common humanity beneath the alien garb. (244)

Once again Isaiah Berlin’s influence is clear though, as this passage indicates, Garton Ash is equally indebted to Nussbaum’s understanding of the affective, educative and civic function of the arts – literature above all – as a more or less transparent means of fostering good neighbourliness whether locally, nationally or globally. He references Nussbaum’s The New Religious Intolerance: Overcoming the Politics of Fear in an Anxious Age (2012), but could equally have recalled her earlier books Love’s Knowledge: Essays on Philosophy and Literature (1990), Cultivating Humanity: A Classical Defense of Reform in Liberal Education (1998) or Upheavals of Thought: The Intelligence of Emotions (2003).

4. The idea that literature furnishes a kind of cultural and ethical knowledge attuned not only to ‘our differences’ but to the intricate particularities of what Henry James called ‘felt life‘ has a distinguished pedigree in Euro-American thinking. It can be traced back to Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759) and to nineteenth-century novelists like James and George Eliot, to keep just to the English-language tradition; and, following Berlin, to the German-language Weimar classicists of the late-eighteenth century. If the personal statements written by students applying to study literature at universities in the UK and the US are anything to go by, a version of this idea remains at the heart of the contemporary school curriculum. ‘Literature affords us a glimpse into other lives and cultures’ is a common opening gambit. The British academic-administrator Rick Rylance echoes these sentiments in Literature and the Public Good (2016), making them central to his defence of literary study in today’s world. For a contemporary critique of this orthodoxy, see Namwali Serpell’s essay ‘The Banality of Empathy‘ (March 2019), and for some related reflections, see Antjie Krog’s, ‘To Write Liberty‘ (2018), Teju Cole’sCarrying a Single Life: On Literature and Translation‘ (July 2019), and Velda Elliott, ‘Everything that’s wrong with sentencing a white supremacist to read Jane Austen and Charles Dickens‘ (September 2021).

5. Thinking interculturally via literature in the terms set out on this site and argued for in the associated book starts from a different set of premises. It also presupposes an alternative understanding of the knowledge literature affords and, consequently, of the civic role it might play in what Finnegans Wake calls the ‘citye of Is’ – Garton Ash’s ‘virtual cosmopolis’ which is, as he points out in his one citation from the Wake, at once ‘urban and orbal’ (19, see Wake 601). By implicitly repudiating the various Cities of Ought in the Euro-American tradition – St Augustine’s ‘City of God‘, for instance, and the ideal city of Plato’s Republic – Joyce recognized that the ‘everintermutuomergent’ and always imperfect global ‘citye of Is’ would demand a new kind of thinking about norms, empathy and much else besides (Wake, 55).

6. In the first place, thinking interculturally along these lines assumes that before any ‘transcultural effort of reason and imagination’ can properly begin we need to acknowledge that what we take to be our own culture is itself profoundly, if often ‘unconsciously’, indebted to other cultures – for Joyce the porous and always evolving character of the English language and its writing system is the clearest evidence of this (see Chapter 3 of the book). Second, following Coetzee (Chapter 5 and the Disgrace post), it assumes that cultural forms (e.g. the European novel) cannot be relied on as neutral means of ‘articulating our differences’, or of sympathetically transposing ourselves into other cultures, because they are too embedded in particular forms of life and ways of knowing. Third – and conversely – following Mphahlele (Chapter 4), Mehrotra (Chapter 7) and Chaudhuri/Rushdie (Chapter 8), it assumes that cultural forms and inheritances, no less than languages and writing systems, are mobile, adaptable and recyclable, and so never the exclusive property of any one era, tradition or community. Fourth, following Joyce, Tagore and Krog (Chapter 6), it assumes that cultural encounters can effect radical and potentially vitalizing change (of norms, inheritances, forms and languages) on either side, or on both, when it is not simply a matter of translating from A to B, or vice versa, but of A.1 becoming A.2 via B.1, or B.1 becoming B.2 via A.1 (see also the ‘Other Writers’ section).

7. If literature remains a source of contention in the ongoing struggle for the freedom of expression in our evermore connected ‘global city’, it is also one of the primary sites in which the questions of knowledge – its norms, forms and media – so central to that struggle and to the related effort to develop new modes of good neighbourliness arise. This is because what literature affords most immediately is not knowledge of ourselves or others but an experience of the languages and forms of writing in which particular ways of knowing – and forms of life – are staged, mediated, and sometimes tested and transformed. Engaging with this does not require any special powers, let alone a mysterious ‘inner eye’. In the first but not necessarily the last instance all you need are two ordinary, healthy eyes, some training in how to use them and a willingness to keep learning how to read and think differently (see Fourth Proposition).


Isaiah Berlin, Vico and Herder (London: Chatto and Windus, 1976).

David Bromwich, ‘What are we allowed to say?’, London Review of Books, 22 September 2016, 3-10.

Timothy Garton Ash, Free Speech: Ten Principles for a Connected World (London: Atlantic Books, 2016).

Namwali Serpell, ‘The Banality of Empathy‘, NYR Daily, 2 March 2019. For a similar critique, which also has much to say about Hannah Arendt, see Lyndsey Stonebridge, Placeless People: Writings, Rights, Refugees (Oxford: OUP, 2018).


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