Charlotte's Web

Blogging my world since 2006


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Radical Acts of Empathy

I’m attending the 18th Time of the Writer festival in Durban, SA. The theme of the festival is writing for your life, and at the opening night, each writer gave a short address on what this means for them. Here’s mine:

I work at a computer company, where a lot of very clever people spend their days writing code for software applications. The code they write now is in various programming languages, all of which are based on binary code which is made up of nothing but zeroes and ones.

One of my theories about the trouble we’re in right now as a human race is the fact that we tend to think in binary: male versus female, black versus white, old versus young, gay versus straight, Muslim versus Christian, atheist versus believer, northerner versus southerner, local versus foreign, poor versus wealthy, rural versus urban, fat versus thin, abled versus disabled.

Binary ways of thinking make us feel safe. They define who we are – and who we aren’t. But they are also extremely lazy.

For me, binary is a spectrum. On the mild end of that spectrum, we get stereotypes. What stereotypes do, is allow us to assign a certain set of characteristics to a person whom we believe falls into a certain group. If you ever hear someone saying ‘they’ about a group of people and then making a reductive assumption about the characteristics of those people, then you know they are stereotyping. As writers we have to fight the urge to indulge in stereotypes, no matter how convenient they may be. To do so, we have to address our unconscious biases.

The other end of the spectrum from stereotyping is othering.

Othering means defining others by their difference to us and deciding that that difference means they have less value than us. In South Africa, we have intimate experience of the dangers of othering. Our previous government ran a huge, state-sanctioned, legally enscribed othering project called Apartheid. Germany, where I now live, ran a military-industrial othering project called the Holocaust.

Stereotyping is lazy; othering is lethal. And it is born out of fear.

What both reading and writing offer us is the insight to break this lethal cycle and see the humanity of others – in those of different faiths, in those with different skin hues, in those from other lands, in those who are female and not actually less human, in those who are citizens of countries our governments might choose to be at war with, in those whose circumstances are different from our own.

We all think and breathe and love and cry and sweat and bleed. We all dream and hope and pray for the well-being of our children. We have so much more in common than we allow ourselves to believe.

Writing forces us to reflect on the rich inner lives of others, even if they are unpalatable. Reading opens us to a world where people who seem vastly, almost unrecognizably different from us, are just as human on the inside as we are.

Reading and writing are both radical acts of empathy, that enable us to break the shackles of binary thinking and not other people out of our own fear of difference. They teach us that each individual life is rich and complex and nuanced, just as our own lives are rich and complex and nuanced.

When we read and write, we engage in radical acts of empathy that crack open our hearts. We stop saying ‘they’ and start saying ‘us’.