From now until at least the midterm elections in November, we’ll be featuring essays from powerful cultural voices alongside one simple thing, chosen by the author, that you can do to take action against the paralyzing apoplexy of the daily news. Maybe it’ll be an organization that deserves your donation; maybe it’ll be an issue that deserves greater awareness. Whatever it is, our aim is to remind you, and ourselves, of the big and small things we can do to work toward justice and change.
“Us” and “Them”
by Rob Spillman
I commit to engage and have meaningful interactions with people who are different from myself, and to do so every day leading up to the November election.
Authoritarians like Trump thrive on fear. They demonize everyone who is not a privileged white male, and attempt to turn you and me into us and them. I believe that actively engaging with people across and through the artificial walls authoritarians constantly erect—between classes, genders, sexual orientations, races, educational levels, ages, geographies, and languages—is the single greatest weapon against fascism.
Recently the novelist Rachel Kushner was asked why she volunteers in a women’s prison and why she chooses to write these women into her fiction. “It’s not about me being a do-gooder,” she said. “Nor is it about usurping the lives of people for my own gain. It’s about caring about people whose life trajectories are totally different from my own and stepping out there so that our lives intersect.”
In other words, it’s about empathy. The ability to feel what others feel. Studies have shown that people who read fiction are more empathetic than non-readers, as they are able to inhabit the lives of others, can relate to the universal struggles of people in Middle Earth or Middlemarch or Motherless Brooklyn.
I work closely with the story exchange organization Narrative 4, whose core mission is to put together people who would not normally get a chance to listen to each other. By actively listening and sharing stories, we are able to “expand the lungs of the world,” as founder Colum McCann puts it. We work mainly with teenagers, and at the heart of the mission is a simple but powerful exercise where people in a group of around sixteen pair off and tell each other a personal story, then come back to the bigger group and tell the other person’s story in the first person. The teller is entrusted to hold the other’s story as if it was their own. We have done these exchanges all over the world, from the Bronx to Bethlehem, from Limerick to Chicago’s South Side, and in each instance barriers were obliterated by the radical yet simple act of empathy.
Neuroscience backs the positive effects of empathy. Wellesley’s Dr. Amy Banks, among others, has shown how deep listening activates the brain’s mirror neurons, tapping into the smart vagus while also increasing the release of dopamine, which promotes active engagement and understanding. Compare this to what happens to the brain when we perceive a stranger as “other”: the sympathetic nervous system (the “fight-or-flight” response) is triggered, causing a continuous feedback loop of stress and feelings of exclusion, which usually combines with hierarchical judgment and hostility.
Which also serves as a handy definition of the Trump doctrine.
Yes, I am committed to voting and doing everything I can to register voters and to get people to the polls. But I am also committed to undermining the hostile environment in which Trump and his enablers have so cynically thrived. I am committed to making meaningful contact and listening to others, to reading stories by others, to passing the mic whenever I have the opportunity so that the stories of others can reach more people. I refuse to be an us or a them.
Take action today:
Learn more about Narrative 4 and how to bring their work to your community here.
Rob Spillman is editor and co-founder of Tin House and the author of All Tomorrow’s Parties.