A man dies alone in his flat, in the dark, because he’s diabetic and his insulin spoiled in the fridge, because his power was cut off, because his benefits had been stopped in the seventh richest country in the world.
At the same time, the lights and fridges and respirators go out in Gaza as Israel bomb the power stations there, in response to the flight of three-thousand rockets flying in the other direction, some of which Israel maintains are launched from near schools that are the next thing to get blown up: all in a war Western empires laid the foundations for sixty years ago, whilst in Syria and Iraq, ISIS butcher thousands in a war the West laid the foundations of a mere decade previously, as if to prove it still had the knack.
In non-war news, resistant strains of TB develop and we continue to rely on the market for drug development even though the supposedly all-knowing market can’t get it’s arse in gear to incentivise research into new antibiotics ahead of fucking Viagra.
These are complex issues, and I know my prejudices are showing. I know the ninety-second radio spots and thousand word news articles that have alerted me to them haven’t really informed me about them, but even so, it’s hard not to conclude that the world is a little short on human empathy, right now.
That’s not an original thought, or even a radical one. It seems blindingly, almost embarrassingly obvious, that if you see someone as a human being like you, understand that they have an inner life like you, and a working brain and parents and children and pets like you, then it gets that much harder to shoot them in the back of the head or cut off the money that’s keeping their insulin cold.
And reading fiction raises empathy. Studies have shown it improves our ability to see other people as people. And if you don’t think we sometimes have a problem with that, I invite you to spend 20 seconds on the Daily Mail website.
I don’t want to overstate the case here. I know we won’t get world peace just because a few more people read Harry Potter or The Handmaid’s Tale, but I was trained as an economist, so I also know that a small act, like buying or voting or reading and writing, when repeated day after day, by person after person, can reshape human societies like nothing else.
This isn’t just a reason to make art though. It’s a reason to do so diversely. After all, the reason we need empathy isn’t to help us relate to people who are exactly like us in every way, but to remind us how much we have in common with people who maybe don’t look like us, or worship like us, or are lucky enough to have a job like us, or think about gender in the way we do.
Think about George Zimmerman, the man who killed unarmed teenager Trayvon Martin in the US last year. Imagine if Zimmerman had grown up reading books and watching movies where black guys were cast as doctors and lawyers and romantic leads as often as they were cast as drug dealers. I don’t know if he would have acted differently in that world, neither do you, but I think it’s pretty plausible he would have been less inclined to see Martin as a threat.
There is serious, immediate work that needs to happen in Gaza and Syria and Parliament and Pharma companies and a thousand other places, I don’t want to minimise that, and this is no kind of substitute. I wish the people on the spot in those situations as much luck as I can, and if I’m honest, I feel a huge whack of guilty gratitude that I’m not in their place. But for the rest of us – if enough readers read and enough writers write, and enough directors cast with as much compassion and empathy and open mindedness as we can, will it make a difference?
I don’t know, no one does, but it can’t hurt. Worst case scenario we get some damn good stories out of it, but best case, long-term? We could change the world.
P.S. This post was prompted by Nick Harkaway’s brilliant piece on Fred the Giraffe Nick finishes the post asking ‘who wants to take a swing at some of this other stuff?’ and this is me thinking about what part of such a swing would look like.
P.P.S Again, I am very aware that these are complex topics and this is a skating gloss at best. Happy to talk about/apologise for and correct any areas where I’m horribly off the mark.