Through the Prism

After passing through the prism, each refraction contains some pure essence of the light, but only an incomplete part. We will always experience some aspect of reality, of the Truth, but only from our perspectives as they are colored by who and where we are. Others will know a different color and none will see the whole, complete light. These are my musings from my particular refraction.

4.18.2013

Spin and Empathy: Know Your Story, Dwell in Others' Stories

The Grunt should be the person in your class who is not ugly or good-looking.  Stupid or Smart.  Mean or Nice.  Funny or Boring.  He should be the one person in your group most defined by what he is not.

Because, of course, the point of creating a Grunt is to demonstrate your own power over the way things are.  The only obvious reason for him being the Grunt should be that you picked him.  The Grunt is someone who does not know who he is.  And you are someone who tells him who he is.  He is the Grunt. . . . 


I've always seen myself as exceedingly normal.  I prided myself on it, nothing weird about me at all.  I've been a blank canvas for the Bully Bookers to paint their Grunt on.
That's from The Bully Book by Eric Kahn Gale, a book I described in my review as: Emotional Intelligence for Sharks: The Manual. Or, How to Create Friends and Influence Everyone to Your Greatest Personal Advantage. Or, Social Skills for Social Climbers. Or, "How to Make Trouble without Getting in Trouble, Rule the School, and Be the Man."  I referenced it a few posts ago, but I keep going back to it in my mind and feel the quote is so good I wanted to share it directly.  It never uses the words "story" or "narrative," but it's the first thing I've seen, I think, that frames bullying so explicitly as controlling someone else's framing story.

In I Am My Stories, I wrote: The power of story is what Eric finally comes to understand at the end of The Bully Book (follow link for my in-depth review and explanation)--that he was chosen to be "The Grunt" that the class would pick on because he didn't have any strong defining characteristics or interests--his story was less "defined" than anyone else in the class--so the class bully could most easily wipe away Eric's existing story and replace it with a narrative that saw him as the butt of everyone's jokes.  If he wants to change his status, he must learn not to accept the bully's story and replace it with one of his own, one powerful enough that sticks in everyone's consciousness.

I followed that up with a short post linking to an article about political polling questions, and how the answers can be swayed by the way the questions are asked.  In It All Depends on How You Tell the Story, I wrote: So, it seems, issues can be communicated through stories that can make them appeal to most any set of values.  It all depends on how you tell the story--and who is in control of the storytelling.

The first post, I Am My Stories, delves in depth into these ideas, how our stories define us and the ability to define them for ourselves makes us more resilient and our lives more meaningful, particularly when we see our personal narratives as part of greater stories that contain them.  Stories give us power, that we can use for good or ill.

I bring this up mostly to share the quote that started this post with some context, but also to connect to another quote I want to share about another aspect of stories: their ability to create empathy.

I'm a big fan of Goodreads; I use it extensively in my work, constantly steer patrons to my reviews, and have even written an article in a professional journal about it.  So I'm not particularly criticizing the site nor the user experience or even the average user review, because I find them very helpful.  But sometimes I come across reviews that make me think, "Boy, this person just doesn't get this book at all."  And, on rare (but not rare enough) occasions I think, "Boy, so many people really don't get this book.  They just don't feel for the character, because this book exists to help readers understand what this character's experience feels like."  This feeling bubbled over into a Facebook status the other day:
"Some of the reviews I browse in Goodreads make me despair for the human race’s ability to empathize. So many reviewers seem to only want admirable characters they can fantasize being and trash books with flawed characters that readers can actually relate to."
Because, in my mind, that's one of the key purposes of stories: to help us understand others; to teach us to empathize with others.  Yes, they can also inspire and teach lessons, impart wisdom and guidance--which is all part of defining us as individuals and cultures--and they can even simply entertain and relax us.  But if they aren't helping us empathize, they aren't fulfilling part of their prime directive.  And if we, as readers, aren't taking an attitude of empathy into our reading (slash story consumption) experiences, then we aren't doing our duty as readers.  Stories are about defining ourselves, but they are just as much about being part of something greater and connecting to others.

I liked a quote to that effect from Jasper Jones so much that I made it the title of my post in which I shared my review of it and some favorite quotes from it: I hoped you might see things from my end. That’s what you do, right? When you’re readin. You’re seeing what it’s like for other people.  I opened that post (of course), by referencing a much longer one exploring this issue in depth: I have to admit I enjoyed encountering the quote above in an excellent fiction story less than a week after writing a post about how fiction makes us more sympathetic to others as our brains experience things from their perspectives.

I also feel compelled, at this point, to re-share two quotes from More Evidence Supporting the Importance of Storypushing, one a favorite from author Louis Sachar and one from an article giving scientific evidence of that fact:
"The best morals kids get from any book is just the capacity to empathize with other people, to care about the characters and their feelings.  So you don't have to write a preachy book to do that.  You just make it a fun book with characters they care about, and they will become better people as a result."

But perhaps the most impressive finding is just how fiction shapes us: mainly for the better, not for the worse. Fiction enhances our ability to understand other people; it promotes a deep morality that cuts across religious and political creeds. . . . 
Fiction is doing something that all political factions should be able to get behind. Beyond the local battles of the culture wars, virtually all storytelling, regardless of genre, increases society’s fund of empathy and reinforces an ethic of decency that is deeper than politics. . . .  

They found that heavy fiction readers outperformed heavy nonfiction readers on tests of empathy, even after they controlled for the possibility that people who already had high empathy might naturally gravitate to fiction. As Oatley puts it, fiction serves the function of “making the world a better place by improving interpersonal understanding.” . . .   
Of course, stories only create empathy if the characters in them share intimate experiences that we might normally consider private, since exposing those experiences to others exposes our flaws, limitations, and mistakes, and makes us vulnerable.

And I think that's what most upsets me when I see some of those Goodreads reviews, people passing negative judgment on characters and authors who have chosen to make themselves vulnerable in attempts to create empathy, saying a book sucks because they find a character annoying or weak or irresponsible or otherwise realistically flawed--the authors weren't trying to make perfect and admirable characters, they were trying to make human characters.  Because stories of fully flawed, vulnerable, human characters are the ones that teach us empathy.

For a powerful look at the power of vulnerability--and at how stories about ourselves are linked to stories about others--check out the excellent Ted Talk by Brene Brown that I shared in Thoughts from a Researcher-Storyteller: Or, Do You Believe You're Worthy of Love and Belonging?

0 Comments:

Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home