Steven Pinker: Literature Improves Our Ability To Empathise

Is literature a type of empathy technology? In the video below, the Harvard academic Steven Pinker observes that the rise of the novel correlates with some of the most significant humanitarian drives throughout history. Pinker makes the excellent point that fiction requires the reader to use his/her imagination to project themselves into the life of another person whose experience may be far removed from their own.

One example he names is the anti-slavery novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe, which served as a powerful intellectual impetus for the abolition of slavery in the United States. Other notable examples are the collected works of Charles Dickens and their depiction of poverty in 19th century England.  And though The Diary of Anne Frank  isn’t a novel, it is still one of the major humanitarian works of literature of the 20th century.

This is yet another argument against the strange notion that the arts and humanities are “useless“.


Disagreement May Be Uncomfortable But It Exists For Good Reason

Everything is political nowadays. I cannot remember a time of more intense political debate. People still share funny cat videos and pictures of their food, but as any content creator will tell you, there is huge interest in politics and current affairs right now. There is a lot of stuff going on in the news: Trump, Brexit, the EU, #MeToo, North Korea. The list goes on. But also people are more exposed to political debate through social media where everyone is mostly able to freely express their opinions, which they do a lot.  This has costs and benefits. It is good to see more people engaging in public discourse, but politics means disagreement and people do not always disagree well. Arguing over politics has caused rifts in families and friendships. In extreme cases it can lead to social discord, polarisation and even violence. There have been people, such as Thomas Mair, Salman Abedi, Darren Osborne, and the London Bridge attackers, to name a few notable examples, who stopped engaging with others and started attacking them instead. This has led many people to lose faith in free speech and open platforms that allow anyone to publish their views, no matter how abhorrent. At such times, it is important to not only argue for free speech, but also for disagreement itself. Read More…

Civilisation Is About The Transformative Power Of Beauty

Next week Monday, the BBC will be airing a remake of the iconic television series Civilisation, which was first broadcast in 1969. Presented by the acclaimed art historian Kenneth Clark, the original programme examined the history of western civilisation through the prism of art, poetry, literature, philosophy music and architecture, in 13 episodes.

It was an incredibly ambitious idea that Clark and the BBC production team pulled off with great aplomb. Nearly half a century later, these visual essays are still magnificent to watch with their depth and range of scope. Read More…

The Suffragettes Didn’t Shrink From Dangerous Ideas And We Shouldn’t Either

Today is the centenary of the incredibly brave and successful campaign that the Suffragettes and Suffragists fought to extend the franchise to women. It is a reminder of people who took on real risks and were prepared to incur heavy penalties for something that so many of us simply take for granted in the present day.

It was a bold and progressive move that set the stage for universal voting rights in which all men and women, regardless of class, were able to actively participate in the electoral process.

Right now, however, the campaign for female equality seems to be in a more regressive phase that censors paintings which even mildly eroticise women. Last week, in a complete failure of both imagination and courage, the Manchester Art Gallery removed an artwork by the pre-Raphaelite painter John William Waterhouse called Hylas and the Nymphs based on a Greek myth where a young warrior Hylas is tempted away from his lover by a group of naked and alluring water nymphs. Apparently, the gallery wanted to “prompt a conversation” about the “old-fashioned” representation of women in Victorian art. Read More…

Why Is It Easier To Conform Than To Tell The Truth?

In his new book 12 Rules For Life, Jordan Peterson has a whole chapter called “Tell the truth or at least don’t lie.” Peterson often talks of the need for people to be truthful and not to say things that they know to be untrue.

Peterson is hardly saying anything revolutionary. What he is advocating seems completely obvious. Most people know that it is better to be honest than not. Read More…