As a writer of profiles, Larissa MacFarquhar is granted the privilege of listening to, learning from, and sharing the stories of extraordinary thinkers like Derik Parfit, Noam Chomsky, Hilary Mantel, and Paul Krugman. And she’s often drawn to write about the individual thinking behind extreme altruism, dementia care, and whether to stay in a small town. Motivating her is a desire to place readers inside someone’s head: to see what they see and to think how they think.
In their dialogue, Larissa and Tyler discuss the thinking and thinkers behind her profiles, essays, and books, including notions of moral luck, exit vs voice, the prose of Kenneth Tynan, why altruistic heroes are mainly found in genre fiction, why she avoids describing physical appearances in her writing, the circumstances that push humans to live more extraordinary lives, what today has in common with the 1890s, and more.
Listen to the full conversation
Recorded December 17th, 2018
Read the full transcript
TYLER COWEN: I’m here today with the great Larissa MacFarquhar. She is a staff writer for the New Yorker, considered by many to write the very best and most interesting profiles of anyone in the business. She has a very well-known book called Strangers Drowning. The subtitle is Impossible Idealism, Drastic Choices, and the Urge to Help. It’s about extreme altruists. And she’s now working on a book on people’s decisions whether or not to leave their hometown. Larissa, welcome.
LARISSA MACFARQUHAR: Thank you so much for having me here.
COWEN: First set of question about altruism and extreme altruists. Are very virtuous people easy to dislike?
MACFARQUHAR: Not to me, but to many others. And this was actually news to me when I embarked on the book. I went into it wanting to simply understand the drive and the motives of people who could sustain the kind of extraordinary sense of duty and altruism that some of us have some of the time, moved maybe by a poignant photograph or somebody in front of us, but can’t sustain without those cues in front of us. But there are other people who can, and I wanted to know what made them tick.
But in my first foray into this field, I was writing about people who donated one of their kidneys to a stranger, and I discovered . . . I was talking to people about the people I was meeting, and they would say, “Well, those people surely are all mentally ill, right? Or they have some problem, or they are probably very, very censorious or judgmental.”
It was very surprising to me. I understand, of course, that not everyone is going to be an extreme altruist, but I didn’t realize the extent of the hostility and suspicion of them until I started writing about them. And I became fascinated by that. It became a major part of the book, trying to figure out where this comes from because I don’t think it exists in every time and place in the same way.
COWEN: And where does it come from, the hostility toward extreme altruists? Is it people feeling envy or that they don’t measure up?
MACFARQUHAR: I think it comes from many, many sources, and I tried to unravel some of them in the book. I think it comes from a sense that is trickled down from many academic disciplines, that humans are fundamentally egotistical, and therefore, insofar as they are not, it must be some kind of pathology or perversion. Psychoanalysis is especially suspicious in that regard.
But it also comes from so many areas of popular culture. For instance, one of the things that I became really intrigued by was Al-Anon. Al-Anon, as you may know, is the organization founded in the ’50s by the spouses and partners and family members of alcoholics.
It was designed to help people understand that trying to help someone stop drinking, which used to be an unambiguously great thing to do — it’s the thing that long-suffering virtuous spouses did — was actually not just unlikely to be helpful but was part of the same addictive behavior as drinking itself, as alcoholism itself. It was a sickness and one that needed to be gotten over.
I think this notion that trying to help people, sacrificing yourself to help people was a sickness became very widespread, especially in the ’70s and ’80s under the better-known term codependency. It’s part of our now unconscious culture, the way we look at altruists. When we hear about them, many people think first, “Are they sick?”
COWEN: If we think of extreme altruists in terms of personality theory, are they especially high or low in neuroticism?
MACFARQUHAR: [laughs] Oh gosh, I don’t know.
COWEN: Well you’ve met a lot of them, right? You must have an impression.
MACFARQUHAR: Well, I have met a lot of them. I think they’re fantastic. Of course, there are annoying altruists just like there are annoying golfers and annoying dentists, but I wrote about people I 100 percent wholeheartedly admired.
But I’ll say one thing: I read a lot of psychological and psychiatric articles about altruism, and nearly all of them, as I’ve suggested, pathologized altruism in some way. I became quite annoyed by this.
I read one article that described altruists in terms of parentified children. The idea here is that, if you grow up in a household where at least one of your parents is not functioning as a parent, either because they are mentally ill or they’re an alcoholic or an addict — for some reason they’re not functioning as a parent — obviously, in many cases, this just messes the child up.
But in some cases, the child responds by trying to fix the situation. They may take care of their parent, they may try to be a perfect student, they may take care of their younger siblings. They try to fix their family. And the idea is that this parentified child, the child who takes on the role of a parent as a young person, may grow up to have an outsized desire to fix the world, a sense of responsibility for the world in the way that they felt responsible for their family as a child.
And I thought about the people I’d met who I’d interviewed for my book, and not all of them, but lots of them had that circumstance. One of their parents was either an alcoholic or was mentally ill or was an addict of some kind. So I thought, “Okay, maybe there is something to this particular theory.” However, I do want to push back on the idea that this therefore makes somebody pathological. Just because your altruistic tendencies may not be free in the sense of freely chosen, devoid of any cause from your childhood, does not mean that they are wrong.
So here’s what I try to persuade people who tell me that all altruists are mentally ill. I say, think about a kid who grows up with two lovely parents who try to persuade them that taking care of other people is the right thing to do, and because of that upbringing, they also grow up to feel an outsized sense of duty and responsibility to take care of other people in the world. They are no more free than the person who came upon such a sense of duty because of their bad parents. So is one more free or worse than the other?
COWEN: Could the same person be both, say, a Rwandan killer in the 1990s and an extreme altruist? Or is that a contradiction?
MACFARQUHAR: Well, my husband actually wrote about the Rwandan genocide, and he has sometimes explained that to some of the killers, it felt like a community-building exercise. It was a way to support and cohere their own people.
No, I don’t believe that they could be extreme altruists because I think that genocide is wrong, and I don’t think that’s a very controversial position. However, it is certainly true that people who do very terrible things can consider themselves extreme altruists. And throughout history, as we know, it’s very obvious that people have sacrificed themselves as often for terrible causes as for good.
COWEN: I’m sure you know of Bernard Williams and his concept of moral luck, that how good you are may, in some cases, be a function of how lucky you become, that you make an initial investment, and you could end up as a kind of nobody with no impact. Or luck could be in your favor, and you could end up doing the world a great amount of good or, possibly, a great amount of harm. How do you see the moral luck notion as applying to extreme altruists or, for that matter, Rwandan killers?
MACFARQUHAR: I love Bernard Williams. I think he’s a beautiful, beautiful writer and a very interesting thinker. His classic example in this regard was Gauguin. Here is a painter who abandons his wife and, I believe, children to go to Tahiti and paint and find his artistic muse.
Fortunately for Gauguin, he had the moral luck to be an excellent painter, so everyone forgives him. They say, “How wonderful that he did what he needed to do to make this extraordinary art.” What if he had been a terrible painter? That wouldn’t have made a moral difference, but it would have made a difference to how we would judge him. So in that sense, he had moral luck.
With extreme altruists, there’s this sense that I think most of us have that morality should be judged by motive, and therefore it is, to some extent, divorced from luck. That’s why Bernard Williams’s idea of moral luck was so strange and so startling to many people. The idea is, if you try to do good, that’s what counts, and whether you are able to in fact do good is a result of luck of various kinds, like your own ability, the situation in the world that you find yourself in, all kinds of things like that.
But more ancient notions of morality find this paradox less strange because they believe that you can hold someone to account for how wise they are and how able they are to judge their actions and successfully anticipate whether they will produce wrong or not.
So you can blame someone for having a terrible idea of the good. That is part of how you judge them, and therefore, even though it may be because you grow up in a society where terrible ideas of the good are predominant, and you somewhat haplessly find yourself swept along in them, you’re still held to account.
COWEN: In your profile of Noam Chomsky, he seems to say that motives shouldn’t matter at all for assessing political action.
MACFARQUHAR: Yeah, and I don’t agree with that. He likes to judge only on the results, but I think because the world is as it is, we can never fully anticipate the consequences of our actions. The important thing is to try our best to do so and not to be feckless about ignoring likely consequences. But to ignore the difference between someone who is trying to do something that is genuinely good and someone who is doing the opposite seems to me deeply wrong.
COWEN: If you’re an extreme altruist, are you too subject to manipulation by others? If you care so much about so many other people, and those people actually can be harmed pretty easily at low cost, does this mean that you, the extreme altruist, you just go through life being manipulated?
MACFARQUHAR It’s funny you say that because one thing that I have noticed about the extreme altruist . . . You know what? I don’t want to call them extreme altruists. I think they’re people with a very strong sense of duty.
The people I met were very, very different from each other, but one thing they had in common is they really, really barely cared about what other people thought. They had to feel that way because almost everyone they met thought they were at best weirdos, and at worst dangerous megalomaniacs. So they were unconventional in their degree of duty but also in many other ways.
COWEN: They didn’t care at all what people thought about anything they did like how they dressed or . . . ?
MACFARQUHAR: Things like that. I don’t mean they didn’t care about anything about what people thought because obviously —
COWEN: In this context they didn’t care.
MACFARQUHAR: Obviously they cared about making other people’s lives better. But yes, in terms of opinions of themselves, they were much less sensitive to that than most of us.
For instance, there was a couple, the Badeaus, who now live in Philadelphia, who adopted 20 special-needs kids in addition to the two biological kids that they had, and that was obviously an unconventional thing to do. But it wasn’t the only one. Mr. Badeau, Hector Badeau, stayed home. He was the one who changed the diapers. He made the breakfasts, he made the lunches, he cooked the dinners for the most part.
And Sue, his wife, was the one who went out to work and earned the money to keep the household going. This was a long time ago. They started out life together — oh my gosh, it was many decades ago — I’m forgetting the exact year that they got married. And they just didn’t care that other people thought they were weird because they knew that was the price of doing what they thought was right to do.
COWEN: Is Paul Bloom right to suggest that empathy is overrated?
MACFARQUHAR: [laughs] I love his book. You know what? He gave the book an especially provocative title for obvious reasons. I don’t think he thinks that empathy is useless, but I do agree with him that people could do a lot more good if they didn’t rely solely on impulse and emotional attachment to issues that may be there just because they’ve heard of them as opposed to trying to do research, trying to figure out how they really can do the most good with the resources they’re willing to give.
I think organizations like GiveWell, which do research into various charities and show you which charities are more likely to succeed at their missions than others, are incredibly helpful.
COWEN: What’s the best argument against what’s called effective altruism?
MACFARQUHAR: Oh gosh, there are a lot.
COWEN: Everything has to become a calculation?
MACFARQUHAR: Effective altruism is essentially a utilitarian doctrine. In principle, there are far fewer objections than there are in practice. In practice, I’ve talked to many, many effective altruists over the years that the movement has been in existence. It was more or less founded in 2009 by the Oxford philosopher Toby Ord.
In principle, if you say effective altruists don’t pay enough attention to politics, to governmental institutions, to human rights, to what people say they want, which is as often equality as material well-being, they will say, “Well, there’s nothing in our philosophy that rejects those things. We’re for well-being of whatever form it takes, and if you convince me that going into politics is a better thing to do than going into banking, I’d be happy to do that.”
But in practice . . . They can, in principle, avoid the traps that in fact are preventing effective altruists from being as effective as they should be because in practice, it’s very difficult to resist a short-term surer bet in terms of doing good.
If you can spend a small amount of money and buy deworming medicine that will cure a child of worms and enable him or her to go back to school, or if you can buy a bed net that will prevent a family from getting malaria — those are such obvious short-term immediate goods that it’s hard to resist them.
It’s hard to take the gambles and take the risks of investing in less certain means of promoting welfare, like lobbying for political change, like investing in institutions that are obviously extremely important and, longer term, more important than immediate material gains.
COWEN: Do you agree with Steven Pinker that in the long run, we’re becoming more moral?
MACFARQUHAR: I have to confess, I have not read his most recent books, so I don’t feel equipped to talk about his thesis.
COWEN: But the basic claim — people are becoming better and more altruistic over time, true or false?
MACFARQUHAR: I just don’t know. What seems to be true is that in one very narrow sense of morality, we are becoming concerned about a wider circle of creatures than we were before. Whereas three centuries ago, let’s say, very few people cared about the well-being of slaves, very few people cared about the well-being of animals, very few people cared about the well-being of, really, anyone outside their own community, however they defined it, maybe by their church or their village or whatever.
Now, through a combination of discussion and technology, people have learned to care about more people. Does that make us more moral? That’s an incredibly complex question that I’m not equipped to answer.
COWEN: You’ve argued that there are quite few ambitiously good characters in fiction. Is that also true for genre fiction?
MACFARQUHAR: No. I’m so glad you asked that. I think that science fiction is full of heroic characters. So are romances. This is one of the things I concluded — that the absence of unambiguously altruistic heroic characters is almost one of the things that marks highbrow fiction as such.
Of course, there are many, many exceptions, and there are heroes in higher-brow fiction. Over the past 100 years, it has become noticeable that genre fiction is filled with far more heroism than higher culture. And it’s such a noticeable pattern that it’s almost as though there is something pushing against that kind of character.
When I started talking about this with people — I talked about this first with a novelist who shared a fellowship with me, so I saw him every day. I said, “What is wrong with you novelists? Why don’t you write about heroic characters who are moved by a sense of moral duty?” Because I find these people fascinating, and that’s one of the reasons I wrote my book, is that it was almost an advertisement to novelists: “You should write about these people. They’re not simple. They’re complex and fascinating.”
He gave me this look of total contempt like I had asked him to write about bunnies or butterflies. And I found that this was a feeling that many fiction writers share. I talked to another friend of mine who is a novelist. He was trying to write about a heroic character, and he said it was so difficult to write a novel about someone who was unambiguously admirable. It was almost as though the form itself was resisting.
COWEN: But why do we make heroes high status in the real world and relatively low status in the world of serious fiction? What accounts for that demarcation?
MACFARQUHAR: It’s as though high-status fiction, as you say, high-culture fiction is a kind of a culture of its own with its own set of values. And those values consist, among many others, of complexity and also a great privileging of the intimate, the person in front of you, the humanness of individual humans. It came to feel to me as though a love of universal humanness was something that fiction had an antipathy towards. It seemed too abstract and therefore was not appealing.
The kind of person that was always valorized — well, not always; I should not say always; as I said, there are exceptions — but tended to be valorized in novels was the person who rejected large universal abstractions about humans and valued instead the person in front of them, the person they loved, the member of their family, and was not like Mrs. Jellyby in Bleak House, always looking to suffering people far away.
COWEN: Dementia. If you ever succumb to dementia or Alzheimer’s, would you rather live in a world of comforting fantasy or unpleasant reality where you understood your condition?
MACFARQUHAR: It’s such a difficult thing because when I started thinking about this question, I thought I would be on the side of lies. I thought I would be on the side of “just be kind, tell people what they want to hear.” What’s the objection, both as a person potentially being related to someone with dementia and as a person with dementia myself? But as I came to talk to a lot of people about it, I came to think it was much more complicated.
First of all, there are practical problems. It’s not as though, when you have dementia, your cognitive decline is predictable and smooth. It goes up and down. You may be lucid one morning and not at all the next morning. You may be lucid in the afternoon and completely bewildered in the evening.
So there are all these practical difficulties, that if someone, thinking of you as they last saw you, lies to you but you’re lucid at that moment, you will see that lie, and you will realize that you cannot trust that person. What if that person is your only living relative? What if that person is your spouse? What if that person is the nurse who takes care of you every day? That is a devastation. That is an extraordinary tragedy that takes place in your life, and that’s a risk you’re always taking by lying.
Then I was very moved and convinced by the philosopher Sissela Bok, who wrote a book about lying several decades ago. She said the only issue is not the person in front of you . . . It’s very easy when you’re taking care of someone with dementia, or when you have dementia, to think that the only thing that matters is kindness, and the only thing that matters is kindness to that person whom you’re taking care of.
But she said that’s not the only thing that matters because if other people hear you lying, if your children hear you lying, if other people in the nursing home hear you lying, if people waiting in the doctor’s office hear you lying, and lying evidently with a feeling that’s the right thing to do, this will spread a sense that lying is fine, that lying can even be the better thing to do.
But once you’ve lost the sense that lying is rare and repellent, you’ve lost something essential in terms of social trust. And I think she’s right. It’s a very delicate thing, that if we all started lying —
COWEN: Should we stop lying to people who don’t have dementia?
MACFARQUHAR: Well this is the thing — that’s the whole problem, that if you’re going to lie to be kind to people with dementia, why not lie to everybody? My gosh, there’s always nice things you could say to someone that are completely untrue, and I’m sure we all do it on a daily basis.
But should we do it all the time? Should there not be some point at which you try to be honest rather than kind at every point? That’s one of the fascinating things about this question, is, well, what is the purpose of our adherence to truth?
COWEN: Your view on how much you should be lied to if you have dementia — is that the same as what you would propose for a sibling or a child, someone you loved and knew?
MACFARQUHAR: With dementia?
COWEN: Right. Would you be consistent and apply the same standard to them that you would want for yourself?
MACFARQUHAR: Ohhh, I don’t know.
COWEN: I would say don’t lie to me, but, in fact, for others, I would be more willing to lie to them than I would wish to be lied to myself.
MACFARQUHAR: Well, that’s why I started asking people, what about that, why couldn’t people decide? They decide in other medical instances. They sign advanced directives that, in principle, should direct their care when they can no longer enunciate what they want. Why couldn’t you do that with lying? Why couldn’t you say, “Don’t lie to me, I’m tough, I can take it.” Or “I hate lies.” Or “It’s undignified,” or whatever reason you had for rejecting them.
But the problem is that, with dementia, in many ways, once you descend past a certain level of memory and cognitive functioning, you’re not really you anymore. Is it fair to impose this harsh discipline of no lies on a future you who actually has very little in common with the you sitting across from me now and who is saying, “Don’t lie to me,” almost certainly who does not hold that value anymore, is very vulnerable?
Do you want to really force that person to suffer from lies like, “No, sorry, your spouse is long dead. No, sorry, your child has not come to visit you in weeks,” whatever truth you might want to tell them? And quite apart from future you, what about future me who is distressed by your distress? Should I be required to tell the truth to you and make you weep every single day? What if I’m your nurse in a nursing home and I am made miserable every day on the job because you insisted on truth back in 2018?
COWEN: Going back in time, has George Gilder’s tech optimism been proven correct, wrong, somewhere in between? What say you?
MACFARQUHAR: I would say no. I think it’s become very clear to us, especially in the last year or two, that there are many problems with the technologies that have been developed.
COWEN: What’s the biggest one?
MACFARQUHAR: Oh gosh, where to start? I don’t know that I have anything unobvious to add to what everyone already knows. I mean, privacy has been eviscerated.
COWEN: Do people care much about privacy? They seem to give away a lot of information for free.
MACFARQUHAR: This is true. This is true. But I think privacy has social ramifications that people don’t always consider. So they give away a lot of information for free on Facebook, let’s say, because they may imagine that on Facebook, they are giving their information to their friends. But it turns out they are not. They’re giving their information to lots of advertisers. They’re giving their information to political operatives. Their information cannot be put back into the bottle.
And we now know that Facebook — I’m just picking on Facebook because it’s the lowest-hanging fruit, but there’s many instances of this — we now know that Facebook’s mission to “connect everybody” — it sounded like it was going to produce a much more pluralistic, diverse world where people would have communication with people they couldn’t connect with physically because they lived in a different place.
But in fact, as you’ve noticed in Complacent Class, Facebook more often does the opposite. It unites people who are similar and convinces them that the voices in their own echo chamber are, in fact, the right ones to listen to, and they tune in less and less to other people.
It’s interesting. I would like to ask you about what you consider the roots of complacency and the kind of sorting that we have both been noticing. Because in some ways, you would think that people moving around and going other places and moving house every few years, as Americans did more several decades ago, would result in exposure to more kinds of people and have a bigger sense of the world.
But in fact, it often results in people grouping amongst people who are very similar to them. Whereas if you have an old-fashioned small town, it can result in the opposite, which is to say, people going to church with, or socializing with, people who are very different in terms of age, in terms of — well, not conviction in going to church — but running into people who are a different social class, who do different things for work, that kind of stuff.
COWEN: I think a lot of people are moving just once. They figure out where they really like it, maybe through cheaper travel and also the internet. They go there, they stay there, and then there’s less mixing and more sorting, and geographic mobility is down.
I see this problem as predating social media for the most part. One hopes that most people don’t live in social media bubbles. I think the data actually suggest they don’t so much. Social media don’t seem to be enough of a cure. Their net effect seems to be to keep us at home. You have Netflix, you have Amazon packages — wonderful things, but you enjoy them at home for the most part, and they just keep you there.
MACFARQUHAR: Exactly. And that’s the least mixing of all, is if you stay at home. The fracturing of our political dialog is only the most obvious of the malign effects of technology.
COWEN: Was George Gilder right about Sexual Suicide, as he titled his book? The notion that unmarried men would be less happy and maybe even headed for trouble.
MACFARQUHAR: Oh gosh. [laughs] What do you think? This is really a subject in which I am not an expert…
COWEN: The data seem to show . . . The correlations are consistent with his thesis. I doubt if we can demonstrate causality, but unmarried men earn less. They’re much more likely to have social problems. Some of that is selection — well, women are good at picking successful men to marry. But it would be odd if none of it were causal. So it’s long seemed to me there was something to Gilder’s book, Sexual Suicide, that he doesn’t usually get credit for.
MACFARQUHAR: Well, there’s lots of data to show that people who are in long-term committed relationships, whether marriage or other kinds of relationships, tend to be happier. So maybe there is something about humans that prefer to be in such relationships. But whether that’s more true of men than women, I don’t know.
COWEN: Let me ask you a few questions about profiles and writing profiles. In your Hilary Mantel profile, you wrote, “She believes that there are no great characters without a great time; ordinary times breed ordinary people (of the sort — dull, trapped, despairing — who inhabit modern novels).” Do you agree with her?
MACFARQUHAR: Well, I’ve always been struck by reports of people who come back from war, and they say that while it was terrible, it was also — this is not everybody, obviously, and not all wars — but I’ve been struck by how many people say that there was something also great about the experience of bonding with their fellow soldiers, of living so close to death that life became more extraordinary to them and more precious.
And people sometimes return from that kind of extreme existence to find regular existence kind of dull and savorless. That may be what she’s talking about, that there are times when humans are pushed by their circumstances to greater deeds. This is something that I noticed when I was writing about altruism also, that during wartime, things that seem extreme and bizarre and unreasonable in ordinary times come to seem normal.
In ordinary times, a kidney donor, for instance, somebody who donates their kidney to a stranger might seem like a weirdo, but during wartime, a soldier who sacrifices his life for that of a comrade is thought to be a hero for sure, but definitely not a weirdo. Somebody who leaves his family behind to serve in an army is, again, thought to be noble for doing so.
COWEN: So you’re returning to moral luck in a sense. We live in a time where most Americans don’t experience war, so they don’t have this chance to be great, and that’s luck, relative to their individual lives.
MACFARQUHAR: That’s right. But, look, I would never advocate, I would never consider it to be lucky to be caught up in a war in any capacity. Wars are awful. But there is something about certain circumstances that push humans to live more extraordinary lives than do the kind of easy circumstances that some people find themselves in here — not everyone by any means.
The great, great William James wrote an essay about a hundred and some years ago called “The Moral Equivalent of War.” He advocated a kind of — it sounds odd because of the name — but a kind of peacetime peace corps because, he said, there’s no need to depend on moral luck, in effect — this is not his language — but we can engineer circumstances in which people are pushed to the same kind of self-sacrifice and heroism that they might be pushed to in war, but we can artificially engender it, and we can do it in a way that does not result in the horrible bloodshed and loss and waste of war, that results in something positive.
So he had the notion of “Let’s send people to do work that is valuable but is really miserable and uncomfortable and pushes them.” They could be working in coal mines, or they could be working in soup kitchens. I can’t remember his examples; I read the essay a while ago. It was interesting because the reason he thought this was necessary is that he said people who are pacifists always talk about how terrible war is because it’s so bloody and violent and wasteful.
What they’re not getting is that people who like war — or don’t dislike war — admit all that; they know that. It’s very obvious, but for them, it’s worth it because of the stimulation, as they see it, to human greatness. And so, he said, we pacifists, we people who think war is dreadful have to come up with some other means, some other circumstance to push humans to greatness so that war, to people who value greatness, does not seem necessary.
On profiles versus podcasts
COWEN: If we do a one-on-one podcast, there’s no selective editing. Everything you say is presented to the listeners as you say it. Is that a more realistic look at a person than a profile, which is all about selective editing?
MACFARQUHAR: Yeah, possibly. When I write a profile, inevitably, it is going to be my view of the person, though I like to imagine that I am letting them speak. I realize this is an unrealistic fantasy of mine, but my fantasy in many cases is that I leave the room. I introduce the reader to the person I’m going to write about and say, “Here you are, I’ve introduced you. I’m going to go now, and you can talk.”
I like to imagine that the piece is, in a way, written by the person themselves. Now obviously, this is not true, and the piece is very much inflected by my view of the person, but that’s what I like to think about. Although, inevitably, a profile is unrealistic because it’s a subjective view of the person, I like to imagine that I try to do that as little as possible.
COWEN: What do you do to put people at ease when you’re interviewing them?
MACFARQUHAR: I don’t have any tricks. It’s funny, people will often ask me, “How do you get people to talk to you?” There’s no trick involved. When I am interviewing someone, I’m interviewing them because I really want to hear what they have to say, and I’m incredibly interested in their life and how they describe it and how they came to have the ideas that they do and why they love them.
I ask them, and I think most people just like to tell the story of their life and enjoy the feeling that somebody is intensely and unfeignedly interested in what they have to say. If I’m lucky, it can be a really extraordinary experience for both of us. Obviously, I don’t know the person very well. I just met them, or even if we meet multiple times, I don’t know them nearly as well, in many senses, as their friends or their family. Of course, that’s obvious.
But at the same time, for the most part, even people you know and love the best, you don’t talk about your life as a whole. They don’t say, “Well, why is it that you . . . Where did you start out when you were 10? What did you want to do when you were 10, and why did you at 20 take this path rather than that path? And why did you give up on that thing that you wanted to do desperately when you were 24 and now can barely remember it? How did that happen? How did you come to forget that thing?” Those kinds of questions.
And if you have a two-, three-, four-hour conversation, where you go with the person, prompting them over the course of their life, it can be revelatory for them too because you just don’t talk about that stuff usually. You talk about what you did last weekend or what movie you’ve seen or what book you’ve read or what you had for dinner — stuff like that. You don’t talk about these longer-term movements in your life.
So at its best . . . I’ll give you an example. I was interviewing a woman named Heather Meyerend who is a hospice nurse in Brooklyn. I asked her why she chose hospice as a specialty, and she said what I know from interviewing other hospice nurses is a common answer.
She said, “Even though working in a hospital is more prestigious, I didn’t like it because it was so fast-paced. You’re constantly rushing from task to task to task. There’s a lot of paperwork. You don’t ever get to know a patient. You’re just sticking needles in arms and doing things that need to be done but are not intimate.
Whereas, when you’re a hospice nurse, you spend an hour with a person. You really get to know them. You visit them every week, sometimes for months, and it’s much more.” Anyway. So fair enough, totally reasonable answer.
Then we started talking about her life, and she said — I’m going to get these details wrong, but something like, “My brother died at 20, and my other brother died at 24, and my niece died at 11, and my nephew died . . .” And again, I’m maybe getting these details wrong, but there had been so much early death in her family.
And as she was telling me of one death after another after another, she said, “Oh, I wonder if that has something to do with my choice of work.” It felt like such an amazing privilege to be there at that moment because it literally had not occurred to her before, this central understanding of her life.
COWEN: What led you to interview Derek Parfit?
MACFARQUHAR: What led me to? Well, I have to be honest. Although I had Reasons and Persons, his first book, on my shelf for many years, I had not read it, and I did not know — because I am not deeply part of the philosophical community — that he had a new book coming out.
So the idea came from my editor, Henry Finder, who does know a great deal about philosophy and suggested that it would be a good subject. And I was delighted because I had been meaning to read Reasons and Persons, and, as you know, it’s an electrifying book.
COWEN: It’s an amazing book.
MACFARQUHAR: It’s so exciting, and so I was thrilled to do it.
COWEN: If during a profile, when you describe people’s looks, are you worried that you are reinforcing stereotypes?
MACFARQUHAR: No. But I have —
COWEN: But isn’t there a thing, looksism?
MACFARQUHAR: Well, of course.
COWEN: There’s sexism, there’s racism, and looksism — people who look a certain way, you should make certain inferences. Is there any way we can describe people’s looks that doesn’t run that danger?
MACFARQUHAR: Probably not. But I’ll say two things about this.
First is, I think there is far too much emphasis on describing people’s looks. Because the thing about humans is that their faces are unique, so you can describe somebody, but you’re never going to be able to call up an exact picture in a reader’s mind about what the person looks like. So what you’re doing is not really describing what they look like — what you’re doing is evoking something which, I guess, the malign form of that is looksism.
But I’ve started avoiding describing what people look like, not because it results in looksism — though I’m sure that’s true — but because, unconsciously or not, it puts the reader in a position of being outside the person, looking at them.
But I’ve started avoiding describing what people look like, not because it results in looksism — though I’m sure that’s true — but because, unconsciously or not, it puts the reader in a position of being outside the person, looking at them.
And what sometimes — though not always — I’m trying to do is give the reader a sense of what it’s like to be inside that person’s head. And the more that you describe the physical person, the physical circumstances of the person, anything that involves being outside the person, looking at them, the less you cultivate that sense of intimacy that comes from being inside their head and looking out through their eyes.
On things under- and overrated
COWEN: In these dialogs, we often have the segment, overrated or underrated. Shall I ask you a few questions?
Kenneth Tynan, overrated or underrated?
MACFARQUHAR: I am so glad you asked. No one seems to know who he is. He was such a figure of his time. It’s very interesting. Kenneth Tynan, he was a — I should say because no one knows who he is — he was a theater critic, started as a theater critic in England in the ’50s, and then in the late ’60s I think, early ’70s, came over to America and started writing for the New Yorker.
And a very interesting thing happened to his writing. I don’t know to what extent it was a result of the New Yorker, or whether it was just him getting old, but when he was a young man, his writing was electric and baroque. The adjective-to-noun ratio was so high. Every sentence was encrusted with adjectives and adverbs, and there was no sentence that was just getting from A to B. It was so — what many would say overwritten, but I thought was so . . . It was just exciting.
COWEN: They were incredible essays.
MACFARQUHAR: So exciting. And then —
COWEN: Under-read today.
MACFARQUHAR: Yes! But an interesting thing happened, and I wonder which you prefer. Because as he got older, his writing got plainer and calmer, and it stopped jumping about, trying to arrest your attention.
COWEN: I only like the earlier Kenneth Tynan.
MACFARQUHAR: You know, I do too. But I think there is something about taste today that prefers a clearer, more limpid kind of prose. While I understand that sometimes overwriting can be annoying, sometimes it’s just lazy. You read early Kenneth Tynan, and you realize people aren’t trying hard enough. You can’t just say “cup.” You have to come up with . . . I’m not even going to try to imitate him, but suffice to say people should read him more.
COWEN: The Quentin Tarantino movie Reservoir Dogs — overrated or underrated?
MACFARQUHAR: I love that movie, but I don’t really know if it’s overrated or underrated because I don’t know how it’s rated. I think most people love it, so I would say it’s been given its due. It was slightly overshadowed by Pulp Fiction, which was also a terrific movie.
COWEN: But I think most people won’t watch it. So sort of “people like us —”
MACFARQUHAR: Oh, well, then, underrated.
COWEN: — maybe all love it. So I would say it’s vastly underrated.
MACFARQUHAR: Underrated then, okay.
COWEN: The DSM, Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. We’re going way back in time now.
MACFARQUHAR: Overrated or underrated?
COWEN: Slate pieces.
MACFARQUHAR: No kidding, I can’t believe you read that.
I would say — and I’m very curious what you think — I think it is underrated because people . . . There’s this silly notion that what psychiatrists do is label people with diagnoses, and that that’s really stigmatizing. For sure, sometimes that’s what psychiatry does.
But I think that a lot of the anti-psychiatric discourse is founded on misunderstanding that the DSM is psychiatry’s bible. That’s what many people call it, whereas, in fact, it’s more like a dictionary. What it is is a grouping. Each disorder is a grouping of symptoms that enable psychiatrists to talk to each other in consistent ways because they’re using the language of psychiatry in consistent ways and without which the discipline could not function at all.
So I don’t think it is as evil as people think. What do you think?
COWEN: I guess I’m more skeptical. I think of the categories as being used to define when an insurance payment should be made.
COWEN: And it takes a lot of people who have very mixed traits or not things that I would call a disorder, and it labels them in a way that is stigmatizing.
MACFARQUHAR: Certainly that can happen, absolutely, but I think it’s important to remember that a label and a diagnosis, while, for sure, can be stigmatizing and can be dreadfully so — the early DSM notoriously labeled homosexuality as a disorder. Obviously, that was both stigmatizing and terribly wrong.
But at the same time, in some cases, a diagnosis can be comforting. It performs many different functions. Sometimes a diagnosis means to a person, “Ah, I am not the only one. There are other people who have encountered this before. People have thought about what it means, thought about ways to alleviate the symptoms that give me pain. There’s hope!”
COWEN: The older British culture of Sinophile scholars, overrated or underrated?
MACFARQUHAR: [laughs] Impossible to overrate.
COWEN: Impossible to overrate, okay.
Using tape recorders for interviews?
MACFARQUHAR: I always do that because . . . I mean, not always. If I’m just interviewing someone for information, I try not to because transcribing tapes is a very time-consuming process. But one of the things I love about interviewing people is their language, the minutiae of the way they use words, and you can’t always get that when you’re just in a normal conversation because you hear, to some extent, what you’re expecting to hear.
When you’re taking notes on what someone says, you try to do it verbatim, but sometimes you will use phrases that you expected to hear because it’s the normal way to say something. But if you play a tape back, you hear that they didn’t say that. They didn’t say what you thought that they said. They said something a tiny bit different, and it’s so exciting because they said it in a way that’s a little weird. I mean, it’s just their own, and I find that exciting the way some poetry is.
COWEN: What’s your favorite part of China to visit?
MACFARQUHAR: I have not been to China since 1985, so I can’t answer that question. I’m sure it’s completely different. I’ll give you a little anecdote that shows you how long ago that was. I know you’ve been to China many times. My father is a China scholar, and my mother was a journalist who wrote about Asia, so both of them had been to China many times.
We were at a hotel in Shanghai in ’85, and we were standing in the lobby, and both of them said, “What is that?” And my brother and I, who were kids, said, “It’s music, obviously. What’s the big deal?” And they said, “No, no, no, we have to find where that’s coming from.”
They followed the sound of the music, we all four of us went to follow the sound of the music, and it was this little, tiny disco in one of the rooms in the hotel with a little disco ball rotating and multicolored lights, and they were playing Boney M, this British band from the ’80s. To my brother and I this was a normal sight. My parents — their jaws were open. They couldn’t believe that there was a disco in China. That’s how long ago it was I went there.
COWEN: What kind of cyborg would you like to be?
MACFARQUHAR: [laughs] I would certainly like to have a far better memory than I do, and I think that could probably be arranged cyborg-wise. What about you?
COWEN: But there is note-taking software. Is it somehow not good enough?
MACFARQUHAR: I’m sorry?
COWEN: There is note-taking software now with voice recognition. Doesn’t this do it for you?
MACFARQUHAR: No, because in order to make use of any kind of external memory function, be it library or a note-taking software or what have you, you have to know what you’re looking for. What I want is . . . That’s the problem with external memory, is that it doesn’t make the weird connections that your own mind does, don’t you think?
What would you like in terms of being a cyborg?
COWEN: The ability to get to more places more quickly. Really fast transportation without limit.
MACFARQUHAR: If you could have anything, that would be it?
COWEN: I think so, other than, say, living longer.
MACFARQUHAR: Wait, so the biggest problem in your life is time wasted on planes?
COWEN: It’s not just the time wasted. I read while I’m flying.
MACFARQUHAR: Right, exactly!
COWEN: But it takes a lot of time, it takes a lot of money. Connections are very indirect. If I could just walk into a Star Trek transporter and be in Uzbekistan, we wouldn’t be doing this podcast right now, perhaps.
MACFARQUHAR: That is fascinating. Plane delays are annoying, but I have to say, I’ve never considered them the biggest problem in life.
COWEN: Your next book is on why people leave American small towns and general issues of geographic mobility. Why has American cross-state mobility fallen so much since the 1980s?
MACFARQUHAR: You could probably answer that question better than I. I think a lot of the reasons are economic. It used to be that, in general, people moved to places with more jobs because they were looking for jobs, which sounds perfectly logical. Now people are often moving to places with fewer jobs because housing is cheaper, which is a sort of pessimistic and depressing fact.
But I’m glad you asked about this because I know we’re both interested in this question. One of the things I want to think about in this book is how people who stay are not necessarily staying because they’re stuck.
There is a dominant American mythology that the smart, ambitious, interesting people move. They leave — not just small towns, but anywhere — they leave their homes, and they go somewhere else, partly because they’re restless, partly because they’re curious, and partly because what they want to do is so big, it can’t be done where they are. And that leaves the people who stay looking dull by comparison. But I really want to question that.
The lodestar of this project, at least so far, is the great economist Albert Hirschman’s essay Exit, Voice, and Loyalty, which I’m sure you know. He argued that if you’re discontent with where you are or what product you’re buying, discontent with something, you can do two things: You can exit, which means you can either leave a place or stop buying a product. Or you can exercise voice — you can complain, you can try to change it.
I think this is extraordinarily important when thinking about issues of mobility because if everyone left, if everyone’s response to a bad job or a bad home was to leave, then nothing is fixed. It’s the people who say, “No, actually, I don’t want to leave. This is my home. There are many things wrong with it, but because I don’t want to leave, because I feel attached to it for other reasons, I’m going to fight.”
It’s really striking to me that the civil rights movement was driven in its earliest days not by the African Americans who migrated north in search of jobs but by those who were still home in Alabama and many other states, who didn’t want to leave.
I talked the other day to the extraordinary attorney Fred Gray. I couldn’t believe he was still alive. He was the person who defended Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr. in the bus boycott. The reason he is still alive is he did that when he was 25.
He went to law school in Cleveland because there were no law schools in Alabama who would accept black students at that point, and his professor there said, “Don’t go back to Alabama. You won’t be able to practice. There’s no room for a black lawyer in Alabama. It’s too racist. Just stay here, you’ll have a proper and a much better career.”
And he said, “No, the whole reason that I’m in law school is to go back to Montgomery and attack segregation.” And it was his loyalty to Montgomery . . . If he had stayed in Cleveland and had what appeared to be a better career — of course it wouldn’t have been, but sensibly might have been, reasonably expected, could have been — he would never have played a part in this extraordinary movement.
Similarly unions. If anyone who is dissatisfied with their wage — they reacted by going to the next employer, there would never be people who would stay and fight for higher wages and group together with people like them in the same position.
COWEN: If we think of all of the factors that induce or impel people to stay rather than leave, what’s the underrated factor or the one people aren’t focusing enough upon?
MACFARQUHAR: I’ve been talking to a lot of people about this, and I think one of the underrated factors is sheer stubbornness. I read this book by this guy, David Frost Jr., a man who lived almost his whole life in a little town called Eufaula, Alabama, in the southeast part of the state.
All of his siblings left the town because there was greater opportunity elsewhere. Most of them went to Cincinnati, one went to Chicago, one went to somewhere else — I forget, but somewhere else where there were jobs and opportunity. And this was not only a small town, but a small southern town. He was coming of age in the ’20s and ’30s. It was very difficult for a black man to get ahead in this town.
At one point, he was trying to register people to vote, and he was thrown in prison, and he heard that Judge Wallace — who, I think, was not George Wallace but George Wallace’s brother, Jack Wallace — wanted him never to come back to Eufaula because he was a troublemaker, wanted him to go. And his brothers in Cincinnati were saying, “Come join us. We can get you a job tomorrow. You can earn so many times more than you can earn in Eufaula. Just come join us and have a better life.”
When he heard that Judge Wallace wanted him out of Eufaula, he was like, “No! I’m going back. No one’s going to push me out.” It was just sheer orneriness — I mean, not only, but that was a big factor in why he was like, “No, no one’s going to push me out! I’m going to stay here. This is my home.”
COWEN: And extreme altruists as a group, if you have to classify them mentally, are they leavers or stayers?
MACFARQUHAR: Huh, that’s an interesting question.
COWEN: And how do your two books tie together?
MACFARQUHAR: I think they’re probably leavers because most of the people I talked to want to help humans generally. I don’t know if there is a necessary connection between strength of sense of duty and attachment to a universalist morality, but in the people that I spoke to, they were not particularly attached to helping their own community. They wanted to help people in general, and they looked about for the best way to do that, and often, that meant either going somewhere else themselves or at the very least sending their money far away.
And this is part of the reason I wanted to write this book now, because I found in conversations with people about such altruists that there was such a resistance to that, such a resistance to the idea that the best thing you could do in your life was to donate or give or help people with whom you had no organic connection. There was such an attachment to the idea that a person ought to help their own community first, and I wanted to explore that because the altruists I was talking to, to them this made no sense.
I remember one man I spoke to, Jeff. Jeff Kaufman would say, “Why should I have more obligation to a stranger who lives two blocks away from a stranger who lives in Ethiopia?” It made no sense to him. He understood that if someone is a member of his family or a friend, he might have more obligation to them, but if someone was equally a stranger, why should place make a difference?
I’ve come to think that place makes a great deal of difference.
COWEN: It’s sometimes suggested that people are always writing about themselves. Is that true for you? And if it is, how do you understand that?
MACFARQUHAR: It’s not true for me. I tend to want to write about people I admire and don’t altogether understand, and I write to understand them better.
On the Larissa MacFaruqhar production function
COWEN: As our final segment, a few questions about the Larissa MacFarquhar production function, as we call it. So many of your pieces, profiles, have philosophy in them. What’s your philosophical background, formal or otherwise?
MACFARQUHAR: I have none.
COWEN: But you read philosophy; you’ve read Parfit. You understand philosophy at a deep level. Where does that come from?
MACFARQUHAR: I love it. I love reading philosophy. But stupidly, I didn’t take philosophy classes in college. I think I had an experience that many people have had, which is they want to study philosophy because they think it’s going to be about the meaning of life, and they get into a philosophy class, and it turns out to resemble something more like algebra, and they’re discouraged and move onto some other discipline. That’s what happened to me, but I love philosophy now.
COWEN: Could you ever imagine relaunching Lingua Franca? Could such a thing survive today? You had an early role in it, correct?
MACFARQUHAR: Yeah, I was an editor at Lingua Franca, which is a now defunct magazine about academia. Yeah, I absolutely think so.
One of the interesting things about this time of ours is that there seems to be so much appetite — it’s almost like the 1890s again — there seems to be so much appetite for talks about ideas. There are all these lectures that are attended and sold out about relatively abstract, obscure subjects. The internet also has disseminated all kinds of writing about abstract ideas that people didn’t know how many people would be interested in reading such things. So I think yeah, absolutely.
COWEN: What’s your most unusual writing habit?
MACFARQUHAR: Oh gosh, I don’t know. What about yours? Give me an idea. What kind of thing are you thinking about?
COWEN: That I write every day, no matter what.
MACFARQUHAR: You do?
COWEN: I think it’s unusual. I do.
MACFARQUHAR: Well, you have a blog.
COWEN: I have a blog. But still, I have two Bloomberg columns a week. I write other things.
MACFARQUHAR: And is that important? Why do you think it’s important to write every day?
COWEN: It means you’re never not writing, and something gets done. A lot of it is never used or thrown out or re-edited, but it’s a way of avoiding having long blocks of time where you don’t get writing done, which is the bane of many a writer.
MACFARQUHAR: I guess. I don’t think it’s a bane. I don’t think it’s a bad thing if I am not writing every day. I certainly do not write every day, and I don’t think that’s a bad thing. I think it’s sometimes good not to be purposeful in what you are doing. If you’re writing, you are distilling vague thoughts into something more organized and purposeful, and I think there’s a lot of merit to allowing thoughts to just meander about in your head and make weird connections with each other before you push them onto the page.
COWEN: Final question. Let’s say a very smart 22-year-old comes up to you, and they say they would like to emulate your career — not in every detail, and obviously the path you took is no longer exactly available. But what advice would you give that person overall?
MACFARQUHAR: I would say that the predictions of the death of publishing and the death of reading have been going on for decades and they should ignore them. It’s not true. People will continue to read. I don’t know what form they’ll continue to read in. They may not read on paper; they may read only online. But if a person wants to be a writer, there is no reason not to do that.
COWEN: Larissa, thank you very much.
MACFARQUHAR: Thank you.