Empathy as a Weapon in the Ender Saga Part I: The Empathetic (Sympathetic) Monster

I just finished reading Ender’s Game and Speaker for the Dead by Orson Scott Card. I can’t say these are books I like. But at the same time, they are not easily dismissed. They are books that some people absolutely hate, and which are deeply meaningful to others.

Let’s begin with Ender’s Game. The novel follows the story of Andrew “Ender” Wiggin, a child genius sent to a “Battle School” orbiting Earth to train for battle against a race of insectoid aliens who have already attempted to invade Earth twice.  The Battle school is full of young boys and few girls—as Colonel Graff describes “They don’t often pass the tests to get in. Too many centuries of evolution working against them.” To Card’s credit, he doesn’t seem to be calling women stupid in his universe. Throughout the two books genius-level female characters are as common as male geniuses. (In fact, there are a few too many “geniuses” and child prodigies in this universe and it tends to water down the “specialness” of this attribute.)

But the evolutionary justification against women at the Battle School seems to be a censure against the female propensity for violence, ruthlessness, and competition. Valentine, Ender’s sister didn’t make the cut supposedly because she was “too empathetic” while Ender’s brother was rejected for not being empathetic enough. This is a slight misunderstanding of evolution and more importantly it is a misunderstanding of socialization.

I think most humans in general have the capacity for violence. But the key is really in how people are socialized to engage with that violent tendency, and whether their social and physical context makes violence a viable strategy. This idea of socialization actually plays a pretty important part in the text itself, though there is also a strong streak of “innate” qualities as well (Ender’s “empathy”, “leadership”, etc., are all portrayed as innate qualities). The instructors at the Battle School sadistically maneuver the students to compete with each other. Far from policing violence outside of the War Room they allow or even foster violent encounters between the students.

Twice Ender resorts to brutalizing bullies to prevent (in his mind) further attacks. In both cases he is being closely observed by the adults who allow it to happen. Obviously, there are other ways of handling your enemies besides total annihilation. For that matter the bullies themselves could be led to different strategies to address whatever is motivating them to attack Ender in the first place. But the adults do not give any of the children in these situations different strategies for handling conflict—or their own insecurities. Violence is continually pushed on them as the only rational solution, and each time Ender is both rewarded and shielded from the full implications of this violence. He kills both of the children he fights with, but the adults keep the knowledge of their deaths from reaching him. This continually reinforces the notion that violence is an acceptable, often successful solution with no real adverse consequences.

Is it any wonder then, that Ender is so easily manipulated into committing an act of mass genocide? In the novel he is again shielded from the knowledge of this horrifying act until the end, but at that point the subterfuge is not totally necessary—in fact Ender even admits in Speaker that he probably would have done it anyway, even if he hadn’t been fooled into thinking it was just a simulation, particularly because at that point he mostly doesn’t understand the Formics are sentient. But even if he did know that, he might have still done it as long as he shared the IF’s belief that not destroying the Formic homeworld would result in the end of humankind. He just would have felt kinda bad about it afterward.

This is the most distressing part of Card’s work—for even though the genocide (or xenocide, as the book refers to it) is not glorified as an unambiguously good thing, it is portrayed as both necessary and to a certain extent inevitable. In some ways this is an attempt to create Ender as a character who is a massively successful war hero, while keeping him sympathetic despite wanting to show the full horror of what that success entails. People have accused Card of being a genocide apologist on account of this dissonance, but I don’t think that’s his aim here. Rather, I think Card is trying to guide us into a “hate the sin, but not the sinner” type of thought-process.

It almost works with Ender—he is after all, pretty much manipulated and brainwashed into being a tool of destruction from the very beginning. Colonel Graff, as well as the author himself, seem to be intent on creating a character who is a monster, but who has the capacity to feel guilty about it. On Colonel Graff’s part, this is a necessary machination because the monster in question must be ruthless to his opponents but still have the empathy to gain his subordinates trust and loyalty, as well as well as being able to understand his opponent well enough to anticipate their strategies. In the words of Mazer Rackham “Any decent person who knows what warfare is can never go into battle with a whole heart. But you didn’t know. We made sure you didn’t know.”

This whole section of the book where Graff and Rackham are explaining why they tricked Ender into commanding the fleet that killed the buggers completely undermines their excuses. Because they very clearly did not need a “decent person” nor did they go about creating one in Ender. Furthermore, they themselves seem to have the capacity to both empathize, understand, love, and still be completely ruthless bastards. They both say repeatedly that they “love” Ender in conversations with each other—that they hate what they are doing to him, but the insist it is necessary and so they are able to convince themselves to do it anyway.

Graff and Rackham specifically set out to emotionally abuse the children in their care to manipulate them into being used as weapons. They foster an environment where children murder each other all in the name of creating a monster capable of committing genocide. But if they are capable of sacrificing the well-being of children, have the intention to commit genocide from the beginning, and actually celebrate it when finally occurs, why would they need to make a child do it in the first place based on the logic that only an unknowing child could go to those extremes? It seems like they are damn well capable of being that kind of ruthless while still understanding their victims. There is literally NO REASON they couldn’t have done it themselves.

It’s a flimsy and elaborate plot to create a “blameless” genocide on the part of Graff and Rackham. It’s hard to read this and not see that Card is doing the same thing with the novel as a whole. And the question is why?   What is Card trying to say here? There is this underlying theme in the novel that seems to be about empathizing with the monstrous and alien. But as is typical with Card, empathizing is less about understanding despite differences than seeing how we are similar (which is actually sympathy, not empathy). And so rather than challenging the reader to empathize with someone who commits a heinous act like genocide, he instead creates a sympathetic monster by concocting a bizarre scenario in which the monster is, if not completely innocent, then at least unintentionally monstrous.

I do see how some people are left wondering whether what happened here was that Card wanted to write a book in which genocide is justified, but still be able to think of himself as a good person. The same way Graff and Rackham create a proxy to commit genocide while convincing themselves that they are too “decent” to actually do it themselves.

But—the more I think about this book the more I wonder if the question of child soldiers, strategy, politics, and genocide are just a framework for what the story is really examining—the psychological transformation of an abuse victim into an abuser by over-empathizing with position of the abuser. I’ll explain more in Empathy as a Weapon in the Ender Saga Part II: Abused and Abuser.

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