“Empathy; the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.” (ODD)
During a prolonged Google surf around the Internet for a piece of research last month, I came across the term “Empathy Map” on a side-bar. I was indulging in a little procrastination me-time, so I welcomed a little foray into the unknown and clicked on it. Up came an article accompanied by a picture that looked a little like this:
|(my own re-creation of similar maps online)|
Think of all the adverts for banks, cars, washing products etc – which have moved on from the crass business of pushing products and logos on our existential post-9/11 society, to focusing on our hopes, dreams and aspirations. For instance, a car isn't just a car now, it's a machine for living - whereby you can travel the desert indulging your love of adventure, collect your beloved children from school safely (giving you that nurturing feeling), AND have hot strangers ogle your pumpin' wheels as you drive by! We can all think of these kind of adverts - the Sainsbury’s advert about the First World War football match pushed our “giving” and "desire for world unity" buttons by giving us the sense that “at Christmas anything is possible.” (So go buy a chocolate bar). The Proctor & Gamble advert during the Olympics showed many mothers – in favellas, country villages and townships from Brazil to Africa - washing the clothes of their children who then grow up to become star athletes through their love and dedication. And more overtly, there’s the Google advert where a man documents his new-born daughter’s development through a series of YouTube videos, pictures and emails. Large corporations pour a lot of money into research about “personas” and “worldviews” to better understand their potential “ideal” customer.
I have to be honest, it gave me the shivers to see “empathy” expressed as a cold hard marketing tool in this way – because aren’t we actually saying that “manipulate” would be a closer term? "Empathy” is the ability to understand what it is like to be in someone’s shoes. “Manipulate” means to control or influence (a person or situation) cleverly or unscrupulously (Oxford Dictionary definitions). And there’s a world of difference between empathising with someone’s situation and actively influencing them to DO something – part with their hard-earned cash, say. But “manipulation maps” don’t sound too great!
So where am I going with all this?
Well, it got me thinking – one of the most valuable gifts from reading books and novels is gaining the ability to empathise. Through entering into our characters' heads, our readers see their interior thoughts and feelings, absorb their past experiences and understand WHY they think, feel and act as they do. And we as writers WANT to trigger the emotions of our readers. We want them to feel what it’s like to be a prisoner in chains, or bullied at school, or leading a charge of whooping tribesmen across the Asian plain in 1536. We want them to not be able to put our work down, to keep reading, to cry, laugh and hold their breath. And of course, we want them to buy the next book in our series!
But, you cry, triggering our readers' desire to empathise is surely not the same as cynically manipulating a consumer to buy something. Readers read because they actively seek empathy, they want to know what it's like to be in someone else's shoes, and the sale of a book, a DVD or audio-CD is merely a by-product of that.
Well, I'd agree with that, and although there are doubtless many writers who just want to make a quick buck and don't care about the quality of their work, I'd argue that MOST of us are people who got into the business of writing because we have something we want to say. Most of us want to make connections with our fellow humans, not to simply SELL them something, but to let them hear our message and - not wanting to get too messianic here - somehow help the human condition for the better.
It's interesting how closely the two can be confused, however. A couple of years ago I wrote a play about Sam Hallam, a 17-year old who I believed had been wrongly convicted of a crime he didn't commit. One reviewer wrote: "This is moving drama but just as we are asked to draw our own conclusions, the echoes of the ‘correct’ ones posited by Berry-Hart hang manipulatively in the air." Well actually, I wasn't asking anyone to draw their own conclusions. I was trying to show the shaky evidence on which Sam had been convicted, to make the audience FEEL what it was like to be wrongly imprisoned, to be taken away from your friends and family and incarcerated for seven years, living in a violent and dangerous borstal when you are still only a child. But even this most basic appeal for empathy - the very act of asking someone to step into another's shoes - was seen as "manipulation".
(Six weeks later though, in May 2012, Sam Hallam was released from the doors of the Court of Appeal after three judges decided that his conviction should be quashed, so I can totally live with that!)
So in our modern world, is empathy really a commodity to be sold, or a tool to be used for commercial or other gain? Isn't empathy instead something inherent in us that makes us people, sets us apart from brute nature, and can be brought out from us by reading?
There's quite a lack of empathy in our news and written media today - people who aren't "the same as us" or who are seeking a better life are being dehumanised and seen as "the other" or "the problem." Maybe David Cameron and others in our government could do with their own version of the Empathy Map! In my next post I'm going to explore the attitudes which take away our empathy - towards migrants, those on low-incomes, or people with different religions or politics from us - and discuss some of the amazing children's books which help foster a sense of empathy and remind us what it is to be human.
Do let me know what you think, and stay tuned for Part 2 of the Empathy Map, next month!