This is the second in a series. To read part one of The Fear of Those Who Are Different, click here.
A story I relate to my classes each semester regards a proposal made a number of years back in, I believe, the Oakland Unified School District. It stated that the required literature assigned to high school students must be written by authors who reflect the gender and race makeup of the student body. So, for example, if the required reading included ten novels, and fifty percent of the student body were female, then five of those books would need to be written by women authors. And if sixty percent of the student body were Hispanic (which was the word of choice at that time for people who came from countries whose primary language was Spanish), then six of the authors would need to be Hispanic. And so forth.
One day I was listening to the radio, and a young college woman was being interviewed, for she was actively campaigning in favor of this proposal. As an English professor, I listened with great interest.
The young lady explained that she was born in El Salvador and that her family came to the United States and settled in Northern California when she was four years old. One thing she struggled with was that when she was assigned readings in high school, she never saw herself in any of the books she read. She could not relate. The radio host asked for an example. Her example was “Romeo and Juliet.” She could not relate to “Romeo and Juliet” because it was written by a dead, white male.
I was done giving her a chance. Seriously.
After relating that story to my classes, I then ask my students how many of them have read that play. Most usually have, and they quickly agree with the woman on the radio. They couldn’t relate either. And believe me, I understand the difficulty of the language and how that turns many off of his work. And I am a firm believer in not providing my students only with hat will be easy for them. There is no growth there. But this was not a discussion on the fact that Shakespeare is difficult to read. It was a discussion on “relating” to it. I then point out two considerations:
- I, a middle class white woman, have more in common with a twenty-something El Salvadoran who, in the twenty-first century, had been raised in California since she was 4 years old than I do with a male Elizabethan playwright who lived in England in the 1600s. Please. I have nothing in common with Shakespeare and couldn’t even begin to “relate” to him any easier than she could.
- One of the things that makes a piece of literature “great” is the existence of themes that are universal, that transcend time and place.
“What is “Romeo and Juliet” about? What issues and conflicts are presented?” I ask.
And students know immediately. But let’s just take one topic to use as an example. Forbidden love. Is forbidden love something that people in El Salvador experience? Are there people in El Salvador whose parents forbid their children to date certain people? Are there children who are so in love that they will defy their entire family to be with the one they love? Are people in El Salvador willing to risk their lives for love? Or are these only things that happen to dead, white males?
Anyone can relate to the story of “Romeo and Juliet.” I don’t have to have lived hundreds of years ago and in England to relate. If that were the only way I could relate, how is it that the Star Wars brand is so popular? No one who is watching any of those movies literally shares that world.
At this point, I usually tell students that, believe it or not, I do not seek out books by or about middle class white single mothers residing in California. Of course I could relate to such an author or to characters she might create. And reading such books would give me an opportunity to see myself on their pages.
But I would argue that the purpose of reading is not to validate my existence, not to read about myself. No, reading is an opportunity to climb into someone else’s shoes, to see the world through someone else’s eyes, to vicariously live a life that isn’t mine and to see and understand a different point of view.
Isn’t this how we develop empathy? Isn’t this how we learn to see how someone else thinks or how different experiences might shape someone? Isn’t this how we can humanize someone who is different from us?
And isn’t this also when we can see that perhaps we aren’t so different after all?
Research supports this.
Unfortunately, reading is often not valued by students, and more and more not by the educational system that I have worked in. And on top of that, students are encouraged to believe that only reading about people like themselves has value, which only further isolates them “the other.”
Hence the proliferation of segregated English classes. Students at the university where I teach have the choice of taking regular ol’ Freshman English Composition as offered by the English Department. Or they can take their Freshman Composition class in another, specialized identity-focused department: Africana, Asian, Queer, Central American, to name a few. This just further isolates people from others, deepening misunderstandings and even fear.
During this latest presidential election, I worked hard to point out to my students how their isolation from “the other” has led to further fear of and hatred for that same other. That isolation feeds into that fear, as people demonize and make assumptions about the other without ever coming in contact with them.
For those who voted differently, we see them as that demonized “other.” We must not socialize with them, we must not have Thanksgiving dinner with them, we must not share a bed with them, we cannot even have them show up on our Facebook newsfeed.
And the Internet, which is where most people get their news, has further sent us into our own bubbles, often without us even knowing it.
Have you ever done a search for, say, Disneyland tickets or as I did recently, for a book such as The Gulag Archipelago? Suddenly, ads for and stories about that search topic suddenly pop up across nearly every site you peruse for what seems like forever more? I actually bought The Gulag Archipelago a few weeks ago, yet it continues to show up everywhere I am online.
I first noticed this phenomenon on Netflix. You watch one movie, and suddenly Netflix has a whole list of movies it thinks you would like. Of course, all of the suggestions are basically the same movie, only the names and faces have changed. The same is true of our news. Facebook, for example, tracks what we click on and like and share, and it gives us more of it. So the variety of items showing up in our Timelines becomes narrower and narrower. I have noticed that once I click on one type of story, I thereafter see lots of similar stories. It actually becomes difficult to find different points of view without purposefully searching for them.
As writers, we must strive to do the opposite of what our society is currently encouraging. Not only can we do this, we must do this with our own writing.
I have a genius writing mentor who consistently advises that we should never write from what we know. There is no “genius” in that. We need to write from a higher place, our collective knowledge. And readers, perhaps unconsciously, recognize and resonate with writing that comes from a higher consciousness.
Rather than simply regurgitate from our own lives, we must transcend our experiences and our point of view. Because that is where genius lives. If we do that as writers, we are tapping into a consciousness that we share with “the other.” We find those points of connection. We recognize ourselves in “the other.” We tap into the humanity that we all share.
I do everything I can to help my students do this. Sometimes I succeed. Often I fail. It isn’t easy, and people are stubborn; they don’t want to threaten their world view, and hence their identity, by looking so closely at “the other.”
It’s a strategy as old as time: divide and conquer. This is the standard strategy of power-hungry dictators: demonize the enemy, simplify the message, and repeat ad infinitum. And it is a strategy I have witnessed being used successfully in the work place too. Get the faculty pitted against each other, distracted by the fight, and the administration swoops in and makes the political changes they want, unchallenged.
And I watch today as people in this country are pitted against each other: rich vs. poor, black vs. white, heterosexual vs. homosexual, coasts vs. landlocked, man vs. woman. And we wonder why someone like Trump gets elected? Isn’t it obvious?
As many know, Meryl Streep recently received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Golden Globes, and she took the opportunity to roundly criticize Trump supporters (as well as lovers of football and mixed martial arts, for some reason). The speech bothered me, but I could not put my finger on why. Then I read “A Letter to Meryl Streep” by Lee Habeeb. Please read it. It is worth the time.
But in summary, he points out how brilliantly Streep can take a seemingly despicable character, tap into the humanity of that character, and bring to life the complexities of that person. This can only be done through empathy. And she does it superbly on the screen, over and over again. However, she failed to apply this same skill off the screen when accepting her award, lumping everyone who supported Trump into a single group with a singular motivation, lacking any semblance of empathy for and any consideration of the complexity of the individuals who make up this particular group.
As writers, we have an obligation to step outside of ourselves when creating. This is where we will learn, where we will grow, where we will create genius. As readers, we need to seek to read about “the other,” for this is where we will develop empathy and find connection. But also, as Habeeb so wonderfully reminded me, as filmmakers and as film audiences, we need to do the same.
It is in that place, the openness to “the other,” that we need to be willing to reside so that the fear so prevalent in our society today can diminish, and we can take back control of our own lives instead of allowing politicians to frighten us into infighting.
I am more motivated than ever. So I am going to get writing.