Saturday, 7 November 2015

Getting a handle on a case of empathy

We have a curious bag of rice in the kitchen. It’s large and marked, apparently with pride, “Easy Carry Handle.”

I’m not sure what kind of handle would describe itself as not easy carry. Maybe the makers of this one thought that it was particularly good at making things easy to lug along. It’s hard to imagine, though. 

My memory of handles on, say, suitcases was that they were a real pain –literally – digging into your hand after just a few steps. These were in the days before the invention of Kindles, and I’d always pack too many books every time I went anywhere – a few I felt I ought to read, and a few more which I actually would read if I couldn’t bear the idea of reading the others.

These days, the problem has simply gone. I take practically a library with me every time I go on holiday – closing in on 200 titles now – but they weigh less than a single slim paperback. I’ve never been overweight on a holiday flight since I’ve owned a Kindle.

Meanwhile, luggage too has changed. We no longer use painful handles – or even easy-carry handles – to lift our suitcases and cart them at the risk of dislocating a shoulder. Now they always have wheels and an extensible handle to pull them by. Which rather leads to the question of why such cases weren’t invented before?

My humble suggestion? Because for a long time travel was pretty much limited to people who never had to carry their own luggage. They could either afford porters or, if they were really swanky, they had their own servants. Why bother to invent a labour-saving device if you’re not doing the labour?

A great invention, but unnecessary while people had servants
It’s a bit like slavery. The US system was so convenient, if you were unmistakably white. Not only did the wealthy have other people to do their work for them, they could be confident that they would never suffer the same fate themselves. After all, somebody accustomed to using porters might, through misfortune – a colossal collapse of share values, say – be reduced to having to cart luggage around for others. But no white could ever become a black slave. It didn’t matter how foul they made life for the blacks, therefore, they could never have the same fate inflicted back on them.

It’s all down to lack of empathy. If you can’t appreciate another’s suffering, you’re unlikely to want to do anything about it. So the roller suitcase didn’t get invented until ordinary people started to travel.

Empathy. No easy matter. Something it’s hard to get a handle on.

No comments: