“Hearts must change. They won’t change overnight. Social attitudes often times take generations to change.” As of late, empathy has pushed its way into the national spotlight. That’s why it wasn’t surprising when President Barack Obama mentioned it during his powerful farewell speech Tuesday evening.
How can we gain a better understanding among people who experience life much differently from us? This will be one of the most pressing issues in 2017. Whether it’s geographic location, culture and ethnicity, or simply a generational gap, how can we step in the shoes of others and see things from their perspective?
There are no simple solutions to creating empathy and understanding; if there were, President Obama wouldn’t have spent a quarter of his farewell speech addressing this glaring deficiency that plagues not only our nation but nations across the world.
Mentally it’s a challenge. We obviously see life from our perspective, and mainly learn from those whom we surround ourselves with. So to step back and see things from a perspective that we don’t often come in contact with, or are completely unfamiliar with, makes the task quite difficult.
Yet, there is a solution to this problem. It’s not a solution that will fix everything in terms of developing empathy, but it should help.
I suggest using art as a means to understand different cultures and develop empathy. At its core, art can be persuasive because of its ability to conjure up emotional appeal and penetrate the mental psyche. Carmine Gallo reveals this in his riveting book on communication, Talk Like TED: “Brain scans reveal that stories stimulate and engage the human brain, helping the speaker connect with the audience.” Stories told through art allow us to transport from our mindset and into ones that we are unfamiliar with. We often see statistics and numbers on how diverse our country is becoming, yet the data on diversity falls on deaf ears because of our inability to connect with the heart.
Over the past year, Grammy award-winning artist Donald Glover has used his creativity to paint a picture for the country of what life is like for young African Americans- a group that is often underrepresented on television. Just last week he collected two Grammys for directing and starring in his new hit TV show Atlanta. On top of that, he also released an album this year, titled Awaken, My Love! to rave reviews.
By using his artwork in Atlanta, Glover focuses on the emotions and mindsets that young African Americans deal with on a daily basis. Because the show went mainstream, his ideas were heard all over the country- mainly to a target audience of 16-35-year-olds. This was particularly powerful for me because if I didn’t engage with his art, I would have less of an understanding of a mindset and background that is different from mine. For example, in this short and forceful scene from Atlanta,
Glover talks about the struggle that young African Americans face as they try and find their identity in a world where some don’t feel as though they belong. As The Ringers, Micah Peter’s
“The scene was a continuation of Glover’s penchant for gathering the unfortunate realities of everyday life and making sense of them with sparsely constructed surreality. In other words, making things — racism, transphobia, homophobia, disenfranchisement, you name it — understandable and even relatable by ramping up the contrast of the big picture then folding in the edges.” In a society where the digital art form has been increasingly utilized effectively, our ability to empathize through this medium will remain a crucial outlet to understanding others.
Yet even though the digital medium is the most prevalent form of entertainment, books have, and always will be a way to better understand the world and others in it. Ta Nahesi Coates faced this reality this past year when his novel, Between the World and Me, a highly acclaimed book that examined racism in our country, became a New York Times Best Seller. His words were heard all over the country, and his plights as an African American father trying to raise his son in a society where black males have the highest incarceration rate, and chronically attend heavily segregated and failing school systems, passed along the perspective that, outside of the African American community, often goes unknown.
Keeping in mind with the power of stories, in curriculums across the country schools have introduced Khaled Hosseini’s book’s The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns. Both novels break down the complexity of Afghanistan’s culture regarding the different ethnic groups and languages that comprise the country.
Switching from novels to music, all of Kendrick Lamar’s albums paint a picture of what life is like for those living in Compton, California. Miranda Lambert’s girl group, Pistol Annies, produced Hell on Heels this past year, which focused on life down south. Throughout hip-hop, Macklemore focuses on life in the Pacific Northwest, while The Root’s music has always centered on life in inner city Philadelphia.
Collectively we know that all pieces of popular art do not speak for an entire race, culture, or gender, but their words do ring true to an experience that a majority of the people represented can relate to.
Stories are a way to the heart of understanding and empathy. After all, President Obama did use a famous character from To Kill A Mockingbird to best explain his idea of empathy during his farewell speech: “If our democracy is to work the way it should in this increasingly diverse nation, then each one of us need to try to heed the advice of a great character in American fiction, Atticus Finch, who said ‘You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view, until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.’ ”
So let’s jump into books, pump up the music, turn on the TV, and find art that speaks to perspectives far from our own.