Literature, Empathy and American Prosperity
Acton Institute Powerblog

Literature, Empathy and American Prosperity

From devastating racially-motivated murders in Charleston, South Carolina, to a contentious SCOTUS ruling on same-sex marriage, to heightened partisan rhetoric from presidential contenders, the constant discord at all levels of society has never been more apparent. Even the a superficial analysis of the news demonstrates that much of this controversy is born out of people’s unwillingness – or alarming inability – to step into another’s shoes, understand his unique perspective, motivations and challenges, and then work together to formulate a productive response.

This lack of meaningful connections among citizens is a complex problem. It contributes to the crippling partisanship that paralyzes government, to the violence that rips apart cities from Chicago to Baltimore, and to staggering disparity between impoverished nations and those that can provide aid.

Robert Brownstein sums it up well in his recent National Journal article, noting that in many ways, America is “inverting the e pluribus formula.” Instead of “out of many, one,” he writes, “a national motto that more accurately describes our modern disaggregation would read: ‘out of one, many.’

“What binds a nation now woven with so many distinct threads? The fault lines in our diversifying society are obvious. Less apparent is our continuing convergence around shared aspirations (that each generation should live better than its predecessor) and values (among them family, community, and personal responsibility). Except during the Civil War, what unites America has always been greater than what divides us. The tragedy in Charleston offers one especially ominous measure of the risks we face if we can’t remember that powerful truth. Far more than the Founders anticipated (and perhaps preferred), we are now truly ‘many.’ That has complicated, but only made more urgent, the challenge of finding enough common cause to unite this kaleidoscope of a society as ‘one.’”

This is a complicated, urgent challenge, but it comes packaged with a glimmer of hope – that Americans will recognize our shared aspirations and, by occupying this common ground, find a way to overcome division with unity and meaningful progress.

My suggestion for how to act on that challenge is simple to the point of seeming absurd. I think it would make a significant impact if Americans collectively participated in more serious intellectual engagement with arts and literature, within the higher education system and beyond. If the root of our problems really is a breakdown in communication and connection, literature has some incredibly powerful tools to help. In the words of Northwestern University professor Gary Saul Morson, it can teach us to “learn from within what it feels like to be someone else.”

All politicians know that they must appeal to voters, yet many seem unable to genuinely connect to and empathize with the electorate, interpreting the narrative of their experiences and then acting in a way that addresses their struggles and hopes. And that’s just one example – business leaders, lawyers, physicians, economists and more would all benefit from enhanced ability to understand and communicate effectively with the people they are working with (and for).

As Morson points out, while “many disciplines teach that we ought to empathize with others … these disciplines do not involve actual practice in empathy.” We’ve all been told that higher education must be practical to be worth the price tag. I don’t disagree with that. However, I agree with Morson that learning how to engage with literature and, by extension, with others, is a very practical, widely-applicable skill.

I worry that competence in finance, programming, or political science isn’t enough to overcome the division and tension in America today if it lacks an underlying structure of connection and empathy. As Morson said, “Reading a novel, you experience the perceptions, values and quandaries of a person from another epoch, society, religion, social class, culture, gender or personality type. … Great literature allows one to think and feel from within how other cultures think and feel. The greater the premium on understanding other cultures in their own terms, the more the study of literature matters.”

“Other cultures” could mean people of another nation, whether that’s Greece or Egypt or Russia or Mexico. It could mean people of other political parties, of other races or ethnicities, of other religions, of other regions of our own country. It could mean the executives of a rival corporation or the staff at the company of your dreams.

Currently, the premium on understanding such “other cultures” is skyrocketing. To restore the e pluribus unum paradigm of American society, we need to improve our ability to understand each other better, to empathize with each other. Literature is not about sentimentality or vapid emotion. It has practical benefit – if you understand how your political nemesis is thinking, perhaps you can find ways to articulate your views in a way that resonates with him, addresses the gaps in his logic and pushes you toward a solution. If you know what motivates your employees, you can find ways to boost their morale and your bottom line. If you understand better what it is like to live below the poverty line in America or without basic necessities in a refugee camp, then you can tailor your response to help more people more efficiently.

It’s not necessarily about the specific content of what you read; it’s the underlying practice of putting yourself inside another person’s head, inhabiting a narrative that is not your own, and considering perspectives that you do not share. Time spent actually exercising these skills and improving your capacity to connect and empathize with people – actually reading literature – is time well spent. It’s a concrete step to making you a more effective leader, better positioned to address the crises in our country today and cross the fault lines that have distanced us from each other.

Reading a book won’t singlehandedly bring about the end of American conflict – but it may make you better equipped to start.