A few weeks ago, I saw a lovely little film called ‘Okja’. Somewhat of a departure from the previous work of South Korean director Bong Joon-ho, we follow the story of a touching friendship between a young girl, Mija, and her family’s “super-pig”. We are told at the start of the film that these super-pigs are being bred by farmers all over the world, funded by the smiley but sinister Mirando Corporation, of whom Tilda Swinton is the delightfully callous CEO. The main goal of the ten year long project is to create a special breed of pig, one that can efficiently feed Mirando’s hungry consumers. Importantly, they must be large, fat and “taste fucking great”. Okja, Mija’s over-sized cute companion, is one such pig.
I won’t go too much into detail about the film here, to avoid spoiling it, but the basic plot is fairly straightforward. Mija is happily living with Okja and her farmer grandfather in the South Korean countryside. But when Mirando’s ten year project ends, the employees come to collect their prize. Okja is taken against her will by the company, and Mija is devastated. Bravely, she embarks on a mission to bring Okja home.
Ultimately, the themes of the film are obvious, and perhaps a little heavy-handed. It’s clearly about the ethics of large-scale meat production, and the cold, calculating logic of corporations (the “hard working business-people” that Tilda Swinton defends at the end of the film). And it clearly has a message to get across to viewers, so some may find the film preachy. However, this is really no surprise, as political and environmental statements have been central to both of Joon-ho’s previous films: The Host begins with two people dumping toxic waste into a river, and the entire setting of Snowpiercer is created by a scientific solution to global warming gone catastrophically wrong. In Okja, though, the ethics take centre stage, at least in the film’s final third.
I believe that Okja is very successful in delivering its core message. What I want to talk about briefly here is the role of empathy in this success. In my opinion, getting us to empathise with a single super-pig is a far more effective means of conveying a moral message than is showing us a documentary of squirmy facts and statistics about meat production. To understand why, we need to understand a little bit about empathy in human psychology, and what it’s there for.
There are probably as many definitions of empathy as there are researchers studying it, but the most simple one, used by Paul Bloom in his recent book “Against Empathy” (counter-intuitive title, I know… we’ll come back to that), is as follows: empathy is the act of coming to see the world as you think someone else does. Therefore, if I empathise with you, I feel your pain as my own, or your joy as my own. There’s an entire literature out there focused on how such empathic thinking can drive cooperative behaviour and concern for the well-being of others, which adds weight to the general folk consensus that more empathy leads to more good in the world.
What evolutionary purpose might empathy serve an individual? What use is putting myself in someone else’s shoes? Some have argued that empathy has most likely evolved in the context of kinship and parental care, encouraging us to care for the well-being of those we have a genetic stake in (Decety, 2015). However, it can be extended beyond the familial realm, most prominently towards other group members, suggesting that it may also play a role in facilitating large-scale cooperation. Most importantly for our discussion, though, is that empathy acts by creating a spotlight on a single individual, allowing us to simulate their emotional worldview. As Adam Smith put it, when we empathise with someone, we “become in some measure the same person with him, and thence form some idea of his sensations”. Notice the use of the singular, rather than plural, in that quote; this will become relevant in a second.
Now we understand what we mean by empathy, let’s get back to Okja. Why is the film so successful at delivering its ethical argument? I would argue that it is because the film so cleverly plays on all of the triggers that activate the proximate mechanism of empathy in the human mind, manipulating us to care about Okja’s well-being, as opposed to lecturing us with large inconceivable numbers and uncomfortable statistics about factory farming.
Firstly, Joon-ho uses beautifully crafted CGI to bring Okja to life, and anthropomorphises her to the point that we truly believe she has an inherent human-like character. The anthropomorphism is vitally important: it’s not as easy for us to empathise with animals, as that’s not what empathy was functionally designed to do. Joon-ho therefore choreographs Okja’s behaviour to go over and above that of any normal animal; by, for example, saving Mija’s life at the start of the film. The way the camera flashes up to Okja’s shocked eyes when Mija almost falls to her death from a cliff edge, is carefully crafted to make the viewer feel like there really is a person inside, someone that can be empathised with.
Secondly, Okja is the only super-pig we really come across, in the whole film. This is important for the reason I mentioned earlier: it’s impossible for people to empathise with more than a single individual. The spotlight of empathy is narrow by design, and Joon-ho is keenly aware of this. Yes, there is a point, towards the end of the film, where we see the fields of super-pigs outside the factory, awaiting their deaths. It’s a grim scene, but it’s only shocking because we have spent the entire film empathising with Okja alone, as every animal in the field looks identical to her. If the film had started out that way, Okja would have just become a face amongst many, and the empathy (and the message) would have been lost.
These two manipulations cause the audience to become incredibly invested in Okja’s well-being. So, when the final third rolls in and Okja’s life is put at risk, we genuinely feel anger and resentment towards not only Mirando but the entire process of large-scale factory farming. Empathy begets emotional involvement, which begets moral disgust.
I found a statistic online, about factory farming: “Roughly 60 billion land animals and over a trillion marine animals are used and killed as commodities per year, to satisfy human taste preferences.” As much as I should care about these numbers, it’s hard to motivate myself to really calculate what they mean, morally. If I take how much I cared about Okja in this film, then surely I should feel 60 billion times worse for the suffering of all land animals on this planet. But empathy does not work this way. Mother Teresa was right when she said, “If I look at a mass, I will never act. If I look at the one, I will.” Joon-ho knows this, and it is what makes Okja more convincing than even the most brutally candid documentary could be.
This film is an example of empathy being used to effectively push an moral message, ultimately for a good cause. For me, it worked. I have noticed changes in myself: though I was on the path a little already, I have noticeably cut down on my meat intake since watching the film. I’m certainly no vegetarian, but it’s surely a step in the right direction. But the fact that it took a film which anthromorphises a cute animal, and not just brutally honest statistics, to change my behaviour is somewhat concerning to me. This is the main thesis of Paul Bloom’s book, which is titled, in full: “Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion“. Bloom acknowledges that empathy does often lead to positive outcomes, but also criticises it for being narrowly focused, biased towards people like ourselves, and unable to deal with great geographical separation or anonymity. For these reasons, he believes it to be a poor moral guide. One of Adam Smith’s famous examples highlights the fact that empathy was not designed to deal with morality on a global scale:
Let us suppose that the great empire of China, with all its myriads of inhabitants, was suddenly swallowed up by an earthquake, and let us consider how a man of humanity in Europe, who had no sort of connexion with that part of the world, would be affected upon receiving intelligence of this dreadful calamity. He would, I imagine, first of all, express very strongly his sorrow for the misfortune of that unhappy people, he would make many melancholy reflections upon the precariousness of human life, and the vanity of all the labours of man, which could thus be annihilated in a moment… And when all this fine philosophy was over, when all these humane sentiments had been once fairly expressed, he would pursue his business or his pleasure, take his repose or his diversion, with the same ease and tranquillity, as if no such accident had happened.
The most frivolous disaster which could befal himself would occasion a more real disturbance. If he was to lose his little finger to-morrow, he would not sleep to-night; but, provided he never saw them, he will snore with the most profound security over the ruin of a hundred millions of his brethren, and the destruction of that immense multitude seems plainly an object less interesting to him, than this paltry misfortune of his own.
To put this back into the context of factory farming, it is so easy for us to create a perception of the world in which the factory-farmed animals are no different from the unfortunate inhabitants of China in Smith’s example, both distanced and anonymised. To not give the appropriate weight to these events, and live in blissful ignorance, is a moral error of human cognition, Bloom recognises. Instead, we need to focus more on statistics, and make moral decisions on the basis of cold-blooded rationality, in order to sidestep our own in-built empathic biases. This is the kind of motivation behind some recent charitable movements, such as Effective Altruism.
I think this is a good approach, but it may be wishful thinking. Humans are not about to disregard empathy anytime soon. Joon-ho is keenly aware of this, and uses it to his advantage in Okja by giving factory-farmed animals a single face and a name that we can empathise with. Therein lies the film’s success. Other directors wishing to impart moral messages in their films should take note.
Bloom, P. (2017). Against empathy: The case for rational compassion. Random House.
Decety, J. (2015). The neural pathways, development and functions of empathy. Current Opinion in Behavioral Sciences, 3, 1-6.