I can’t decide whether the idea that narrative is necessary for empathy is depressing or encouraging. Over the years I learned, when writing grant proposals, first to tell a story about the technology I’m pretending I’m going to build and then later to tell a story about how the people reviewing the proposal will use that technology. Often, it’s a story about how they’ll write their own grant proposals based on the proposed technology, whether it ever exists or not. That’s one of the reasons computer science isn’t really science.
This approach has been spectacularly successful and, as I said, I can’t decide whether that’s good or bad. But persuading people to support a cause – even to the extent of spending enormous sums of money on it – is often seriously helped out by narrative. By literature. By spinning a yarn. By telling a tale with the reader as the protagonist, as the hero. Or even as the villain; I’m talking about computer science, after all.
That should surprise nobody. But in my experience, that narrative sticks and will make the people who bought into it more inclined to support future projects, regardless of the success or otherwise of the previous ones.
It wouldn’t surprise me much if those of us who did a lot of our earlier socialising via literature had a more well-established and fundamental sense of empathy than some others, even if (though?) we’re shit at actually interacting with real people. Narrative in literature is about explaining something. Someone’s feelings, their motives, their intentions. Sometimes it’s about explaining those things about someone who isn’t a party to the discussion. Sometimes it’s an argument about a third party’s feelings or motives, sometimes speculative.
Either way, it’s an artificial construct designed to help tell a story and I have a nagging suspicion that something about that abstraction can help tune natural inclinations toward empathy.
Or perhaps people who read a lot of books are just awesome, I don’t know.