I think all of our prejudices have a common cause: our inability to truly consider the world from another person’s perspective. We can’t imagine what it’s really like to be someone else, because that would require us to share their memories; their hopes, fears, likes, dislikes, even their lovers. To truly perceive reality as they do, we would have to be them.
That’s impossible, of course. So we do the best we can. We reduce the images we have of other people to something simple enough for us to deal with. Think of the people you pass on the street:
“There’s the fat, awkward guy listening to music that’s way too loud; the teenage girl with the skirt that’s way too short; the macho little boy who’s trying way too hard.”
Do you see how prejudices are born? By reducing passers-by to stereotypes, we place them in a totally different category to the one in which we place ourselves and those dearest to us. We place them in the same category as extras in a movie. When millions of extras are killed by the narrative of an action movie, hardly anyone bats an eyelid. But when the hero (or, usually, his love-interest) is threatened, the other characters, the camera, the weather, the music and of course the audience all sit up and pay attention.
Because we, the audience, identify with the hero and his friends – we’re happy when they’re happy and hurt when they’re hurt. That’s why when the hero causes huge amounts of collateral death by embarking on a foolhardy mission to rescue a single girl, we root for him. Because the safety and happiness of the protagonists mean something to us, while the safety and happiness of a million faceless extras mean nothing.
This is fine in a fantasy world, where allowing faceless characters to come to harm costs no more than a little narrative integrity. Things are obviously very different in the real world, where every single faceless extra in the movie of our lives is an actual, bona fide human being. But do we act any differently to our movie-heroes, when we care more about keeping up appearances than we do about entire lives ruined by conflict in Africa?
I’m not surprised by the self-centredness of so much of our thoughts and actions because I behave the same way myself. I think it might be our default setting. But I also believe we have a saving grace.
If our greatest failing is our inability to perfectly imagine how the world is for another person, our best quality is our capacity to come close to that ideal.
Our saving grace is our ability to love our family, friends and partners – the main characters in our lives. And if loving someone means feeling what they feel; making their joys and sorrows our own, it’s a real wonder that we can do it so well.
And I think we can get better at it, by working to understand more people in greater detail. It’s just a matter of practice. That doesn’t mean having a fuzzy notion of trying to be a better person; I mean that there are concrete, practical things we can do to get better at empathising.
Creative writing is one such thing. Particularly from a first person perspective, especially when that perspective is radically different from our own.
If more males wrote creatively from a female first-person perspective there would be less misogny; if more straight people wrote from a gay perspective there would be less homophobia.
Because to write convincingly and entertainingly, you really have to get into the head of the person you’re writing as. You have to identify with them. And that makes them more real and less of a stereotype. Which in turn means that you’ll treat that group more fairly in real-life.
I think a laptop connected to a system that challenges you to write a few anonymous paragraphs from a different perspective is the perfect technology for empathetic creative writing. That’s what I’m going to have at a workshop at Kungsholmens Gymnasium at 15.00 on Tuesday 21 January.
Bring yourself, your friends, and a laptop each. Register your email address at hackeducation.se to stay up to date.
This article is written by a former Kungsholmen student who will be running workshops for all Kungsholmen students starting on Tuesday 21 January as part of his Master’s thesis at KTH. For more information, contact him at email@example.com.
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