Nussbaum Reviews Two Books on Poverty in India

How to write about poverty
Martha C. Nussbaum
The Times Literary Supplement
October 10, 2012

Suppose you want to wake people up to the human cost of poverty and to energize them with some urgency towards productive social action. And suppose you are a skilled writer. Your public, though well intentioned, is ignorant and more than a little obtuse, inclined to think of the lives of the poor (especially, perhaps, the distant or foreign poor) as not equally real. How do you write, if you want to inform their perceptions and inspire useful choices?

You could, of course, present your audience with a lot of data; but data don’t easily reach the part of our minds with which we see others as fully human. (It is said of Louisa Gradgrind in Dickens’s Hard Times that she had learned of the poor of Coketown as if they were so many ants and beetles, “passing to and from their nests”). It is plausible to think what Dickens clearly thought: that you can’t really change the heart without telling a story. What Dickens knew intuitively has now been confirmed experimentally. C. Daniel Batson’s magisterial work on empathy and altruism shows that a particularized narrative of suffering has unique power to produce motives for constructive action.

The English novel was a social protest movement from the start, and its aim (like that of many of its American descendants) was frequently to acquaint middle-class people with the reality of various social ills, in a way that would involve real vision and feeling. Dickens wrote of child labour, Frances Trollope of the stigma of illegitimacy, Thomas Hardy of seduction and class exclusion. In some cases novels of social oppression had large consequences. Abraham Lincoln was not exaggerating, or not much, when he (probably) said on meeting Harriet Beecher Stowe, “Is this the little woman who made this great war?”. Uncle Tom’s Cabin invigorated the abolition movement in a way that mere data had not (as David S. Reynolds documents in his excellent recent study Mightier than the Sword: “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” and the battle for America, 2011) – because it reached the heart. Later, Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle had a major influence on reform in the meatpacking industry. During the Depression, John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath had a comparable impact, educating the American public about the plight of migrant workers and producing support for New Deal legislation.

When the poor are in a distant country, narrative that conveys the texture of daily lives is even more urgently needed. Where India is concerned, a variety of talented writers, including Arundhati Roy, Rohinton Mistry and Aravind Adiga have put India’s poor before both domestic and Western readers with moral urgency. (Indeed, Mistry’s A Fine Balance, focused on a Mumbai slum during the “Emergency” years of 1976–8, is closely comparable to Katherine Boo’s nonfiction work, Behind the Beautiful Forevers).

Martha C. Nussbaum