Saturday, July 23, 2016

Fiction for Empathy in Bibliotherapy

It's wonderful to see there are people out there making a living and a career out of the very insights and understandings of literature as developing empathy I've been developing for several years now. I've written about these things here and here and here And now it's even made it to CNN.

The flight from fiction in our culture means reduced empathy creation. Yes, certain movies and even TV shows can contribute to empathy-creation, but I think that books allow us to more deeply investigate and understand the complex motives of people, and thus learn to understand and therefore empathize with them.

What we need is the kind of bibliotherapy being practiced in the CNN article. We need to read fiction that deals with different races, men and women, different sexual orientations and genders, different cultures, and different socioeconomic levels. In doing so, we would stop discriminating against people just because they are members of different groups.

We shouldn't hate people because they are black or white, men or women, gay or straight, rich or poor, etc., etc., etc. The socialists are just as evil for hating a group of people because of their socioeconomic status as are the racists for hating a group of people because of their race. Literature allows us to understand different groups through examples of particular individuals we get to know well, and thus literature breaks down collectivist (and therefore evil) ways of thinking.

The above statement seems to contradict some of what I say here. Indeed, certain kinds of empathizing do in fact make us more tribalist/collectivist in our thinking. But there is something else at work when we learn to empathize with other groups, and other groups, and other groups. If our empathy breaks down the Us-Them, Self-Other dichotomy, then empathy contributes to moral growth. If it only reinforces group cohesiveness such that there is necessarily a hated other against which one compares one's group, then empathy contributes to moral decay.

Literature can thus contribute to virtue-creating empathy if we are open to reading works presenting and representing peoples from other cultures, etc. This can and should be done in our classrooms. But we should not make the mistake of thinking that any work by someone from another culture, etc. than our own is worth reading. The works have to be complex, high-value literary works, regardless of who wrote them where or when. After all, boring garbage is hardly going to create any sort of empathy for anyone.

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