I want to talk about empathy today. So comedian Kate Willett, who has been on my show Quiz-o-Tron and is an all-around smart and wonderful person, wrote an article for Elle about how she used to hate “Bernie Bros” until she dated one, and he died in part due to a lack of affordable healthcare. Now she is an enthusiastic supporter of Bernie Sanders and single-payer healthcare.
It’s a great and truly touching article that I encourage you to read. I’m very glad she wrote it.
In the past few years it has become more and more common, at least in my experience, to hear these stories of people who didn’t care about a particular issue, or who had a completely bone-headed view of an issue, until it affected them personally and severely. All of those people who supported Donald Trump’s election in 2016 who are now being deported, or whose businesses are failing, or who are left bankrupt from unexpected medical bills, who now say “I get it. Trump is garbage and I won’t support him in the future.”
And we tend to celebrate these stories, because someone changing their mind in the face of new information, someone who changes their mind to be more compassionate, should be celebrated. Lots of people don’t change their mind. No one is born knowing exactly the right thing to say or do or believe. It’s a process.
But man, it makes me angry. Here’s why: humans do not need to experience everything directly in order to understand it enough to make smart decisions. We, along with other smarter animals, have developed a system of communication that allows us to learn from each other if we are open to it. You don’t need to eat that bright red mushroom to know whether or not it’s safe, because other people ate it in the past and someone who saw it survived and told their friends the story of their bone-headed cousin who died from shitting their organs out after eating the pretty mushroom.
Somehow we have no trouble understanding how these stories benefit us here in the present day, but we (as a society) do not carry that thinking to its logical conclusion: stories are the only way we can quickly understand the world, and the humans in it, even when we can’t experience it directly.
I don’t have to lose a loved one to the broken American healthcare system to know that it’s bad, because I’ve read stories (like Kate Willett’s!). I’ve read stories about people who starved on the street, stories about slaves, stories about trans people. These stories make me a better, more empathetic person, even though I will never, and in some cases can never experience these things directly.
This is all just a long-winded way to say this: read more books. According to a Pew poll in September, 27% of Americans hadn’t read a single book in the previous year. I’m not just guessing that reading makes you a better person — the research shows it. Specifically, research suggests that reading more literary fiction might make you a more empathetic person. Back in 2013, social psychologists published a paper in which they gave people passages to read from either nonfiction, literary fiction, or genre fiction (like sci-fi or mystery). Another group got nothing to read, the poor suckers.
Afterwards, the subjects all took a test that measured their ability to understand other people’s feelings. The literary fiction group was the only group to have a significant boost in their empathy.
They followed this test up a few years later with another in which they had subjects mark down the names of authors they’re familiar with. Those who were familiar with more literary fiction authors, as opposed to just famous genre authors, did better on tests of empathy.
The researchers suspect that literary fiction, unlike nonfiction or genre, challenges readers to dig into the characters’ mindsets, and to truly understand why they think and act the way they do. As a fan of some genre fiction, I bristled a bit at this differentiation — one of my favorite writers, Kurt Vonnegut, hated the idea that science fiction could be relegated to a different shelf in the library just because of the occasional character born in another galaxy. It’s hard to distinguish between “good” and “bad” or “serious” and “frivolous” literature, but just because it’s a spectrum doesn’t mean that we can’t point to the extreme ends and look at the differences between them. That’s what’s known as the spectrum fallacy. Yes, Slaughterhouse 5 is science fiction but it’s not “Day of the Moron” by H. Beam Piper. There is a difference. I’ve had many fights with my fellow nerd friends by insisting on this but the research backs it up: simply “reading” isn’t in and of itself a moral act of self-improvement. You have to read things that challenge you.
Apologies to my patrons, by the way — if you’re finding this familiar, it’s because I talked about it in one of my Patreon vlogs a few months back and I finally decided to turn it into a real video and probably get some angry messages. But it’s true!
And I’m going to go another step further and say that watching films and television shows, and playing video games can also make you a more empathetic person and more people should do it. But again, it’s not a matter of simply mindlessly consuming media. A James Bond movie might have a fun, action-oriented plot but you won’t come away knowing more about the human condition because you really identified with, I don’t know, Octopussy. But I came away from the Irishman, for instance, with a more interesting understanding of human mortality, aging, and forgiveness. I may not learn much from rewatching Cheers for the 100th time, but watching the Good Place got me thinking more about philosophy than when I was actually in my college philosophy classes. And I don’t learn shit about shit while playing Overwatch (except for how to mute teenagers on voice chat) but I learned something about being a queer teenager in Gone Home.
I’m not saying it’s bad to enjoy Octopussy, or Cheers, or Overwatch, or the latest young adult dystopia novel series. We all need brain vacations. But I really wish that as a society we all agreed that we should challenge ourselves with media — books, tv shows, movies, games — that expand our horizons. Media that makes us better people by teaching us how to inhabit mindsets other than our own. I think we need to encourage each other, in the way I’m doing this video, and also build up kids to be voracious, critical readers and watchers and gamers.
If you wanna know what I’m reading, this year I’ve decided to get back to reviewing the books I’m reading over on GoodReads. For my patrons, I’ve been mentioning in my weekly vlogs what sort of stuff I’m reading or watching, so head over to patreon.com/rebecca to follow along. But maybe make an effort to not be part of that 27% this year. Read a book! Be more empathetic. Oh, and like Kate Willett says, vote for progressive politicians who will institute single payer healthcare.