Arizona, Imaginative Empathy, and the Never Ending Story

Monday, January 10, 2011 Leave a Comment

"What I cannot create, I do not understand."
-Richard Feynman, physicist

“Bring new light to what life might be.”
-Hugh Macleod, cartoonist

I had been thinking about writing a post like this for some time, and write it now under the shadow of the recent political murders in Arizona and Pakistan. A question J Holtham asks over on Parabasis about Giffords strikes at the heart of it:

"But...there's a difference between political speech and art, isn't there? (emphasis mine). Marilyn Manson can say, "I'm an artist, and this is a persona I use to tell a story." Can Sarah Palin or Glenn Beck hide behind the same definition? Wouldn't that discredit them entirely to say, "Hey, folks, this is all an act! I didn't mean anyone to take me seriously!"? Isn't there some level of responsibility there? If you go around saying our country is under attack, is at war, is being destroyed by our duly elected officials, sooner or later, this is what happens."

Yes, there is a difference, but I think the difference is one of degree, not of kind. All narratives - whether political, religious, or aesthetic - are an attempt to find patterns in the events of life; to reveal meaning from those patterns; and to share that meaning with others in hopes of affecting their actions. All stories ask Aristotle's question, "How are we to live?"

The evasion of art - that it is fiction, "all an act" - simply allows space for the artist to explore extremes that in political or religious narrative would be impossible. "I am the opposite of a stage magician. He gives you illusion that has the appearance of truth. I give you truth in the pleasant disguise of illusion."

Every choice I make in life is influenced by the pressure of these political, religious, and aesthetic stories; I believe in free will, but the terrain of what is possible is created by these narratives, and I move choice by choice measuring my progress against the stories I've been told.

As Slate explains about Loughner, mental illness is not enough to explain violence; you are three times more likely to be struck by lightening than killed by someone with schizophrenia. Religious fundamentalists, like Taseer's murderer, are not mentally deranged, but rather perfectly arranged by the pressures of narrative to choose violence. Their minds are gardens without a single weed.

The answer is not to censor Sarah Palin but to present a more compelling counter-narrative. The temptation is to create a narrative of similarly primal power that will have a similarly national appeal; something that feels like empathy's answer to the cross-hairs of a rifle; something like the peace movement of the 60's, with its potent symbols of flowers, children, and free love.

But I don’t think the answer lies in creating a competing narrative of national size. The history of our green and blue rock is littered with stories of peace and compassion that have been co-opted by power to sell merchandise and justify violence. We need instead to take back ownership of the stories we tell.

Those old enough to have been young enough to be scared of Gmork, the wolf agent of The Nothing in The Never Ending Story, know that whoever holds the dreams, holds the power. In the 20th century, we largely outsourced our dreams to mass media; letting radio, film, and television tell our stories for us. A monoculture of thought, just like any other ecosystem without diversity, is less resistant to viruses, invasive species, and environmental stress.

Creativity is therefore not just a right of every individual; but also a responsibility. If we tell our own story, finding our own patterns and meaning in life, then we are more resistant to the simplistic narratives of power. This creative searching is not contained by what is traditionally called “the arts”; rather, this imaginative curiosity extends to politics, religion, and any other way we have of making meaning.

The internet is a powerful ally for this creativity, resembling the sequel to The Never Ending Story, where Bastian recreates Fantasia entirely from his own imagination. But while a thousand such imaginary worlds spring up every day on the internet, it has also exacerbated the perils of monoculture; allowing simplistic narratives to metastasize more quickly.

After all, Loughner was creatively expressing himself, however violent and strange his YouTube videos seem. It is therefore not enough to imagine that if everyone just expressed themselves we’d suddenly have peace on earth. While diversity of expression is essential to the health of a culture, there is an immutable quality all good stories must share, or narrative descends into demagoguery.

That necessary quality is empathy. Empathy is not warm and fuzzy, like its cuddly cousin sympathy. Empathy is the pity and terror and joy of feeling someone else’s life as keenly as if it were your own. Empathy is frightening because it reminds us that the worst of what others do lives as a possibility within us; it reminds us that the best of who we are lives within our enemies. Empathy’s children are caution as well as kindness; humility as well as compassion.

Empathy appears to be hard wired into our brains (thanks, mirror neurons); and when followed with any integrity, it naturally leads to stories of contradiction and complexity. These kinds of stories require more from us; in creating them, in watching them, and in living with whatever difficult wisdom they contain. But these are the stories that matter - as Feynman says, “what I cannot create, I do not understand.”

Here the monoculture presses its advantage; we’re a busy people, content to have someone else assemble meaning for us, especially if the stories we’re told go down easy. There is something soothing in believing that the answers have all been found; that the book is closed, and all we need to do is follow what’s already been written. We all have a utopia habit that's hard to quit.

Imaginative empathy does not permit the book to close, because it understands that each human being represents a unique story, an unrepeatable stab at what is possible. This kind of story-telling is restless, defined by a hunger that grows by what it feeds on. It is propelled by doubt and sustained by contradiction (each one of us containing multitudes).

For these reasons, it is resistant to the simplistic narrative that violence requires. And with violent suggestion now able to metastasize into action with a single click, we must advocate more strongly for this resistant kind of story-telling. Otherwise, the virus of violence will continue to sweep through our monoculture of thought.

With theatrical storytelling, the means of production are always local; this is a financial weakness, but an essential strength. It can happen in the churches of Manhattan, it can be done in the streets of Belarus, and where ever it is done, it is a uniquely local process that belongs to those doing it. In this way, it is a remarkably effective engine of empathy against monoculture. It is the way I love best, though not the only way.

But whether you’re making a play, or singing a hymn in church, or holding high a sign at a Tea Party rally; you are engaged in telling a story, whether you call yourself an artist or not. As cartoonist High Macleod writes:

“Bring new light to what life might be.” That’s what Creativity means. That’s why you were born; that’s why you are here. To bring some new angle to the human condition- if not to the broader world in general, then at least to your family and the people around you.

I’m not so naïve to think that this local story-telling of imaginative empathy will bring peace on earth. I’m just not sure what else will.


  • Anonymous said:  

    This is a wonderful call to action for all performing artists. I say to use theater for mere entertainment is to use a diamond for a doorstop. It can and must be used to "give ... truth in the pleasant disguise of illusion."

  • August Schulenburg said:  

    Thanks, anon! I like "a diamond for a doorstop" a lot.

  • lawrence krubner said:  

    "mental illness is not enough to explain violence"

    Agreed. Madness does not suggest a complete disconnect. I've read that up until 1960, the most common source that schizophrenics would cite for their persecution was the Devil. After 1960, they most commonly cited the CIA. They were reacting to what was in the media.

    You could argue that the Christians who killed Hypatia were all insane. That is possible, but it still took a priest to say "She is an offense against God" before any Christians picked up stones and killed her. The politics of the time shaped the violence.

    I can imagine a narrative that allows for differences of opinion. I can imagine a narrative that allows for other narratives. I can imagine an art that smiles at other art, rather than viewing it a competition. But we all know the fears of scarcity that frighten people into lashing out. Identity is bought with experience, it is therefore, in some sense, the most expensive thing we each possess. Scarcity of attention provokes the angriest reactions, both among children, and adults. We've moved past the point where many of us need to fear a general lack of food, but a lack of attention has become the great famine of our era. In some sense, mass media intensifies the attention famine, since our friends end up watching the products of the media, instead of watching us. Our conversations are interrupted by the radio, the television, our cell phones, the Internet, the competing demands on our friends. You write "each human being represents a unique story, an unrepeatable stab at what is possible". So very true. But then, what a crime to be an unrepeatable story, and have no one notice! Some hungers drive people insane. Murder may seem wise, if you are hungry enough. No one can live without the attention of others, we are social creatures, we ground our sense of reality in part on what we think others think of us.

    You mention that a monoculture of thought is less resistant to environmental stress. That is very true. Where there is only one food, the eco-system can no longer support a diversity of species. Where there is only one narrative, the eco-system can no longer support the diversity that is us. Every authoritarian strives to establish the supremacy of the dictators narrative, but the opposite is also true - when you have a monoculture of narrative, the authoritarians have already won. The struggle for creative expression is the struggle for a liberated world, and a cacophony of narratives offers a richness of mental life akin to a rain forest's support of a diversity of species. The most important aspect of empathy, its starting point, is the realization that other human beings have narratives that differ from ours, and rather than this being a frightening thing, it is in fact the source of all that is wondrous in another human's soul.

    --- lawrence krubner