Empathy's role in media and entertainment
I won't lie.
On Sunday night, I was hiding from the world. I was in bed, nursing a cold, drinking tea and reading The Mothers, trying to practice some of that good self-care we millennials are always talking about. So I didn't catch the SAG Awards, but on Monday I sort of wished I had. The messages from many of the award-winners had apparently dripped with calls to empathy. (Also some anger and some fear...but even in that, there's opportunity for empathy.) So I went back and watched:
“I am the daughter of an immigrant. My father fled religious persecution in Nazi-occupied France. And I’m an American patriot. And I love this country. And because I love this country, I am horrified by its blemishes. And this immigrant ban is a blemish, and it’s un-American," said Julia Louis-Dreyfus, referring to Donald Trump's executive order banning immigration (and apparently visa and green card holders) from several Middle Eastern and African countries.
“This story is of unity," said Taraji P. Henson, of Hidden Figures. "This story is about what happens when we put our differences aside and we come together as a human race. We win. Love wins. Every time.”
“What August [Wilson] did so beautifully is he honored the average man, who happened to be a man of color. And sometimes we don't have to shake the world and move the world and create anything that is going to be in the history book. The fact that we breathed and lived a life and was a god to our children, just that, means that we have a story and it deserves to be told," said Viola Davis, about Fences.
Each of these speeches, though they may not explicitly sound like calls to action, were certainly received that way by many. In Louis-Dreyfus's words, people heard a plea to imagine what her father's life had been like, and how he - and she - must feel today. In the words of Henson, people heard a call to "come together" and attempt to understand one another. In Davis's words, people heard an argument that the very depiction of a life, giving viewers the opportunity to experience even a tiny piece of one different from their own, can be radical. I know this is what people heard, because they complained about it.
Every time a celebrity speaks out about something political or related to social justice - whether it's while accepting an award or just posting on Instagram or Twitter - there are numerous calls to "stick with acting!" In trying a bit of empathy myself, I can understand why people might not want to hear about politics from those to whom they look for entertainment and escape. But what are we doing when we watch a television show or a movie if not imagining, for a few minutes or a few hours, what life is like through the eyes of someone else? And what do we expect actors to do for us if not make those few minutes or hours as convincing and immersive as possible? Isn't that empathy?
Several studies in recent years have shown that reading fiction books increases empathy and sensitivity to others. This is part of the reason why challenges to read more books by women authors and authors of color have gained so much popularity in recent years. The more time you spend getting into the heads of people who aren't like you, the thinking goes, the more you might understand their experiences, or understand what you don't understand about them.
Of course, it's not always explicit. And maybe that's what makes some of us uncomfortable about celebs' calls for love, understanding, equality or empathy. Maybe we don't want to admit that's what we're absorbing, just like we don't like to think about whether we absorb all the negative ideas and stereotypes we read, see and hear? I'd love to hear what you think. Is celebrity activism essentially an outgrowth of the empathetic nature of what actors, writers and producers already do? Or is a line being crossed?