Friday, August 02, 2013

Ender's Empathy

With the film coming out in November, it's the season for Ender's Game promotional material ... including Wiley publishing's Ender's Game and Philosophy: The Logic Gate is Down (Amazon, B&N). Since Ender's Game is one of my favorite novels from my teenage years, it was especially a privilege to tackle some of the themes in the book as an adult. My essay in the collection has the following title:

"The Enemy's Gate is Down: 
Perspective, Empathy, and Game Theory" 

As the title indicates, my main goal in the essay is to discuss how one's perspective on a conflict determines how one responds to it.

For example, game theory requires the participants to be able to understand their opponents motivations and possible outcomes, so that they can rationally determine what the "enemy" is going to do. In Ender's Game, this manifests through Ender's empathy, wherein he often seems to be able to intuitively grasp on a very deep level what his opponents want and need. As Ender says:
In the moment when I truly understand my enemy, understand him well enough to defeat him, then in that very moment I also love him. I think it’s impossible to really understand somebody, what they want, what they believe, and not love them the way they love themselves.
In the essay, also I put forth the idea that Ender really faces four different types of conflicts within the book, which I classify as follows:
  1. Military
  2. Leadership
  3. Vendettas
  4. Rebellion
Re-reading the book as an adult, I now see that much of Card's brilliance in crafting the story is how these different conflicts play off each other. This all relates back to Graff's upon Ender's arrival at Battle School:
There’s only one thing that will make them stop hating you. And that’s being so good at what you do that they can’t ignore you. I told them you were the best. Now you damn well better be.
Ender's only way of overcoming his isolation is through victories in leadership and military battles. However, Ender's military successes also serve to escalate the vendetta conflicts. When Ender finally "resolves" the vendettas, his conflict turns into a rebellion against the school authorities, which prompts his final battle room battle.

None of Ender's victories come without an escalation in one of the other areas.

And then, of course, I do have a bit of a discussion of game theory itself and how it relates to the situations described in the book. I touched on some of these similar general themes in my essay for The Hunger Games and Philosophy, which I discussed here. Both stories feature protagonists who are in no-win situations, playing games that they don't want to play anymore ... and their final response is, in many ways, similar: to ignore the rules of the game. It is only in abandoning the construct of the game that they are able to truly find victory (although, for both Katniss and Ender, this victory carries a hefty cost).

Ender's Game and Philosophy touches on a lot of deep themes which are inherent in Ender's, from the morality of warfare to the ethical responsibilities of caring for children to global geopolitical manipulation. If you enjoyed the book and want to learn more about these and other themes, then check it out.

And if you are concerned about the moral consequences of buying this book, I guess I should say this: this is an unofficial collection of essays and, as such, no proceeds from sales of the book go to Orson Scott Card. Just in case you're boycotting.

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