Friday, January 16, 2015

Seana Valentine Shiffrin

Seana Valentine Shiffrin is professor of philosophy and the Pete Kameron Professor of Law and Social Justice at the University of California, Los Angeles.

Her new book is Speech Matters: On Lying, Morality, and the Law.

Late last year I asked Shiffrin about what she was reading. Her reply:
I just finished Alice Goffman’s On the Run: Fugitive Life in an American City and Leslie Jamison’s The Empathy Exams. On the Run is a fascinating ethnography of a predominantly African-American neighborhood in Philadelphia in which Goffman lived for about six years as a student. Goffman, now a professor of sociology at University of Wisconsin-Madison, focuses on the daily trials of its young male residents. Many of the men she befriends have had early legal troubles, often as children, some of which are quite minor, that transmogrify into disproportionately life-defining events that seem almost impossible to move beyond. Missed court dates, unpaid court fees, being out past an early curfew, or riding in the wrong car with the wrong drug-possessing passenger may all constitute parole violations that generate arrest warrants and may result in longer jail time. Employment is difficult to get with outstanding warrants and looming court dates, so many young men either remain unemployed or sell drugs to stay afloat; their economic instability makes it difficult to pay court fees, failures which then generate further legal difficulties. Their precarious legal status may also make them vulnerable to theft or violence, because they cannot call the police for help or to report crimes against them without risking arrest themselves; this vulnerability, in turn, makes them more likely to resort to dangerous forms of self-protection that may also worsen their legal position.

Most affecting is the book’s description of how their perpetual compromised legal status strains relationships. The police hunt for men with warrants out, looking for them on the street and at their parents’, their children’s, and their friends’ homes. Police searches often involve tearing homes apart in the middle of the night, handcuffing residents, and delivering serious threats to friends, parents, and lovers if they don’t turn in their loved ones. Hence, men with outstanding warrants not only avoid their homes, they must also avoid funerals and even hospitals where the police troll the waiting rooms; men in danger therefore do not get necessary medical treatment, miss their children’s births, and can only supply needed support to friends and family from a distance. They learn literally to run to evade the police and, for extended periods, to hide in their own neighborhoods.

On the Run is an arresting and compassionate book informed by much close observation, exposing another facet of the misdirected war on drugs and the ongoing legacies of discrimination and economic inequality faced by many African-American communities. Unlike many non-fiction books, it remains gripping throughout, especially the final methodological note.

Jamison’s The Empathy Exams explores case-studies, many autobiographical, in the phenomenology of physical and emotional suffering. Jamison showcases the radiating temporal and mental effects of suffering and the labor involved in experiencing and showing compassion for others. Jamison is at her most powerful in demonstrating that empathy is not an emotional reflex that overtakes you if you happen to be susceptible to it. Empathy involves work -- offering careful, sustained attention, asking probing but sensitive questions, remaining available for open-minded listening to often repetitive complaints, and supplying honest but sometimes restrained responses.

The essays are compelling reading -- sufficiently moreish that I read the collection in a day. The first two chapters are particularly fine. The first meditates on Jamison’s experience as a ‘medical actor’ who helps to train medical students to diagnose conditions and demonstrate empathy. The other reports on a set of patients who suffer from ‘Morgellons disease’, – an excruciating skin condition whose medical status is contested (is it predominantly a physical condition caused by parasites or predominantly a mental condition giving rise to physical symptoms?) and the strains that this uncertainty places patients and their supporters.

Finally, I’ve recently begun Joshua Ferris’ To Rise Again At A Decent Hour. I read a lot of fiction – partly as an absorbing escape, partly to expose myself to the material and interior worlds of others, and partly from the hope that reading good writing will improve my ear, and ultimately, my own writing. My book group chose this book when I wasn’t present, so I’m unsure why it was chosen. That may sound sharper than I mean to be. True - I’m not sure I would have chosen the book, but that’s part of the reason to belong to a group. You read things you wouldn’t otherwise read. Even when you don’t enjoy the choice, you learn about your friends and about writing through reflecting on an unexpected, shared experience. I am about a third into Ferris’ book. The writing is intelligent and polished. It’s full of clever, McSweeney’s-style observations and detours. So far, it’s an introspective first-personal account of a New York dentist, who although lonely and needy is also cocky and obnoxious. The book is starting to turn into a mystery about who set up an unsolicited and unwanted website for his dental practice that contains provocative and esoteric religious proclamations. I am mildly intrigued by the mystery, but also somewhat weary of the constant exposure to the main character’s personality, delivered at an unrelenting pace.
Learn more about Speech Matters at the Princeton University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue