Watching the presidential debate Wednesday morning (17th October) Bangkok time was a reminder that what people saw, judged, and talked about was the ‘self’ on display by both Governor Romney and President Obama. The projection of ‘self’ is as important as the substance of their respective policies.
Such a debate is a medium in which the presence of ‘self’ becomes the central message. Projection of that ‘self’ is intended to convince the watchers of ‘self’ that the person on display is trustworthy, reliable, honest, quick witted, capable and knowledgeable. The color of the necktie, the American flag pin on the lapel, the smiles, smirks and frowns, the standing and pacing and circling, the position of the head and eyes all give clues as to the ‘self’ seeking to convince others of his leadership qualities. Each of these selves deliver packets of memories—of events, incidents, meetings, and those memories are paraded and defended as if they are universal in validity. Viewers are asked to ally their memories with the person addressing them. It happened this way or that way, or this is what I said, or what someone else said.
Memories are transient, fallible, and often distorted or false. It should be obvious that people remember different things, emphasize some details over others, overlook or fail to see something. In reality, people cling to their memories like a dog to a soup bone. That memory is provisional, often unreliable, or incomplete is a hard concept to accept for many. Western culture is built on an idea of ‘self’ that depends on the reliability and trustworthiness of memory. No one hears in a presidential debate a call to humility when it comes to memory. No one ever finds an admission that the other person’s memory, though different, may prove to be correct. Presidential debates are verbal wars between competing self’s (the attempt to call them ‘visions’ or ‘points of view’ are disingenuous), the compulsion to win the debate means defeating the other self, and along the way the casualty count includes ignoring the role of fallibility, gray zones of doubt, or cognitive biases.
Debates are in the same category as writing an essay, an opinion piece, or non-fictional account of an event or personality. The ‘I’ of the writer is front and center. He or she is uncoiling judgments, opinions, speculations, marshalling arguments and facts—the techniques featured in most non-fiction writing. The author of the essay like the debater doesn’t disappear and open a realm occupied by ‘characters’ with their ‘dialogue’ and their fears, uncertainties and doubts locked inside their private interior, the emotional realms where, in fact, most people spend a great deal of their time.
Debates and writing are influenced by the values and social norms. The starting point is to ask whether the debate you watch or the book you read is influenced by a culture based on a religion that promotes self-preservation or one that advocates self-extinguishment.
The three major abrahamic religions—Christianity, Judaism, and Islam—share a similar belief—‘self’ preservation in the afterworld. It goes by the name of a ‘soul’ but that is religion speak for the you; the self, the one you know and love—will exist for eternity in heaven or hell. That gives a presidential debate a mythic, biblical quality as two selves—two self-identified angels—battle for supremacy. One will prevail just as the other will fail.
What is missing in an essay or a debate is the absence of self. In Buddhism the ultimate goal in life is to have extinguished the ‘self’. This is what I find the essential difference between what I am writing in this piece and when I am writing a novel. At every turn, I am aware of myself in writing these words. They are mine. The thoughts behind them belong to me. I have called them out of my memory and present them as if they have no bias, are true, and that you should believe what I say. In other words, my ‘self’ is on display.
Fiction is quite different (in theory). In fiction the author who can never get over himself or herself will have a limited career. It is a forgetting of self. Letting go of self is a precondition for empathy. James Wood in a recent essay about the novelist Tom Wolfe examined how Wolfe had failed book after book to rid himself of ‘self’ and the result was every character sounded like a megaphone for Wolfe’s own self that never managed to leave even on dialogue line uninfected with his personality.
An author who in the act of writing sheds her ‘self’ is Hilary Mantel. Sophie Elmhirst’s essay in the New Statesmen is a revealing portrait of an author’s past and how it shaped her ability to forget herself and slip inside her character’s lives. Mantel disappears into her fiction; Wolfe shouts, screams and dances from a platform hand-waving to the audience as if he’s in a presidential debate. Mantel would make a good Buddhist and probably a good president. Wolfe’s literary ‘self’, on the other hand, I hope finds eternal peace.
In the absence of a highly evolved sense of empathy it is difficult for a fiction writer to enter into the dreams, thoughts, insecurities, doubts that people experience in their daily life. A fiction writer often talks about losing themselves in the characters and story. That is what they mean. Their self has vanished. They occupy a realm where the characters channel through the writer’s mind and reveal their most private secrets; the place where evil lurks, where the shadow of doubts trail self like a mugger, where the skin is stripped from the body of good intention and left out to dry.
Rather than hearing the two candidates debate about the middle class and working class they wish others to believe they care about so much, I’d ask them to write a novel. I want to see what comes from such men when they suspend their sense of self and enter into the emotional lives of ordinary men, women and children. That would be the kind of ‘information’ I’d like to know. Ultimately it is the empathy connection that is the thread that ensures fiction won’t die. It should be part of the sewing kit that goes into the mix of an election. We can’t trust the self presented in a debate or an essay if that is all we have to go on.
We should be asking leaders to not pepper their debates with references to having met this person or that who had a problem as a nod to empathy, a way for them to identify a sympathetic self. That won’t tell us much about their capacity for empathy. ‘Self’ is the main character in presidential debates. We need to know, and deserve to know, what leaders pay to attention to when they look at other lives. If they can never escape the ‘self’ you can’t ever be sure as their term spools out before your eyes whether they really have the ability to tell a story through the lives of other selves in the full glory of lives haunted by doubts, racked with suffering, and disappointments. Paying attention to how ordinary people cope with their lives shouldn’t be limited to fiction.
I’d like to read Obama’s novel and Romney’s novel. I want to know how their minds work when it isn’t focused on self. I want to understand how empathy works for them through the words and acts of characters who make stupid decisions, crazy choices, people who fail, those who give up, those who get up and struggle to keep going. Or a painting in the style of Francis Bacon self-portrait might also be interesting.
If I had that sense of these men in the act of forgetting themselves—that is the nature of the best of fiction—I might know something important, more important than a vague policy or intention to do this or that. I’d have a sense of someone who walked a mile in someone else’s shoes and was able to communicate what that experience was like and could make that experience real enough for me to believe he understood something genuine about the human condition. Both profess belief that the ‘self’ is preserved. They have a lot at stake. We will likely never know if their novel would have been written in the tradition of Wolfe or Mantel. I’d like to think one day that might matter, and how someone forgets ‘self’ and embraces empathy is better indication of leadership ability.