Empathy as a Weapon in the Ender Saga Part II: Abused and Abuser in Ender’s Game

Ender Wiggin experiences abuse at the hands of his brother Peter even before he ever enters the Battle School. Largely ignored and emotionally neglected by their parents, Peter terrorizes both Ender and his sister, regularly threatening to kill them both. According to Graff, it is this sociopathic quality that prevents him from being chosen for the Battle School. Yet Peter is not portrayed as totally inhuman. At night when Ender believes Peter thinks he is sleeping and can’t hear him, Peter whispers his apology and says that he loves Ender. It’s unclear whether this is Peter being genuine and vulnerable in a moment where he feels safe to do so because Ender is unconscious, or whether he is fully aware Ender is awake and is just messing with him.

One thing is clear—Ender is a deeply damaged kid. When he is approached at school by a bully he opts to handle the situation by kicking the life out of him. The rationale he applies to this brutality is that by completely defeating the bully in front of everyone, he can prevent both the bully and the other kids from going after him in the future.  Of course, he feels bad about this, but it’s mostly for himself. He worries that by doing this, he is like Peter. It is a worry he carries throughout the novel, that like Peter, that he is a monster.

The narrative seems to insist that he isn’t like Peter. It’s his “empathy” that sets him apart and makes him different from Peter. This is the reason Graff gives for recruiting Ender for the Battle School, while rejecting Peter. It is this same empathy which apparently sets him up to be insightful enough to understand the buggers.

The books try to set this up as being empathy in the general sense… but it isn’t. Not really. It seems to me to be the empathy that abuse victims tends to develop for their abuser. This is a common thing that most humans do—we learn to empathize more acutely with people who have power because it allows us to read their behavior to our own advantage. In the case of an abuse victim, it’s this empathy that allows them to read the abuser well enough to know where the next blow is coming from—the root of Stockholm syndrome if you will. This is not unique or absolute, though it can be more acute in the case of abuse victims. Most people seem to be predisposed to empathizing with people in power for the same reasons. Empathizing with the victim or our subordinates tends to be more difficult—and the ability to empathize also tends to change as our relative power does, unless we consciously adjust to it. There’s a reason power corrupts.

Similarly, Ender’s empathy shifts away from his subordinates at the Battle School (particularly during times of stress, when he himself feels threatened) but shifts to his opponents. In the book, he describes it like this:

 “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 love somebody, what they want, what they believe, and not love them the way they love themselves. And then in that very moment when I love them…I destroy them. I make it impossible for them to ever hurt me again. I grind them and grind them until they don’t exist”.

This is notably, Ender’s explanation for why he hates himself. There’s a lot of complicated emotional things going on here. Firstly, he is recognizing empathy as a weapon—as love itself as a kind of weapon. Secondly, in loving his enemy in order to destroy them, he ends up hating himself as a form of self-preservation.

The “love” and even the “understanding” as Ender puts it are not really love and understanding in the way that I would think about it. Because his view is so warped, “love” and “understanding” are indelibly tied to destruction, power, and most importantly control. This mirrors the way Graff and Rackham describe “loving” Ender despite manipulating him at every turn. Ender also begins to imitate that manipulation when training his team, especially in how he acts towards Bean. Which is important because Bean is also the person he most identifies with. Just as he loves his enemies the way they love themselves, he loves his friends the way he loves himself… which remember, he hates himself. In this way, he begins to really make the transition from abused to abuser, by perpetuating the same cycle of abuse which he perceives as love.

The most disturbing part of this is how his world-view is reinforced by the narrative. After he destroys the alien home world and the last Hive Queen reaches out to him, he writes their story. From that point onward Ender (in his role as “Speaker”) is continuously lauded as “empathetic” because of his ability to speak for the Hive Queen—even though he really isn’t. The Hive Queen does ALL the empathizing. She puts everything in human terms so Ender can understand, because she saw their similarities. It’s particularly notable that she empathizes with him as a conqueror—and again, it’s the victim—the defeated—who is empathizing with the abuser. She uses it to convince Ender to sympathize with her through their similarities in her own self-interest.

Like a battered wife trying to placate an abusive husband, she tells him everything he wants to hear—“we did not mean to hurt you, and we forgive you for our death,” she says. It’s both an admission of guilt and forgiveness for the effect of Ender’s (and the other humans’) actions—but not the action itself. The victim apologizes, and the abuser is allowed to be forgiven for the effect of his abuse, which he is legitimately sorry for (as he would be sorry for the pain inflicted by an accident) but never actually holds him accountable for the action of the attack.

Meanwhile, Ender is able to indulge in masochistic sense of guilt. The kind of guilt which allows him to believe that he is different than Peter (who would apparently feel no remorse), but which is notably, entirely under his own control. Ender is never really faced with a critical narrative outside his own control. Even the changing opinions of humankind about the xenocide he committed are the result of the book he wrote as Speaker. He never really has to face himself through the eyes of someone he’s hurt. He never has to empathize with the victim, least of all someone he has victimized himself.

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