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Empathy, The Perks of Being a Wallflower and Fox News
March 3, 2017
I think it was about my junior year of high school when I first read The Perks of Being a Wallflower. It’s a beloved book and one of the most important and groundbreaking coming of age stories of the past few decades and it certainly had a huge affect on me as a reader. I was, in many ways, a fairly sheltered Christian kid that had grown up in a relatively conservative home and all of a sudden I was reading this book about this terribly depressed teenage boy reeling from his best friend’s suicide and finding camaraderie in a group of freaks and outcasts that reenact The Rocky Horror Picture Show once a month and have secret gay affairs with the closeted high school quarterback.
The book flat-out stunned me. It was an introduction to a type of community that I’d never experienced or encountered firsthand. Now, don’t get me wrong. I went to public schools and although I was actively involved at my church, I didn't spend much time with the Christ on Campus club and would often eat lunch with stoners and goths and all sorts of other profanity-spewing bad influences; but I had never experienced these types of characters in such a deep, intimate way. It’s nearly impossible to read this great work by Stephen Chbosky and not be moved. It’s a powerful, absorbing exploration of just about everything that makes us human, but presented without a bow or answers or sanitized versions of people and situations. There were no after school special moments. It just felt very real. I’ve read it several times since and it’s interesting because this book that resembles my actual life so very little resonates with me in a very real and unforgettable way.
It resonates with me for the same reason that great stories across many different mediums resonate with us at different times in our lives; it beautifully captures what it means to be human. And thought I did not look or act or speak like these characters and I didn’t agree with all of their choices, I loved them and rooted for them and cared about them from start to finish. That’s what powerful art does. It puts you in someone else’s shoes. It fills you with tremendous empathy for other people. Sometimes you connect because the story resembles yours, that’s true. But so often, we connect over a simple, unifying truth that reminds us that all of the differences in the world can’t change the fact that we’re all human. We share a special bond and we really ought to stay focused on that fact.
The enemy of empathy is isolation. If you spend your time reading and talking to and experiencing life with people who look, think and talk just like you regarding everything that matters in the world, you’ll never be able to comprehend another’s perspective.
Before I’d even read The Perks of Being a Wallflower, I’d already had my perceptions challenged a bit. I had never given much thought to race relations in America and I’d never had a reason to. I had spent many years in Maine growing up with two black students in our entire school and, later, when I moved to Florida I just never gave much thought to the fact that the students in the school seemed to automatically self-segregate at lunch or in classes. Racism was a thing of the past, as far as I was concerned.
My freshman year of high school, I began dating a girl who is now my wife of seven years and she happens to have brown skin, her parents being from Trinidad. She didn’t go to my school but we were seen around town, I guess and It didn’t take long for racists at my school to find me out. I never had to deal with anything violent, thank God, but I had some pretty terrible things said to me, was called a “nigger lover,” things of that nature (the “n-word” isn’t really intended to be used against people aren’t African-American so they really couldn’t even get their slurs right). On a number of occasions through the years, I’ve had people very earnestly tell me that they’re not racist but that they don’t really agree with interracial dating. Some would say they’re fine with the idea, they’re just “not attracted to black girls.” These were statements from friends! I mean, I’ve always been all too aware that I’ve been blessed with an incredibly beautiful girl who happens to be a thousand other types of amazing as well, so I wasn’t too bothered by anything they said but essentially they’d be telling me, “I could never find someone that looks like your girlfriend attractive.”
That’s a seriously messed up thing to say to someone. But through these encounters, I experienced firsthand (in, admittedly, a much less pervasive way than had I been a person of color) the ways in which outright racism still existed and the ways in which more subtle types of racism could be sprinkled into conversation. It was incredibly eye-opening for me and continues to be to this day. I know that, in a million years, I could never fully understand what it’s like to be black in America or to be Asian in America or Muslim in America and the list goes on. That’s why I have to keep listening and being open to learning and changing and always seeking to practice empathy.
A year or two ago, Disney put out an album of pop artists covering songs from some of their classic films and because I think Tori Kelly has an amazing voice, I checked out her version of “Colors of the Wind” from Pocahontas. It was the first time I’d heard the song in probably 20 years and I found it surprisingly profound. There’s one line in particular that stands out: “If you walk the footsteps of a stranger/ You’ll learn things you never knew you never knew.”
Very simple lyrics but there’s a lot of truth there. People are so afraid of being labelled “racist” that they walk through life defensive and unteachable when it comes to interacting with those who may be different from them. It’s easy to write everyone off as too sensitive but there is no real honor in living with such an utter lack of compassion and taking pride in your own ignorance. And the truth is, we’re all ignorant. We all have the capacity to offend those who might be different than us because our perspective is often limited to our own culture and experiences. So we have to listen and really get to know people as fellow humans and be okay with that fact that not only are there things we don’t know, there’s a LOT that we don’t even know that we don’t know yet.
We should be diligent in seeking out those who are different than us. We should listen, not with the intent of always changing their mind or trying to get them to do things our way, but to understand them. Why do they believe this way? How can they better you? And, for sure, as real relationships bloom out of these kind of encounters, hopefully you’ll better them as well. But we can’t see everyone else as the “other.”
We live in a time of news that can be customized to our own views and interests and it’s incredibly dangerous. Regardless of what you believe (myself included), you’re likely receiving infornation through a particular lens. From news media to social media, we tend to gravitate towards like-minded people, those who will confirm our biases.
Now, there’s no way around it. When it comes to divisive politics and a rampant us vs. them mentality, no one does it better than Fox News. Although through objective research, their viewers are consistentlyfound to be the leastinformed (or the most misinformed), they have trained their viewers to believe that they are the only reliable source. The rest of the “mainstream media” is lying to them or skewing the facts. They have become gold-medal Olympians in the sport of “other-izing” people. Their hosts and commentators are just so spectacularly skilled at preying on fears, sparking paranoia and encouraging their viewers to always view lesser groups as “the others.” As enemies. Oppositive. Us. Vs. Them.
Take, for example, the issue of immigration. Particularly illegal immigration. It’s a complex issue and there are reasonable people on all sides of it, trying to come up with a solution and making valid points. Fox News knows that people aren’t necessarily all that fired up by reasonable discussion though so they resort to non-stop fearmongering. Despite the fact that sanctuary cities typically have lowerrates of crime than other cities, Fox News speaks of them like there some kind of dystopian hellscapes. Regardless of the fact that illegal immigrants are less likely to commit a crime, Fox News would have their viewers believe that they’re all a bunch of rapists and murderers. They’ve got to heighten hysteria because their brand demands it and they’re wildly popular because of it. Now again, there are plenty of folks who have the facts right who have differing opinions on the immigration debate, but Fox News knows that facts don’t win. Feelings do. So they make their viewers feel scared, angry and persecuted and suddenly, turning everyone into the “Other” strips them of all their humanity and makes sorting your stance on vital issues so much easier.
It’s sick, really.
Now, to be fair, the idea of 24/7 cable news is a cancer on society and there’s not an organization around that’s not guilty of skewing data or exploiting a situation. It’s the fast track to end a conversation. It is little more than a shameless attempt to dehumanize anyone that disagrees and it’s so easy to get caught up in. If you're believing everyone you disagree with or those from different racial, cultural or faith backgrounds are all monsters, you're believing caricatures and stereotypes and using them as justification to treat others as less than human. And so often, from the words we use to the policies we support, we can hurt people and treat them as less than human without ever having to look them in the eye.
You’ve got to fight against this tendency. And you can. I went to college at Liberty University, which many of you may know as the world’s largest Christian university and a very politically conservative one. I didn’t know a whole lot about politics when I went but through my experience there, I ended up getting pushed further to the Left. I was able to recognize some of the subtle racism directed at Barack Obama during his first presidential campaign, some of the hypocrisy of the Religious Right and the party worship of Republicans that didn’t seem like something Jesus would be a fan of. The school continues to make news because its Chancellor is very close with Trump, championing his administration and absolving him of even his worst sins. It’s pretty sickening.
But you know what? I still had an amazing time at Liberty University. Like, I wouldn’t trade my experience there for anything in the world. I met many like me who had views that differed from those of the school’s leadership, but I also had a lot of friends that were conservative through and through. There was a book written and released during my time at the school called The Unlikely Disciple about a non-religious guy who attended for a year, posing as a Christian, and jotting down observations regarding his experience. In the end, the moral of the story is that everyone is more than just one thing. Sure, he encountered some terrible politics, casual homophobia and a whole host of other problematic behavior, but he also got to know this campus full of conservative Christians as humans, not just as “Others” and the book he wrote as a result is pretty engaging, funny and inspiring.
I’m in an interesting spot, as I’ve mentioned before. I’m too liberal for some Christians, too Christians for some nonbelievers and so on and so forth. Luckily, I became bored long ago with the mindset that I have to please anyone so I don’t try to. But spending time with Christians on a regular basis, I can tell you that I’m deeply saddened and disturbed by evangelical support for Donald Trump this past election. However, I can also tell you that it’s not the full story. Some of the staunchest conservatives I know, some that use heinous rhetoric and buy into the absolute worst of what Breitbart has to offer are often incredibly kind, caring and compassionate in a one-on-one encounter. There’s a disconnect there that doesn’t quite make sense to me but I know that just like anything else in the world, I can’t oversimplify what it means to be a Trump voter.
This is not to excuse or condone anything--my next book, Overcome Evil, contains some pretty pointed observations and criticisms--but I want to do what I’ve always done. Immerse myself in stories and characters from all walks of life, from all sorts of different backgrounds and beliefs so that I continue to grow in empathy and understanding. When it comes to our differences, sometimes it’s just uncomfortable and sometimes we diverge on something so important that the other side can just be maddening, but we all have lost the plot if we just view everyone different some us as some fearsome, loathsome “other.”
It’s important to get to know people in real life, to expand our horizon and make room in our bubble for someone different than us, but a good starting point is consuming lots of books. When you read a book, or watch a great film or TV series, you embark on a journey with a character and if the story’s told well, it won’t matter who they are or what they look like, you’ll begin to share in their pain, joy, grief, determination, etc.,
President Obama spoke of this to the New York Review of Books, saying, “It has to do with empathy. It has to do with being comfortable with the notion that the world is complicated and full of greys, but there’s still truth there to be found, and that you have to strive for that and work for that. And the notion that it’s possible to connect with some[one] else even though they’re very different from you.”
Be confident enough in what you believe to engage with those who believe differently. Reading stories from a different perspective doesn’t mean you’re going to fundamentally change the way you believe, but it could change how you understand and interact with others and that could make a tremendous difference. We could all be a little more humble, recognizing that we’re guilty of painting with broad strokes and rushing to judgment sometimes. Reading great books, digging into powerful stories and rich characters and submerging ourselves in the lives of those different than us allows us the opportunity to work out our empathy muscles. Given how rare the trait of empathy seems to be these days, this seems like a practice we would all be wise to engage in as often as possible.
Some of the stories I'm telling:
The Day I Disappeared, my latest novel about a man who wakes up to find himself in a reality entirely different than the one he remembers, grappling with questions of identity, purpose, success and even alien abduction is OUT NOW.
Overcome Evil, a novel about racial conflicts triggered by a violent event in a mid-sized American city is COMING SOON.