Elections and Empathy

Being a Canadian and wanting to keep the blog relatively focused on writing and my own experiences, I was not ever planning to comment on the election results in the US last night. Many many people are saying what I think of the matter with the authority of actually being there. But, American or not, we are all affected. We’re all connected. Trump’s election is only one of many actions in the globe right now, ripples in a pond that collide to form waves.

Writers have a duty, not just to write what they want to read but to create worlds that they want to see, and to shine a light on the darker aspects of human nature, whether fictional or not. There is no piece of fiction I have yet read that is as cruel as a matter-of-fact history can be. And to write that fiction successfully, we need to read. Not just other people’s fiction, but histories. Anthropology. Real-life accounts and memoirs. Primary sources. Even if we only want to write fiction that is “purely entertainment”.

There is a serious empathy problem in our society today, and I honestly believe that entertainment + media contributes to it. Not “just” empathy as in sympathy, but the ability to step into another’s shoes, to live vicariously on a page with someone we share nothing in common with and realize how similar we all are to each other. Good fiction does that. Even mediocre fiction can do that. But what the vast, vast sea of fiction–novels, movies, television–does is promote one set of viewpoints (white, male, straight) and one set of circumstances (hero must set out alone–or with plucky followers, never partners–to right wrongs he himself can only overcome through violence, whether gritty or cartoonish ‘socking ol’ Adolf on the jaw’ style). And as a consequence, many people grow up with that notion as a default. For most who are don’t share that singular vantage point, life corrects them pretty quickly. But for the people who are–even the kindest, rationalist, alliest white guys–they are swimming in a sea that says their stories are universal. Their experiences matter more. It doesn’t just give a sense of entitlement, it dulls the sense of empathy: that different people experience different realities. (White women too can experience that dulling. We are not exempt. We may not have the same breadth of sea to swim in, but it is still very vast.)

Steven Pinker, in the Better Angels of Our Nature, wrote:

…fiction, for its part, may expand readers’ circle of empathy by seducing them into thinking and feeling like people very different from themselves. Literature students are taught that the 18th century was a turning point in the history of the novel. It became a form of mass entertainment, and by the end of the century almost a hundred new novels were published in England and France every year. And unlike earlier epics which recounted the exploits of heroes, aristocrats, or saints, the novels brought to life the aspirations and losses of ordinary people…

…Hunt suggests a causal chain: reading epistolary novels about characters unlike oneself exercises the ability to put oneself in other people’s shoes, which turns one against cruel punishments and other abuses of human rights.

He was using ‘realistic’ fiction as his set of examples in his book, but I would argue that ‘unrealistic’ fiction works much the same way. All readers of genre have had that moment of stepping into something fantastically different from themselves and coming away slightly changed by the experience.

But when all one sees is one’s own experience repeated over and over, that ability to step into someone else’s view point can become… stunted.

In my own life, I went to see the Ghostbusters reboot with a group of friends. All of us, male and female, identify as feminist and progressive; we were a cosy little after-school special of diversity. During the climactic fight scene, where a group of women are badass, in sensible clothing and flat shoes–women who could be me–were saving the world, I was beside myself. Excited at being able to live the action in a way that I’ve always dreamed about as a kid, and I wanted to share my reaction, so I turned to my friends on either side. My female friend was just as muppet-arm-y as I was, caught up in the thrill. My male friend on the left? He looked a bit bored. He was enjoying the movie but it was nothing he hadn’t seen a thousand times already and was no doubt remembering sequences where the directing or the effects were better or whatever. He was simply not enthralled the same way, because he didn’t have to be. He didn’t step into the women’s lives on the big screen because he didn’t have to.

Not to pick on my friend, who is doing what he can to make the world a better place in his wake, but he is white, male, straight. Nearly everything he watches and reads is either directly catering to his gaze, or aware of the expectation that it ought to. Putting himself in someone else’s shoes in a movie is something he can choose to do, whereas those who fall outside white cishet males must do it routinely or otherwise not consume mainstream media at all.

And so that leads me back to the election.

Trump set himself up as a Chosen One. He was the one true hero, fighting against the establishment; every mistake or misstep or lie he made he could explain away, the same way we explain away problematic issues in our heroes on the screen because the important thing is always that our protagonist is on the true path, and will inevitably triumph. (His campaign was a horrible corruption of the Hero’s Journey and I wouldn’t be surprised if it could be charted against Save the Cat.)

Over and over we heard interviews with Bernie Bros vowing to vote Trump if Clinton got the nomination. Over and over we heard white men and women saying, into the microphone, that they would vote Trump because they just didn’t “like” Clinton. The fact that they stood to lose nothing if Trump got in, that they knew he would cater to them whatever he did to anyone else, was an inability to listen and imagine. Over and over the disadvantaged have been screaming into the wind about what will happen to them if Trump will win: at the very least he will roll back rights 50 or 100 years. At the worst… it doesn’t bear thinking about. But white voters could hear that screaming and still put their own wants and needs over society as a whole.

That is a very real failure of empathy.

I am not saying Hollywood is directly responsible for any of this, reboots of beloved classics or no. What I am saying is that writers, of all stripe, have a duty to use our talents and our voices for change. And that begins with the smallest decisions: what to research, who to make our main character, what plot structure to use. Are we just telling the same stories over and over again? Or are we helping others to step outside themselves for a moment?

I cannot think of a single circumstance where an over-abundance of empathy is ever a bad thing.

We must not stop there. It is not enough to just “write more diversity”. We must read it. We must pay money to buy books written by people who do not look like us, whose lives are not like ours. We must ask why they are not on our panels at cons. We must ask why they are not in the publishing industry. We must hire people who don’t look like us, we must listen to people who don’t look like us, we must stop assuming our viewpoint is the only one to tune into. We much reach out. We must do more.

We must start with our writing.

We must start with ourselves.

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